PITTSBURGH — The Steelers minicamp started on Tuesday and the team is looking to build upon what they already put out there during OTAs. So, what could we learn from their first minicamp practice? Well, it turns out we can learn a good bit about this team.
Kenny Pickett Shines
If you want to talk about someone that shined, well, how about Kenny Pickett? I got asked all the time how he looked on the field, and Tuesday was the first day we got to really glean something about his game in his second year. Pickett looked sharp, composed, and played at a high level at Tuesday’s Steelers minicamp practice.
The highlight was a two-minute drive commanded by Pickett that ended in a touchdown for the offense. Multiple players talked about the calming presence that Pickett brings into the pocket whenever that situation comes up and they confirmed he successfully did the same thing again. Mike Tomlin runs that drill to get his guys in football environments.
“Sometimes, I control the drill in an effort to put them in circumstances,” Tomlin said. “In the second set, that guy probably scored when he caught the ball on the 2-yard line when I called it down at the two, just to make the offense work on a short field under those circumstances. These are controlled, football-like environments. I know you want to identify winners and losers and write stories and so forth, but a lot of these situations are controlled by me because I’m more interested in teaching and learning.”
Pickett’s Pocket Presence
If there’s one thing that stuck out, it was his pocket presence. Multiple players commended Pickett’s ability to step up in the pocket and extend plays, while not doing so to run into pressure. Najee Harris saw some of those similar things. Pickett seems to be making strides in areas that might have been weaknesses a year ago, and that includes his pocket presence. Harris went as far to call him ‘more comfortable’ in that area.
“Kenny is a lot more comfortable. He’s a quick learner, too. Him being vocal, him understanding coverages, him being in a more comfortable place, I think that’s what’s going to separate him a lot,” Harris said. “He’s still learning and stuff like that, but Kenny, when he comes out here, you see that he wants to have control. He wants to win. He’s very competitive. You want that in a quarterback.”
Flashes From Hakeem Butler
Hakeem Butler is probably one of the more hyped-up players I can remember coming in on a futures deal. But nonetheless, he is a guy who simply is trying to find his lane. But that lane is clear. He’s a massive guy who runs a sub 4.5 40-yard dash. On Tuesday, Butler flashed that ability and what he could bring to the table.
Butler confirmed that he made a fantastic leaping contested catch down the sideline that brought oohs and aahs to the crowd. However, he shrugged that off as just a play in shorts without pads. But it served as a reminder of what he can really do on the football field. Maybe it’s just a flash of color, but Butler has unique qualities no one else on the team truly possesses.
Time for the Hot Rod
Rodney Williams is the tight end in the room that you have not heard of at all. But I am trying to change that. While the Steelers have four solid tight ends, they might just have a fifth that you need to know the name of at this juncture. Williams just keeps making plays. When you talk with his teammates, it’s apparent that Williams has a knack for making some really big strides and just soaking up information.
Zach Gentry told me that Williams made a stellar catch over the middle of the field today and that it’s indicative of his toughness. But he said overall, Williams has improved so much as a blocker. He came in with the athleticism everyone wants at the spot, but he’s embraced the grimy stuff, too. Keep an eye out on Williams.
Rookies Staying at One Spot
Nick Herbig, so far, is only working as an outside linebacker and that has been confirmed by both him and outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin at this point. Meanwhile, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar confirmed that Keeanu Benton is only looked at as a nose tackle for now. However, some of the comments about both could lead to some inferences about their roles.
For example, Martin acknowledged that Herbig is largely a sub-package passing down rusher because he’s undersized and light. However, there are specific tools, such as his natural leverage that can be used to really make his game pop. On the other side, Benton is most known for playing at the nose, but his athleticism and frame give him the flexibility to play outside of that position.
I would expect Benton to start learning other things outside of nose tackle later on in training camp. Meanwhile, I assume Herbig has to start learning some tricks at off-ball linebacker soon. But so far, it doesn’t really seem like that is happening soon.
One of the key differences between mandatory minicamps and OTAs, other than them being mandatory, is that the team gets to put in some situational football scenarios. Today, Mike Tomlin confirmed that the Steelers implemented downs and distance, clock-related scenarios, and other key aspects of football that simply are not infused into earlier portions of the offseason program.
“It’s important that we progress in this journey and take another step toward football-like work, which will be awaiting us in training camp,’ Tomlin said. “A couple examples of that: we infused a play clock today. … We also introduced more situational football. We’re not just snapping then ball first and 10. It’s possession down football. It’s red zone. It’s things of that nature in an effort to increase the learning opportunities and teaching opportunities.”
This is part of learning the NFL and building chemistry as a team. Learning certain things such as reads, hot routes, coverages, and other situational factors within game-like environments. They will fully rev that up in training camp, but this is really when some of the nuances of the game creep into the space.