They are in the tackle football business, and Coach Mike Tomlin believes that the best way to get good at tackle football is to practice tackle football. Even the guys the team cannot afford to lose to injury.
The Steelers came back from Thursday's mandated players' day off for their fourth padded practice of this training camp at Heinz Field, and Tomlin made sure there was tackle football on the agenda.
"Another spirited day. I liked the energy coming off an off day," said Tomlin. "That was one of the points we made this morning, that there are going to be prescribed off days, rest days, and we can't waste time transitioning. We have to get back on the ride and continue to push forward. I thought they did that with spirit. We're still growing in terms of detailed assignments and techniques, but I like the general trajectory of the group and the competitive spirit. We'll continue to put them in competitive of situations, and we did a variety of those things today: 2-minute, some open grass backs-on-linebackers tackling was the feature competition drill of the day. We're just really working on good fundamental things – battles that need to be fought and won on both sides, and the best way to do it is to practice Steelers vs. Steelers in that way."
Matchups within drills are scripted by the coaches ahead of time, and so when Devin Bush went against James Conner several times during the open grass backs-on-linebackers tackling period it was not happenstance. Tomlin understands the Steelers will need a big season from Bush at his inside linebacker spot just as they will need Conner to return to something approximating his Pro Bowl form of 2018. So he pits them against each other.
"There's risk in playing tackle football, and we play tackle football," said Tomlin. "So you have to practice like you play, to a degree. Now we're thoughtful about the amount of it, we're thoughtful about how we construct the scenarios. But the bottom line is we will tackle in some form or fashion every day that we have full equipment on, and we will not apologize for that. That is the nature of our game."
Bush played in every regular season game as a rookie, with 15 starts, and he also was on the field for 889 defensive snaps (82 percent of the season total). But because Bush is entering his second season as a pro, Tomlin expects a significant jump in performance and he explained in what area he will be looking for that significant improvement.
"I'm looking for that step to be revealed in the quality and the amount of his communication," said Tomlin about Bush. "He still has room for improvement in that regard. He's better than he was, but as the defensive quarterback, I'm really looking for significant maturation in that area. He's checking all of the other boxes. He came here in great shape, the kind of shape that indicates he has an understanding of the challenges that lie ahead. The experience he gained last year is going to be an asset to him moving forward, but I'm particularly looking for dramatic improvements from a communications standpoint because it comes with the nature of his position."
THE DAY'S STANDOUT PLAYS:
• Curtis Riley, signed two weeks ago to add veteran depth at safety, had a great save to down a punt that was bouncing into the end zone. He made a diving stop of the ball to pin it inside the 1-yard line. Riley also had perhaps the play of the day, taking a pass from the arms of tight end Eric Ebron for an interception late in practice. The ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and Ebron caught it, but Riley pulled it away and headed down the sideline with it.
"It was a good play by one of our defensive linemen who tipped the ball in the air," said Riley. "I saw (Ebron) go for the ball and just ripped it out of his hand and made a play."
• In the 2-minute period, Ben Roethlisberger was given 48 seconds and one timeout with the ball at the defense's 33-yard line. He was intercepted by Cam Sutton on an attempted pass over the middle to Ryan Switzer on second-and-15.
• Rookie safety Antoine Brooks showed off a natural tackling ability. He seemed to enjoy contact during a sideline drill with running backs.
• Mason Rudolph almost lost his footing while carrying out of a play-action fake before righting himself to complete a 20-yard pass to Ebron. Rudolph perfectly executed a screen pass by leading Anthony McFarland, who cut back for a big gain.
• Bush read a screen play perfectly during an 11-on-11 drill, fighting through a blocker to immediately tackle the ball carrier as he caught the pass.
TOMLIN ADDRESSES RECENT ROSTER ADDITIONS
Riley, 28, who had four interceptions for the New York Giants in 2018 as the starting free safety, was signed by the Steelers as NFL camps were opening. He entered the league as an undrafted rookie from Fresno State and has had stints with Tennessee, the Giants, and Oakland. On July 28, the team added another veteran, running back Wendell Smallwood, 26, a 5-foot-10, 208-pound utility back who spent time with both Philadelphia and Washington. Smallwood, from West Virginia University, once ran a 4.47 and was valued by Eagles Coach Doug Pederson for his receiving skills.
"More than anything we were interested in increasing the level of competition in this environment, and the way you do that is you bring in as many capable men as you can," said Tomlin in explaining those moves. "Both Smallwood and Riley have credible NFL resumes, and they have proven that thus far. They have a veteran-like look to them, and both are being positive contributors to the days that we're having. We look forward to continuing to get to know them, and looking at ways they can maybe carve out a niche for themselves in what we're doing here."
Earlier in the day, the Steelers signed wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He played in 10 games as a rookie and caught five passes for 36 yards. He played in six games for the Carolina Panthers in 2019. McCloud returned eight kickoffs for 174 yards and 10 punts for 82 yards. To make room on the 80-man roster for McCloud, the Steelers waived wide receiver Saeed Blacknall.
"Ray-Ray is a guy with credible NFL playing experience, and our desire is to have the most competitive environment that we can have here," said Tomlin. "So infusing a guy like him with a legitimate resume into the mix aids us in that. We'll get to know him and see what he brings to the table in terms of his skills relative to his position."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"On the injury front, we had a couple of guys who missed today's work with minor ailments that could be described as day-to-day. That's Diontae Johnson and Terrell Edmunds. Hopefully those guys get back to us really soon. Again, they could be described as day-to-day. On a positive note, a couple of guys are continuing to work their way back to full participation: Chris Wormley was very active today from a participation standpoint, as was James Washington. It was good to have those guys back out there."