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Expect More from Steelers Starters in Third Preseason Game



Steelers Kenny Pickett Preseason
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett and offensive line, Aug. 19, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that once again, he intends for all of his healthy player to play in the team’s preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday.

After playing in one drive in the first game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and two to three against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, the Steelers’ third preseason game will likely feature the longest action of the preseason for the regulars, though Tomlin would not commit to a specific timeframe for his starting units.

“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 side 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.”

Last season, the Steelers starters played about a half in the third and final preseason game. Tomlin said that when the NFL made the change from four to three preseason games, he hasn’t changed 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.

In the first two preseason games this season, Tomlin used his offense almost exclusively in first- and second-team units, while defensive substitutes have trickled in on a case-by-case basis. He said that’s a nod to the experience level of some of his defensive players, compared to a young offense.

“First-team All-Pros and 30-year-old corners, I know more about,” Tomlin said. “And so it’s not about the guys, often times, that I choose not to play. It’s about the opportunity for others.

“Every rep that T.J. doesn’t take, I know that he’s first-team All-Pro caliber. It’s an opportunity for [Nick] Herbig to show his skills and get better, for example. Every time I don’t play Cam Heyward, it’s an opportunity for [DeMarvin] Leal and [Keeanu] Benton and others. So that’s the mentality. My job is to provide these guys individually and collectively what it is they need. So some of those guys need less physical reps in an effort to be game ready.”

In terms of things the first-team offense and defense has not done so far this preseason, the list is fairly short. The offense has scored a touchdown every time it has had the ball and the defense has yet to allow a point scored against it.

The one area the starters haven’t been involved is a two-minute drill situation, which is something that Tomlin could be looking forward to, at least for some of his younger first-teamers.

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has not elaborated on his plans for playing specific personnel in the game just yet. He said he had “an idea” about what he would do after Atlanta tied Cincinnati, 13-13 on Friday. But he also said it would depend on how things went at practice on Monday and Tuesday in terms of cleaning up mistakes from that game.

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