It was an eventful return to practice for the Steelers at St. Vincent College in Latrobe after the players’ Tuesday day off. Head coach Mike Tomlin noted that the team’s effort was an improvement from the previous week in their return-to-work situation.
“This Wednesday was a better representation of what I’m looking for compared to last Wednesday,” Tomlin said. “We’re very thoughtful about how we frame these work days up here, and in a lot of ways as we get closer to the season we want it to reflect how they might work. Wednesday is a big day, [we] install a lot of base ‘ball in-season. I thought it was important that they came out with energy and enthusiasm.”
A highlight of the day’s team-drills included a practice-closing hurry-up challenge which pitted the offense against an 80-yard field with no timeouts and with about one minute remaining on the clock. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger started the drill with the first-team offense, but had to leave as he got sand in his eyes after taking a snap. Tomlin then inserted Landry Jones with the top-teamers and Jones responded by hitting wide receiver Antonio Brown on a fourth-down slant near midfield to keep the drive going, leading to a 47-yard field goal by kicker Garrett Hartley after a spike with just a few seconds left on the clock.
Jones stayed on to run the second-team offense and again led his group down the field into kicking range, with Hartley rushing on the field to kick a buzzer-beating 53-yard field goal just as time expired.
DUPREE IN SCUFFLE
Earlier in practice, top draft pick Bud Dupree went to the ground after the whistle with one of the Steelers’ first team offensive linemen. As many players gathered around and the scrum was broken up, Dupree remained angry and had to be held back by several defensive teammates, including Cameron Heyward. After repeated attempts by Dupree to go back after the offensive line in a confrontation, guard Ramon Foster began yelling at Dupree, shouting “It’s over! What are you trying to prove?”
But the aggression was not over, as about 20 minutes later in a separate drill Dupree and several linemen were engaged again, with Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey, and Ramon Foster getting into another jawing match with the Steelers’ 2015 first-round pick. Tomlin intervened, pushing Dupree out of the way and telling him to leave the drill, which Durpee did.
Outside Linebackers Coach Joey Porter was also seen having words with Foster after the Tomlin decision.
All Tomlin would say about the skirmish after practice was that ‘It’s football,” acknowledging that the practice got “a little bit” feisty.
“It’s about time,” Roethlisberger said of the scrum. “It’s the last week and we’ve been going at it a while. It was bound to happen at some point. When it happens outside the lines, it’s over.”
MARTAVIS BRYANT GETTING THE IDEA
Roethlisberger was asked if second-year wide receiver Martavis Bryant appeared more confident in training camp this year as compared to 2014. “Absolutely,” Ben said. “Last year I don’t think he knew what was going on. He’s still learning, still getting better, still makes mistakes. But he’s the first one to do what he can to correct those mistakes, and I think that shows of the growth he’s had.”
BETTER WITH WORSE NUMBERS
With Brown, Bryant, and Markus Wheaton all expected to play serious snaps again in 2015, along with running back Le’Veon Bell and tight end Heath Miller, Roethlisberger was asked how he could improve on the offense’s gaudy stats from a year ago.
“I think we can get better without the numbers being as good,” Ben said. “If the numbers are good and we’re winning football games, that’s a great thing but we can be better. Eliminate mistakes. Be crisper, more consistent. If we can do that it should translate into winning.”
Two-point conversions and red zone efficiency could play into the team winning as well, and Tomlin began a tradition late last year of starting practice with seven consecutive attempts from the two-yard line to help the offense work on in-tight effectiveness.
“You’re in the red zone, you’re on the two-yard line,” Roethlisberger said. “We look at that [drill] as a two-point play that carry over to a red zone situation. We don’t do too much big-people goal line. I mean if you get down to the goal-line [in a game] you’re going to run the big guys in for a few plays. On the two-point play you really can’t do that.”
Although, during yesterday’s opening ‘Seven Shots’ drill, big-guy Alejandro Villanueva moved from his normal offensive line position to a split-wide ‘tackle-eligible’ spot, and Roethlisberger threw him a fade pass in the corner of the end zone that fell incomplete, with safety Will Allen providing the coverage.
“It was a trial, we wanted to see what would happen,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s the first time we had ever practiced it. We can be very diverse. As you can see we put a tackle out to lineup to go for a pass. We’re trying things and seeing what we can do.”
“I completely forgot what it was like to look at a guy who was pressing against you,” Villanueva, a former tight end, said. “Allen gave me his best and [mine] wasn’t enough, so I’ll definitely be working on that and see if I can be a weapon in the future.”
John Mitchell, the Steelers’ Defensive Line coach is always feisty at practice. Early in practice during linemen drills, Mitchell was verbally riding his depth players. “I don’t want to see [Heyward] and [McLendon] back in the drill,” Mitchell said, looking at his backups. “I know what they can do. What do you other guys need, an invitation?”
Mitchell was also muttering throughout the drill that he “didn’t have to wait until Sunday” to begin evaluating play.
INJURIES AND STARTERS
Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams remained out of practice with what are believed to be minor injuries. Timmons is believed to be battling a toe issue. Heath Miller sat out practice with a veteran’s day off.
The outside linebacker rotation on Wednesday during first-team drills featured Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats starting, with James Harrison and Dupree working in as replacements.