LATROBE, Pa. – With the Steelers' preseason opener against the Detroit Lions just about 48 hours away, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked for his plan with regards to the starting quarterback. Ben or Byron?
"We're going to make you come to the stadium and come check it out," said Tomlin.
The typical procedure for preseason openers has been that the starters play a series or two, or as Tomlin described it as between eight-and-12 snaps. But with the Steelers in the unprecedented situation of knowing they will open the season with Ben Roethlisberger serving a suspension, Tomlin has had to prepare a quarterback to start for the starter.
"I think that's been the best thing about how we have approached the quarterback situation thus far is we started with a plan and we've been very clear about that," said Tomlin. "We want to provide Ben enough opportunities to have a productive camp and preseason. At the same time we want to have clarity with the quarterback situation, and I think we've stayed true to form thus far, and I think we will continue with that as we get into the games."
Tomlin also said it's possible that Roethlisberger would play with the second-team offense, and that it's also possible he won't play at all. But with the preseason opener, it's rarely about the starters, and so the focus at Heinz Field for the Steelers coaching staff is going to be on the young players they have been watching and evaluating since minicamp.
"Looking forward to seeing the playing personality of some of the young guys, the new guys, in full-speed action. Of course you don't get a bunch of opportunities for that here in training camp," said Tomlin. "I am looking forward to watching those guys acclimate themselves to that element of the game; special teams and how they contribute in that area is going to be big. Overall, just generally excited in taking the next step in terms of developing our football team, and that's stepping inside the stadium and playing against an opponent, which we will be doing."
The rookie class has shown some promise throughout, from No. 1 pick Maurkice Pouncey to No. 7 pick Doug Worthington, and two of those rookies will be getting their first opportunities to show they are capable of carrying over what they've been doing in practice to actual game conditions.
Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
"The pedigree stands out," said Tomlin. "These guys are quick to speed and they catch the ball well. They are mature receivers in that they have caught a lot of balls in their college careers. I think there is value in that. Sanders played in June Jones' run-and-shoot offense and caught a rack of balls. Brown played in Central Michigan's offense and caught a bunch of balls. They show maturity in terms of catching footballs and creating separation in some of the things that just playing the game provides. There is no question they have a ways to go, they are rookies. But I like what they are doing. The step that they take Saturday night is going to be significant and we will see where they are after that."
Sanders, the No. 3 pick from SMU will also return kickoffs against the Lions, and Brown, the No. 6 pick, will return punts. For that role, they will compete with Stefan Logan, who set a franchise record for kickoff return yards last season – with 1,466 that was good for a 26.7 average – and also averaged 9.3 yards on 30 punt returns.
"This is a guy who has the unique skill set in terms of his ability to break people down in open grass," said Tomlin about Logan. "We've been very fluid in terms of how we've aligned him and put him in situations to find that open space. For a guy who's never played the position he's grown by leaps and bounds. He's a willing guy; he's got great natural skills. We like what he's done, but he is going to make this team or not make this team based on what he's done as a kick returner."
Tomlin also said Pouncey will play both guard and center, that Trai Essex will play only guard, that Isaac Redman will play both fullback and running back.
INJURY UPDATE: Tomlin was not ready to rule anyone out of the game because of injury. "We're going to be very cautious about that and wait until the last minute. Some of these guys who have battled injuries, who have had limited practice time, you want to be cautious about putting them into the fire. A guy like Jason Worilds may be healthy enough to play but has practiced very sporadically. I am not going to put him in that kind of position, so maybe people like him on the borderline in terms of health and having the ability to play, I may choose not to play him."