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Things to watch in preseason opener

Roger Goodell is on record as saying he's not a fan, and he says the No. 1 complaint he gets from the NFL fans with whom he comes in contact is about this issue.

But there is a purpose to the preseason, a reason it exists, primarily in the area of team-building for the upcoming season, and since that is the business Coach Mike Tomlin is in at this point on the calendar, count him among those in favor.

"I love the preseason. Give me more."

Love might be over-stating things a bit, and Tomlin admits to being someone who loves football, loves coaching football, even loves training camp right down to the dormitory living. Today's game against the Detroit Lions, to kick off at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, is the preseason opener and therefore will not count in any standings, but that's looking at nothing but the outcome. Tomlin and his staff will be most interested in everything that leads to the outcome.

"As always, the first time out, we are concerned about the things we do, the nature in which we play," said Tomlin. "Is it physical enough? How do we block, how do we tackle? Do we play within the rules of the game? How do we play technically? Those are some of the things that concern you as a coach the first time out in live action."

The way new players are introduced to the style of play in the NFL is accomplished through levels. It begins at minicamp with an introduction where it's played without pads, and that continues through a set of OTAs. Pads are introduced at training camp, and then about a week into that, officials visit camp and add the element of following the rules to the process.

Next up is the preseason, and here we are.

Much of the criticism surrounding the preseason has to do with the starters not playing very much, if at all, in a couple of the games and rarely playing into the second half in any of them. And that's because these games are more about the rookies and the young veterans trying to win a spot or keep a spot on an NFL roster.

"Guys like Jonathan Dwyer get an extended look whether they want it or not. That's the nature of the preseason games, particularly in game one and game four," said Tomlin. "Because of the limited exposure the starters get, and when you consider it's an 80-man roster, and you're talking about removing 22 to 25 of them 12 snaps in, the remainder of snaps go to guys like Jonathan Dwyer and Thaddeus Gibson and guys like that. There's going to be a bunch of snaps, 35-plus snaps that those guys are in. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, those guys are going to play a bunch of snaps. They're going to get more than they bargained for Saturday night."

When asked what he expects from the rookies, Tomlin said, "I expect them to get extremely tired extremely quickly. That's what happens to all rookies. They cover the first kick and they can't believe how fast and intense it is. Usually it takes a couple of plays and then they get their feet back on the ground and get a measure of where they are. That's what is going to happen to these guys, because they are no different than any of the guys who have come through. They are going to hyperventilate, and it's going to be fun to watch."

There will be some other players whom fans might find fun to watch, players who are not rookies anymore and therefore will carry some expectation of performance with them through the preseason. Tomlin offered the following observations on some of the players who fall into that category.

On Dennis Dixon: "Accuracy is big of course; command of the huddle and the pre-snap communication is big. Overall how he leads our offensive group and moves the football for us is a big part of the evaluation of that position, not only for him but for any of them."

On Keenan Lewis: "He is knee-deep in the mix. He has done a nice job on special teams and on defense. The true evaluation of special teams happens on Saturday night. He has represented himself in drill work, but that is just drill work. The volume probably ratchets up more in the special teams area than in any other area of the game when you're talking about going from practice to the playing field. It is going to be significant on Saturday in terms of evaluating him and others."

On Isaac Redman: "Yes he is going to get some opportunities (at fullback). We need a little bit more clarity there, and the clarity you need at a position like that is provided on nights like Saturday night. The live action defines who is in the driver's seat in roles such as that. Lead-blocking roles, situational roles, short-yardage roles – Isaac Redmond is going to have an opportunity to show what he is capable of. Frank Summers, Sean McHugh and David Johnson are going to have a chance as well, not only Saturday night but through all of the preseason games to state their case in some of that situational work."

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