Steelers find a practice partner in Bills

Posted Aug 12, 2014

There will be joint practices between the Steelers and Bills on Wednesday and Thursday in Latrobe

LATROBE, Pa. – In the final analysis, the process involved in the Steelers getting together with the Buffalo Bills for a couple of days of joint practices was a simple one.

“Bare bones, they’re different than us schematically,” said Coach Mike Tomlin, “and they’re in close proximity.”

Schematic differences aside, the football version of the first commandment of real estate – location, location, location – is critical in organizing such an exercise, because the Chicago Bears play a 4-3 defense, too, but getting on an airplane for a couple of days worth of practices in the middle of a training camp week is just not feasible.

And so it will be the Steelers and the Bills on the field at Saint Vincent College, with Wednesday’s session scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. and Thursday’s to run from 5:30-7:30 p.m. As is the case with all Steelers training camp practices, these will be open to the public, with free admission and free parking to all fans interested in attending. Next summer, the Steelers will visit the Bills, who hold their training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York.

“We’re a 3-4 team defensively, and the Bills are a 4-3 team defensively. That helps us,” said Tomlin. “The Bills have a young, mobile quarterback and an offense that reflects that in terms of some of the pocket movement stuff, and we need to see that. That’s what it’s about for us.”

What it will look like, according to Tomlin, is a typical Steelers practice, only there will be two teams participating instead of only one.

“It’s going to be a normal Steelers practice, except it’s going to be on two fields because we’re inserting another team,” said Tomlin. “So we’ll do team-run, pass-under-pressure, special-cat, seven-on-seven, O-line vs. D-line, team. It’ll just be happening on two fields, because we’ll be doing it against someone else. We’re going to do what we normally do, but we’re going to infuse some unfamiliar bodies and some unfamiliar schemes in an effort to help us grow.”

To clarify, when it’s time for seven-on-seven, for example, it will be the Steelers offense vs. the Bills defense, while on an adjacent field it will be the Steelers defense vs. the Bills offense. And so it will be throughout each session over the two days.

Back in the day when there were no limits on the number of players an NFL team could bring to camp, no limits on the number of two-a-day practices a coach could schedule, and no limit on the time a team could spend at training camp, the idea of scheduling joint workouts with another team wasn’t as popular or as necessary.

The Steelers’ first foray into the practice came in the late 1980s when Chuck Noll and Joe Gibbs started bringing their teams together for an afternoon practice followed by a scrimmage in the evening. The Steelers visited the Redskins at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the following year hosted them in Latrobe.

The teams continued the practice for a couple of seasons after Bill Cowher became the Steelers coach, but the trip to Frostburg, Maryland, where the Redskins moved their training camp, was neither simple nor short, and then the joint practices ended when the Redskins decided to stage their camp at their practice facility at Redskins Park.

The Steelers also met the Bills once in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, during Cowher’s tenure, but that was a one-shot deal.

But now, with 90-man roster limits, and the one padded practice a day limit, and the limit on the number of days a team can spend in a training camp, coaches are looking for ways to maximize the allotted time without beating up their own players in advance of the start of the regular season. Bottom line: joint training camp practices just might turn into the wave of the future.

“I’ll probably say yes to (the wave of the future), but it has been going on a lot in the past,” said Tomlin. “Other organizations I’ve been in have a strong history of doing this. When I was in Minnesota, there was a long standing tradition of doing it with Kansas City; in Tampa, we did it with Jacksonville and also with the Miami Dolphins. And those teams did it for similar reasons – close proximity and so forth. I don’t know that it’s anything new. I think the media coverage that’s associated with preseason football and training camps in today’s NFL makes it more apparent.”

This is Tomlin’s eighth training camp as coach of the Steelers, and this will be the first time the team has engaged in joint practices with another NFL team. But it’s not as though Tomlin had to be talked into it.

“We were looking for someone close, someone willing, and different enough schematically to make it worth our while,” said Tomlin. “It just really came together with Coach Doug Marrone and that group up in Buffalo, headed by (General Manager) Doug Whaley. I’m excited about it, but it’s something I’ve been open to since 2007.”