PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin took a lot of flack three weeks ago for his starters playing long into the first half of the team’s third and final preseason game.
Starting wide receiver Diontae Johnson and outside linebacker T.J. Watt were both banged up in that game, and the residents were up in arms about Tomlin endangering the health of the players for a “meaningless” preseason game. After all, Los Angeles Rams head coach and reigning Super Bowl champion Sean McVay doesn’t play his starters in the preseason at all, and many other NFL coaches have hopped aboard that train.
This week, we found exactly how much those preseason games mean.
The Rams got embarrassed on national television on Thursday night. Monday night, fellow starter-sitter Nathaniel Hackett’s Denver Broncos tripped over the lowly Seattle Seahawks.
The Steelers, meanwhile, played into overtime in their first game, with the team’s defense playing 100 snaps, and hung tough with a more-talented Cincinnati Bengals team. The Steelers are probably fortunate to be 1-0, with the Bengals’ freak long-snapper injury the biggest single factor in their win.
But there’s no question that the Steelers looked better prepared for the season and acquitted themselves better in their opener when compared to their talent level than many teams around the league that chose to approach the offseason more conservatively.
“I can’t really speak on another team but I just know for us we’re always big on how you practice,” safety Terrell Edmunds said. “The only way you can get better, the only way you can really mesh together is going out there, practicing and playing together in real-life situations and game-speed situations. I wouldn’t say that it gives us a next step over another team, but I would definitely say that just for us, we came together more and it showed out there.”
Edmunds was one of the three players to play in all 100 snaps, along with fellow defensive backs Ahkello Witherspoon and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and he said that’s a point of pride for him.
“You know I like to be out there in the game and help out my team the best way I can, no matter what,” he said. “That’s what we’re working for, that’s what we’re going out and practice for, that’s what we’re taking care of bodies for, just so we can go out there and deliver whenever our number is called.”
The Steelers have a veteran defense, with fourth-year inside linebacker Devin Bush the youngest of the team’s 11 starters. That might not make for an easy grind of a 17-game schedule for the older players. But when it comes to hitting the ground running, Edmunds said it’s definitely an advantage.
“We have some years of some guys that have been together more than one year,” Edmunds said. “This is Devin’s fourth and I’ve been with him all of his years. It’s just going up and playing together and you can just look at each other and sometimes the communication is right there.”
Those veterans didn’t need the preseason to learn their roles or even to get together on the same page. But they also didn’t need to go from literally 0 to 100 in the first week of the season.
Tomlin knew what was right for his team, and was rewarded with a strong performance and a victory in Week 1.