Coach Mike Tomlin has a label for this week's worth of training camp practices at Heinz Field. He calls it, "lean-in week," and he describes that this way:
"It's a big week for us. As we get into this week, it's one of those lean-in weeks where if guys are going to make a move now is the time," said Tomlin. "They've gotten acclimated to the environment, how we go about our business, and so it's really time for the talents to start to show for there to be fluidity of play and understanding. Those are some of the things we're looking for. We're thoughtfully constructing some of that in competition. We're asking for specific matchups. We're looking to see who can compete against known varsity-like guys. It has been a good day so far, and we'll continue with that mentality throughout the week."
Two of the players who got off to a good start during lean-in week were the team's first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft: wide receiver Chase Claypool and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.
• Chase Claypool made yet another leaping catching in the end zone, this time going over James Pierre in the back corner of the end zone and coming down in bounds for the score. Claypool also made back-to-back catches over the middle that included runs through the secondary.
• Alex Highsmith got his share of reps with Bud Dupree (hand) out. During an 11-on-11, he pressured Rudolph, who threw it blindly over the middle that led to an interception by Curtis Riley.
About Claypool and Highsmith, Tomlin said, "To be succinct, they're proving that they belong. Both guys have distinguished themselves in some JV competition. Over this camp process, they've gotten more opportunities against some known veteran guys and really they don't seem to be out of place in that company, so so-far-so-good, and as they continue to prove themselves those opportunities will increase."
• New safety Curtis Riley keeps making plays. Today it was an interception of a Mason Rudolph pass during a pass-under-pressure drill. Rudolph likely would have been sacked on the play, however.
• Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud flashes suddenness and explosiveness in his pass routes. Minkah Fitzpatrick was forced to work overtime to cover McCloud during red zone one-on-ones.
• Cornerback Joe Haden had an aggressive knock down on a pass to wide receiver James Washington. Washington achieved a bit of revenge later when he made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone with Haden in coverage.
• T.J. Watt had yet another solid day, this time working against Zach Banner. Watt swatted Banner's hands out of the way during two of the first three live 11-on-11 drills on his way to the quarterback to start practice. One resulted in Rudolph getting the ball knocked out of his hands. Later in practice, Watt lined up wide and did the same thing. When it came to some of the run blocking, Banner performed better.
With Chuks Okorafor not practicing (groin), Banner got a lot of work at right tackle. About the many Banner vs. Watt matchups, Tomlin said, "Watt won a lot of those matchups, but Watt won a lot of them vs. Chuks as well. Watt is a handful for one man on NFL playing surfaces. But what a great opportunity for those young right tackles vying for that spot. There is no guesswork in terms of where they are, in terms of overall global readiness. Watt is one of the very best in the business and they get an opportunity to sharpen their sword against it every day."
• Eric Ebron had a pretty solid day. During TE/S coverage drills, Ebron outran Marcus Allen and made a long catch for a touchdown.
• The defensive coaching staff was really harping on creating turnovers.
• Mason Rudolph had a pretty good day while in for Roethlisberger, who was given the day off by Tomlin. He threw a perfect pass in the flat on a third-down play that got Randy Fichtner excited to the point where he yelled "perfect, perfect." Rudolph threw a bullet to Switzer. Later in practice, Rudolph was very sharp in 11-on-11 by completing all four his passes and even threw a deep one to Ebron across the middle earlier. Rudolph threw a pretty end zone pass to Claypool.
• Paxton Lynch didn't really have the best of days when it comes to his accuracy. He overthrew McCloud by about 20 yards without a single defender around him, which did not please Randy Fichtner or Tomlin. Later, Lynch didn't even look at a streaking Ryan Switzer down the seam during 11-on-11.
• Interior defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs seemed to pop up around the ball plenty especially during the run periods. The one-on-one linemen drills were a little different than years past. They did some individuals with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva looking solid, but they also added some outside/inside run blocks and some combo blocks as well. Guard DeCastro was back at practice and put a block on a defensive lineman that sprung Anthony McFarland for a long game.
• This was the first padded practice where there were no live tackling periods.
• In keeping with the overall theme of "lean-in week," the Steelers were very cognizant of who they matched in passing drill pitting safeties/linebackers vs. running backs/tight ends. Eric Ebron was matched against Marcus Allen; Ulysees Gilbert against Jaylen Samuels; and Devin Bush against Anthony McFarland. That was an obvious nod to what Tomlin said about "We're looking to see who can compete against known varsity-like guys."
• An early camp phenom candidate? Try 6-foot-2 cornerback James Pierre, who's receiving a high number of reps for an undrafted rookie. Pierre did a good job in coverage of James Washington during the red zone period. On the final rep between the two, Pierre ran Washington's route for him but dropped an interception thrown into his gut.
• Ebron caught a pass over the middle, and when he turned upfield, he was popped by Minkah Fitzpatrick and went straight to the ground as the defensive sideline howled its approval.
• Running back Benny Snell is clearly quicker this year with his weight loss. He zipped upfield with a screen, bounced another run outside, and after a fake jet sweep took a handoff up the middle and sprinted 20 yards for a touchdown.
• Before being injured, wide receiver Anthony Johnson reached back and made a nice one-handed catch on a crossing pass from Devlin Hodges.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We gave several guys the day off in an effort to preserve them over the course of the long haul, guys like Ben and JuJu. But more importantly, that provides opportunities for others. That's what we focused on – the younger guys getting an opportunity to ascend within the competition and get a chance to compete against some more veteran players and show their mettle in that regard. Several guys were having an opportunity to work their way back from injury – David DeCastro being one of them, he was back out on the field working today. There were some new injury things: Chris Wormley has a shoulder, Wendell Smallwood has a shoulder. We'll monitor those guys and hopefully they'll get back to us sooner rather than later. Chuks Okorafor has a groin that can be described as day-to-day. During practice, Derwin Gray had a knee – don't know the status of that, but I think he was able to finish; Anthony Johnson, knee, same thing; Bud Dupree but he was able to finish."
ALSO NOT PRACTICING
Diontae Johnson (calf), Terrell Edmunds, Maurkice Pouncey (excused). Bud Dupree (hand) did individual work but did not take part in team portions of practice. Dupree had a wrap on his hand at the end of practice.