It is one of Coach Mike Tomlin's football commandments, and it goes like this: one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity. In today's version, Mark Barron would qualify as the unfortunate one and Marcus Allen as the opportunistic one.
Early in the offseason, the Steelers released Barron, a veteran who had played 750 defensive snaps (69 percent) over the course of 2019 as a dime linebacker alongside rookie Devin Bush. Whether Barron's time with in Pittsburgh was ended because of salary cap ramifications or because his body rarely allowed him to practice more than once a week during the regular season really doesn't matter at this point.
Upon releasing Barron, the Steelers created a hole at inside linebacker that they weren't able to fill through the rest of the free agency period or during the 2020 NFL Draft. So as their training camp opened at Heinz Field in late July, one of their issues to be resolved was depth at inside linebacker behind starters Bush and Vince Williams.
Tomlin isn't finished looking, but Allen, a 6-foot-2, 215 pound safety from Penn State, is establishing himself as a possible answer.
"We're far from (set at the position)," said Tomlin after Thursday's practice. "We're just continuing to expose ourselves to new people and expand the potential of others. We've played Marcus Allen some at linebacker. He's a guy who shows some position flexibility. He's playing strong safety and some inside linebacker, so that fortifies our depth in that area where from a perception standpoint we might be running thin."
Thin also is a word that could be used to describe Allen's frame, because his listed weight is 15 pounds less than Barron's 230, and Barron's frame took a beating from all of the action taking place close to an NFL line of scrimmage. Also, Allen can be described as thin in the experience department, because in his two season with the team since arriving as a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, he has played a grand total of 18 snaps on defense.
But Tomlin said what he has seen from Allen this summer has allowed him to gain some level of confidence in the third-year safety.
"I have, and it goes beyond specifically that (dime linebacker) position," said Tomlin. "He has shown understanding in terms of how he's communicating, whether it's at linebacker or safety. His pre-snap communication skills and the way he adjusts show growth and development in terms of our overall scheme, and that allows him to display the position flexibility. Marcus has always had the physical skills to do both jobs, but intellectual skills – the overall understanding of the big picture – allows those things and those skills to come out in a football way now."
Take a look at the Steelers preparing for the 2020 regular season at Heinz Field
• Nose tackle Daniel McCullers received loud and emphatic praise from Tomlin on two occasions for his work in the drill the Steelers do to work on coming off the ball at the snap.
• A large portion of practice was devoted to special teams, including tackle-to-the ground live kickoff returns/coverage, which has rarely if ever been the case. Anthony McFarland and Ray-Ray McCloud worked as the return men. On McCloud's first rep, he took the kick, worked upfield, made one cut in the hole and ran to daylight, much to the pleasure of the players standing on the sideline.
• Placekicker Chris Boswell's leg had a busy day on field goals. He made kicks of 40, 41, 34, 42, 45, 50, and 48 yards on his own. During the live portion, he banged a 55-yard attempt off the right upright and then drilled one through the posts that landed high up on the net.
• McCloud also got plenty of reps at wide receiver and continued to make plays. He did drop one, but he made his share of catches including a nice 20-yard reception over the middle from Mason Rudolph.
• In another example of how Ben Roethlisberger continues to show no issues whatsoever with the condition of his throwing arm, he executed a pump fake to create an opening for JuJu Smith-Schuster down the seam for a long gain.
• A safety by trade, Marcus Allen was running with inside linebackers. ILBs coach Jerry Olsavsky was giving him tips and conferring with him throughout practice.
• Benny Snell got the best of Allen on several plays in a drill where the running back took a pitch and the defender tried to keep him contained. Snell lowered his shoulder and ran over Allen by taking advantage of his aggressiveness. When Tomlin ordered a rematch, Snell juked Allen to the inside and made him miss. On a third straight matchup between the two, Snell juked Allen again, and then Snell ran him over on a fourth rep.
• Maybe more impressive to getting himself more playing time, Snell was able to sniff out a blitzing cornerback and stuff him during a team drill
• Chase Claypool made a nice diving catch in the end zone during seven shots.
• Safety Curtis Riley had an impressive pass defensed on a throw down the seam in seven-on-sevens.
• Tackle Zach Banner had a pretty good run blocking day. During a live scrimmage he made a nice block on Mike Hilton and allowed James Conner to get 30 yards. Connor's participation early was limited because the Steelers wanted an extended look at Anthony McFarland, but later in the practice Conner was getting the ball and showed that he has picked up a little speed and quickness.
DEALING WITH REAL WORLD ISSUES
The team's work day at Heinz Field turned out to be about more than just football.
"We had a bevy of activity today – a couple of mandatory league-sanctioned presentations surrounding gambling and domestic violence," said Tomlin. "As a football team we also talked about some of the things going on from a social justice perspective, or had continued conversations there. Like I've mentioned to (the media) several times during the course of this: We desire to have an impact, and more so than statements. We want to be proactive in our behavior and in our thoughts, so we had continued conversations and not necessarily in reaction to the most recent events that have transpired. I continue to appreciate the hearts and spirit of our players in terms of wanting to participate and engage in a positive way and express themselves. That is their right.
"Like I've said many times, (our players will) be continued to be supported by us as long as their efforts are done so thoughtfully and with class," added Tomlin. "I'm excited about continuing to grow in that area as is our football team and have an understanding of our platform and utilize it in a very positive and constructive way – but also understand that we're targets, and our perspectives and opinions can be weaponized for agendas or against us. We want to move forward thoughtfully with everything we do, like we've mentioned. We're excited about being parts of solutions if we can be, if our blessings allow us to be, if the platform we have allows us to be."
When asked for examples of areas in which Steelers players are involved, Tomlin said, "They've been on-going. We're active participants in voter registration. We're building relationships with our law enforcement locally, we have and we continue to. We're just engaging with our community and trying to find ways to create conversation, to utilize the platform that we have in a very positive way. And those are just some of the many things we have on-going. We have social justice committees where guys get an opportunity to sign up and participate in areas that are personal passions of theirs. That's what we're trying to do as an organization – we're trying to provide a suite of services that are in line with the individual and collective passions of our men to aid them in the process of being positive contributors to what's going on from a societal standpoint."
While the Detroit Lions cancelled their practice on Tuesday, and the New York Giants delayed the start of their Thursday practice by 45 minutes to discuss recent issues, Tomlin said the Steelers players never gave any real consideration to not practicing today.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We had a couple of guys miss time today. Eric Ebron was out with illness. Anthony McFarland is being examined for a potential concussion. He's in the protocol. I don't know what that means, but we'll update you guys as we get pertinent information. Several other guys were out and continue to be listed as day-to-day: Ryan Switzer and Kerrith Whyte among them. Other guys who are continuing to work in a limited capacity who had been listed as day-to-day – Chris Wormley and Wendell Smallwood and Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kevin Dotson and others – it's just the dog days of summer. That's just how it is.
"Our target is opening weekend for Derek Watt and so we've been thoughtful about his process. He's a guy who's coming off a surgery. He's getting in-helmet perspective on work every day. He's in uniform, but we're just limiting some of the things he does in an effort to make sure that we get that daily exposure to the process. We're thoughtfully revving up his participation, and it's going to increase as the days go by."