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08-23-2008, 11:57 AM
Tomlin to coach against familiar foes
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer

PITTSBURGH - When the Steelers began interviews to replace head coach Bill Cowher in January of 2007, a little-known defensive coordinator from the Minnesota Vikings was considered an afterthought in the process.

A few weeks later, that Vikings assistant coach, Mike Tomlin, was named as Cowher's replacement.

Tomlin will make his first return trip to Minnesota as head coach of the Steelers when Pittsburgh plays the Vikings in a preseason game tonight at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

"It's the first time I've coached against a team and men that I've worked with," said Tomlin. "I imagine it's going to be unique and fun, but once the ball gets kicked off I'm sure it will become normal and football."

Tomlin spent just one season as Minnesota's defensive coordinator, but many of the players he coached remain, with the notable addition of defensive end Jared Allen, whom the Vikings traded for in the offseason.

The former Kansas City star teams with defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Edwards to give Minnesota a very formidable defensive front.

Considering the Steelers are still trying to decide who their starting center will be in 2008, the Vikings should be a good test.

Justin Hartwig, a free-agent signee, will start at center and play with the first team throughout the first half, while Sean Mahan, last year's starter, will play after that.

"Obviously I'm trying to win the starting job and running with the ones, you get the cohesion down being able to work with those guys every day," said Hartwig, a starter with Tennessee and Carolina previously.

"I worked with the ones a couple days going into the last game. You want as much time as possible with them going into these games. It helps as far as working with double teams and just knowing what the guy next to me is thinking. It's really crucial."

Tomlin would like to have a starter at the position in place after this game, but neither Mahan or Hartwig has separated himself to win the job.

Mahan started the first preseason game against Philadelphia, while it was Hartwig's turn last week against Buffalo.

"I did all right," said Hartwig. "It's the center's job to go out and make all the line calls and make the offense run smoothly. There was definitely some times where maybe we could have been more on the same page or maybe things could have gone a little bit smoother. So hopefully, we get those things ironed out going into this week."

In addition to keeping a keen eye on the battle at center, Tomlin will also be looking for improvement from the Steelers' starting defense.

After looking lackluster in limited action against Philadelphia, the first-team defense allowed touchdowns on back-to-back drives to start the game against Buffalo.

With a pair of running backs who have been 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL in Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, Minnesota should pose a nice challenge.

"We didn't tackle well in the first preseason game. We didn't tackle well in the second preseason game," said Tomlin. "It can't become a habit. It can't become us.

"I think the players understand that. Hopefully it will turn up in Minnesota that we are tackling well. If we don't tackle well, they've got a couple of backs that will go up and down the field on you."

With those kind of problems on his mind - even in a preseason contest - Tomlin said he was too busy this week to return the numerous phone calls he received from friends in the Minnesota.

"I can't say that I've returned any of them," Tomlin admitted. "That's how it goes."