LATROBE, Pa. – The Steelers may not yet know for certain who their starting quarterback will be, but whoever he is will be looking to get the ball to George Pickens.
So far in this training camp, Pickens has done something special seemingly on a daily basis. During Wednesday's practice, he kept his streak alive, and in dramatic fashion.
For the second straight day, the Steelers moved their practice from 1:55 p.m. to 10:30 a.m. in an effort to try to avoid a forecast that read, "A chance of showers, with thunderstorms also possible after 2 p.m. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 77. West wind around 6 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40 percent."
"Another day for us to be light on our feet. Obviously, our preference is to work in the afternoon. We just enjoy working in the heat of the day, but work is the priority. And so, we needed to get out in front of Doppler," said Tomlin about having to change the original schedule for the fifth straight day. "I like the guys' ability to be light on their feet, to turn it up, and they did that. I just love the energy that we're getting from them in the competition drills. There's some ebb and flow, but that's part of this process this time of year. We introduced to them some situational ball as we prepare to go into a stadium this weekend."
The highlights of the competition on Wednesday were two repetitions during a two-minute period, and the traditional 7-Shots that typically serves as the first 11-on-11 period of each practice.
"We finished with two-minute today," said Tomlin, "and so we'll just continue to stack our chips in that regard in an effort to gain some preparedness and to further get to know those guys. We appreciate the plays being made out here, but really this just sets the stage for what happens in stadium. And so that's our focus as we start to lean in on the weekend. Friday, we'll start establishing some depth in terms of who's playing and the division of labor for the weekend. If we start leaning toward the weekend too much too early, we don't take advantage of the opportunity that is Wednesday and Thursday. And so that's just a general mindset."
Whenever the Steelers conduct a two-minute period during a practice, Tomlin sets the parameters in advance, and those parameters are different every time. For Wednesday, the ball was at the minus-40 (which means the offense had to drive 60 yards to cross the goal line), with 1:38 on the clock. The offense had one timeout, and it needed a touchdown to win. There are two repetitions under the same parameters.
The first time Tomlin had a two-minute period in a practice session at camp, Mitch Trubisky was the quarterback for the first repetition, and Mason Rudolph was the quarterback for the second. Trubisky took the offense down the field for a touchdown, while Rudolph's last-play pass was incomplete in the end zone as time expired.
On Wednesday, Rudolph was the quarterback for the first repetition, and Kenny Pickett followed him in what was his first chance in the two-minute period this summer. In an impressive display by the offense, the ball never touched the ground.
Rudolph started off with an 8-yard completion to Calvin Austin III, and the clock kept running. Operating from the hurry-up, Rudolph threw a 5-yard checkdown to Anthony McFarland Jr. for the first down, and the clock kept running with the ball at the defense's 47-yard line. Still no-huddle, Rudolph threw deep down the left sideline for Pickens, who caught the ball and got out of bounds for a 37-yard gain to the 10-yard line. On the next play, Rudolph again went to Pickens in the end zone down the left side, and Pickens went high in the air, tipped the ball from one hand to the other and secured the one-handed catch for the touchdown.
"He's got talent, but there's a difference between talent and skill," said Tomlin when asked about Pickens following practice. "And that's what we're trying to educate him and others regarding. God gives them the talent; we develop the skill in settings like this relative to the positions that they play."
Up next was Pickett, and while Rudolph was efficient during the possession he quarterbacked, Pickett made it look easy.
On first-and-10 from the 40-yard line, Pickett took the snap, looked over the coverage and dumped the ball to the left to running back Jaylen Warren, who took advantage of the wide-open spaces to race 30 yards down the sideline for a first down at the 20-yard line. On the next play, wide receiver Steven Sims ran a post pattern 5-yards deep in the end zone, and Pickett put the ball on the button for the touchdown.
Because every practice during camp pits Steelers vs. Steelers, Tomlin was asked how he balances the success the offense has had in the two-minute period this summer with the lack of success the defense has had in that period against the offense.
"You don't (balance it)," said Tomlin. "You roll the ball out there, and you challenge competitors to compete. And if people are tired of getting their butts kicked, then they start kicking a little butt of their own."
While the day ended on a high note for the offense, it began on a high note for the defense, which won this drill, 5-2.
Mitch Trubisky was 0-for-his-four snaps. His first pass, for Anthony Miller in the end zone, missed wide. On his second, which was intended for Pat Freiermuth in the end zone, was tipped away by safety Karl Joseph. The third was intended for Connor Heyward in the end zone and was almost intercepted by Robert Spillane. The fourth, the one that ended up clinching the win for the defense was intended for Calvin Austin III but was overthrown.
On came Rudolph to make things look respectable for the offense. His first play was a pass for Miles Boykin, who made a one-handed catch in the end zone. Rudolph then made it 4-2 with a touchdown pass to Cody White.
Pickett came on the final snap, and his pass to Jace Sternberger in the end zone missed wide.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
When asked if there was any update on the injured, Tomlin said, "No, I think everyone who has been described as day-to-day can continue to be described in that way, and hopefully we'll start getting some of those guys back sooner rather than later."