Two seasons ago, in 2018, the Steelers led the NFL in red zone offense, and their touchdown percentage of 73.47 was the highest of any team over a full season since 2004. Last season, the Steelers were last in the NFL in red zone offense, and their touchdown percentage of 35.0 assuredly was one of the most significant factors that kept them out of the playoffs.
Getting Ben Roethlisberger back will go a long way toward putting the Steelers on the right track to rectify the situation, but there is more to fixing a problem than a change at quarterback. Coach Mike Tomlin showed he understands that by dedicating Monday's practice to it.
"A good day for us working some situational ball – short-yardage and goal line," said Tomlin. "Significant areas of play, areas of play we need to focus on and work to be dominant in those. When you win those situations on offense, you get new sets of downs or you're ringing up the scoreboard by seven. On defense when you win those downs, you get off the field, and (off the field) is where good defenses spend a good deal of time. It was good to sharpen the iron on the iron on those areas of emphasis today."
All NFL teams must reduce their rosters from 80 to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 5, which means this is the final week of training camps across the league. With time getting short before the Steelers will take the field at MetLife Stadium for their regular season opener vs. the New York Giants, developing the cohesion that will lead to a better touchdown percentage in the red zone is taking on an increased urgency.
"It's a known fact that offensive cohesion probably takes a little bit longer (to develop) than defensive cohesion," said Tomlin. "The timing and the ability to get a sense of that timing and work collectively is much more important. We've had a number of guys miss some time due to natural things that this process presents, so it's good to see those guys coming together and I'm not surprised that maybe sometimes defensive collective maturation happens a little faster."
• The Steelers started their competition period with a two-minute drill where the offense had to go 47 yards for a touchdown with 1:21 on the clock. Both the first and second-team offenses scored touchdowns. Roethlisberger got off to a slow start and used 12 plays before connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster from 3 yards out. Rudolph needed nine plays before hooking up with Chase Claypool for a 3-yard score. Smith-Schuster caught a touchdown in the red zone later in practice.
• Claypool also caught two passes for chunks of yardage and then the 3-yard touchdown pass from Rudolph during the 2-minute drill. For the touchdown, Claypool went high over 6-foot-2 cornerback James Pierre and hooked his feet inbounds to complete the catch of the day.
• Devin Bush could've ended the two-minute period seven plays into the drill when he dropped a pass that Roethlisberger floated down the middle to Smith-Schuster. Tomlin kept bringing up the miss during the duration of the drill. Tomlin yelled at Bush, "two hands on that 55!" among other things.
• Bush responded in the next period by running 30 yards downfield stride for stride with tight end Kyle Markway and knocked the ball away.
• Roethlisberger targeted Smith-Schuster four times and Smith-Schuster caught all four in the hurry-up.
• Eric Ebron continues to impress with his ability to shake linebackers and safeties to get open. He got away from Ulysees Gilbert and then ran away from him for a long catch. Later, Ebron juked Marcus Allen during a coverage that got himself wide open.
• The Steelers receivers/quarterback were really targeting Justin Layne throughout the practice. James Washington beat him for a touchdown and grabbed a long ball later.
• Deon Cain had one of his best practices of camp catching a touchdown and a couple of passes along the sidelines.
• Derek Watt worked his way back into the lineup mostly during the live goal line drill. Twice he flexed out as a tight end, but Tomlin said that's still considered the fullback position.
• Tomlin has taken care of his veterans throughout practice but none more than Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. At one point in practice, Haden was catching passes from the quarterbacks in the end zone and Nelson was working on his footwork on the sidelines,
• The Steelers went live with their goal-line drill for the first time this camp and the biggest star might have been Minkah Fitzpatrick. He was first in on tackles against James Conner and Benny Snell.
• James Conner looked quick in his second goal-line attempt with an impressive jump cut that allowed him to go untouched into the end zone.
• Diontae Johnson and James Washington alternated plays for strong periods with Roethlisberger in the second team scrimmage.
