Saints meet Steelers in Hall of Fame game

Published 10:34 pm Saturday, August 4, 2007

Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls in six seasons and wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bill Cowher kept the success going in Pittsburgh, won an NFL title 18 months ago, and might soon join Noll in the hall.

Welcome to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ illustrious sideline history, Mike Tomlin. Now go out and match your predecessors.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh on the new man in the job, who begins his tenure as Steelers coach Sunday night in the Hall of Game against the New Orleans Saints. But it’s what the folks in Pittsburgh have come to expect, and with the Steel City a short drive from Canton, quite a few Steelers fans will be on hand at Fawcett Stadium — even if it’s merely the first game of the preseason.

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Tomlin sure feels some excitement.

“Yeah, because I’ve sat in the back seat and passenger seat enough and you always talk about, ’Boy, I’d like to do that,”’ he said. “We’ll see, won’t we, on Sunday night?”

How much people will see is hard to predict because most of the starters will make token appearances on both sides. That means Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Reggie Bush and Drew Brees will get minimal, if any, snaps. Steelers RB Willie Parker won’t play.

That doesn’t diminish Tomlin’s focus. He’s been on the fast track as a defensive assistant and coordinator and now, at 35 — the same age as Cowher when he took over in Pittsburgh — Tomlin is in charge.

“Where we play, who we play, who’s watching? We try to keep the focus on us and how we perform,” Tomlin said. “From my standpoint, that’s important, but I’m not going to deny some guys are going to be fired up because it’s on national television and their peers will be watching. This Hall of Fame game is one that everybody in the National Football League watches. You’re at training camp and you’re sitting around at night meetings; you take a break from night meetings and you turn the TV on and you watch the first football of the year.

“So it is a little special in that regard, but it’s not a focus of ours.”

Mainly, Tomlin and Saints counterpart Sean Payton will focus on keeping everybody healthy and getting a look at backups — and their backups.

“My thought is to give 15 plays to the starters and then go from there,” said Payton, the 2006 NFL Coach of the Year in his first season with New Orleans. “Maybe a quarter or less, depending on the number of snaps in the first quarter. I might back off a few guys and a few of the veteran players. I might back off (starting running back) Deuce (McAllister) some.

“I think the transition from (camp to) getting on the road, traveling somewhere, checking into a hotel, getting them off their feet and playing another opponent is healthy, and I’m sure both teams look at it that way.”

For quarterback Brees, there is a side benefit to being the NFC representative in the game. The Pro Bowl quarterback never has been to Canton.

“I think it will be fun to be there and be a part of that,” he said. “We have a chance to see the Hall of Fame. I’ve never been there, so I’m looking forward to it.”

The most anxious person in the stadium could be Tomlin, if only because, even as a dress rehearsal, an exhibition football game is a rugged, high-speed encounter. And it’s the very first time he’ll be in charge of everything: offense, defense, special teams, sideline-to-booth communications. No matter what decision is made, the new man on the job has some involvement.

“It’s always different when the lights are on,” he said.