Rookies, Big Backs Part of Plan for Opener

David DeCastro, Al Woods (LeClaire/USPRESSWIRE)

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says he'll start two rookies on the offensive line and give big backs Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay plenty of work in the preseason opener.

LATROBE – If you are anxious to see the Steelers' top two draft picks, you had better watch the beginning of Thursday night's preseason opener in Philadelphia.

If it's big-back candidates Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay you wish to see, rest assured, you'll see plenty of both.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said both top pick David DeCastro and second-rounder Mike Adams would be along the starting offensive line when the first-team offense takes the field following the 8 p.m. kickoff. Adams will start at left tackle and DeCastro at right guard.

"Our first units on both sides of the ball will play a series or two," Tomlin said Tuesday at his pre-game press conference. "We're excited to get into an NFL stadium for the first time, excited about seeing many of the men in a Steelers uniform for the first time."

The Steelers want to see how Adams responds to playing with the first team. He seems to have beaten out Trai Essex for the starting job, at least until Max Starks comes off the physically unable to perform list. Conversely, DeCastro has not made strides to overtake Ramon Foster as the starting right guard. Instead, Foster is needed at left guard with Willie Colon pronounced out by Tomlin, who cautioned that, in the cases of DeCastro and Adams, it may be too early to draw any conclusions. He cited Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey as an example.

"With Maurkice, I think it was the third preseason game before he was a starter. The reality is what happens on the practice field is one thing and what happens in an NFL stadium is a different thing," Tomlin said. "Both of those guys have been working extremely hard and have had good moments and not-so-good moments. Both guys are extremely smart, both guys finish. We'll work to know more about them Thursday night."

The Steelers will have been in camp for two weeks when the Eagles game starts and Tomlin views this game as an appropriate next thing. "It's that time for us," he said.

While Tomlin said the first units will see only limited action, which is quite customary for preseason openers, he noted that some of the starters might see more action or less action, depending on performance.

After the first few series, expect to see plenty of young players trying to catch a coach's eye, including quarterback Jerrod Johnson, whom Tomlin plans to use almost exclusively in the second half. Tomlin was asked about his crop of running backs, given that Rashard Mendenhall is also on the PUP list.

"We want to take a look at these guys in a variety of ways," Tomlin said. "We might want to see someone's level of conditioning. We might challenge them in that way in terms of touches over an extended period of time."

Without naming names, Tomlin targeted his big backs, Dwyer (5-11, 229) and Clay (6-1, 248), for a busy night at Lincoln Financial Field.

Of course, the game also is the official unveiling of the Todd Haley offense, but as with most preseason openers, it will tell more about individuals than it will about the team or the offense as a whole. That's especially true of the wide receivers, where Tomlin and the offensive coaches are waiting for a player or two to step up and join Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery as established players.

"They've been inconsistent, largely," Tomlin said. "We've seen some things that can get us excited, but we've also seen some things that are disturbing. We know that's a part of training camp, but we also know that this is a significant step as we go into stadiums."

Tomlin also said rookie running back Chris Rainey will get the first segment of kickoff and punt returns and will be followed by receivers Marquis Maze and David Gilreath.

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