By BOB LABRIOLA
LATROBE – Coach Mike Tomlin knows what he wants to see from his team during the preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday night at Heinz Field, and he also understands what might come along with that.
The Steelers went through their final practice in full pads on Wednesday afternoon at Saint VincentCollege to conclude 10 days of beating on their own teammates. As is the case for every NFL team at this stage of the summer, the chance to work out some frustrations on fresh meat is an attractive one.
"When you talk about what you look for in the first preseason game, you are looking for some young guys not to be surprised by the speed of the game," said Tomlin. "We have to win the game in the trenches. We have to play up-tempo football. We have to play fast and hard. Hopefully we play to an acceptable standard in terms of assignments, but you know the first time out there will be those issues."
Those issues – knowing assignments and reacting properly to the opponent in the course of executing them – have been problems off and on during the initial phase of this training camp. But that's to be expected, and during a preseason opener where the established veterans typically play little, assignments and the mental errors accompanying them are what the coaching staff will be looking to minimize.
Tomlin said Ben Roethlisberger will start at quarterback, with the plan being to have him followed in rather short order by Charlie Batch. Once Batch is finished for the evening, the Steelers offense will be turned over to rookie quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Mike Potts.
How Tomlin deploys the rest of his regulars figures to be similar to the way he uses the quarterbacks. Proven veterans will see a series or two, depending upon the flow of the game, because Friday evening will be the coaches' first opportunity to see which of the newcomers steps up when the lights go on and which fade into the background once the hitting becomes live.
"More than anything we are looking for the competitive; the guys who can step up when the lights are on inside stadiums, guys who can tackle," said Tomlin. "You know, we've had limited tackling in training camp, the way training camp is structured. You know we've had 13 or 14 snaps of goal line situational football. Other than that, we haven't taken people to the ground.
"I'm interested to see how our ball carriers respond to that in terms of ball security and finishing runs. And I will also be interested to see how our defense responds when they have to finish plays accordingly. Those are some of the things we are looking for."
Tomlin said the punt returners against the Eagles will be Mewelde Moore, Eddie Drummond and Jeremy Bloom. Returning kickoffs will be Moore, Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Reid. The only players ruled out of the game as of Wednesday are TE Cody Boyd (shoulder), SS Anthony Smith (groin) and Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton, both of whom remain on the physically unable to perform list.
The preseason is the time when fans love to hear about long-shots making the roster, and whether the Steelers have any of those in 2008 will begin to come into focus starting Friday night.
"There are some guys that have gotten our attention, but I think one thing that we all understand is that everybody out there in a helmet is capable of making it," said Tomlin. "You know, that's just the National Football League. There are so many examples of guys in that situation that very rarely are you thrown when you see guys step up and deliver. Look as recently as last year. Gary Russell was an undrafted rookie free agent who didn't play football the year before and made it. I don't think it gets any longer odds than that. I think there will be somebody who steps up and surprises us and shows they are capable of playing, and we will be ready for them."