LATROBE, Pa. – It was the first day of full pads for the Steelers during this 2023 training camp, and because this is a Coach Mike Tomlin camp, those pads were popping. But there also was room for some dazzling athletic plays, and George Pickens was at the center of a couple of those.
As expected, and as has been Tomlin's history, there was a session of backs-on-backers, a live tackling period, and based on a perceived area of weakness from the 2022 regular season there were a couple of periods devoted to working on red zone football.
"A really exciting day for us," said Tomlin after Monday's practice. "A big, big part of the team development process is carrying our pads and the work that comes along with it and the competition that comes along with it. We did some drill work today to kind of highlight that aspect to get an opportunity to get to know these guys individually and collectively. We'll continue with it. There'll be some live tackling every day that we carry pads because we value that. We believe that aids in the evaluation process. It shows guys that element of play is an asset to the game, whether it's making tackles or whether it's breaking tackles. Excited about the work going on."
But of course, the first period after individual drills was 7-shots, and even that had a physical tone to it this time around.
On the first two snaps of the drill, Kenny Pickett handed the ball to Najee Harris, and both times the running back burst through the middle and got himself into the end zone for a couple of touchdowns that staked the offense to a 2-0 lead.
On the third snap, Pickett's fade pass for Pat Freiermuth was defended by Patrick Peterson and fell incomplete. On the fourth snap, Tre Norwood cut off Pickens and that pass also was incomplete to bring the defense to a 2-2 tie.
The next play was another run, with Anthony McFarland this time taking the ball up the middle, but none of the NFL officials on hand to work the practice got a clear enough look at the play to make a determination, and so it became a do-over.
On came Mitch Trubisky, who threw incomplete behind Zach Gentry, and then running back Darius Haggans blasted over the middle for another touchdown on a running play, and it was 3-3. The final snap was a pass from Trubisky to Dez Fitzpatrick who was ruled out of bounds on the catch, and the defense had a 4-3 win.
Most of the matchups in this drill were carefully scripted to test specific people, such as the one that pitted rookie tight end Darnell Washington vs. T.J. Watt. And when Tomlin was asked afterward whether he saw what he wanted to see from Washington in that drill, he said, "You know, for today. (Washington's) got a certain skill-set, his reputation precedes him, and we're gonna make him confirm it every day."
Alex Highsmith was matched against Freiermuth twice, and twice he defeated him with a spin move to the outside. Elandon Roberts was given several chances against various opponents, and just about every time he went with a power move and attempted to run the blocker over. "He does everything with intensity," said Tomlin about Roberts, "and that's one of the reasons why we were so attracted to him, not only in free agency, but when he came out of the University of Houston."
Connor Heyward was given several repetitions and generally fared well, whether it was against Nick Herbig or Chapelle Russell. It was no surprise that inside linebacker Mark Robinson would choose a power move when it was his turn, and that same tactic was used by newcomer Kwon Alexander.
Tomlin was asked after practice which of the backs-on-backers reps stood out to him. "All of them, really, to be honest with you. You know, there's extreme urgency because today was a start, but when you look at the totality of it, during the course of this thing, we have thoughtfully constructed the schedule where everyone would have plenty of opportunities to show what they're capable of and improve over the course of this. And so we'll keep rolling the ball out as people earn more quality reps, and you'll see different matchups and we'll continue with this process."
PICKENS STEALS THE SPOTLIGHT
But while backs-on-backers was in full swing down the in the corner of field No. 1, a wide receivers vs. defensive backs drill was attracting a lot of attention from the fans packing the bleachers at Chuck Noll field. The play in question matched Pickens vs. Joey Porter Jr., and it had Pickens running straight down the sideline until he was even with Porter but then he stopped, jumped high in the air, and came down with the ball in one hand. Pickens then showed Porter the football he had just stolen from him as the crowd roared its approval.
"I missed the one on ones, because I'm sure that's what you were referring to," said Tomlin when asked about the back-and-forth. "I was down watching backs-on-backers, but you know they're young guys both trying to find a place for themselves in this thing and improve daily and it's a natural thing that they come together and compete against each other, as I'm sure there'll be some other similar matchups that may draw your attention."
OTHER NOTABLE PLAYS
• During the live tackling drill, guard Isaac Seumalo came off the ball quickly to block the defender opposite him, and then he got out quickly to the second level to make another block to spring Jaylen Warren into the secondary untouched.
• On another repetition in the same period, inside linebackers Mark Robinson and Kwon Alexander combined to stuff Anthony McFarland for no gain.
• Porter came back later in the practice to record an interception while in coverage on Cody White.
• DeMarvin Leal was lined up on the end of the defensive line and got his hands up to deflect a pass at the line of scrimmage, and he very nearly was able to come down with the football.
• During the 11-onp-11 red zone period, Trubisky noticed a defensive lineman had jumped into the neutral zone to give the offense a free play, and so when he was flushed out of the pocket to his right, he lofted the ball into the end zone toward Darnell Washington, who went up and came down with it for a touchdown.
• In addition to his catch along the sideline, during the red zone period Pickens also made an athletic play along the back of the end zone to go up to make the catch and then toe-tap in bounds at the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Couple of injury things of note. Cory Trice Jr. went down with a non-contact injury. You guys saw him carted off (the field). I don't have any information on the status of that. Elandon Roberts wasn't able to finish, but really it was more of a precaution than anything else. I'm sure there'll be additional bumps and bruises associated with work like this. We'll do a good job, to the best of our ability, to keep this group up and keep snapping the ball because that's what time of year it is."