Welcome, Tomlin -- and welcome back, McCarthy
By The Associated Press
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Mike Tomlin admittedly will be excited to stand on the Heinz Field sideline for the first time as an NFL head coach Saturday night. The coach on the other side of the field may feel much the same way.
While the Packers-Steelers exhibition game will serve as Tomlin's home-field debut -- though his for-real introduction will come Sept. 16 against Buffalo -- Mike McCarthy will be similarly thrilled to be coaching in Pittsburgh.
McCarthy, the Packers' second-year coach, grew up in the city. In his youth, he worked in his family's tavern near a steel mill and, later, as a toll collector on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. His dad was a firefighter and a police officer.
So, while it will be Tomlin's night as the city welcomes only the third Steelers coach in 38 years, McCarthy will have some hometown fans cheering him on, too.
Since it's the preseason and not a game that counts, perhaps both coaches can focus for a minute or two on enjoying the moment, as well as getting as much work as possible for their players.
"The biggest distraction is all the requests of all my friends," McCarthy said. "It's been great. A lot of my friends have already got tickets so I appreciate that. I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure it's something that I'll always remember."
Since being hired as Bill Cowher's replacement seven months ago, Tomlin has come to appreciate Pittsburgh's passion for the Steelers. He is reminded of it any time he ventures into the public, and by the large crowds the team attracts at its Latrobe training camp one hour east of the city.
But, until now, Tomlin has never stepped foot on Heinz Field with his team behind him. If nothing else, the game will allow him to get comfortable in the stadium where, until now, only Cowher coached the Steelers.
"It has to be another game, but I'm sure I'll appreciate it and enjoy it. But I can't let it get in the way of doing my job," Tomlin said.
Because the Steelers are playing five exhibition games -- they started the NFL's preseason by beating New Orleans 20-7 in the Hall of Fame game Sunday night -- Tomlin has an extra weekend to evaluate talent and to get his starters enough playing time to keep them sharp.
That means quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may play a couple of series rather than the single series he ran with such efficiency Sunday, needing only six plays to direct an 80-yard touchdown drive highlighted by a 55-yard completion to Cedrick Wilson.
It was only one drive, but it served to illustrate how efficient Roethlisberger has been since camp opened July 23. He was nearly flawless in running the two-minute drill in practice Wednesday, and he has looked much sharper than he did at any point in last year's training camp.
Then, only a few weeks after being seriously injured in a motorcycle crash, he was the daily focus of a disrupted camp and never seemed to fully relax.
"Comfort wise, yeah, I feel more comfortable in this camp than in any of them so far," Roethlisberger said. "I feel like I can talk to them (his receivers) a lot easier. If you see a receiver throwing his hands up down the field, I can kind of let him have it now."
His receivers have noticed how relaxed and in control Roethlisberger has been, too, in contrast to his distraction-filled season of a year ago in which he underwent an appendectomy the week of the season opener. He went on to throw an NFL-worst 23 interceptions as Pittsburgh went 8-8, the same record as Green Bay.
"Ben's been looking a lot better than he was last year, he's been looking great," Nate Washington said.
McCarthy hasn't said how long quarterback Brett Favre will play in what, curiously enough, is Favre's Heinz Field debut. The Packers have never played a regular season or exhibition game there since the stadium opened in 2001. Favre has played only one regular-season game in Pittsburgh during his 17-season career, a 27-20 Packers loss in 1998.
"You have to be smart," McCarthy said. "I'm not interested in exposing Brett Favre. You have to find a common ground. There are some new faces that he needs to work with but I need to get Aaron Rodgers as much work as possible."
As they did last weekend, the Steelers probably will give No. 3 quarterback Brian St. Pierre and No. 4 Bryan Randall much of the work. Najeh Davenport will open at running back with Willie Parker (knee) sitting out for a second game in a row.
Green Bay's running game has been McCarthy's primary concern during camp. Projected starter Vernand Morency remains out with a knee injury, so second-round pick Brandon Jackson figures to get a lot of work in the Packers' preseason debut.
"That's a pretty tall order, even if you're a second-round pick, which Brandon is, to come in and all of a sudden you're running with the big boys right away," general manager Ted Thompson said. "But I think he's doing OK."