The Steelers and Falcons will meet in a little over two hours, but the two teams enter the game with vastly different plans. Reportedly, the Falcons will not play their starters, opting to exercise caution against injury. On the opposite side of that spectrum, the Steelers will play their starters, and if history says anything, they could play their starters for a significant amount of time.
Last season, the Steelers starters played about a half in the third and final preseason game. Tomlin said that when the NFL changed from four to three preseason games, he didn’t change his approach for the first three, which should portend increasing reps for the starters over the first three games. Historically, the Steelers’ starters did not play at all in the fourth preseason game, which was cut by the NFL in 2021. The Steelers’ first time playing three preseason games was in 2022 because they played in the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game
Theoretically, the team could do the very same thing this year. The Detroit Lions played most of their starters, aside from starting quarterback Jared Goff, a year ago for two quarters. So, it made more sense for the Steelers to let their players get a dress rehearsal. But with the Falcons going in the opposite direction, the Steelers’ offense and defense will see backups up and down the field. For what it is worth, this is the agenda Tomlin said he has for the game on Tuesday.
“We’ve got an agenda with our units — first unit, second unit, third unit — there’s certain things that we want to see. We did a little planning for this, and so the process of strategic planning, teaching, learning and then playing, we want to see that; their ability to execute planning relative to a game plan perspective.
“Within the groups, obviously, there’s things we want to see from individuals. Stating the case for themselves in terms of dividing the labor up or being a component of the group.
“So we’ll play the first group until we get a level of satisfaction on both sides of the ball with those agendas, and then we’ll move onto the second and then the third. We’ll go from there. By no means am I guaranteeing that everyone plays. Really, it’s about our ability to see what it is that we need to see before we move on.”
Tomlin is not someone to react to what others do, and he works on his own agenda. Basically, the first teams will play until Tomlin is satisfied with what he has seen. So, playing it by ear is the smart thing to do here. But how much benefit do the Steelers starters get going up against the Falcons backups? The answer is not much, given what they have already shown in the preseason.
Living in the fear of preseason is something that Tomlin does not do. T.J. Watt and Diontae Johnson both suffered injuries in the team’s final contest last year, though both did not miss any time in the regular season due to those injuries. However, look at some of the significant injuries that occurred this preseason. On Monday, Commanders star receiver Terry McLaurin suffered a turf toe injury that makes him questionable for Week 1. Rookie Seahawks receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba fractured a bone in his left wrist and will likely miss the start of the season.
Those are two injuries right off the bat. They can happen in practice, too. The value of preseason games is to get the team up and going. They need to be a well-oiled machine for the start of the season. Generally, for the Steelers, that works out well. In the past two seasons, they pulled off upsets of the Bengals and Bills in the first week of the season, largely due to a similar philosophy.
Rightfully so, the Steelers starters will play against the Falcons. But with Atlanta throwing out their backups, there is little benefit for the Steelers in this one and far too much risk for injury. Tomlin needs to lower his threshold for what he needs to see from the starters and play them sparingly in this game. One or two drives should be more than enough for the team to see what they have to see against the Falcons’ backups. Simply put, the risk of injury is far too great to play the starters any significant amount on Thursday.