Labriola On

Labriola on masks, Watt, happy 74 to No. 75

Ready or not, here it comes:

There have been times in the recent past when the NFL has appeared to be wishy-washy, when it changes its mind, when what was a hard-and-fast rule yesterday isn't necessarily going to be a hard-and-fast rule tomorrow. But there have been two notable exceptions.

The player-safety initiative that was instituted with an iron fist starting with Week 6 of the 2010 regular season, and its COVID-19 safety protocols that have been in place for the last six months.

In talking about the manner in which the NFL has managed to navigate all these months and be able to conduct 32 training camps without any serious outbreaks of COVID-19 in any of them and then open its regular season on schedule with all teams participating at full strength, Coach Mike Tomlin said on the eve of Kickoff Weekend, "It has been really impressive. It hasn't necessarily been fluid, but it has been impressive. Their willingness to continue to work to make adjustment after adjustment to protocol has been the most impressive thing. We didn't formulate a plan and then send that plan to press and be unwilling to adapt or adjust. We adapted and adjusted where necessary based on what transpired with us, based on the information gathered of the experiences of the other sports, and I just think that general attitude, that willingness to continue to adjust is what has us where we are right now."

One of the NFL's protocols was that non-player personnel on the sideline were to wear masks throughout games. When not every coach adhered to the letter of the law, the NFL's punishment was swift and severe. About 72 hours ago we learned that five coaches and their teams had been fined for violating the letter of the mask-wearing rule – $100,000 per coach and $250,000 per team. That's $1.75 million, along with a promise that subsequent violations will be met with escalating fines.

"First and foremost, it's part of our agreed upon protocol between the league and the NFL Players Association," Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, told Judy Battista of NFL.com. "So it's not optional for people to follow that protocol, right? All of the parts of that protocol are mandatory. But getting to the philosophy behind it, we've said consistently that testing is not what keeps us safe. Tests are important, but no test is perfect. We do have those false positives and false negatives, so it is possible that you could have a negative test result and still be infected. In those cases, the face coverings are very important. So we think it's just another step that's important in risk-mitigation. I'll also say that some of the public health authorities have mandated that sideline personnel wear face coverings in their stadiums in their locations. So for all those reasons, it's not something that's optional for us."

When Tomlin was asked for his reaction to the discipline, he said, "I have no reaction. For me, personally, I'm just thankful to be working. A lot of us are not able to (work) in this pandemic circumstance. I don't take that for granted. I just want to show a good example and show that I'm thankful for working. I try to be as diligent as I can."

What might appear to be a heavy-handed protocol has allowed us to get to Week 3 of the 2020 NFL season with no hiccups related to the global pandemic. Which makes it worthwhile and worthy of strict enforcement.

COUNTER-TREY A NEW WAY
When the Steelers signed fullback Derek Watt as an unrestricted free agency a few months after President Art Rooney II said a more effective running game was something he wanted to see in 2020, visions of power football began dancing in the heads of fans in every corner of Steelers Nation.

It's a good guess that Watt leading James Conner in the fourth quarter of a game to help the Steelers eat some clock to protect a lead is the specific brand of power football they had in mind, and while they got exactly that with 1:47 left in the fourth quarter last Sunday it likely wasn't what they expected.

On that play, the Steelers ran a counter-trey around the right side of the formation, but instead of the left tackle and the left guard being the ones to pull around and lead the back around right end, it was left guard Matt Feiler and Watt, who was lined up on the wing to the left of tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

Feiler pulled around and sealed the inside. Watt got out in front and kicked out a Broncos defender to create a seam for Conner, who blew through the hole and into the secondary for the 59-yard gain that soon put the Steelers in victory formation. It was a clever take on a classic play, and it was made possible by Feiler's ability to pull to the right from his left guard spot and by Watt's ability to block on the move.

When David DeCastro returns to the lineup, presumably Sunday against the Texans, the Steelers will have a pair of guards who can pull and lead a back around either side of the formation.

CAN ANYONE HERE PLAY NOSE TACKLE?
Through the early portion of this regular season, the answer to that question is, "yes," thanks to Tyson Alualu.

During the offseason, the Steelers lost Javon Hargrave as an unrestricted free agent and then did nothing to replace him specifically, but Alualu has filled the void nicely against both the run and the pass. He has nine tackles, including three for loss; and against the pass he has a sack, three hits on the quarterback, and two passes defensed.

"I've seen Javon [Hargrave] work throughout the years that I have been here," said Alualu. "I saw first-hand what it looks like to be a great nose tackle. Seeing him work and seeing how he operates on a daily basis during practice and letting it translate to the games, I think being able to see how he plays was definitely a positive for me moving forward."

If seeing Hargrave play the position helped Alualu make the transition, then seeing Alualu during this season's first two games should have everyone believing he's capable of getting that job done.

HAPPY 74 TO NO. 75
Joe Greene celebrated his 74th birthday yesterday, and it seems like an appropriate time to recount his first day as an official member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Back then there were no such things as rookie minicamps or OTAs, and so the Steelers had virtually no contact with their prized rookie from the Jan. 28 day they made him the fourth overall pick of the 1969 NFL Draft and the first-ever selection of the Chuck Noll era until training camp at Saint Vincent College.

Greene wasn't there for the first day of that training camp, because he and the Steelers had not yet agreed on a contract. The impasse dragged on for an eternity by 1960s standards – a few days, a week tops – before Art Rooney Sr. brought the matter to a close by uttering four words: "Give it to him." And just like that, Greene was on his way to Latrobe.

Once he arrived on campus, there was no easing into things, no acclimation period, no football in shorts. Greene quickly was outfitted in a full practice uniform, and when he arrived on the field, he was welcomed by an immediate installment of the "Oklahoma drill."

The "Oklahoma" has been banned by the NFL, but back then it was recognized as a "tone-setter." The defensive lineman's job was difficult, because he had to engage a blocker, shed him, and then tackle a running back who was following the blocker at full speed through a "hole" designated by two tackling dummies laid on the field about three-feet apart.

Immediately, Noll put Greene onto the field with the plan of having the rookie go against the three best, most veteran, offensive linemen on the roster in succession with no breaks. Andy Russell recalled standing in a small group of veterans waiting for the rookie to get his comeuppance.

Indeed, school was in session, but it was the veterans who were getting schooled. First up was 28-year-old Ray Mansfield, about to enter his seventh year in the NFL and the starting center. According to Russell, "Ray Mansfield was first, and Joe threw him away like a paper doll and crushed the back. I was standing there with some other (veteran) guys, and we just looked at each other. This kid was backing up his mouth."

Bruce Van Dyke, a fourth-year pro and a starting guard, was up next. Greene dispatched him with the same combination of strength, quickness, and power, and again the running back found himself eating turf. Then it was Sam Davis, a third-year pro and soon to be a starting guard, and he got the same treatment.

There are many opinions about the turning point in franchise history, the moment when the Steelers changed from lovable losers into an NFL opponent's worst nightmare. Some point to the 1974 AFC Championship Game when the Steelers hammered the Raiders in Oakland to earn their first trip to a Super Bowl; others point to the Immaculate Reception; still others believe the seeds actually first were sown on Nov. 12, 1972, when the Steelers posted a physically dominating 16-7 victory over a Kansas City Chiefs team that had gone 40-13-3 over the previous four seasons and won a Super Bowl.

Russell had a different take. He pointed to that Oklahoma drill in 1969. "That was the start, and from that day Joe Greene set a tone and an attitude on the practice field and in games that losing is completely unacceptable."

Happy belated birthday, Joe Greene, and thanks for all the presents you have gifted Steelers fans.

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