For the sake of full disclosure, I need to point out that I was inspired to write this because of this article by Dejan Kovacevic. It is an excellent read, but one comment got my attention when a reader pointed out that the last two times the Steelers had losing records in the pre-season, they went on to follow suit in the regular season.
But this isn't the same-look pre-season, because this is a new-look team structure.
For the last decade, Steelers fans have been blessed to watch a team that had very little roster churn in general, and, specifically, even less churn in the starting lineup. The team that played together the year prior was, injuries aside, largely the team we saw in any given pre-season.
That is no longer the case.
This year's projected starting offensive line features as many as four new faces in new places, with Mike Adams replacing Max Starks at LT, Ramon Foster replacing Willie Colon at LG, David DeCastro replacing Foster at RG and Marcus Gilbert probably taking his old spot, though there has been chatter about Kelvin Beachum jumping into that spot by the time week one rolls around.
At WR, Antonio Brown has moved up to the number-one spot, with Emmanuel Sanders replacing Mike Wallace. Rookie Markus Wheaton looks to be a lock for the number-three spot, previously manned by both Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. For the time being, injured Heath Miller will probably be replaced in the lineup by David Paulson.
And if he heals in time, rookie Le'Veon Bell has the potential to rise to the top of the list at RB, formerly filled by Rashard Mendenhall, now an Arizona Cardinal. And, if not Bell, it will likely be Jonathan Dwyer. That means a total of six, and possibly seven, new starters on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, the line will certainly have one new face as Steve McLendon replaces the departed Casey Hampton at NT, and while Al Woods isn't likely to supplant Ziggy Hood just yet, the possibility remains that he could do so at some point this season if he continues to play at the level he has through two pre-season games. And so it stands to reason that the coaching staff wants to see as much of him as possible before Week One rolls around.
Oh, yeah: there will be new faces at both return slots, and we could even see a change at punter.
The bottom line in all this is simple: there is a drastically different goal for the 2013 pre-season than there has been for most of the last decade, which is to see what specific players can do.
To be fair, no pre-season game will ever be run like a regular-season one, if for no reason other than to not give away secrets before the games actually count for something. But this year, the offensive and defensive calls need to be made with an eye toward testing specific players in specific situations, to see how they perform in game-time situations. That can't be guaranteed if the game plan is one that mimics, in at least some aspects, what a coach would call from September through January (February, if things work out right).
We saw that with four straight runs by Bell to start the game on Monday night. We saw that as Jarvis Jones played most of three quarters, regardless of who else was on the field. The same goes for safety Shamarko Thomas. We saw it with how many targets Markus Wheaton had. We saw the starting offensive line play for well over a quarter to get them as many reps as possible, to build cohesion along a front that looks dramatically different this year.
The plan, from the start, felt much less like a walk-through and more like a live-fire training exercise.
Many in Steeler Nation are panicking right now, and for anyone who was watching the game strictly as if it was any other game, that makes sense. But if I may pervert the old axiom, we need to remember to not miss the trees for the forest. We need to focus on the individual battles, the triumphs and failures of guys who haven't actually been there and done that before, if we are to see the many, many positive takeaways from this pre-season. It's hard to win a game when you are specifically trying to feed the ball to a few players, or to put a young, pass-catching tight end in tough blocking assignments, or to test the coverage abilities of two linebackers who made their college careers as pass-rushers in order to determine which one will make the starting lineup.
But it's easy to see victory, despite scoring fewer points, when you watch the progressions of 15 to 20 specific youngsters who have bright futures in the NFL -- far more than we have had the chance to watch in previous years.
I'm certain that is exactly what the coaches have been doing all along.