LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:
Danny Smith tells the rookies the same thing every year. When they first hear it, they may see it as self-serving coming as it does from the special teams coordinator, but right about this time every summer truer words never were spoken.
"If you're not a starter on offense or defense, you better be a starter on special teams."
The players who get it typically make themselves tough to cut. The ones who don't make it a lot easier.
Take Ola Adeniyi as an example. Last summer, Adeniyi was flashing as a pass rusher and got on the radar relatively early in the training camp process. As an undrafted rookie trying to make a team at an outside linebacker position where the starters are both first-round draft picks, it's very important to make a good first impression.
Once the preseason was over, Adeniyi ended up leading the team in sacks with three and in forced fumbled with two, and he was tied for second on the team in quarterback pressures with two. But on special teams, he had no tackles.
In one way, it can be viewed as fortunate Adeniyi sustained an injury that allowed the Steelers to place him on the injured reserve list because it would've been difficult to keep him on the 53-man roster since he hadn't contributed on special teams through the summer.
And the non-starting linebackers the Steelers kept on the roster in 2018 all were core special teams players. During the regular season, Tyler Matakevich led the team with 11 special teams tackles; L.J. Fort was tied for fourth on the team with five special teams tackles and also blocked a kick; Matthew Thomas had three special teams tackles in 10 games; and Anthony Chickillo had seven tackles and recovered a fumble on special teams.
This summer, Adeniyi has seen the writing on the wall, and has made special teams a personal focus. Last Friday in the preseason opener against Tampa Bay, Adeniyi finished with three tackles and a pressure on defense, and more significantly had two tackles on special teams. He was on the field for 50 percent of the special teams plays in the game – only Justin Layne and Marcus Allen were on the field for more – and only Adeniyi and first-year linebacker Tegray Scales made more than one tackle. Both had two.
After the game, Adeniyi was gushing about being able to contribute on special teams, and he remarked to at least one reporter that special teams was going to be his focus through the rest of the preseason games.
Smart man, because come cut-down day, Danny Smith is a powerful friend to have.
BENNY SNELL FOOTBALL
Benny Snell led the Steelers in carries during the preseason opener, which really should've come as no surprise, and he can expect a good bit of work against the Chiefs tomorrow night. And over the course of the game against the Buccaneers, Snell showed he can learn by his mistakes.
On one run, Snell tried to bounce outside and beat the defensive back around the end, something he likely did often and successfully against college competition. But in the NFL, it's a low percentage move for a 224-pound running back to think he can turn the corner against an NFL defense.
When Snell was tackled for no gain, Coach Mike Tomlin's reaction on the sideline told the story of his displeasure with the rookie's decision-making. But on a subsequent carry, Snell again began running parallel to the line of scrimmage, but this time he stuck his foot in the ground and cut upfield for a 4-yard gain. That was the kind of decision an NFL running back needs to make.
MORE THAN A RUNNER
Most accounts of the positive things Joshua Dobbs did as the starter in the preseason opener center around a couple of plays "he made with his legs."
Yes, Dobbs broke loose and displayed some dazzling open-field running for a 36-yard gain on a third-and-9 to give the Steelers a first down on the Tampa Bay 17-yard line. But it would be a mistake to see Dobbs, entering his third NFL season, as nothing but a runner.
On an earlier third down in the same possession, a third-and-21 from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line, Dobbs stood in the pocket and delivered the football on a line to James Washington on a deep crossing route that gained 22 yards for a first down. That was an NFL throw.
That's a term Mike Tomlin loves to use to describe players who have impressed him with their physical conditioning, because he believes that being in top shape is critical for players to be able to withstand the demands of daily practices, which are critical for players to develop and improve over the course of an NFL season.
Using only the eye test, offensive linemen Zach Banner and Fred Johnson wouldn't seem to fall into the category of highly-conditioned. Banner is listed at 361 pounds and Johnson is listed at 326. But since Banner is 6-feet-8 and Johnson is 6-7, those weights aren't as out of whack as the numbers appear when listed on a roster.
And for one night at least, Banner and Johnson epitomized Tomlin's term, because against the Buccaneers they each played more offensive snaps than any of their teammates. Banner and Johnson each played 59 of the Steelers' offensive snaps (91 percent) plus six more on special teams.
DRAKE AS DJ
Riding a stationary bike is part of my daily routine, both in Pittsburgh and while at Saint Vincent College for training camp. While on campus, that happens in the college's fitness center, which the Steelers turn into their weight room. Music, loud music, is a part of the weight room experience, and the musical tastes of all those who utilize the weight room vary greatly.
It should surprise no one that those musical tastes vary along the lines of the age groups of the people in the weight room at any given time. And the tastes run the gamut, from Rap to Hip-Hop to Country & Western to Oldies. Whenever Darryl Drake served as the ceremonial DJ, or exerted any influence on the music blaring from the sound system, the choice was Motown.
To the strains of The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and other artists, Drake would bounce around to the people in the room, whether they were lifting or stretching or using one of the cardio machines, whether they were players, coaches, or staff, and with a big smile on his face he reminded them, "Now THAT'S music."
The Steelers, as a team, skipped their normal schedule of meetings on Tuesday, Aug. 13 to board buses after practice for a private viewing to pay their respects to their beloved wide receivers coach and his family.
Throughout Wednesday in the weight room, the following day, the music was playing, but maybe the volume was turned down just a notch. The selection? Motown.