LATROBE, Pa. – The differences in Monday's practice began with the shadow cast by the players as they filed onto the field at Saint Vincent College, because for the first time this summer they were wearing pads. There was hitting. There was tackling.
There also were some subtle changes to some procedures that when viewed through the prism of time could be assigned more significance than maybe they deserved when viewed in real time. There was a change to the order in which the quarterbacks were rotated through the drills. There was a change in the kinds of plays called and executed in 7-Shots. And some different faces were in the spotlight, quite possibly because what was presented on the field was different.
Beyond the players wearing pads, the first clue that the Steelers had entered a different phase of training camp came on the first snap of 7-Shots. Mitch Trubisky took the snap to start the drill, as usual, but instead of scanning the field for a receiver, he handed the ball to Najee Harris, who powered his way across the goal line and into the end zone. Offense, 1-0.
The second play of 7-Shots was of the more traditional variety, which had Trubisky loft the ball into the corner of the end zone toward George Pickens, but it fell incomplete with Cam Sutton in tight coverage. Tied, 1-1.
The third play turned out to be another running play, this time with Harris getting stuffed by a combination of Robert Spillane and Damontae Kazee. Defense, 2-1.
When Trubisky threw incomplete to Anthony Miller on the fourth play, the defense had a 3-1 lead, and Coach Mike Tomlin went with a quarterback change. Nothing different about that, except this time it was Kenny Pickett who came onto the field instead of Mason Rudolph.
On his first two snaps, Pickett threw incomplete to Miles Boykin, and then missed Connor Heyward on the next. Defense, 5-1, and Pickett was replaced by Rudolph.
During one of the individual periods leading up to this segment of the practice, the Steelers had their quarterbacks taking turns running a version of a shovel pass to a tight end. That was the call here, and Rudolph and Jace Sternberger executed it nicely for the touchdown that made the final tally, 5-2, in favor of the defense.
Backs-on-backers was next on the docket, and sometimes it's interesting to see who Tomlin matches in the first snap of the drill. This summer it was Harris vs. newly acquired inside linebacker Myles Jack, and even though Harris stood up to the initial charge, it was the start of a hunk of this practice where Jack was around the ball and in the thick of the action a lot.
This version of backs-on-backers was spirited but drama-free, which undoubtedly is the way Tomlin prefers it would be every time. Nothing over-the-top, either from a physical or verbal standpoint, and there also were no dramatic moments that might have indicated a potentially significant player showed he wasn't up to the physicality of the drill.
"Drills are football-like, but they're not football," said Tomlin afterward when asked about backs-on-backers. "What I mean is that someone has an advantage in a drill. I expect those who have an advantage to win quickly. I expect those who are at a disadvantage to fight and compete. That's just the nature of drill work. We construct drills at times to provide an advantage for one side of the ball or the other. It's just part of the growth process."
LIVE TACKLING IS BACK
Several years ago, Tomlin introduced a live tackling drill that became part of the daily camp routine, and this year's version could be significant because not only are the Steelers looking to improve their running game, but they need to be better at stopping the run following a season in which they finished last in the NFL in run defense.
The first play of the first live tackling drill of this camp matched a couple of the guys who will have a lot to say about whether the Steelers indeed fulfill their intention to come out of this preseason with a better running game and a better run defense, and the outcome of it was that Jack met Harris right around the line of scrimmage and tackled him for little or no gain.
From there, we saw a couple of decent gains from Benny Snell, a nice pursuit tackle where Devin Bush chased down Snell from behind and held him to a very short gain, a jet sweep by Calvin Austin III that seemed he was one more block on the perimeter away from going the distance, and a nice inside run by Jaylen Warren.
Also, there was a play where tackle Jordan Tucker jumped the snap count and was immediately pulled from the lineup and replaced by Joe Haeg. When the offense lined up again, Mataeo Durant took the handoff, made a cut outside and then got vertical and picked up some nice yardage.
Tomlin was asked about whether he liked the emphasis on running the ball and stopping the run during Monday's practice. "I did. We've just got a lot of growth ahead of us, on both sides of the ball, in that space. When given an opportunity, we're certainly going to focus on that component of play. There just are not a lot of padded opportunities between now and when you step into a stadium based on the structure of the preseason. So, when you get those opportunities, it really needs to be a focus."
ASSORTED NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
• While the rotation at left guard continued as it had on Saturday, with Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green alternating with the first group on a period-by-period basis, the quarterback rotation changed at the start of the day and remained in effect throughout. It was Trubisky-Pickett-Rudolph.
• Tomlin, when asked about the new quarterback rotation: "There will be more of that. All of those guys are running in all groups, it's just part of team development." That was followed up with, "So we shouldn't read into it as now Pickett is No. 2 and Mason is No. 3?" Tomlin said, "You should not, but I'm sure you will."
• During an 11-on-11 period highlighting third downs, Snell made a nice catch of a pass from Trubisky and got the necessary yardage to move the sticks. A couple of snaps later, a completion to Snell came up short because Jack was trailing him in close coverage and made the tackle before he could turn upfield.
• Connor Heyward caught a pass while running toward the sideline, and then displayed his leg strength to stop and prevent the defensive back from driving him out of bounds before turning upfield and getting extra yards.
• On another third-down repetition, Pickett did a nice job to get himself away from pressure in the pocket and in position to deliver a strong and accurate throw to Miles Boykin who was coming back to the line of scrimmage along the sideline to help his quarterback. Pickett's throw was well-timed and accurate, because it met Boykin perfectly at the marker, which allowed the receiver to make the catch to get the first down.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Not a lot of significant news regarding health-related things. Najee [Harris] wasn't able to finish; somebody stepped on his foot, but it shouldn't be a major deal. All the others that we have outlined are status quo. Jeremy McNichols is getting his shoulder evaluated. He wasn't able to participate today, that's one that I missed. But other than that, just really excited to be in this environment and continuing with this growth process. Excited to keep snapping the ball and watching them grow individually and collectively."