Steelers coach to focus on rookies' audition

Ralph N. Paulk
| Friday, Aug. 12, 2011

More players are competing for jobs and — in the case of rookies — have had less time to become acclimated with the Steelers' playbook.

Coach Mike Tomlin just wants results, particularly Friday night, as the Steelers open their exhibition season against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

Tomlin is seeking depth, particularly at running back and on the offensive line, where the Steelers are either thin or vulnerable. That search became magnified with the loss of rookie running back Baron Batch, who said he tore his left ACL late in Thursday's practice.

"We want to see who can block under (game) conditions; run, pass and kick," said Tomlin, who plans to play veteran starters no more than 10 downs, though a lack of execution and cohesiveness could alter his approach. "We don't have any hard-core plans right now in terms of specific things we want to see from people and rep counts."

A year ago, the Steelers had 80 players on the roster heading into the first preseason game. With 90 players in camp this year, Tomlin's staff has to sort through competitive roster battles — including at receiver where Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are assured roster spots.

Rookies have found a steeper learning curve than in previous years. The lockout and a long, protracted negotiation for a collective bargaining agreement wiped out offseason minicamps and organized team activities. Yet, Tomlin insisted he won't drastically change how he evaluates players during exhibition games.

"We have a short time in which to do it," Tomlin said. "It'll be telling in some instances what people are capable of or willing to do."

Veteran linebacker James Farrior expects rookies and free agents to get longer looks.

"They are learning on the fly because everything has been condensed," Farrior said. "What you normally do in a few months, they have to do in three weeks.

"Those guys are pretty lost right now, but most of them have handled it pretty well. The veteran players will try to give them all the information they need. I didn't have a clue when I was rookie, but I had time to learn. These guys don't have the time."

Tomlin said those competing for a job won't be evaluated solely on how they perform on the practice field. But he admits it will be difficult to judge their game performances, mostly because they aren't likely to play much with the first unit during the first half of the exhibition season.

"It's all going to be relative because they are going to play against guys in similar circumstances," Tomlin said. "From that standpoint, the playing field will be leveled. There are never many opportunities for rookies to play with veterans in the first preseason game.

"Maurkice Pouncey didn't get with the first unit last year until the second game. We knew almost instantly how credible he was. It's not out of the ordinary for rookies to play with the first wave of terror, if you will, in the first preseason game. We'll use all our evaluation tools to sort them out."

Tomlin hopes to eventually take a long look at the team's three top draft picks: defensive end Cameron Heyward, guard Marcus Gilbert and cornerback Curtis Brown. Brown, a third-round pick from Texas, has spent much of training camp pitching footballs on the sideline because of bouts with heat and muscle ailments.

"(Brown) is going through a learning process, something they all (rookies) will have to go through at some point," Tomlin said. "More than anything, when he's healthy and ready to go, he'll go."

Five players to watch

Here are players who could catch your eye Friday night:

Player, Pos.: Skinny

Baraka Atkins, LB: The former Hurricane is showing signs of being an effective pass rusher.

Chris Carter, LB: James Farrior raves about this fifth-round pick from Fresno State, saying "he's been very impressive all camp."

John Clay, RB: He looks confident. He walks confident. But he needs to shine.

Marcus Gilbert, OT: It's been an up-and-down camp, but he'll have plenty of chances to shine.

Tyler Grisham, WR: He catches everything within reach, but needs solid preseason to grab a roster spot.

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