• Rookie Kevin Dotson turned in a solid showing after returning to practice last Friday for the live scrimmage. That was Dotson's first practice since injuring his knee early in camp. On Monday, Dotson needed one rep to knock rust off but then went on a long winning streak during one-on-one line drills.
"It was a wakeup call that it could be over quick," said Dotson about his immediate thoughts after he was injured. "I have to make my impact fast. I need to do what I can right now because I never know what can happen in the future. When it first happened, I was truly scared off the initial pain. After I started walking and getting better, it eased my mind a little bit."
As for the live scrimmage, Dotson added, "It gets your heart pumping. It helps me in most situations to get my adrenaline up. It makes me think faster, move faster, go a little harder. I was glad to be put in that situation to at least show my skill. I wanted to make my impact, get seen. I am not a person to sit out a long time. I feel like if I sit out, people start to think that you're soft, you don't want to work. That was my proving time. The fact that I got to go out there with the first-team was an added bonus.
• Zach Gentry went against T.J. Watt in a one-on-one drill, and Tomlin billed the matchup as "Big Blue vs. Wisconsin." Gentry beat Watt on the release and caught the pass. Tomlin complimented him on it, saying "I see you Big Blue," and "Nice release." In the same drill, Alex Highsmith knocked the ball away while covering Gentry and the defense went wild – apparently unconcerned that he was pulling on his jersey.
• After a rocky start to practice, Antoine Brooks rebounded with an interception on a pass intended for Trey Edmunds, and later in a team period, helped string out and tackle Kerrith Whyte.
• Before the final two periods, which were a team period at the goal line and a 7-on-7, Bud Dupree asked to be matched up against Eric Ebron. The pair have had a fun rivalry throughout camp and frequently go against each other in coverage drills.
"More significant playmaking. Ball-awareness type things. Continuing to build upon the natural trajectory his career has taken," said Tomlin when asked what he expects from Dupree in 2020. "One thing about his performances is that they are continually improving over the course of his stay here, and so it's reasonable to expect that to continue. He's always highly conditioned. He's gaining experience with each and every snap. And he's a hard-working guy."
• Ryan Switzer and Diontae Johnson were used as punt returners.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"From an injury standpoint, there are a number of guys working their way back to us and participating. Wendell Smallwood was back out there today. We'll continue to manage some of the other day-to-day like things. Chris Wormley worked in a limited capacity. David DeCastro is dealing with a lower body injury. We're managing it. He's managing it. Hopefully, he'll be back out there soon. Terrell Edmunds worked today. He's in that group (working their way back). I didn't necessarily mention all of the guys. Diontae Johnson is another one. There are a lot of things that come along with training camp – injuries, lack of availability from a short-term standpoint, and a lot of those guys are just working their way back into action and we're glad that they are."
TOMLIN ON THOMPSON
Tomlin opened his post-practice briefing by offering his condolences to the family of Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who died on Aug. 30. He was 78.
"I'd like to start by saying, Rest in Power, to the legendary coach John Thompson. Blueprint, idol, mentor to many, including myself. He'll be greatly missed. Big condolences to his family and loved ones."
When asked by reporters, Tomlin explained his relationship with the Hall of Fame coach.
"Just as a Virginia boy growing up in the 1980s, I had the Georgetown Starter jacket. I was a Hoya," said Thompson. "I think it also was impressive the impact he had on the lives of the young people he worked with, two of whom were from my home area. Alonzo Mourning is a couple of years older than me, and Allen Iverson is a couple of years behind me. As a Virginia boy from that part of the state, I just had a big-time appreciation not only for his coaching prowess and reputation and record, but how he moved within the lives of the young people he worked with. Then as I got older and got into the profession of coaching, particularly here in Pittsburgh, he was a mentor, a guy who had been there and done that. I just appreciated the times I had a chance to visit with him and glean some of his wisdom.
"You're wise to seek wise counsel. I enjoyed every time I had the opportunity to go to the D.C. area and play either Washington or Baltimore. I looked forward to calling into his (radio) show. I called him just for the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him."