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Steelers Are a ‘Close Group’ Still Seeking an Identity

The team looks good on paper, good in practice and even, uncharacteristically, good so far in the preseason. But very soon now, none of that will matter.

Le'Veon Bell in 2016 | Photo by Pittsburgh Steelers | Karl Roser

Very soon now the Steelers will have narrowed down who they are.

But even after the cut to 53, it’ll be some time before Mike Tomlin has a handle on what the Steelers are, and on what they’re capable of becoming in 2017.

Just prior to the switching of preseason operations from Saint Vincent College to the South Side, Tomlin maintained the Steelers would continue to be a team that’s “very much in development,” one that would “continue to grow, hopefully into January and February.”

It won’t be as simple as reducing the roster to 52 players following the preseason finale on Aug. 31 at Carolina, and then welcoming running back Le’Veon Bell back into the fold on Sept. 1 (Bell’s Twitter-confirmed personal reporting date).

“If we’re doing things right, we’re still very much in development into the season,” Tomlin has emphasized.

For now, he’s comfortable assessing the 2017 team as one with “a youthfulness” he finds “entertaining,” and as “a legitimately close group” after observing the interactions during training camp.

It’s amazing what can be ascertained while watching guys play video games.

“They enjoy spending time together,” Tomlin insisted.

And while it’s tough to quantify that characteristic, it has value.

“That cohesion, that togetherness, that legitimate like for one another can help us in addressing challenges that this year’s going to present us,” Tomlin added.

So, the Steelers have that going for them.

Presumably, they’ll still have that going for them after they get around to sorting out a running back behind Bell, after they thin the ranks to six at wide receiver, after they identify an eighth offensive lineman they can somewhat trust and after they get a handle on how healthy the projected secondary might be on Sept. 10 in Cleveland.

But if preseason prognostications are to be believed, the significant challenges among the ones Tomlin referenced won’t have to be addressed until well after the opener at Cleveland is just a memory.

The Steelers won’t face the meat of their schedule until November.

That’s when they’ll host Tennessee on Nov. 16 and Green Bay on Nov. 26, visit Cincinnati on Dec. 4, entertain Baltimore on Dec. 10 and New England on Dec. 17, and then show up in Houston on Dec. 25.

It can be assumed playing the Patriots is the defining game of any season, at least until the postseason.

But this season, the Steelers will resume hostilities with New England amid a six-game stretch during which they’ll play three other alleged contenders (Tennessee, Green Bay and Houston) and two AFC North Division rivals (never games the Steelers can afford to take lightly, with the obvious exception of Cleveland).

And they’ll need to do more than continue developing their individual skills, defining their individual roles and finalizing their roster between now and then to navigate all of that.

They look good on paper, good in practice and even, uncharacteristically, good so far in the preseason (at 2-0 the Steelers have already won more exhibitions than they’d managed since they went 3-1 in games that don’t count in 2012).

But very soon now, none of that will matter.

“You really don’t know,” Tomlin confirmed, “until you’re walking the journey.”

No matter how much you appreciate the guy with whom you’re trying to stay in stride.

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