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Saunders: What Mike Tomlin Said without Saying It



Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin works during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 24-0. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

ATLANTA — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t make any grand proclamations about his team after it finished the preseason 3-0 with a butt-whipping of the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday.

“I can’t say enough about the group, the energy that they bring daily and hopefully, this is a catalyst for us as we transition out of preseason ball to regular-season ball,” Tomlin said. “I appreciate the efforts tonight. We saw some of the things that we wanted to see from the units and had the opportunity to highlight some guys. Still got some growth ahead of us.”

That’s pretty typical head coach-speak after a meaningless win fodder. But he said a good bit about what he thinks of his team with his actions.

Remember what Tomlin said before the team’s third preseason game about how much he planned to play his starters.

“We’ve got an agenda with our units — first unit, second unit, third unit — there’s certain things that we want to see,” Tomlin said.

He also said that he wasn’t going to guarantee that everyone would play in the game. The implication there was clear: if the respective units didn’t get the job done, and didn’t check all of the boxes he had for them, they would stay in the game until they did.

Last season, the Steelers starters played the entire first half, even after T.J. Watt went down with a knee injury that eventually required minor surgery. This year, the starters lasted just a quarter, as they dominated the Falcons in all three phases and accomplished everything Tomlin laid out for them — and he reiterated that it had nothing to do with the Falcons not playing their starters.

“I don’t care what the Joneses do,” Tomlin said. “We are going to do what we do.” 

Tomlin left some meat on the preseason bone in yanking his starters when he did. The first teams went through the preseason without facing a two-minute drill. The first-team defense did not face a red zone possession — though he may have needed to leave them in for several days against the Atlanta backups in order to facilitate that.

The point remains that Tomlin said he’s comfortable with the work his group put in, and his actions say he’s more confident in his team than he was a year ago. Preseason wins and losses are fickle. The Steelers went 3-0 last preseason before stumbling out of the gate on the way to a 9-8 finish. Will this year’s 3-0 preseason portend greater results?

There’s no guarantee. But by Tomlin’s actions, he’s saying that he thinks this team is a little further along against his own grading scale than last year’s was.

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