With only 12 more padded practices allowed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement and still almost a full month before the Steelers' scheduled opener of the 2020 NFL regular season, some days have to be football-in-shorts days. Such was the case on a delightful Wednesday afternoon at Heinz Field, but Coach Mike Tomlin believes the team found a way to make the time productive.
"We had a good day today," said Tomlin. "Because of our attire – helmets only – we focused on a lot of passing game-oriented things: two-minute, no-huddle, and things of that nature. Some of our competition periods were offensive passing game-related things and defensive coverage-related things, running backs and tight ends vs. inside and outside linebackers in coverage, and things of that nature. It was a good day, good energy and spirit given the attire that we had."
One of the veteran players widely considered to be in a fierce fight for a spot on the 53-man roster is wide receiver Ryan Switzer, and an argument can be made that no one was more negatively impacted by Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending elbow injury in 2019 than he was.
In 2018 with Roethlisberger starting all 16 games, Switzer caught 36 passes for 253 yards and 15 first downs as the team's slot receiver, and he had a catch percentage of 81.8. In 2019 with Roethlisberger done for the season after six quarters, Switzer caught eight passes for 27 yards and two first downs, and he had a catch percentage of 72.7 before going on injured reserve with a back injury sustained in the season's ninth game, which was against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 10.
As Tomlin explained previously, much of Wednesday's practice was devoted to executing and defending the passing game, and maybe the highlight of the two-minute period was a catch Switzer made in the end zone of a Roethlisberger pass.
"In my mind there is no limit on what I believe I can bring to this offense," said Switzer after Wednesday's practice. "I pushed myself really hard this offseason because I believe I can help this team win a championship. I have to prove No. 7 right. I have to prove a lot of people right. I am trying to prove Coach Tomlin, Mr. Colbert, Mr. Rooney, I am trying to prove all of the people who believe in me right, No. 7 being one of them. He trusts me in those situations. I was fortunate enough to be out there with the (first-team) and get those reps, which I never take for granted. I am excited to see what this year holds for me individually. I am really optimistic for myself and hopefully it pans out that way."
Switzer was acquired from Oakland via trade on the eve of the 2018 regular season with the idea of him being a slot receiver on offense and the primary punt and kickoff returner on special teams. After the performance turned in last year by rookie Diontae Johnson as a returner, it would appear Switzer has lost that job, and so being productive in the slot looks to be his last best chance at a roster spot here.
"(Switzer) brings big-time experience to the slot position. Not only NFL playing experience but college playing experience. I've seen him in that position some at Heinz Field (vs. Pitt) when he played at the University of North Carolina," said Tomlin. "He's a guy who understands (the slot) is a niche for him, and so he embraces the detail required to be successful in there. He'll continue to carve out his role in this process, like everybody else is, but he does bring that unique experience to that position specifically."
Switzer's 3-yard catch in the end zone capped a 57-yard drive for a touchdown in the allotted 1:27.
Take a look at the Steelers preparing for the 2020 regular season at Heinz Field
SOME NOTES FROM WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE
• Ben Roethlisberger was full practice participant.
• Eric Ebron continued to be productive, with a contested catch over Minkah Fitzpatrick. Ebron also made a diving catch and somersaulted into the end zone. Zach Gentry turned around Ola Adeniyi on one play and James Lockhart on another. For the defense, Devin Bush batted away a pass in the end zone intended for Anthony McFarland; Ulysees Gilbert and Vince Williams also broke up passes.
• In linebacker vs. running back coverage drills, Vince Williams tipped a pass away from Kerrith Whyte. Devin Bush stepped in front of a deep pass for Anthony McFarland and knocked the ball away.
• Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool with a teardrop pass on the right sideline for a long gain in the final team drill. He appeared to just get his feet down on the contested catch. Claypool also caught a pass from Mason Rudolph in the same period.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"No news is good news on the injury front. Not a lot of new stuff. A couple of guys who weren't able to finish yesterday – Kevin Dotson (knee) and Dax Raymond (ankle) appear to be more short-term related injuries. Nothing of a significant, long-term concern. Some of the guys who have missed some time are working their way back. James Washington worked in a limited capacity today. Chris Wormley worked in a limited capacity today. Now the guys will get an off day (Thursday) and get ready to gather themselves for a big weekend."