By BOB LABRIOLA
To say it doesn't count in the standings isn't the same as saying it doesn't mean anything.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, the Steelers will face the Minnesota Vikings, and because it will be only the third of four preseason games for both teams the result won't count in the standings. But Coach Mike Tomlin nevertheless believes the game will be meaningful.
"We are extremely excited this week to be playing the Minnesota Vikings for a lot of reasons," said Tomlin during his weekly news conference. "There couldn't be a better team to play, I think, in the third preseason game than the Vikings. They are a very physical football team, and that's not just from a reputation standpoint. They have video evidence and statistical evidence to back that up. They are No. 1 in the league in running the football and No. 1 in the league in stopping the run. What a great measuring stick for us here this week with where we are in our development."
In 2007, the Vikings ran the football better than any other team in the NFL, because they had halfbacks Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor operating behind an offensive line manned by frequent Pro Bowl participants Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson. And their ability to stop the run came primarily from their immovable defensive tackles – Pat Williams and Kevin Williams.
Remember the problems the Steelers run defense had last season with Jacksonville's Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew? Well, Peterson and Taylor were more productive in 2007, to the tune of an extra 215 yards combined and five more touchdowns.
This test comes at a time when the Steelers defense needs to put together a solid performance, because so far this preseason the first-team has allowed two touchdowns and a field goal in four total series. That moved James Harrison to offer a stinging critique of the defense's performance.
"We're going out there and treating the preseason too much like the preseason," said Harrison. "We're going out there and thinking everything is just going to come when the regular season begins, and we're just out there playing snap for snap, getting our timing and not playing up to the level we're capable of playing at. I don't feel that's OK."
In defending the defense, the point was made that the Steelers did little-to-no game planning for their first two preseason games, but there is little disagreement regarding the quality of the team's tackling against the Eagles and then the Bills in Toronto.
"We didn't tackle well," said Tomlin. "We didn't tackle well in the first preseason game and we didn't tackle well in the second preseason game. It can't become a habit; it can't become us. I think the guys understand that and hopefully it will turn up in Minnesota where we are tackling well.
"One thing is for certain, if we do not tackle well, they have a couple of backs, No. 28 (Adrian Peterson) and No. 29 (Chester Taylor) who can go up-and-down the field on you. We are certainly well aware of that."
Tomlin said the Steelers regulars will play at least the first half, and in his mind the regulars include the guys who will be rotated into the offensive and defensive units come Sept. 7.
"We will look at some of the division of labor that we focused on going in," said Tomlin. "Even though they aren't technical starters you will see Rashard Mendenhall play some, Lawrence Timmons play some and so forth."
Also still up for grabs, apparently, is the starting job at center. Sean Mahan started the preseason opener against the Eagles, and then Justin Hartwig was with the first unit in Toronto against the Bills. Tomlin admitted that in his opinion, neither Mahan nor Hartwig has stepped up and claimed the job for his own, and so the evaluation process will continue.
"Right now Justin is the one we are going with," said Tomlin. "We have a better idea of what Sean (Mahan) is capable of. To get a fair evaluation of the two men at this time I think it is better to run Justin with the first group."
Tomlin also said Saturday's game will be an opportunity to get a look at Santonio Holmes as a punt returner. As a rookie in 2006, Holmes averaged 10.2 yards on 26 returns, and he also brought one back 65 yards for a touchdown.
Last season, Holmes' second in the NFL, Tomlin wanted the former No. 1 pick to concentrate on honing his skills as a wide receiver, and this summer the team has been looking at Mewelde Moore, Willie Reid and Jeremy Bloom in that role. But just as training camp was about to break, Tomlin said he would give Holmes some opportunities to return punts, both now and in the regular season.
"Really, it is going to depend on whether or not we are capable of stopping them," said Tomlin about how many times Holmes might be back as the return man in Minnesota. "Hopefully he gets a bunch. Tentatively we are going to give him a couple of looks at it because we have some other men that we want to continue to work. I thought it would be nice to target this game as a game to get him some in-game action and prepare for the upcoming season."
Vikings pose a tough test
By BOB LABRIOLA