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Labriola On

Labriola on Highsmith, Najee, Green

Ready or not, here it comes:

It was only one practice in pads, and the first practice in pads at that. A small sample size, miniscule, in fact. Hey, qualify it any way you want, and the truth of the matter is it deserves qualification, because there isn't a whole lot that happens in a single practice held almost two full months before the first meaningful game that ends up meaning diddly-squat.

Still, there is something to be said for announcing one's presence with authority, and second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith did that on Wednesday afternoon.

Coach Mike Tomlin has a well-publicized expectation for players entering their second NFL seasons, and Highsmith not only has that to live up to, but he also was drafted in the third round in 2020 as a hedge against the Steelers losing Bud Dupree as an unrestricted free agent, and then his situation potentially was complicated when the team signed veteran Melvin Ingram III to join the competition a few days before the first practice of this training camp.

So far, so good for Highsmith, and in all of the categories.

His performance in backs-on-backers put him on the short list for best defensive player in the drill, and then Highsmith showed some professional maturity by coming back in the very next drill – 11-on-11, live tackling – and executing his assignment in a way that resulted in back-to-back tackles-for-loss.

The first play of 11-on-11 was a Najee Harris run that gained close to 15 yards. On two of the next three plays, both to the left side of the formation, Highsmith set the edge and was in on the tackles that resulted in losses of yardage both times.

Lest Highsmith finish the first padded practice with too much praise, Tomlin went to the wet blanket when talking about it to the media. "It was ebb and flow. There were some good plays had on both sides of the ball. I thought we had a couple of runs early (in the live tackling drill). I thought (Highsmith) was stout at the (point of attack), but he was playing against a younger guy and it was his first exposure to the drill."

Pointing out that Highsmith was "was playing against a younger guy and it was his first exposure to the drill" was Tomlin's way of reminding everyone that Highsmith was setting the edge against rookie tackle Dan Moore instead of starter Chuks Okorafor, that it was one practice, that there is still a long way to go, that it's not quite time to write Highsmith's name on a Pro Bowl ballot.

All of that is true. But it's also true that in this summer's first practice in pads, Alex Highsmith acquitted himself well in the first opportunity he was given.

While it was Highsmith's first opportunity in pads this season, it was Najee Harris' first opportunity in pads as a professional. As has been his method since rookie minicamp back in May, Tomlin did not ease the team's most recent first-round pick into the action.

With Harris, it started even before backs-on-backers. It started in "seven shots," the second snap of "seven shots" to be specific. As a refresher, "seven shots" is a drill where the ball is placed at the 2-yard line, and it's 11-on-11, with the offense needing to get the ball into the end zone on each play, and the defense needing to prevent that from happening. The drill consists of seven plays. The offense wins each time it gets the ball into the end zone. The defense wins each time the offense does not.

On the second snap of "seven shots," the offense came out in a formation that created a matchup where Devin Bush was lined up on Harris one-on-one. Ben Roethlisberger made sure Harris was split wide enough to create the proper spacing for the play that was called in the huddle.

Roethlisberger took the snap and by the time he cocked his right arm, Harris had a half-step on Bush as he slanted to the inside. Roethlisberger put the ball on the button, Harris boxed Bush out with his body, made the catch, and then held on as Bush tried to rake it loose. Touchdown.

Remember, Harris decided to come back for the 2020 season at Alabama because he said he wasn't happy with what he had put on video from the previous year. Harris said one of the specific reasons he returned for a fourth college season was to improve his receiving skills, and based on that play at Heinz Field on Wednesday that work has paid dividends.

From there, Harris moved onto backs-on-backers, and he was matched against hybrid linebacker Marcus Allen. The fourth-year pro won the repetition with better technique, but Harris never backed down physically or verbally and by the end of the drill he was the one who was winning repetitions.

Tomlin noticed. "I think we all saw Najee likes competition. He doesn't run away from it. He runs to it. That was exciting from my perspective today. His demeanor was telling. It was exciting he had an appetite for that action."

Coach Mike Tomlin is known for not being overly effusive in handing out accolades to rookies or others he believes have not built the kind of resume deserving of such attention. Besides Harris, the rookie who was getting a lot of love early from fans and the media was Pat Freiermuth, the tight end the Steelers selected on the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Freiermuth was billed as the top two-way tight end to come out in the 2021 draft, and he had been more than living up to the receiving end of that during the non-padded sessions of OTAs, minicamp, and then the acclimation period at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex that preceded Wednesday's festivities at Heinz Field.

Tomlin, ever the button-pusher, always seemed to be within earshot whenever Freiermuth was showcasing his knack for catching the football. And no matter the manner or the situation of the catch, Tomlin's voice was heard shortly after: "Yeah, but can you block?"

There's still a lot of football to be practiced before any decisions have to be made, but as Tomlin always says, "One man's misery is another man's opportunity." To put a couple of specific names to this particular reference, J.C. Hassenauer's misery has presented Kendrick Green an opportunity he has seized so far.

Hassenauer began the offseason as the starting center, but soon after Green was drafted in the third round speculation began that it was just a matter of time before he took over the job. Not that Green needed any help, but Hassenauer has provided some when he sustained a knee injury that has prevented him from practicing at all since camp moved to Heinz Field from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

In Hassenauer's absence, Green has taken all of the first team repetitions at center, and the rapport he has been building with Ben Roethlisberger is doing nothing to hurt his chances of keeping the job.

Tomlin already has said Green will start at center in the Hall of Fame Game vs. the Cowboys on Aug. 5, and it's becoming more possible that the rookie could use that as a springboard to be in that same spot on Sept. 12 in Buffalo.