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The Steelers awesome preseason won’t carry over into the regular season

Every NFL team wants a postseason bye.

That’s especially the case now that there is only one bye in each conference. Statistically speaking, the teams who earn byes are usually the ones who wind up playing in the Super Bowl.

Every NFL team wants chemistry, too. They want cohesion. They want to believe every player is pulling the wagon in the same direction. The quarterback and receiver want to be on the same page. All five offensive linemen want to act as one on every play. The linebackers want to play off the defensive linemen. The defensive linemen want to run stunts and play off each other. The cornerbacks want to work in unison with the safeties.

Etc., etc.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to have the best chemistry when you have two weeks off in between playoff games. At least that’s what football players and coaches are always telling us. Who am I to say otherwise? I’ve never played football at the highest level. I certainly can’t claim to know more than those guys. Therefore, if they believe it, I have no choice but to believe it, as well.

Then why do football teams so covet postseason byes, and why have they been so paramount to Super Bowl success throughout NFL history?

It’s a conundrum.

That brings me to the Steelers’ just-completed 2023 preseason, one that saw them win all three games and look rather dominant in the process. Even the final preseason contest, one that has historically been reserved for backups and roster hopefuls to show up and show out, was started by those at the top of Pittsburgh’s depth chart.

There was some speculation in the days before the game about the availability of the starters, and even though head coach Mike Tomlin appeared to be quite adamant that those who were available would play, it was hard to believe him.

What if someone got hurt? Was developing chemistry more important than risking the health of your starters?

I guess it was. After all, we don’t live in our fears. And when I say “we,” I’m referring to the Steelers because I don’t have a darn thing to do with it. To his credit, Tomlin didn’t live in his fears on Thursday night when Pittsburgh’s starters bashed the Falcons backups at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He probably walked away feeling vindicated, knowing his starters got to “spar” one last time before their real boxing match began on September 10. Tomlin also likely breathed a sigh of relief after his top guys exited without being knocked down for the count.

Having said all of that, September 10 is an awfully long way from August 24. That’s a huge gap, one that’s even bigger than your typical postseason bye.

If we’re to believe NFL coaches and players, this means that whatever chemistry was developed on both offense and defense during the preseason will be significantly diminished when it’s time to kick off in Week 1 and take on the 49ers at Acrisure Stadium.

So, what did the Steelers truly gain by playing on Thursday? Confidence? Maybe, but that confidence came from beating on backups and future IT specialists. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important for a young roster to be instilled with confidence. This is a new Steelers team with a different spirit. It feels like they’ve finally buried that second Super Bowl era and are moving into the future.

Kenny Pickett is at the head of the line when it comes to players who entered the preseason needing to find the confidence necessary to compete at the NFL level. Coming off his rocky rookie season, Pickett likely spent the entire offseason eating, sleeping and breathing football. He probably spent hours doing mental reps while hanging out with his new bride. To see that preparation and those mental reps manifest themselves into success on the football field—even a football field littered with future sideline reporters and business managers–was important.

The same can be said for plenty of other young Steelers players not named Kenny Pickett.

I can see where Tomlin was coming from with his preseason strategy, but, again, it goes directly against what he and his colleagues are always telling us about chemistry and rust.

Like I said, it’s a conundrum, one that can be blamed on the NFL.

Why must there be a two-plus week gap in-between the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season? Is it so coaches can have more time to figure out their final 53-man rosters? Why was this never an issue during the previous eight or nine decades?

This new “bye” before the start of the NFL regular season, coupled with the shortened preseason, has really put head coaches in a bind. If you’re a coach, it’s now harder to sit your starters for preseason games because you want them to get their reps and perfect their timing during those three games. You want your players to develop chemistry and cohesion. Therefore, you’re forced to play your key guys more than you would have during the old four-game preseason schedule.

Then, after a coach plays his starters more during this shortened preseason in order to shake off the rust and add chemistry, those starters must wait two weeks to play football for real.

Again, if we’re to believe NFL head coaches and players, this severely diminishes chemistry and brings back the rust.

With that in mind, nothing the Steelers did during the preseason–even in the game at Atlanta on Thursday night–should carry over into the regular season. So, why did they do it?

I don’t know, but at least T.J. Watt didn’t suffer another knee injury while shaking off the rust that will be back by the time he takes on the 49ers on September 10.

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