LATROBE, Pa. – Maybe Mother Nature didn't want to watch anymore red zone.
The Steelers were back in pads on Thursday, and things seemed to be falling into place for them nicely. Before the team took the field, it was announced that Diontae Johnson had signed a three-year contract. He would be on the field and be a full participant in on-field drills for the first time this summer. Once the team took the field, it also became apparent that Minkah Fitzpatrick had been activated off the NFL list – where he was placed when the players reported on July 26 – and he also would be practicing for the first time in this training camp.
A weather system had formed in the early afternoon and dumped a bunch of rain onto the Latrobe area, but once it came time for the business of the day to begin, the skies had cleared, the sun was out, and it seemed to be business as usual.
But as the team was about to move into position for the final period of the day – a red zone session – the skies darkened, and some prescient fans in attendance began gathering their belongings and preparing to escape to the parking lot for their cars. The red zone session began, but when a couple of bolts of lightning were seen over the Carey Center here on campus, the horn blew, and practice immediately was ended.
"Another good day's work, but we had to cut it short there for lightning, and that's the one weather condition that we don't play in," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We have respect for that, and so we missed about 11 plays or so, but in the big picture, very good day. Just continuing with the competition component and really giving guys an opportunity to highlight individual skill-sets in some of our competition periods. One-on-one like football to see who can win the one-on-one matchups. That really was kind of the big theme of the day."
A BOUNCE-BACK BY THE DEFENSE
After the offense won Wednesday's installment of 7-Shots, the defense responded. Mitch Trubisky was the quarterback and Kendrick Green was at left guard when the drill started.
On the first snap, Trubisky completed a quick throw to George Pickens for a touchdown. Offense, 1-0.
It seemed obvious there would be an early effort to get Johnson into the flow of his first full practice, and that happened on the second snap. But Trubisky overthrew Johnson in the end zone. Tied, 1-1.
On the third play, the offense attempted a running play, with Trubisky pitching the ball to Benny Snell. But with the NFL officials again on hand to work the practice, one of them threw a flag for holding, and so the down went to the defense. Defense, 2-1.
Next, Trubisky attempted a swing pass to Anthony McFarland Jr., and Cam Sutton made a break on the ball and almost made the interception that he could've returned for a touchdown had he been able to hold on. Defense, 3-1.
Mason Rudolph came in at quarterback, and his fade pass for Miles Boykin was just a tad too far. Defense, 4-1.
On Rudolph's next snap, the Steelers ran a nice combination pattern where the wide receiver ran a short slant to the inside and tight end Jace Sternberger ran a route behind him toward the back of the end zone. Rudolph completed the pass for the touchdown. Defense, 4-2.
Kenny Pickett came on for the final snap, and he completed a fade to the corner of the end zone to Cody White for the touchdown. Defense, 4-3.
• On the first play of a one-on-one passing drill that followed 7-Shots, Diontae Johnson released off the line of scrimmage, got past Ahkello Witherspoon and made the catch of a perfect rainbow from Trubisky about 40 yards down the field.
• Sternberger has had his moments during this training camp, and he showed up on a few plays Thursday afternoon. In the same period, he got a little separation on Robert Spillane, then had to turn back toward the line of scrimmage and go up in the air to make the catch.
• It wasn't all about the offense, though, because on a subsequent play Zach Gentry ran an out route only to have cornerback Carlins Platel cut underneath him to get his hands on the ball. It would've been a pick-6 had Platel been able to complete the catch.
• On an attempted jet sweep to Steven Sims, OLB Delontae Scott penetrated to mess up the flow of the play and then Ulysees Gilbert III came over from his inside linebacker position to clean up and make the tackle for no gain.
• Anthony McFarland Jr. ran a route where he was being shadowed by Myles Jack in tight coverage down the middle. McFarland had to turn his body and go up in the air to grab the football and then he secured the catch as the two players fell to the ground with Jack trying to rake the ball free the whole time.
• James Pierre made a nice overall play to break up a pass to Anthony Miller.
• Then it was Sternberger again. This time he ran a banana route down the field and made a nice catch of a Trubisky pass about 40 yards from the line of scrimmage. Then McFarland again, this time getting a step on Devin Bush down the field and making a diving catch of Mason Rudolph pass for about a 30-yard gain.
• One more McFarland highlight. On a sweep to the right in a later period, he used his speed to split two defenders who were coming up to make the tackle, and then he stuck his foot in the ground to leave Chris Steele grasping at air before turning on the speed and going all the way to the end zone.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
The Steelers will not be on the field on Friday morning, but things will come to a head when the team will board school buses in the evening and make the short trip to Latrobe Stadium for another installment of Friday Night Lights. Initially instituted by Coach Bill Cowher in his inaugural season on the job to get players accustomed to having to be ready for football at different times of the day – because that's what happens during the regular season with kickoff times – the event has grown into a major happening that raises considerable funds for athletic programs at Latrobe High School, as well as benefitting other community projects.
"We got a big day tomorrow with the Friday Night Lights and changing venue and doing some competitive things over (at Latrobe Stadium). We always appreciate that relationship," said Coach Mike Tomlin, who embraced the tradition and expanded on it when he replaced Cowher in 2007.
"I love it, because it's a yellow bus ride," added Tomlin. "It's a cool way to stay connected to the local fans, and the proximity of the fans (in a high school stadium) makes it a cool and unique experience. It's just awesome. If you're a football lover, then you love Friday Night Lights."
Gates are scheduled to open at 5 p.m., with the team arriving for an autograph session to begin at 7 p.m.