The Steelers moved their Saturday practice under the lights at Heinz Field, and while the idea behind it was to experience the normal pregame routine inside a stadium they also got a little taste of the kind of weather that often inserts itself into NFL preseason games.
"I thought it was important for us to simulate a game-like environment, and by that I mean the procedural things leading up to the game," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We approached it in that way in terms of our pre-practice work, the timeline that we followed leading up to the work, the stretch routines and all the things we would do in a preseason game. It's just another step we were taking to ready the group for the regular season. I don't want it to be where we're in New York and it's the first time they're finding their rhythms prior to kickoff. We're doing some things we would normally do in preseason-like settings, and we're just attaching it to the front end of a practice."
And then even though the practice script had the session ending shortly after 8 p.m., the players and coaches left the field about 10-15 minutes before that.
"We cut (practice) about a period-and-a-half short, but you can't win the Mother Nature battle," said Tomlin. "We don't combat lightning."
• JuJu Smith-Schuster made a nice diving catch at the end-zone sideline on a pass from Mason Rudolph. Ben Roethlisberger, standing nearby, signaled touchdown.
• Tight end Zach Gentry made the niftiest catch of practice, picking a pass from Devlin Hodges off the lower back of linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III, who was facing Gentry. Gentry showed a lot of promise with his blocking, and outran Marcus Allen in a team period and caught a long pass from Devlin Hodges. However, he did get worked over by defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux during a special teams interior line blocking period.
• During team run, the defense got the better of the offense with five tackles for loss, but Benny Snell did break a long run of 25-plus yards behind the tight end block of Zach Banner. Snell put a stiff arm to the face of Minkah Fitzpatrick down the field, which Fitzpatrick didn't appreciate. The two had words before walking away. Vince Williams separated the two.
Tomlin was asked how he judges this kind of competition, where tackles for loss signify good defense but maybe offensive breakdowns. "There were also a couple of big runs in that period and you could ask that same question. I think that's the question we all ask ourselves when you practice vs. yourself in preparation for a season. One man's success is another man's failure. One unit's success is another unit's failure. So there is going to be ebb and flow, and it's all in the story you choose to tell."
• In the final team period, Ben Roethlisberger hit James Washington, who shook off a hard fall taken earlier in practice, for two touchdowns. The first was in the back of the end zone, and the second was on a leaping catch. In between, Roethlisberger's pass to Vance McDonald was knocked away by Fitzpatrick.
• Earlier in the day, the Steelers waived Dax Raymond with an injury designation and signed tight end Kyle Markway to take his spot on the roster. Markway has been assigned No. 88.
• The players working as kickoff returners included Ryan Switzer, Anthony McFarland, James Pierre, Kerrith Whyte, and Deon Cain.
• Tomlin brought back backs-on-backers four days after the first installment on Monday. The standout was safety Marcus Allen, who beat Kerrith Whyte in back-to-back reps then beat Whyte again before splitting with Trey Edmunds. He also beat Anthony McFarland on one rep. He and Mike Hilton were the only defensive backs to work in the drill.
"We rotated a lot of secondary guys down to running backs vs. linebacker competitions because particularly the safety position is linebacker-like," said Tomlin. "Yesterday in the tackling drill, we brought Mike Hilton and Antoine Brooks down with the linebackers. Today we were in a blitz drill, and we brought Mike Hilton and Marcus Allen down. Some of those safeties, particularly those who play in the box, we bring them down to the running back competition because the responsibilities of their job are linebacker-like."
• While the backs-on-backers were going on, the offense was working on some red zone pass plays on the other side of the field. Chase Claypool made a nice move on James Pierre but dropped the ball. James Washington then went high for a pass and maybe didn't get two feet down in-bounds, but it was one heck of a catch.
• Washington's second day at practice after suffering an injury was a good one. He was getting plenty of work with Diontae Johnson out and continued to make his patented combat-catch plays.
• Returning punts in special teams portion were Ryan Switzer, James Pierre, Ray-Ray McCloud and Cam Sutton.
• Vance McDonald's long snapping after Canaday left was erratic. He had a few good snaps, but they were a little shaky. Tomlin said Pouncey also is in the mix as the backup snapper, but he wasn't available today.
One of the elements introduced Saturday night was artificial crowd noise. After the session, Tomlin was asked if the type and volume on display during the practice would meet his approval should it be used during the regular season.
"I don't care. I really don't," said Tomlin. "Like I mentioned about 2020, it's important that we have a hardcore plan but that we're light on our feet, and we cannot let some of the changing variables be a significant component of our performances. So, crowds, no crowds, artificial noise, the quality of (noise), music, all of those are subject to change based on venue and circumstances. That's just something we all have to learn to deal with, and so I reserve opinion in that regard."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We had a couple of injuries that occurred during the course of practice that are being evaluated. Robert Spillane injured a finger; Wendell Smallwood injured a shoulder. Kam Canaday injured a knee; and Chris Wormley injured a shoulder. We don't know the significance of any of those injuries. We don't expect any of them to be significant, but as I get an update I'll provide it. We have guys continuing to work themselves back to full participation, like James Washington and others. We had a number of guys we held out of work or who missed work today because they got caught up in COVID proceedings or procedures. There's no one to mention at this time in terms of being on the COVID list, but they are in the procedure, and we're going to exercise all precaution like we normally do and make sure we adhere to it to the fullest. I'll have a further update on the status of those guys, I'm sure, the next time we come back."
Because one of the injuries sustained during the practice was to Kam Canaday, and he's currently listed as the only long-snapper on the 80-man roster, Tomlin was asked for his backup plan in that important job.
"We're determining who that is at this juncture," said Tomlin. "We've worked Stefan Wisniewski in that capacity. We've worked Vance McDonald in that capacity. Maurkice Pouncey has worked in that capacity in the past. So I don't know that anybody has a lock on that position. This process will reveal that to us."