PITTSBURGH — For the vast majority o the tenure of Mike Tomlin as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, he has used the team’s third preseason game as a dress rehearsal for the team’s starers, with those units playing the first half of the game.
With a three-game preseason for the first time, Tomlin decided to continue that game plan in 2022, with his first team offense and defense playing the first half of Sunday’s preseason finale against the Detroit Lions.
But it almost cost him. Starting wide receiver Diontae Johnson and outside linebacker T.J. Watt both left the gam with injuries, and it doesn’t need to be stated how critical those to players are to the Steelers’ efforts in 2022.
If the Steelers had lost their No. 1 wide receiver and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in a meaningless preseason game, Tomlin would have rightfully come under fire for the decision to play them so much.
It turns out that the injuries to both players are minor, with Tomlin saying that they could have come back into the game if circumstances were different — meaning, if the game had meaning.
But asked after the game about how to balance the desire to get those players some work with the risk to injury, Tomlin was clear: he doesn’t.
“You get the work,” he said. “You can’t box without sparring.”
That practice has served Tomlin well enough through the years, though it’s out of vogue in the NFL right now. L.A. Rams coach Sean McVay has held most of his starters out of preseason games for a while now. Watt didn’t play in the 2021 preseason due to a contract dispute. The entire NFL dispensed with the preseason in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Steelers’ plan under Tomlin has served them well. They’re 9-5-1 in season openers in his tenure. The payoff to his plan this season will come quickly, as the Steelers have an extremely important road game defending AFC champs Cincinnati to start the 2022 season on Sept. 11.