LATROBE, Pa. – It turned out that the offense's winning streak in 7-shots ended at one in a row; that Darnell Washington's showing in the first backs-on-backers was not a fluke; that the Kendrick Green "experiment" is looking like something more than experimental; that Mark Robinson might be more than just a run-thumper; and that Connor Heyward is someone who can contribute in a lot of different ways to this offense.
The Steelers completed their ninth practice of this 2023 training camp on Saturday at Saint Vincent College, and if there were no ah-ha moments there were plenty of instances of players making cases for playing time in the preseason opener on Aug. 11 vs. the Buccaneers in Tampa.
Coach Mike Tomlin often finds ways to use training camp to replicate what the players can expect to face once the process moves into the regular season, and having the team practice in pads on Friday night and then come back on Saturday afternoon with another practice in pads is an example of that.
"It was a significant weekend," said Tomlin. "We worked last night and had an opportunity on the short turnaround to bounce back and deliver again today. We do those things thoughtfully, because we just want to harden this group, not only in terms of physical preparation, but mental preparation. The last 24 hours are kind of reflective of how the season could be from time to time. We'll play on a Monday night and have to sprint into the next week, or we'll have a Thursday night game and be sprinting all week. So you take moments like this in preparation, and you talk about the aches and pains coupled with a short turnaround in an environment like this, but you also want to teach them and train them that it's reflective of what happens in the season.
"And so I was really interested in the spirit in which they took the field today. I liked those things. Obviously we're growing in terms of the quality of our work, but I liked the mental approach of the group in that regard. We'll just keep rolling this ball out and keep working."
Saturday's version of the drill opened with Kenny Pickett overthrowing George Pickens in the right corner of the end zone, but on the next play he did get the ball to Diontae Johnson in the end zone with the coverage provided by Elandon Roberts. Pickett's next two passes were incomplete, and so Mitch Trubisky and the No. 2 offense came onto the field looking at a 3-1 deficit.
Trubisky got the offense into the end zone on the next two plays – the first on a completion to Calvin Austin III and the second on a quick throw to Anthony McFarland with linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski in coverage. Then came the tiebreaker, and Trubisky's pass to Miles Boykin was incomplete with safety Trenton Thompson in coverage.
Coach Mike Tomlin had said following the first installment of backs-on-backers that rookie tight end Darnell Washington has "a certain skill-set, his reputation precedes him, and we're gonna make him confirm it every day." During Saturday's version of this same drill, Washington lived up to that reputation.
Maybe because it was Washington's second go-round in backs-on-backers it wasn't as eye-opening, but his consistency was recognized.
"He's doing a good job of representing his skill-set and putting quality effort on top of quality effort, and that's what's important in this thing," said Tomlin. "You're going to have some good days, and can you stack them? He appears to be doing some of that, and that's encouraging. Let's hope it continues."
AGILE, MOBILE, HOSTILE
The live-tackling run-game period again featured Kendrick Green seeing some snaps as an H-back, and again he did some things to get himself noticed. On one play, he lined up on the wing and came back across the formation to throw a kick-out block on Alex Highsmith and open a hole for Najee Harris. A couple of snaps later, Green again came across the formation but this time he leaked into the flat and caught a pass and ran over linebacker Tanner Muse who had come up to make the tackle.
"He's done some nice things, but it's not new to him," said Tomlin. "We really discovered it late last season in preparation for Baltimore when he was representing that big fullback (6-foot-3, 311-pound Patrick Ricard) for them. Ricard is a unique guy, and so we asked K.G. to provide a quality look for us, and he really did. And so we just kind of put that in our hip pocket. In an environment like this, we want to see what guys are capable of doing in terms of adding to their cause and to ours. And he's shown some flexibility there."
• Mitch Trubisky threw a nice back-shoulder pass for a completion to Allen Robinson, who was going against Porter.
• Mason Rudolph tried to get the ball down the seam to Connor Heyward, who reached back for an over-the-shoulder catch, only to have Mark Robinson, who was trailing in close coverage, steal the ball for an interception before he and Heyward hit the ground.
• Several plays later, Connor Heyward lined up in the backfield, took the ball on an off-tackle play, burst through the line of scrimmage and rumbled downfield for a nice gain.
• During the red zone period, Pickett completed an 18-yard pass to Pickens, who was running a crossing pattern deep in the end zone for a touchdown.
• Later, Trubisky completed a deep pass to Cody White for a touchdown with Elijah Riley in coverage.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"A few injury updates: Nick Herbig had a hip flexor that's being evaluated. Nate Herbig had a hand and a thumb injury that's being evaluated. We had a couple of guys have bumps and bruises occur in practice and were able to go back in – Joey Porter had an ankle and got it re-taped and went back in – things of that nature that oftentimes are a component of this process that we just work through." On Minkah Fitzpatrick's return to practice from an excused absence for personal reasons, Tomlin said, "He's back and in a short period of time, you'll see him up and running in full capacity, I'm sure." Tomlin added that he wasn't as sure about Damontae Kazee's return to full capacity.