UNITY TWP., Pa. — Well, this is the final training camp takeaways of the year with the end tolling in Latrobe. The Steelers will head back to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex starting next week. It was a lighter practice focused on planning for the Buffalo Bills on Saturday and Kenny Pickett and the offense were at the forefront. What can we take away from the Steelers’ last practice from training camp in 2023?
First Rep: Someone jumps early, but I’m not sure if it was a Chuks Okorafor false start or Alex Highsmith jumping offsides. Mike Tomlin was not sure either. Either way, the play went live and Kenny Pickett found Pat Freiermuth on an out route wide open for a touchdown. Both seemed a little confused by the shack motion from Najee Harris into the backfield. I’ll say the offense leads 1-0 here.
Second Rep: Pickett has Allen Robinson II cross the formation from left to right. That creates a 3×1 formation. However, everyone is covered right away as Cam Heyward beats Mason Cole and breaks through the line. Pickett finds Diontae Johnson in the endzone across his body but this would have been a Heyward sack. Tied 1-1.
Third Rep: Pickens is far out to the boundary on the line of scrimmage as the X-receiver. Jaylen Warren comes from out wide and motions back into the backfield to sidecar Pickett to the right. Pickett takes a three-step drop and looks for Pickens on a sail route but it is incomplete. Good coverage by Levi Wallace. Defense leads 2-1.
Fourth Rep: It’s a 3×1 formation with Joey Porter Jr. following Robinson to the most inside receiver. Porter plays up and Pickett wants to hit Robinson on a quick out route, but Porter reads and uses his length to bat the ball down and away. Defense leads 3-1.
Fifth Rep: Calvin Austin motions across the formation at Mitch Trubisky’s signal and into the slot to create a stacked look with Connor Heyward on the line. Trubisky steps back to pass and Austin gets open on the whip route against Elijah Riley. However, Riley does a job to stick to the near hip and bat it down when it came Austin’s way. Defense leads 4-1.
Sixth Rep: The Steelers have double stacks to both sides. Darnell Washington motions across the formation to play in-line toward the field side. Trubisky steps back to pass and there is no one open but the middle parts like the red sea and he walks in for a touchdown. Defense leads 4-2.
Seventh Rep: Trubisky steps back to pass and is pressured up the middle by Armon Watts and off the edge by Quincy Roche. He escapes out of it but throws it up and out of the endzone in the direction of Hakeem Butler. Defense wins 5-2.
Offensive Line Shuffling
The Steelers were in half shells, meaning only helmets and jerseys, so there was really no expectation of contact here today. And that is exactly what happened. But the Steelers tinkered with some interesting offensive line combinations that I thought were fascinating. With no Isaac Seumalo, the Steelers got fancy with some of the depth on their offensive line. Nate Herbig did not practice, so Kevin Dotson ran with the first-team offensive line at left guard. That pushed Bill Dunkle up to the second team. But at times, they would shift Dylan Cook, a tackle, inside to guard for the first time in training camp.
It was not lost on me that Le’Raven Clark, who started training camp with the second team, was demoted to the third team exclusively. Cook and Spencer Anderson both the reps with the second team back and forth with one another. Meanwhile, Anderson did not play any center in this practice. That likely signals that Kendrick Green, who ran with the second and third teams, will get the second-team reps in the game, with the potential for some Ryan McCollum there.
Lastly, we saw some reps with the first team during each period where Dan Moore Jr. would shift over to right tackle and Broderick Jones will come in at left tackle. I am expecting to see this a little bit on Saturday against the Bills. It gives Moore game exposure at right tackle and Jones first-team exposure in the game. That was by far the biggest takeaway from the linemen’s shuffles.
The Steelers’ defense decided to make some plays on the football today. Although it was some scout team install and such things, the defense nabbed four interceptions throughout practice. My favorite was when Breiden Fehoko tipped a Mitch Trubisky throw at the line of scrimmage, allowing nose tackle Jonathan Marshall to nab an interception as a result.
But Kwon Alexander, Mark Robinson, and Trenton Thompson each had interceptions. James Pierre should have had one as well but dropped it. Given the lightened practice, I will not put that much stock here, but I thought it was something notable to point out.
Busted Coverages Out of the Backfield
One interesting commonality from today was some concerning busts in the Steelers’ defense, particularly on running backs toward the flat. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, and Anthony McFarland each had some big plays out of the flat that were just straight-up busted coverages. It came from the second level, so this likely rides with the inside linebackers and outside linebackers communicating at that level.
The Bills will use their running backs in that manner, so this should be something to watch, and Mike Tomlin noted in his press conference earlier today that defensive communication would be paramount on Saturday. This is something that I am circling overall.
Hakeem Butler Struggles
There is a ton of potential in the tape from Hakeem Butler. It is actually hard to not notice what Butler brings to the table. He is big and has fantastic athleticism. But the bigger question has always been the consistency and the level to which the former fourth-round pick could maintain that level of consistency. At times during training camp, he has made highlight-reel grabs, while at other times, it has been head-scratching drops.
It was the latter on Thursday. Butler maybe had the worst drop of training camp on a crosser where he was wide open and just dropped it. That happened again on a slant that Butler should have caught. There was an opening for someone to make some noise and really force the Steelers hand to make a move, but so far, that has simply not happened.
Pressley Harvin III Shows Out
I have not talked much about the punter battle, but the Steelers have let Braden Mann and Pressley Harvin III really boot it out. So far, Harvin has simply been the more consistent and better punter. He brings better directional punting, and while both can boom it, Harvin has grasped the intricacies of the punting job better than it appears.
Of course, to me, everything rides on what happens in this game on Saturday since Harvin will get out there for the first time. But right now, I just have a lot of questions about Mann’s consistency despite some great flashes of ability to drive the football. Harvin has to maintain that and he should win the job.
Explosive Plays Galore
One encouraging thing from today was the fact that the first-team offense had plenty of explosive plays on Thursday. Kenny Pickett connected with Diontae Johnson on a 40-yard post route down the middle of the field. Later, he would George Pickens down the sideline for 35 yards on a wheel route. Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both took busted wheel routes for about 40 yards.
With the second-team offense, Cody White had three catches for more than 25 yards on Thursday. There is not much you can take away from those team periods, but the willingness and execution to be explosive, especially with Pickett at the helm is a notable one.