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Steelers Training Camp Takeaways: Defense Dominates Red Zone

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Steelers defenders at training camp, Aug. 1, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

UNITY TWP., Pa. — After two grueling training camp practices in full pads in less than 24 hours between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, things took on a lighter tone during Sunday’s Pittsburgh Steelers practice at St. Vincent College.

The players were not wearing pads, just jerseys and helmets, and many veterans got the day off, including Cam Heyward, Diontae Johnson, Patrick Peterson, Allen Robinson II, Mason Rudolph, Isaac Seumalo and T.J. Watt to name a few.

The lack of pads meant the practice was focused on the passing game, and the lack of veterans meant it was a good test for those trying to find a way onto the roster or secure a spot.

Mike Tomlin emphasized that the lack of pads couldn’t result in a lack of intensity — the Steelers practice without pads for most of the regular season — and the practice did deliver that, with several highlights and a spirited two-minute competition to close things out.

In that drill, both the first- and second-team defense got wins with fourth-down stops in the red zone, putting a cap on the week of practice ahead of Monday’s off day.

Seven Shots

The drill got started with a nice clean with for the offense, with Cody White running an out-breaking route toward the front pylon ahead of Levi Wallace for a touchdown. This a route concept the Steelers used a lot last year, and it seemed to be a focus today, to middling results. More to come. White was playing in place of Johnson with the first team.

On the second rep, Kenny Pickett looked to his left, couldn’t find anyone, left the pocket to his left, still couldn’t find anyone, and eventually made a break for it, but was “tackled” by Alex Highsmith — or at least Tomlin said so. Pickett is a touch customer with a nose for the goal line, but the rules of practice on this particular day did not allow him to show them.

On the next snap, Pickett looked to his right for George Pickens, who was running a slant out of a bunch from the formation’s left. Getting Pickens open in the middle of the field is something that has been a focus of this camp for the offense, and he was, but the ball went through his hands. A rare drop for Pickens. Wallace again was in coverage.

The final play for the first team saw Pickett look for Calvin Austin III in the back of the end zone, but the ball was high and over his head. Madre Harper provided solid coverage.

Mitch Trubisky took the second-team reps and got an easy score on his first play, as Darnell Washington sat right at the goal line in between Chapelle Russell and Toby Ndukwe in what looked like zone coverage for an easy catch and score.

Then Trubisky went back to the same play that Pickett used to score with White on each of the next two reps. On the sixth snap, he hit Miles Boykin in front of Isaiah Dunn. Boykin dove, caught the ball, and got his knee down in bounds, but he couldn’t complete the catch as the tumbled out of bounds.

On the final rep, Trubisky showed faith in Boykin by going right back to him, and Boykin flat-out dropped the last one.

Overall, a very strong day from the defense and it got better later.

Hello, Stranger

With Rudolph getting the day off, Tanner Morgan took his first reps of training camp, and responded to the challenge nicely. He made a great pass to throw open Rodney Williams II in a three-on-three drill and then led the third-team offense through team periods after that. With so many vets out, the team had enough players for three full squads at very few spots, so he got to play with some of the higher-level players, as well.

There probably isn’t a path to Morgan making the 53-man roster, but the Steelers won’t want to pay Trubisky and Rudolph to be Pickett’s backups forever. They might try to stash Morgan on the practice squad and see if he can develop from there if he continues to play well.

Punt Off, Round 2

For the second time this camp, the Steelers punter battle took center stage for an entire special teams period, with both Pressley Harvin III and Braden Mann getting plenty of chances to make their case to make the team.

It was a strong exhibition for both, as the distances were massive and the hang times generally solid. Both were also very consistent, with zero mis-hit kicks. To me, Harvin had both the longest punt and the most consistent hang time, and I think he remains a step ahead in the battle at that spot, though there’s a long way to go.

Steelers Gunner Olszewski

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Gunner Olszewski at training camp, Aug. 5, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Depth WRs Take Advantage

With no Diontae Johnson and Patrick Peterson, the depth at the cornerback and wide receiver positions got extra looks.

Calvin Austin III continued to make big plays, as he beat Chandon Sullivan off the line and up the field for a deep ball. Sullivan got one back later in practice.

Cody White had another very nice day, as did Gunner Olszewski, who bamboozled James Pierre in a drill and then had about a 30-yard jet sweep up the left sideline later.

RELATED: Under the Radar Steelers WR Having Strong Camp

Even Dan Chisena, way down the depth chart, made the crowd pop with a long touchdown on a deep post in seven on seven. One of his teammates responded with a “Damn, Daniel.”

The day overall probably went to the defense, with that side winning the two most important team drills, but several offenses players did well for themselves.

More Minkah

Though many veterans were given the day off, Minkah Fitzpatrick continued his ramp-up to full participation with a solid day of work. He was not in the game for seven shots, but later participated in team periods for the first time this camp. He is likely on track for a full day the next time the team gets together on Tuesday.

Other Kenny

The one depth defensive back that was a consistent winner on the day was safety Kenny Robinson. He had two highlight plays, running down Connor Heyward to break up a pass and a pick six in a seven on seven.

Two-Minute Drill

The first team offense struck quickly with a big play, with Pickett finding White streaking down the field. He was tackled at the four yard line, basically taking the timing out of the arrangement and setting up a mini seven shots.

But the defense held fast. After two incompletions, Pickett scrambled forward on third down, but Fitzpatrick came flying up from his safety spot to tackle him at the one.

On fourth down, Pickett looked right and had White open short in the end zone, but a blitzing Sullivan got his hands up and swatted it away for a defensive win.

Things went much the same way for the second team. Connor Heyward made a great catch going to the ground to get them down to the seven very quickly, but then the defense stiffened. Trubisky was nearly intercepted, but Elijah Riley couldn’t keep the ball from hitting the turf with his diving effort. On fourth down, Trubisky looked left for Darnell Washington, but the big tight end slipped coming out of his break and the ball sailed over his head.

Rain Makes an Appearance

The weather has been mostly hot and sunny for the first week-plus of Steelers training cast, but the players were treated to an overcast day with a little bit of rain. With the balls a bit more slick, the team took the unusual step of doing a full-squad ball security drill, focusing on recovering fumbles.

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