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5 for Friday: Robinson wants to make the most of his shot

TAMPA, Fla. -- All of the OTA sessions at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and training camp practices at Saint Vincent College have led us to the preseason games.

And while performing well at OTA sessions and in training camp are a big part of determining who does and does not make the final roster, games are weighted differently. They just are.

Perform well in a game – or as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, in stadiums – and you're more likely to gain the trust of the coaching staff.

One player looking to do that is third-year safety Kenny Robinson.

The Wilkinsburg, Pa., native has handled the first two portions of the journey well, to the point where he's gotten plenty of first-team snaps at safety when Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee were missing practices.

And he's made the most of those additional reps. But none of it will matter for Robinson if he doesn't show well in the preseason games, the first of which will come tonight against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I'm ready to rock, no matter who I'm with, the 1s, 2s, 3s, it doesn't matter," Robinson said. "I'm just ready to rock."

It's been a long journey for Robinson to get to this point.

A big recruit out of Imani Christian, Robinson initially went to West Virginia, twice earning all-Big 12 honors in his two seasons with the Mountaineers.

But he was only there two seasons, getting kicked out of school when he was caught cheating on an online exam.

He initially entered the transfer portal, but then decided to test his luck with the XFL when he was drafted by the St. Louis BattleHawks. Unfortunately for Robinson, who had 21 tackles and two interceptions in five games, the league folded and he was left without a team once again.

The Carolina Panthers, however, liked what they had seen and selected him in the fifth round of the 2020 draft, making him the first XFL player drafted by the NFL.

After bouncing back and forth from the practice squad for two seasons – including scoring a touchdown on special teams against the Vikings in 2021 – he was released. The Steelers signed him to a reserve/futures contract.

"I think it's just matured me a lot more, the way I carry myself, the way I go about things. I learned a lot about just focusing on what you have to focus on," Robinson said of his journey home to the Steelers. "I think it definitely prepared me for everything, particularly the mental battle. I focus on myself. I don't worry about anything else that is going on. I just listen to my coaches and try to get better every day. I'm not worried about depth charts and things like that."

But it was hard not to recognize how beneficial it was to be getting first-team reps for two weeks.

"Definitely. It feels good to be out there and get the competition with the ones. It's helping me get better every day," Robinson said. "Going against guys like Diontae (Johnson), George (Pickens), Pat (Freiermuth), they're always giving me their best, and then telling me where I go wrong sometimes. We're just helping each other get better."

Will it be good enough to earn a spot somewhere on this team? A good game against the Buccaneers would help his cause.

It probably wouldn't surprise Tomlin, who has known Robinson for quite some time due to the latter playing in the WPIAL at the same time as his own sons.

"I kind of knew Coach Tomlin the majority of my life because he's always been around the city, going to the little league games," Robinson said. "I played 7-on-7 with his sons. Funny thing is when I first got to OTAs, he told me, 'I've got this funny picture of you when you were in like 10th grade in my house.' It's cool being around Coach Tomlin. He's a good dude, a genuine person. You can't do anything but want to play for somebody like that."

If he gets the chance.

And maybe, just maybe, there could be room for two guys named Kenny on the Steelers' roster this season.

"Yeah. Kenny, he can be the star," Robinson said with a chuckle and referring to starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. "I just want to be a backup."

He'll get a big shot against Tampa Bay. Now, it will be up to Robinson to make the most of it.

But Tomlin has been pleased with what he's seen thus far.

"It's a guy that, first of all, has positioned himself to take the reps. I talk to these guys about reporting into an environment like this highly conditioned because it positions you to take advantage of opportunity when it presents itself," Tomlin said. "It's obvious that he's in good shape because the lines have gotten short at that position. He's been able to absorb additional snaps, and because he is in great shape, he's made good use of those snaps."

• One player fans don't want to see as a backup is first-round draft pick Broderick Jones.

But the Steelers aren't going to rush the young offensive tackle, who made just 15 career starts in college.

