UNITY TWP, Pa. — For the first time in 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers practiced in pads on Sunday, as head coach Mike Tomlin took off the hitting restrictions for the team’s third practice session.
The Steelers performed their somewhat notorious backs-on-backers drill that features linebackers in a pass-rush setting with a full head of a steam and running backs and tight ends in their way, attempting to slow down the rush — without the benefit of being able to cut block.
It’s a drill that generally features some slick moves and big collisions. Before Sunday’s practice, linebacker Bud Dupree predicted that someone would “go to sleep” after a big hit.
Well, no one went to sleep, but the drill lived up to its usual hype. Anthony Chickillo and Tuzar Skipper put big hits on blockers with forward-charging bullrushes and Ola Adeniyi made several look silly with speed rushes and inside jukes.
With veterans like Dupree, Vince Williams, James Conner and Rozelle Nix sitting the full-contract drill out, the spotlight was put on the some of the team’s youngest players.
Benny Snell might have been the one that shined the brightest. He was the only one to stop Adeniyi (they split their two reps) and held his own in general in the drill, drawing positive praise from Ben Roethlisberger.
Linebacker Devin Bush was mostly neutralized on his rushes, while tight end Zach Gentry was hit or miss, making one nice stop, but getting badly beaten on another.
Here’s what Adeniyi and Snell had to say about their battles:
On the first day of play with pads, it was natural to focus more on the running game, since that’s the aspect of the game that’s the most difficult to replicate in shorts.
The first-day run offense seemed to be a good bit ahead of the first-day run defense with several big plays from Snell and many of the third-team running backs.
“There were some chunk runs and you don’t necessarily like that from a defensive perspective,” Tomlin said. “But I don’t want to take away any credit that might be deserving of the offense. We’ll take a look at the tape. I know there was some spirited play there, both sides.”
Adeniyi said that run fits are especially tough without pads on, and now that the defense has some film to work with, they can improve that aspect of their game.
“When you go through OTAs and minicamp, you don’t have shoulder pads on,” he explained. “So you can’t really know where you’re fitting as much as you can when you have pads on. Today, we have film and we can watch and go based off that and just learn.”
J.T. Watt (left hamstring tightness) did not practice for the third consecutive day. Chickillo continued to replace him at left outside linebacker. Watt is still day-to-day and worked out off to the side during practice.
Johnny Holton (left hamstring) also did not practice after being injured on Saturday.
Sean Davis was injured during practice, suffering a potentially dislocated finger. His status has not yet been determined, Tomlin said.
Some veteran players like Mark Barron, Maurkice Pouncey and Roethlisberger were given the day off. Tomlin said that was a much about rest for those players as it was to give more looks to younger guys.
With Roethlisberger on the sideline, Josh Dobbs took over with the first-team offense in the seven shots red zone drill.
Dobbs started out strong, finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a touchdown on a coursing route and scrambling to his left to hit Xavier Grimble in the back of the end zone for a second score.
But he missed Donte Moncrief high on a corner route and then threw an interception for the third straight day when an underneath pass went off the hands of Smith-Schuster and was picked off by Artie Burns.
With the second team offense in the game, Mason Rudolph had a pass to James Washington broke up by burns, but hit Diontae Johnson for back-to-back scores.