For as much negative attention the concept of preseason games has received over the years, in part leading to a reduction from four games to three on the preseason schedule, front offices and coaching staffs love the games. A preseason schedule gives each team more time and exposure to determine which players best help them achieve their goals that season.
In that regard, last season was rock bottom. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancelation of the entire preseason, forcing teams to make roster decisions without seeing players at game speed. The return of the preseason this year, beginning with the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game Thursday night, has franchises very excited to get full 90-man rosters on the field.
“You know, you learn significantly more, not only about them, but about everyone. About veteran players, about coaches, about the cohesion relative to play, whether it’s coach communication or in-game instruction and adjustments, or just general play,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said during training camp Tuesday.
Who backs up Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Who officially replaces Mike Hilton in the slot at cornerback. The running back rotation behind first-rounder Najee Harris. Who sticks as the team’s punter. Those are all position battles that last year, Tomlin and Pittsburgh would have not had the luxury of factoring in preseason performance to decide.
This year, the Steelers can see which defensive backs can best replicate Hilton and defend against Dallas backup QBs Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, and Cooper Rush. Which running backs can make the most noise against the Philadelphia and Detroit defenses. Which of the two young quarterbacks can drive the team best against Carolina in the preseason finale.
As Tomlin also said Tuesday, it gives his players fighting for a roster spot a chance to prove their worth against unfamiliar opponents, rather than just facing their teammates every day. And that is invaluable for Tomlin, GM Kevin Colbert, and the rest of the team’s coaches and front office staff to decide which players deserve the available spots on the Steelers’ 53-man roster.
“It was fair a year ago because none of us had an opportunity to glean some of that information or gain that understanding or footing through last year’s process,” Tomlin said. “And so this year’s process we’re excited about gaining as much information as we can. It was a wild year, last year, man, going into New York [Week 1], kind of not knowing some of those things. And I’m sure it was wild for the Giants and the other teams that played, as well.”