LATROBE, Pa. - The Steelers put the pads on for the first time and they knew what to do with them without any coaxing from their head coach.
"I didn't ask for that, I expected that," Mike Tomlin said of what he characterized late this afternoon as "really good, spirited work" at Saint Vincent College.
"An opportunity to play football, these guys love to play," Tomlin said.
Highlights of the Steelers' third practice of training camp included the first "Backs-on-'Backers" drill and the first 11-on-11 live tackling period of the summer.
Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were among those who clearly distinguished themselves in "Backs-on-'Backers." Watt got the best of running back Knile Davis and tight end Phazahn Odom three times each, thanks in part to an impressive display on bull rushes.
Running back James Conner won a rep against linebacker Tyler Matakevich and got Tomlin's attention in the process.
"Y'all let me know who wants some of 3-0," Tomlin told the defense.
It was the first practice in pads, and that meant the intensity level increased.
Conner also won a rep Tomlin had specifically called for against linebacker Ryan Shazier but was beaten twice by Dupree.
The last rep was Conner against Watt.
Conner got Watt to the ground but did so illegally.
"You can't throw him," running backs coach James Saxon instructed.
Tomlin acknowledged the drill is slanted in favor of the defense (the linebackers get a running start and the running backs can't cut-block) but credited the effort of some of the backs for "doing an awesome job of answering the challenge of the adversity that drill presents.
"(Running back) Fitz Toussaint, I thought, specifically set a tone in that drill with his demeanor," Tomlin said.
NEXT MAN UP: With inside linebacker Vince Williams not practicing, Tyler Matakevich lined up inside next to Shazier with the first-team defense.
Matakevich made the first tackle of the 11-on-11 live tackling period (he dropped Toussaint for a loss) and also got Davis on the ground behind the line of scrimmage.
"It definitely felt good to get those pads back on," Matakevich said. "I know my game. I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses and right now I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help this team out and make us a better defense."
ALL-AROUND BACK: Conner, a third-round pick from Pitt, was having quite a day until he had to leave early due to a shoulder injury. He caught a scoring/conversion pass from quarterback Joshua Dobbs in "Seven Shots" despite close coverage from linebacker L.J. Fort, impressed Tomlin in "Backs-on-'Backers," and stiff-armed linebackers Keion Adams and Matt Galambos (a former teammate at Pitt) on a run in the live tackling drill.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," wide receiver Antonio Brown hollered in praise of Conner's stiff-arm expertise.
COACHING POINT: Tomlin didn't waste an opportunity to remind everyone what is and is not a catch during the practice-opening "Seven Shots" drill after wide receiver Justin Hunter came down with a pass from quarterback Landry Jones but lost possession after hitting the deck.
"Wideouts, you understand that you gotta maintain control of the ball to the ground?" Tomlin emphasized. "You gotta get up showing the ball."
Take a look at photos of the Pittsburgh Steelers 3rd day of training camp.
MEDICAL FILE:** Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle) and cornerback Cam Sutton (lower body) were among those who did not practice. Tomlin said Adams and tight end Xavier Grimble went down with "heat-related illnesses." Tomlin also said the Steelers had several players succumb to "soft-tissue injuries probably associated with fatigue or potentially dehydration." He listed Williams, safety Mike Mitchell (who left practice during "Seven Shots" but stayed on the sideline), cornerback Senquez Golson and tight end Scott Orndoff in that category. "Those injuries are usually a couple of days but we'll keep an eye on some of those guys," Tomlin said. Conner "went out with a shoulder injury of some description," Tomlin said. "He's being evaluated, don't have a lot of information regarding that."
QUICK-HITTERS: The defense won "Seven Shots," 4-3 … Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an excused absence from Tomlin … Dupree intercepted Jones on a pass intended for tight end David Johnson in 11-on-11 work … Outside linebacker William Gay was in sweats rather than in uniform for the third consecutive practice.