Tomlin: Practices must stay intense, even as season starts
By The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
The Pittsburgh Steelers' practices for Sunday's season opener at Cleveland will resemble those at training camp, if new coach Mike Tomlin has his way.
Tomlin wants his backups pushing his starters, his starters working to keep their jobs and his rookies playing like veterans as quickly as possible. The only way to do that, he said Tuesday, is to keep practices just as competitive as they are when players are competing for jobs during camp.
Running back Willie Parker, for example, told Tomlin he'd like the linebackers vs. running backs blocking drill -- a staple of training camp -- to extend into the season. Most NFL teams back off the contact work in practice once the season starts to lessen the chance of injury.
"I've said repeatedly that we're developing a world championship-caliber team, and the only way to continue on that path is to continue to grow," Tomlin said. "That was the gist of my message to the team -- we are moving into the season, but iron sharpens iron. We've got to continue to compete on a day-to-day basis."
To illustrate that, Tomlin isn't guaranteeing that Allen Rossum will return kickoffs and punts Sunday, even though it's obvious the Steelers traded for him Saturday to handle that job.
"We're not anointing anyone," Tomlin said.
Chukky Okobi's release Saturday may be proof of that. Tomlin dropped strong hints that he didn't like the way Okobi -- the starting center when camp opened -- handled himself after missing camp time with a rib injury. Sean Mahan moved ahead at center during Okobi's absence and has kept the job.
Okobi spoke out last week, saying he hadn't done anything to lose the starting job and that it would it would a miscarriage of justice if he wasn't on the 53-man roster, which he wasn't.
"Sean was our best option as a starting center," said Tomlin, a Tampa Bay assistant coach when Mahan played there.
Mahan's backup will be Darnell Stapleton, an undrafted rookie from Rutgers who also missed camp time to injury. If one of the game day roster spots is needed for another position, right guard Kendall Simmons will be the backup center.
"We felt Sean Mahan distinguished himself the more we watched it," Tomlin said. "He probably was the beneficiary of Chukky's unfortunate injury, but we're very comfortable where he is. Darnell Stapleton also dealt with injury, and I was really impressed the way came back, in terms of his quality of play. He didn't fall behind mentally."
Willie Colon, the right tackle at the end of training camp, continues to be listed on the depth chart ahead of Max Starks, and Ryan Clark is ahead of Anthony Smith at free safety.
Tomlin also said:
• WR Willie Reid will continue to practice as a kick returner, even though the Steelers have added Rossum.
"Allen provides a veteran presence," Tomlin said. "I have a great deal of respect for what he is capable of doing. Willie Reid has been growing in big ways, he's an emerging player, and we'll continue to work with Willie."
• He hasn't decided if Parker will also be the third-down back.
"That will depend on what we're trying to do on a week-to-week basis," Tomlin said. "We're open to it."
• First-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons will see considerable playing time on special teams.
"Lawrence is trying to get in where he can fit in," Tomlin said.