LATROBE, Pa. – On a day when Coach Mike Tomlin opted for a no-pads practice in helmets and also minimized the participation of several veterans, some rookies stepped up and made big plays during the pair of repetitions of two-minute that made up the final competition period of the team's workday at Saint Vincent College.
Among the veterans who were limited or did not participate on Thursday afternoon were wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Allen Robinson and guard Isaac Seumalo on offense, and defensive tackle Cam Heyward, outside linebacker T.J. Watt, and cornerback Patrick Peterson on defense.
"A really good day, a highly productive day, an opportunity to focus on some things that may not be pad-related or were non-padded today," said Tomlin at the conclusion of the practice. So obviously, 2-minute was a focus (of the day) plus some coverage-related things -- linebackers working together in combination vs. backs and tight ends. Just a component of a process, because we've got so many boxes to check. Every day is a great opportunity, particularly at this early stage of development, and we see young guys learning and growing, and I'm appreciative of that.
But a non-padded practice and the absence of some marquee names didn't detract from the drama during the 2-minute period where the offense was given the ball at its own 35-yard line, with 1:19 on the clock and one timeout, and needing a touchdown to win.
Kenny Pickett quarterbacked the first group, and he started things off with a 5-yard completion to Gunner Olszewski. A false start moved the ball back to the original line of scrimmage and made it second-and-10 when Pickett scrambled for 7 yards and the clock kept running. An 8-yard pass to Jaylen Warren was good for a first down at midfield.
After an incomplete pass to Pat Freiermuth with Tre Norwood in coverage, Pickett tried to get the ball to Cody White along the right sideline. But Joey Porter Jr. came up fast, dove in front of White and made the interception that won that repetition for the defense.
"He is a quick learner," said Tomlin about Porter. "You know, he's very much in the growth process in terms of the nuances of the professional game. The cornerback position in particular has probably got more of an adjustment from college to pro than any other position in the game because of the differences in the rules, in terms of contact beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and so he's doing a really good job of being cognizant of that. He's a line-of-scrimmage corner, and hand-play has been a significant component of his game and so that adjustment, we cannot underestimate. But I appreciate his efforts in that regard, and he's being productive in the midst of it."
Next came the second repetition of 2-minute, and it had Mitch Trubisky at quarterback under the same parameters that Pickett had faced in the first.
On first-and-10 from the 35-yard line, Trubisky completed a 5-yard pass to Anthony McFarland and the clock kept running. His next pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage by rookie defensive lineman Keeanu Benton, which set up a third-and-5. Trubisky converted with a 13-yard pass to Connor Heyward down to the defense's 47-yard line.
Trubisky threw incomplete on first down, and on second down cornerback James Pierre defended the pass to set up a third-and-10. Trubisky converted with a 10-yard pass to tight end Rodney Williams. On the next okay, Trubisky passed to running back Haggans for a 9-yard gain, and the offense called its only timeout.
After a quick pass to Darnell Washington over the middle, Trubisky hustled the offense back onto the line of scrimmage and again went to Washington down the middle who powered into the end zone for the touchdown. Two days after Washington stood out for his blocking of Watt during backs-on-backers, he showed he could make big plays as a receiver.
"I didn't see any deficiency in that area of his game to be honest with you," said Tomlin about Washington's abilities as a receiver. "He made a one-handed catch at his Pro Day to get my and everyone's attention, and it's kind of been a continuation of that. I think sometimes because of his stature and reputation (as a blocker), you think he's one-dimensional. But you'd be wrong in thinking that."
And in Tomlin's judgment, the official who was ready to rule Washington short of the goal line after that final play was wrong in thinking that.
"You're not gonna stop that big guy from falling into the end zone," said Tomlin. "Some people make suggestions, some people make decisions. I decided he scored."
The defense continued its dominance of this drill and posted a 6-1 win on Thursday for its fifth straight victory after an opening loss to the offense.
On the second snap of the period, Pickett hit George Pickens with a quick pass in the end zone for a touchdown, but that was the offense's only success. The defense got a pass batted down by Alex Highsmith, a pass breakup by Chris Wilcox, and a near interception by Tre Norwood. The offense also was victimized by a couple of bobbled receptions that fell incomplete.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"No new injury news, which is a good thing."