Young guns: Youth will be served when the Steelers take on the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in the season opener. On offense the Steelers will have three rookies starting, with Kendrick Green at center, Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle and Najee Harris at running back. In addition, rookie Pat Freiermuth has been listed along with Eric Ebron as starters at tight end, and the team also has a rookie punter in Pressley Harvin III.
Having young guys stepping in is something that doesn't bother Coach Mike Tomlin and he expects to see continuous development from them as the season progresses.
"I often tell our group I don't care by what mean they got here," said Tomlin. "They're here, and what they do moving forward determines who stays, who goes, division of labor and so forth. I think where those guys are on the depth chart reflects what they've done through the team development process. I haven't graded on a curve if you will. We haven't graded on the curve. Those guys have earned their positioning through their play. I'm excited about what they're going to provide us this weekend but at the same time I think it's reasonable to expect those guys to find their footing and improve continually and rapidly over the course of this journey.
"I'm excited about watching them play. I think that's what comes with this time of year. There's always an element of the unknown that kind of heightens your awareness and it gives you that tingle. Whether it's individuals or whether it's us collectively as a unit or as a football team. I'm excited about getting in a venue, under real circumstances of September football with these guys. I know that we're going to know a heck of a lot more about ourselves individually and collectively after this weekend than we did before, but I imagine 31 other teams are going to say the same thing coming out of this weekend."
Missing man: The Steelers depth chart was released on Monday, but there was one spot that has been the topic of a lot of conversation during the preseason that was missing the starter – slot corner.
Tomlin was asked about it, and even joked when the question was asked, replying back … 'very observant.'
"I did that by design because we got some options there and I choose to hold those cards close to the vest," said Tomlin. "Cam Sutton is a very capable guy who's done that inside and it's reasonable to anticipate that he's going do it in some form or fashion, but he's also going to play outside as well. He's done an awesome job of that during the team development process. We're going to spin the dial through the division of labor in that area. I'm excited about being able to do so and some of the mystery associated with what we're going to do in that area."
Getting ready: The Steelers acquired cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon via a trade with the Seattle Seahawks on Friday and the big question with him hitting the practice field for the first time this week with his new team is … will he be ready to play on Sunday and be comfortable enough in the defense.
"We're going to determine that," said Tomlin. "I don't have the answer to that as we sit here right now. I think the quality of his work over the next several days will determine that. It's reasonable to expect him to learn it. We've seen that, particularly at that position in recent years. Ross Cockrell was able to come in here a number of years ago and be ready in a week's preparation. Joe Haden, when he came here a number of years ago, I think he met us in Carolina and essentially had a week's preparation. So, particularly from a veteran player standpoint, a guy who has been in some systems and been around some NFL football, it's not unreasonable to expect those guys to be ready from an assignment standpoint."
Paying his respects: One of the first things Tomlin spoke about during his press conference on Tuesday was the passing of Tunch Ilkin, the former Steelers player, member of the broadcast team and beloved member of the Steelers' family. Ilkin was diagnosed with ALS in September 2020 and passed away on September 4, 2021.
"We lost a quality human being in Tunch Ilkin a number of days ago," said Tomlin. "It was an honor to work with Tunch formally and informally. I had an opportunity to develop a great friendship with him over the years, through our formal work here at the Pittsburgh Steelers through our roles. But also, just through informal ways in the community and so forth. I was really appreciative of his participation in my Man up Pittsburgh initiative annually. He was a critical component of that.
"I've thought about him often quite frankly over the last couple of days just in greeting and interacting with people. What an inspiration he was. If you ever said hello to Tunch and asked him how he was doing, he always said better than he deserved. And I would also respond with that same thing when greeted by him. He will be sorely missed.
"I appreciate the life that he lived, the friendship that he provided not only me, but many of us, not only within this organization but this community."
Aye, aye captain: Steelers players elected team captains for the 2021 season on Monday, with Ben Roethlisberger on offense, Cameron Heyward on defense and Derek Watt on special teams earning the honors.
"I like the group of men that we're represented by," said Tomlin. "As always, they were elected by their teammates. It was definitive and I think it just is reflective of not only the quality of players that they are in their respective spaces, but also the quality professionals that they are. Really excited for Derek Watt, a guy that is somewhat new to us from an organization standpoint, but not new to quality special teams play. That was one of the things that attracted him to us when he was a free agent. That play has continued during his time here and it was reflected in the representation he's going to provide for his teammates in terms of being a captain of that unit."