"He's learning a lot from the vets, a lot of the NFL game, not only on the field, but off the field, too," offensive line coach Pat Meyer said of Jones. "(It's) how to take care of your body, how to watch film, how to study, doing that. That's a big part of it."

Jones has gotten a handful of snaps with the first-team offense in training camp, but he's mostly worked with the second unit.

And that's part of the process. The Steelers aren't unhappy with incumbent left tackle Dan Moore Jr. So, they're in no hurry to rush Jones into the lineup. That means getting him all of his reps on the left side of the line, where he played in college.

"Right now, we're focused on, him being a young guy, we're focused on the left (side)," Meyer said. "We want him to get his left side sense in both the run game and the pass game. For now, we're repping him as a left tackle and getting him ready to do that. What the future will hold, obviously we're really high on him. He's going to be in there at some point."

But that might be sooner rather than later.

The Steelers could have had Jones compete at both left and right tackle and let things sort themselves out. But they see Jones as their left tackle of the future and don't want to mess with him.

"Moving him to he right side isn't like putting him at corner. Your feet are backward, your hands are backward. It's the opposite of what you've been doing," Meyer said. "When you take 10s of thousands of reps on one side and then you flip, everything is backwards, especially if you've always played that position. The guys who are backups, they do that. They play multiple positions. Those guys are a little easier to play with than a person who has only taken left side reps. It's difficult."

• While much of the focus in training camp has been on Jones and his development. But a pleasant surprise has been how versatile seventh-round draft pick Spencer Anderson has been on the line.

Every day in practice is like playing a game of "Where's Waldo" trying to find where the Steelers will line Anderson up on a particular day.

Anderson has taken snaps at both tackle positions and all three spots on the interior.

"A guy like that, the versatility, that's going to help him, whether down the line or whenever," Meyer said. "If you're able to do that, your value skyrockets. If you have a guy like that who can back up multiple positions, it has a lot of value to us."

The key is that Anderson played all five spots at some point during his career at Maryland. He's currently listed as a center on the team's depth chart, but he's seen more time at offensive tackle throughout camp.

"It's rare to have somebody who does all five and can play all five like that. We've played him most at tackle, but he's gotten ample reps, especially this week at guard," Meyer said. "In these preseason games, a lot of these younger guys are going to play the majority of the reps. That's why we flip, go left and right. He plays tackle, just so that when we get into a preseason game and somebody goes down, who knows? It would be a shame to put somebody in there who hasn't had reps at that position. We try to move them around.

"It's beneficial for us, but it's good for the kid, too. As he gets older and matures and figures it out more and more, we'll settle him down a position. But right now, he's equally good inside or outside."

The situation with Anderson is completely different than that of Jones. The Steelers drafted Jones to be their future left tackle. Anderson is being given a shot to earn his spot in a way similar to the path taken by Kelvin Beachum, Matt Feiler and others before him.

Show your versatility as a backup and settle in at one spot at some point in the future.

• Tomlin isn't interested in trying out the new kickoff rules in the NFL that will allow return men to fair catch the ball in the field of play and move it out to the 25.

He and special teams coach Danny Smith have too much information that can be gathered from returning a kickoff – or covering one – to worry about testing out the new rule.

"We probably are more interested in seeing people play, returners return, blockers block, than we are addressing the intellectual component of the rule change," Tomlin said. "We get three games, kickers are putting the ball through the end zone, I think that our mentality is going to be anytime we get an opportunity to return a kick, we will, because we just want to see the capabilities of the 11 on the grass in the kickoff return unit."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• There's been little to no drama at Steelers training camp. This coming off an offseason in which there was little to no drama, as well.

But that doesn't mean it's been a boring training camp. The new wrinkles in the offense and its expansion off things that were done last year have been apparent.

It will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Matt Canada plays things close to the vest in the preseason, or if he takes a look at the expanded playbook in these games.

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