5 for Friday: Veterans make presence felt with rookies

LATROBE, Pa. - After the first padded practice earlier this week, rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. stayed well after the session working with veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson and former Steelers corner Ike Taylor working on his jam and footwork at the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers knew they were getting a polished veteran mentor when they signed Peterson in the offseason to a two-year deal.

But he's been everything they had hoped for and more when it comes to what he offers both on and off the field.

"Pat is as advertised. He's exactly what we thought he would be," Steelers defensive backs coach Grady Brown said of Peterson, whom he coached collegiately at LSU more than a decade ago. "I won't be caught off guard by anything from Pat because I have a prior experience with him. Nothing surprises me as it relates to what he brings to the table."

That respect that Peterson garners goes beyond just having him work with players at his position. Quarterback Kenny Pickett said he's picked the 13-year veteran's brain, at times, as well, when it comes to what defensive backs are looking for in certain situations.

These are the kind of conversations that go on daily with the Steelers.

And it goes beyond Peterson.

Even though he's essentially competing for a job with younger players such as Porter or fellow rookie Corey Trice – at least before Trice was placed on injured reserve earlier this week with a knee injury – cornerback Levi Wallace, himself a six-year veteran, has been a conduit of the knowledge flowing different ways.

He asks questions of Peterson, while the rookies ask questions of both elder corners.

Take a look at the Steelers training and preparing for the 2023 season at Saint Vincent College

"It's different questions. And if I have questions, I can ask Pat Pete, who has been in the league 13 years and is still playing at a high level," Wallace said. "It's like he's helping me, I'm helping the young guys. When you have good leadership in the room, it helps."

That willingness to help those who have been brought in to someday replace you doesn't necessarily happen everywhere in the NFL.

But Brown feels it's fostered in Pittsburgh on a daily basis.

"It's good people. The Rooneys laid the foundation," Brown said. "The culture they have here, the players they've had in the past, they pass the torch. Mike (Tomlin) is a great leader and he fosters that family environment. One thing he says is, 'Together, we eat.' Because, like you said, there is a competition level. We're competing for the same job, but together, we eat. It's an awesome learning environment for a young or old player or coach."

For a player such as Wallace, who in his second season with the Steelers now finds himself in that leadership role, it's an interesting dynamic.

A former undrafted free agent who earned a spot with the Bills before coming to the Steelers in free agency last season, he's seen the game from a different perspective than, say, a highly drafted player such as Peterson or Porter.

But he also understands the big picture.

He sees the questions the young players ask him as a sign of respect that his skill set is still strong. So, he doesn't see the young players as challengers as much as he does of them being the future.

"If I wasn't that good, maybe they wouldn't be asking me questions," Wallace said. "I feel free to give away knowledge. One day I won't be in the league and those guys will still be playing. That will be cool to watch and know I played a part in that."

• When watching Porter work with Taylor and Peterson, you couldn't help but think about how things have come full circle.

When Peterson was still in high school, he would work out with his cousin, former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden. And McFadden used to bring his teammates to Florida for workouts, Taylor among them.

And then you see Porter, the son of Joey Porter Sr., another of McFadden's teammates with the Steelers, out there getting knowledge from those two players. It was one of the cool things you see at Saint Vincent College.

"There is a push for any younger player to seek knowledge from older players. I have a small sample size in the NFL, so I don't mean to overspeak, but I really believe some of that is part of being a Steeler, Ike Taylor being around, the guys that come around and show up," Brown said. "They're going to share knowledge. That happened when we were at LSU. At your programs that are really solid programs, from my experience, that's a part of the culture. It's awesome. It's priceless.

"I remember (former Steelers and LSU safety) Ryan Clark coming back to LSU when Pat was young. It really happens organically. You don't have to push. But I think a big part of that is what the Rooneys have set with our culture here."

• With Minkah Fitzpatrick excused from training camp while dealing with a personal matter and Damontae Kazee dealing with an ankle injury the past week, the Steelers have been without their top two safeties for a large portion of this camp.

But that has offered younger players such as Tre Norwood and Kenny Robinson more opportunities to get additional snaps, including with the first-team defense.

That's invaluable, as the Steelers found last season when they went into a game with Tampa Bay at home missing Fitzpatrick and Cam Sutton, Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon, their top three cornerbacks.

With strong safety Terrell Edmunds the only regular available, Brown turned to younger players, many of whom had gotten some valuable snaps in training camp.

"We were a struggling team at the time, and we're playing against Tom Brady," Brown said. "Terrell was the only available starter. The game still had to be kicked off. You have to be able to get guys in a position to do certain things they do well, cross-train guys and put them in position to build confidence and be able to execute. I learned that lesson last year.

"It's great to learn in a win. I learned that last year. This will happen during the season."

So, a little discomfort at this time of the year in terms of not having certain players available can be valuable in the not-so-distant future.

It's also valuable now when the coaching staff gets a longer look at certain players it might not have seen as much from if the front-line players were participating.

"There's always positivity in every situation. If Minkah was here, Minkah would not give up reps," Brown said. "Those guys wouldn't get those reps, so it has been a blessing in disguise that Minkah has not been here or Kazee has been out. The guys that we really need to see, the guys that really need those reps, they're getting those reps right now."

• One of the knocks on Porter coming out of Penn State was his lack of interceptions. He had just one in his three seasons there.

But he has two very nice interceptions already in this training camp, the first coming off a Mitch Trubisky pass down the sideline that he played like a wide receiver, the second coming Thursday off Kenny Pickett where he jumped in front of receiver Cody White to make a diving interception along the sideline.

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That second interception was an impressive display of athleticism and hands, as Porter caught the ball as he dove to his left and controlled it as he went to the ground, securing the ball before rolling out of bounds.

The first interception, however, was the dilemma that quarterbacks are going to face against the rookie. Trubisky's pass wasn't necessarily a bad one. But Porter's length down the field is surprising to quarterbacks -- even those who have practiced against him.

When he puts his arms up, his 6-foot-3 frame extends to well over 7 feet. And you can't simply throw the ball in over his head. You have to feather it in over top of him.

For teams that don't have cornerbacks who are that tall, it's going to be difficult to rep in practice when they prepare to play the Steelers.

• Najee Harris has looked great in this camp and appears primed for perhaps his best season.

That's saying something given Harris leads the NFL in touches (694) since coming to the NFL in 2021 and is sixth in total yardage (2,930) in that same period.

He's also sixth in rushing over the past two seasons with 2,234 yards gained.

That, by the way, is the most rushing yards by a player in his first two seasons with the Steelers, topping Le'Veon Bell (2,221) and Franco Harris (1,753).

It should be noted that both Bell and Franco Harris had arguably their best seasons at 25, the same age Najee Harris is this season.

Bell had 1,291 rushing yards and caught a career-high 85 passes for 655 yards, leading the NFL in touches in 2017.

Franco Harris, meanwhile, had a career-high 1,246 rushing yards at 25 in 1975.