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Much still to be determined in Steelers' preseason finale

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Felix Jones likely will get a heavy dose of work Thursday in the preseason finale against the Panthers.

The Steelers went through a winless preseason only three times in the past 48 seasons. Ben Roethlisberger doesn't seem overly concerned if they experience a fourth.

“I'm so worried. Can you tell on my face?” Roethlisberger said, almost breaking into a laugh. “It's the preseason, and we're taking time to work on things and get better. We'll be ready to go when it's time.”

Next week is that time. But the Steelers' preseason finale at Carolina on Thursday probably won't tell if they're ready for the season that awaits.

Coach Mike Tomlin is expected to hold out some — perhaps more than a few — starters as the Steelers attempt to dodge their first winless preseason since they went 0-4 in 2006. That proved to be a precursor to a 2-6 start. They also went without winning in 1987 (0-4) and 1965 (0-5).

So expect a whole lot of Landry Jones, Alan Baxter, Brian Rolle and Robert Golden at Bank of America Stadium and probably not much, if any, of Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu.

With some teams already ravaged by preseason injuries — the Eagles for one — coaches are increasingly reluctant to play starters in the final run-up to the season. Three years ago in Pittsburgh, then-Panthers coach John Fox refused to play a single starter.

“All those who are healthy will be ready to play,” Tomlin said. “But we've got some ideas of (people) we want to look at that continually need to be evaluated to the end.”

Already ruled out are running back Isaac Redman (pinched nerve) and rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones (AC sprain). And Tomlin isn't committing to playing specific starters.

“This week you want to be injury free. You want your first 11 to be healthy for Week 1,” safety Ryan Clark said. “You also have to have them prepared for Week 1. If coach Tomlin believes we need a certain number of plays to accomplish that, we need to go out there and play them and play them well. But the biggest thing is — make no mistake about it — coming off the field healthy.”

The Steelers will use the game to determine who gets the final few roster sports — special teams play often is a key — and to give carries to Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling as they sort out the crowded mix at running back.

Tomlin hasn't said whether he'll name a starting running back before the Sept. 8 opener against Tennessee, or if he'll simply go with the hot hand — a process that likely would require multiple backs taking handoffs early in a game.

Rookie Le'Veon Bell (mid-foot sprain), who would have started if he were healthy, isn't likely to return for a few weeks.

Tight end Heath Miller (knee) is expected to be activated off the physically unable to perform list over the weekend, a move that is necessary if he is to practice in the first six weeks.

Long before then, the Steelers' preseason record — whether it's 0-4 or 1-3 — is likely to be forgotten.

Whatever else is accomplished, Clark said, the Steelers, no matter whether they're starters or backups, must eliminate the mistakes that led to 193 penalty yards in the past two games.

“If winning a preseason game gets that zero off our collar, well, so be it,” Clark said. “But we need to go out there and play good football, correct mistakes both penalty wise and technique-wise. If we can do that, I feel like we're moving in the right direction.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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