LATROBE, Pa. – The pads were unpacked yesterday, and they certainly were popping during a rain-soaked afternoon practice today at Saint Vincent College. There was backs-on-backers, and once again Coach Mike Tomlin ordered live tackling during the first 11-on-11 period of the session.
But for all of the buzz that the hitting generated through the stands and along the hillsides surrounding Chuck Noll Field, the play of the day was one made by Jason Worilds when the ball was in the air.
Just to identify all of the characters in this drama, you had Worilds, a 262-pound linebacker, covering Dri Archer, he of the 4.28 in the 40 at the Scouting Combine, on a wheel route out of the backfield. Wheel routes out of the backfield are tough duty for a linebacker, especially when the receiver runs as fast as Archer.
But at the moment of truth, Worilds turned, jumped, extended his arms, reached, and made a fingertip catch of a wet football. It was exactly the kind of play this defense is going to need to up its takeaway total this season.
"That's the first time Jason Worilds has caught a ball in any fashion out here in practice and/or walk-through," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I call him the defensive end from Blacksburg, Virginia. I'm going to paint that ball and give it to him."
Tomlin then was asked whether he was more impressed by the interception or by the fact that Worilds, an outside linebacker from Virginia Tech, was able to run down the field with Archer.
"The fact that he caught it," said Tomlin. "I know he can run."
The afternoon started off for the Steelers under a steady rain, and the team moved to the lower field, which is artificial turf, for the opening periods of the practice. But after some individual drills, the rain dissipated and everything was moved up onto the grass field in front of the stands. That's when the hitting began.
The highlight was the first installment of backs-on-backers, and in keeping with his tendency to open with a four-star matchup, Tomlin pitted Lawrence Timmons vs. LeGarrette Blount. And so it went, through some 45-plus repetitions, and when it was over it wasn't easy to select the winner. Through the early going, the offense did a nice, consistent job of handling the rush, but the defense then responded and had its moments through the latter stages of the drill as well.
"There was a little ebb and flow, battles fought and won on both sides. That's part of it," said Tomlin. "We'll take a look at the tape and proceed, but I just like the overall energy and enthusiasm. We need to grow from an assignment and fundamentals standpoint, with pad level and some of those things. But this tape will be a great start in terms of reinforcing some of those core coaching points relative to playing the game in that manner."
Still there were some notable moments, such as Sean Spence in pads for the first time since he sustained a serious knee injury in the final preseason game of his rookie season, 2012. In his first repetition in backs-on-backers, Spence made no attempt at finesse, instead choosing to run through the back assigned to block him. It was another milestone on a long journey to get back onto the field.
"I really didn't think a lot about that today because we've had a great deal of comfort in where Sean is for some time," said Tomlin. "I probably went to those feelings of emotion when he came out in the spring and really showed his capabilities in terms of movement and control of his body and redirecting. I really didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it or looking at him today. I know he was glad to be back out there and had a smile on his face."
It was a good day, a fun day, but Tomlin was quick to point out that it was only one day.
"It's part of football," said Tomlin. "We're going to put them into some challenging situations, as many as we can, and see who responds and how they respond. From an intensity standpoint I give both sides a thumbs-up in terms of responding to the occasion presented. It's usually ebb and flow. Usually that's how it is in development. Someone will win today, and the other side will get hacked off and come back and win the next day."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We got out relatively injury free. Jordan Zumwalt had a tight groin. We'll evaluate him. The rest are just bumps and bruises. There are really no updates on the guys who missed today's practice. Le'Veon Bell (hamstring) will continue to be day-to-day. Maybe we'll get him back soon, and the same for C.J. Goodwin (groin). The extended-out guys are starting the process of working their way back, and I'm talking about Alvester Alexander and Mike Mitchell. They had a good run session this morning with the training staff."
STEELERS NOTES: The players are off Tuesday, which means practice will resume on Wednesday, July 30 with the normal 3 p.m. session on campus.