LATROBE, Pa. – On Monday, Coach Mike Tomlin explained how life works on the training camp practice fields, and Tuesday's practice illustrated when he meant.
"Drills are football-like, but they're not football," said Tomlin following Monday's practice, which was the first in full pads. "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."
As typical under Tomlin, the first day in pads includes a session of backs-on-backers, where a running back or a tight end is tasked with taking on a linebacker who has a 5-yard running start in pass protection. Since the blocker isn't permitted to cut the rusher, the advantage is clearly with the defense.
On Tuesday, the Steelers did the same drill, only this time the linebacker was charged with having to cover the running back all over the field with no rush on the passer. In 24 hours, in the same basic drill, the advantage had swung to the offense.
On Monday, a linebacker might have looked into the backfield and seen a matchup with 5-foot-8 Anthony McFarland Jr. as an opportunity to impress the coaches, but if that same linebacker looked into the backfield on Tuesday and saw McFarland and realized he had to cover him all over the field with no pass rush on the quarterback, the mind-set likely was completely different.
And for the most part, that's the way the drill unfolded, with a few exceptions, the most notable being when Ulysees Gilbert was matched vs. McFarland but got himself into position to intercept the pass from Chris Oladokun.
FOOL ME ONCE …
It ended up being another win in 7-Shots for the defense, and not even some of the old tricks the offense had used successfully in the past were working.
On the first snap, Mitch Trubisky's pass for Cody White was overthrown and out of the back of the end zone. Defense, 1-0.
Yesterday, the offense scored on a shovel pass to a trailing tight end, but when it was attempted on the second snap on Tuesday, T.J. Watt was there to read the play and make the tackle in the backfield. Defense, 2-0.
On the third snap, Trubisky's pass for Anthony Miller was broken up by Cam Sutton. Defense, 3-0.
On the next play, Trubisky's pass to Connor Heyward in the end zone was dropped. Defense, 4-0.
On came Kenny Pickett. And as it was yesterday, an offensive lineman jumped the count – this time it was Joe Haeg – and he was pulled off the field and replaced by Chaz Green. Pickett passed to Jace Sternberger for the touchdown. Defense, 4-1.
Pickett's back-shoulder attempted pass intended for Tyler Vaughns was incomplete. Defense, 5-1.
On came Mason Rudolph, who ended the drill with a pass to Miles Boykin, who was dragging across the back of the end zone, for a touchdown. Defense, 5-2.
EDGE TO THE RUN DEFENSE
• During the live tackling drill, the starting inside linebackers were Myles Jack and Robert Spillane, and each made his presence felt quickly. On the first play, Jack stopped Benny Snell (with the first team because of Najee Harris' foot injury) for no gain, and on the second play, Spillane stopped Snell after a very short gain.
• After a 4-yard run by Snell, the offense again went to a play that had been successful the day before, but this time the jet sweep to Calvin Austin III was sniffed out by Watt who made the tackle for a loss.
• The offense responded by putting three straight nice plays together. McFarland gained 5 yards on a sweep to the right. Then it was McFarland again, but when his progress seemed to be stopped after a short gain, the linemen continued to move their legs and the pile was pushed forward for 5 more yards. Then it was Jaylen Warren taking advantage of a nice hole up the middle for about an 8-yard gain
NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
• With Harris not practicing, the most productive runner was Jaylen Warren, a 5-8, 215-pound undrafted rookie, who played for two seasons at Utah State before finishing up in 2021 at Oklahoma State. For the Cowboys, Warren rushed for 1,216 yards with a 4.8 average and 11 touchdowns.
On Monday, Coach Mike Tomlin said about Warren, "He has an appetite for the competition, and that's a good thing. He's learning and learning fast. I think the most significant thing that has captured my attention is that he seems really comfortable in these waters from a competition standpoint."
During Tuesday's practice Tomlin could be heard recognizing Warren, who wears No. 30, with shouts of "Three-oh, three-oh." When asked about that after practice, Tomlin said, "He appears to be highly conditioned, and I think it kind of starts there for a young guy. We always say one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity, and so there are some short lines at running back, but if you're not highly conditioned, you're not positioning yourself to take advantage of that. So, kudos to him for coming ready."
• In a subsequent 11-on-11 passing drill, Sutton made a nice read of a slant route and then cut underneath the route to bat the ball down. On the next play in that period, Trubisky's pass for Connor Heyward was overthrown down the middle and intercepted by Damontae Kazee. Before the day's practice ended, Sutton appeared to make a diving interception.
• In the same period and making a nice play for the offense, Steven Sims ran deep down the sideline and when Pickett's pass was underthrown, he came back underneath James Pierre to make the catch.
• Austin may be a rookie, but he made a veteran play on a deep pass from Mason Rudolph. Austin used a subtle arm-bar to keep Linden Stephens at bay, and then he accelerated as the ball arrived to create separation and complete the catch.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Not a lot to add from an availability or health standpoint. Najee Harris (foot) can be described as day-to-day, and all those other guys we've been describing as day-to-day (Pat Freiermuth, Levi Wallace, Chase Claypool) remain in that category. Some of the guys who started on a variety of lists, guys like Tyson Alualu (PUP) and Larry Ogunjobi and Minkah (Fitzpatrick, NFI) are inching closer toward participation. So, we're excited about that."