Training Camp Takeaways: Najee Harris Shows ‘Attitude;’ Defense Has Edge in Backs on ‘Backers
PITTSBURGH — The backs on ‘backers drill is always one of the highlights of a Mike Tomlin-run training camp, and Wednesday was no exception, as the Steelers, in pads for the first time at Heinz Field this summer, had their inside linebackers and running backs go head to head in a pass rush/blocking drill.
“The backs on ‘backers is important because it’s more of an attitude drill,” head coach Tomlin said. “It’s an opportunity to get to know some of these people.”
First-round pick Najee Harris was thrown immediately into the mix, paired up with Marcus Allen for a series of battles in which the first-round rookie was one of the few offensive players to routinely hold his own, battling Allen to a draw at least twice, while also demonstratively beating the veteran in the final rep between the two.
“I think we all saw that Najee likes competition,” Tomlin said. “He doesn’t run away from it, he runs to it. That’s something about the drill that was excited about that drill from my perspective today. … His demeanor was telling. It was exciting that he has an appetite for that.”
Elsewhere, it was the defense that had the edge. Robert Spillane was able to beat Anthony McFarland Jr. and Snell. Undrafted rookie Calvin Bundage defeated Derek Watt. Kalen Ballage stood his ground against rookie Buddy Johnson.
The tight ends were soundly whipped by the outside linebackers, even without All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt participating, as Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith were both dominant. Inside linebacker Devin Bush, recovering from ACL surgery, was also held out of the drill.
Overall, the drill was a win for the defense, though Ballage and Trey Edmunds were consistent winners and Harris held his own. Cassius Marsh was the only defender to fail to get home.
Seven shots is a daily set of players from the two-yard line, featuring the Steelers No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense for three plays, No. 2 offense vs. No. 2 defense for two plays and the No. 3 offense vs. No. 3 defense for two plays.
🏈: Ben Roethlisberger threw incomplete to the left corner of the end zone, with Cam Sutton breaking up the pass intended for Chase Claypool.
🏈: Roethlisberger connected with Najee Harris, who was split out and wide and ran a slant pattern in front of Bush.
🏈: Benny Snell Jr. went largely untouched into the end zone, running behind Rashaad Coward on the left side of the line.
🏈: Mason Rudolph threw right to Isaiah McKoy on a comeback route in front of Antoine Brooks Jr., just over the goal line.
🏈: Rudolph had to throw quickly to avoid pressure from a blitzing Marcus Allen and threw to a wide open Kalen Ballage in the right flat, in what appeared to be Justin Layne’s zone of responsibility. Allen might’ve gotten to Rudolph if the quarterbacks were fair game.
🏈: Dwayne Haskins rolled right and with no one in a gold jersey around, called his own number on a quarterback bootleg.
🏈: Haskins threw to Tyler Simmons in the corner of the end zone, but Simmons could not get both fee down. DeMarkus Acy had coverage.
There was some pushing and shoving between Ballage and Bundage after the latter blew up an outside run during a team period. The Steelers left tackles, without presumptive starter Chukwuma Okorafor, struggled to set the edge against the run. The players were quickly separated.
RUNNING INTO TROUBLE
The first practice in pads is also the first real chance to evaluate the running game. