As expected, one of the highlights of the Steelers' first practice in pads was backs-on-backers. And as expected, some of the new players at the significant pass-rush and pass-protect positions saw a significant number of the repetitions.
During Monday's installment of the drill, that meant a lot of running back Anthony McFarland, the Steelers' first of two picks in the fourth round, and a lot of outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, the team's third-round pick. McFarland, because if he cannot help protect Ben Roethlisberger he cannot be trusted with a lot of repetitions on offense, and Highsmith, because rushing the passer is a critical component to playing outside linebacker in the team's 3-4.
"I just want to see them acclimate to the environment," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "It's an NFL competition period. It has that level of intensity, that level of talent. And particularly for those guys who are new to ball at this level, it is a period of adjustment, and that period of adjustment requires physical reps. So the younger guys like McFarland we're going to want to see, and the same thing on the other side of the ball you saw an unusual number of reps for Alex Highsmith. We recognize that repetitions are the platform for learning, so they're going to get reps and it's their job to adjust and show rapid improvement."
The first time Tomlin has the players go through the drill may attract the most attention, but the more significant installments of backs-on-backers are the ones that come later in the training camp process.
"The first time you do backs-on-backers, it's more about new people getting adjusted to the intensity of the drill and learning how important technique is, although it's emotionally charged," said Tomlin. "So there's always a lot of teaching and learning the first time through. I think always a good reflection on backs-on-backers is the second time we do it, after people have had a chance to learn and digest, so I'll be excited about the next time we do it."
As for some of the individual highlights of the drill:
• T.J. Watt opened with a sweet move on tight end Vance McDonald and newly acquired tight end Eric Ebron earned cheers for his physicality with rookie Alex Highsmith.
Some of the other standout plays from Day 1 in pads at Heinz Field:
• Vance McDonald pulled down a contested deep ball along the sideline, away from safety Terrell Edmunds, on a pass from Roethlisberger.
• Chase Claypool, who has talked about being a red zone target for Roethlisberger, made a leaping catch in the corner of the end zone on a ball from the starting quarterback.
• T.J. Watt made closing tackles in quick succession in the one live 11-on-11 period, to loud applause and shouts of his name from teammates.
• Veteran Wendell Smallwood, one of eight running backs on the roster, struggled some in backs-on-backers, but showed some burst getting through the hole on live runs.
• Tomlin was particularly animated watching the tight ends as they worked the blocking sled. Afterward, he said he kept an eye on the position group because they have a couple new faces, including Ebron. GM Kevin Colbert also came over and watched the blocking drill, too.
About that period, Tomlin said, "We have some new guys at that position, and it merits some attention to get to know them, not only in terms of their skill-set but how their learning process is formed for them. I'm excited about the addition of Eric Ebron, but what you witnessed is just daily habits from me: the building of fundamentals, letting your pet peeves be known, letting guys know what drills that are a part of the individual period are important to us and to me. So I'm routinely watching the tight ends when they're getting their sled work, because I want to present that consistency to them, because I want them to know how important that skill-set is."
• Special teams coordinator Danny Smith, somewhat surprisingly, still has his voice. One of the challenges for the Steelers without preseason games will be finding their special teams stalwarts. Every rookie participated in that period today.
• The Steelers did not pipe crowd noise, or music, into Heinz Field, but it was still a spirited and lively 90 minutes. Ebron welcomed reporters to practice and at one point, defensive captain Cam Heyward motioning to those same reporters, spread along the lower bowl of the visiting sideline, asking for crowd noise.
Take a look at the Steelers preparing for the 2020 regular season at Heinz Field
TOO EARLY TO HANDICAP
Following practice, Tomlin was asked for a progress report on the competition for the right tackle job between Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner, and for the nose tackle job between Tyson Alualu and Dan McCullers.
"Much too early for me to sort out the nose tackle and the right tackle things," said Tomlin. "I know those are going to be questions you guys are going to have daily, but we just got started today. I'm sure we're going to gain clarity in that regard. Both (Alualu and McCullers) showed up in great physical condition, and that's what is important. It'll provide some clarity as we continue to roll the ball out there and play football."
As for how he'll allocate snaps with the first team offensive line, Tomlin said, "It'll be thoughtful, but it'll be based on the drills of the day and things of that nature. It'll be fair, but I wouldn't necessarily (count the reps)."
PRAISE FOR THE PLAYERS' PROFESSIONALISM
"We're excited to get started," said Tomlin. "There was a lot of energy today, carrying pads for the first time. Just from a beginning standpoint I liked the competitive atmosphere, but also an awareness of how we need to work in this environment. We're faced with some unique challenges in 2020 in terms of the training camp process, evaluations and competing and the significance of it without preseason games. I thought that today was a good start in that regard. We're going to have to compete and compete at an extremely high level, but also do it with the understanding that it is Steelers vs. Steelers and do everything within our power to exercise good practice etiquette and proper precaution in an effort to keep everybody involved."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"I'll start with today's (practice) participation. There were a couple of players who were out with minor physical ailments that could be described as day-to-day. Those players would be David DeCastro, James Washington, and Chris Wormley. I fully expect all three of those guys to be full participants here in a short number of days, but we did exercise that precaution today. Maurkice Pouncey was excused by me for personal reasons. We will be in support of him, and hopefully he'll be back to us in a short period of time as well."