Mike Tomlin on playing Steelers starters in preseason: 'It's difficult to box without sparring'
Around the NFL Writer
The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up a perfect preseason with a 24-0 rout of the Falcons in Atlanta on Thursday night, highlighted by two more touchdown marches by quarterback Kenny Pickett and the first-team offense.
The Steelers' ones ended the preseason with five touchdowns on five total drives over the three games. Thursday, Pickett went 4-of-4 passing for 86 yards, including two gorgeous connections with George Pickens (35 yards) and Diontae Johnson (33 yards) on the opening drive.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was asked if the performance of his starters, even against Falcons backups, validated them playing in every preseason game.
"I don't really need validation," Tomlin said, via the team's official website. "I think it's difficult to box without sparring. Preseason is an opportunity for us to spar and sharpen our swords for the battle."
Pickett has lived up to the offseason expectations, showing poise in the pocket, accuracy and ability to function under pressure. He's been more aggressive and the chemistry with his wideouts is top notch. Those attributes aren't what Tomlin pointed to in the second-year quarterback's most significant leap toward the 2023 season.
"I think the growth is associated with being him, not necessarily the surface level things associated with the position, but the leadership things, the communication, bringing people together," Tomlin said. "When you have a higher level of comfort in terms of what it is you're doing, then those things probably happen more. That is significant. It's not play-related, but it is. He is the catalyst for that unit. He controls the pace and the tenor of that unit. I think if he is comfortable, that unit has an opportunity to be comfortable and that is the most significant difference."
As Pickett previously noted, "nothing counts" in the preseason -- and the Steelers went 3-0 last preseason and missed the playoffs. But the performance underscores the potential the Steelers boast entering the 2023 season.
No, they won't score on every drive. However, the offense certainly can be better in Pickett's second season than it was under coordinator Matt Canada last year. There is potential. Whether it's realized is the question every team is aiming to prove.
"You can't get enough of these opportunities in stadium," Tomlin noted. "You work your tail off to simulate it in a practice setting. It is what it is. We'll comb through it in an effort to get better. Then we'll transition our attention to the next component of this process, reducing our roster and getting ready for the opener."
The Steelers open the regular season against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 10.
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