LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:*
- Because it was the first day in pads – Wednesday, July 29 – backs-on-backers was an attraction, as was the session of 11-on-11 that included live tackling. But it was earlier, before either of those sessions started, where a drill took place that figures to have more of an impact on the Steelers' 2015 season than anything happening in those other two.
- Off on the side, with the team split into individual groups, Coach Mike Tomlin worked with the defensive backs. He was working with them on some of the techniques of cover-2.
- As the secondary coach for the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won a championship playing what they called their Tampa-2 defense so well that it turned Brad Johnson into a Super Bowl winning quarterback, Tomlin is well-versed on the subject he was teaching the Steelers. That version of cover-2 defense was born of the Tony Dungy-Monte Kiffin relationship dating back to 1992 in Minnesota when both were defensive assistants and then eventually laying down roots in 1996 in Tampa where Kiffin was Dungy's defensive coordinator.
- One element of the cover-2 is that it does not have the defensive backs running with the receivers through the secondary. In other coverages, even when playing zone, there can be times when defensive backs will turn their backs and run with receivers, often in an effort to disrupt the route. Cover-2 generally has the defensive backs facing the opposing quarterback.
- Some time after he had been hired by the Steelers, Tomlin was talking about Ronde Barber and Deshea Townsend. The story their respective career statistics tell is of a versatile, valuable player who could start games at cornerback on a very good defense for a contending team (Townsend), and of a star cornerback on a very good defense for a contending team (Barber). The statistics are heavily weighted in Barber's favor – 47 interceptions and 28 sacks for Barber, compared to 21 interceptions and 15.5 sacks for Townsend.
- Tomlin said at the time that if you took those two players and switched them, where Townsend was drafted and played for Tampa Bay while Barber was drafted and played for the Steelers, their career numbers might have switched as well. Very similar players – smart, athletic, more-quick-than-fast, willing to tackle – but very different schemes. Townsend's career will be remembered most fondly by teammates and those who study those Steelers defenses; Barber's career eventually will be discussed by the Hall of Fame Board of Selectors.
- In the three seasons from 2012-14, Steelers defenses faced 1,635 pass attempts and finished with 31 interceptions. Over those three seasons, Cortez Allen's six interceptions was the most of any of the Steelers cornerbacks.
- If better chances at interceptions are a result of the Steelers playing more cover-2 moving forward, then hooray for cover-2.
- General Manager Kevin Colbert provided a general overview of the concept of cover-2 as a defense where the secondary coverage takes the general shape of an oval with the middle to be manned by a linebacker dropping back into the middle of the field.
- An aside to all those Steelers fans sending all those suggestions to move Ryan Shazier to safety because of his speed: are you starting to see the bigger picture now?
- Once upon a time, the Steelers had a nose tackle named Joel Steed who couldn't even show enough to get a helmet on game days toward the end of his rookie season, a player so unimpressive in the early stages of his second training camp that the b-word was being attached to his 300-pound frame. Then the Steelers left for joint practices and then a preseason game in Barcelona, Spain, against the San Francisco 49ers, who had won a couple of Super Bowls with Jesse Sapolu at center. Going against someone other than Dermontti Dawson was a revelation to Steed, who blossomed in Spain, shed the bust label, and went on to play in a Pro Bowl.
- That story is re-told for the possibility of something similar being at work this summer. Tomlin calls it "seven shots," and it's a drill where the ball is placed on the 2-yard line, offense heading into the end zone. Whether it's actually practice for two-point conversions, or practice for other goal-line situations, or just general work on short-yardage, it's a drill the team has been doing since the start of OTAs.
- A difficult situation for the defense in any case, and when Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback and Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell are all in the huddle with him the degree of difficulty reaches ridiculous. The Steelers defense has held its own in this drill thus far in training camp, particularly in the area of making plays on the football when it's in the air. Cortez Allen, Kevin Fogg, and Doran Grant all made plays that ended with interceptions, and Alden Darby added a fourth on a ball tipped into the air. Ryan Shazier split a couple of blockers and dropped a back in the backfield, because running the ball is permitted, too.
- A small sampling to be sure, but working against this Steelers offensive group should provide good work for the team's developing defense. It might appear ugly at times in the early stages, but in the end there can be a positive result. Just like Steed vs. Dawson only on a wider scale.
Relive last year's night practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.
- The practice session became known as Friday Night Lights after the Buzz Bissinger novel published in 1996, and since being invented by Bill Cowher in 1992 this night practice at Latrobe Stadium has been a staple of Steelers training camps. Cowher's original purpose for going in pads at night was to acclimate the players to the idea of playing football at different times of the day, to simulate the realities of an NFL regular season schedule.
- Capping the night back then was the goal-line drill. Ball at the 3-yard line. Live tackling. First-team offense vs. first-team defense, four downs or until the offense scored. Then, second-team offense vs. second-team defense, same thing. Passing the ball was frowned upon, sometimes forbidden by Cowher. And some of the collisions echoed almost as loudly as the Zambelli fireworks that will close the proceedings tonight.
- But anyway, hyperbole aside, there were players who announced their presence during that drill on that night. Levon Kirkland. Alan Faneca. Earl Holmes. Jerome Bettis. Casey Hampton. Brute strength. Man-on-man. Power football played to shouts from Cowher to "come off the ball!"
- It's not that way anymore. That's not how the sport is played anymore. Today, it's about multiple offensive weapons directed by a quarterback lined up in the shotgun formation. Today, it's more about "seven shots."
- Watch for "seven shots" tonight, and every day left in this camp.