Flurry of late moves have Steelers in “win-now” mode
PITTSBURGH — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes his team’s hectic final week of the preseason had everything to do with the NFL’s decision to move from two roster cut downs to just one and nothing to do with some sort of change in mindset heading into 2017.
Six days, a slew of moves that ranged from big — signing free agent cornerback Joe Haden — to not-so big — acquiring safety J.J. Wilcox from Tampa Bay — are a sign of what Tomlin said the league is doing “globally.”
“It’s a normal procedure for us,” Tomlin said on Tuesday. “We’re always trying to get better this time of year. Always open to signing guys capable of helping us.”
Maybe, but never so many guys expected to make an immediate impact.
Haden will start against his former team on Sunday when the Steelers open the season in Cleveland, just 11 days after signing a three-year deal with Pittsburgh.
Tight end Vance McDonald is listed second on the depth chart after coming over in a trade with San Francisco , but is cramming with tight ends coach James Daniel to get up to speed.
With Mike Mitchell slowly returning from a lower-body injury that kept him out of training camp entirely, Wilcox could go from a reserve role in Tampa Bay to a starter in Pittsburgh in the span of a week.
“I can’t explain it, you’re not prepared for it but you’re excited,” Wilcox said.
The team he’s joining too, even if Wilcox’s arrival came at the tail end of a dizzying few days of moves designed to help the defending AFC North champions make inroads on New England.
While the Steelers have dabbled in additions late in camp before, they’ve rarely done it with players the caliber of Haden, a two-time Pro Bowler in Cleveland, involved.
“Never in my eight years have I ever seen (this),” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “It was a shocker to all of us, especially the guys who have been here a long time and been a part of the organization.”
Probably because it’s a bit of a departure from the way Pittsburgh goes about its business.
The Steelers, perhaps as much as any team in the NFL, love to cultivate their own talent. Yet their methodical rebuild over the past three seasons — going from the wild-card round to the divisional round to the AFC championship game — is over.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is offering no guarantees he’ll play beyond this fall. Going out and getting veterans such as Haden and McDonald — who averaged 16.9 yards per reception for the 49ers last season — sent a clear message.
“Some teams are building for the future, we are building for right now,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday on his weekly appearance on 93.7 The Fan.
Tomlin isn’t sure that’s much different than any other season.
“You know how we live,” Tomlin said. “We try to be world champs every year. We’re all in on 2017. “
Part of it is being “all in” right away. The Steelers have been notoriously slow starters recently. They started 3-3 in 2014, 6-5 in 2015 and 4-5 in 2016. All three years ended with playoff berths. All ended with postseason losses on the road.
The best way to reach Minneapolis the first weekend in February is if they get to stay at Heinz Field for as long as possible. Part of the formula is making sure they don’t trip themselves up against teams such as the perpetually rebuilding Browns.
“We can’t stick our toe in the water,” Tomlin said.
Pittsburgh plans to dive in. A healthy roster, one that includes running back Le’Veon Bell, should help. Bell signed his franchise tender after a lengthy sabbatical on Monday.
He’ll practice in pads on Wednesday though Tomlin won’t have a firm idea of how many touches Bell might see against the Browns until later in the week.
Tomlin said he’s comfortable going with rookie third-round pick James Conner if Bell is limited in Cleveland.
Bell’s potential availability is one of the few questions marks. It’s a good problem to have for a team that expects to play deep into winter.
“We’re writing our story, and so let’s write it,” Tomlin said, “(and) not try to analyze it too much.”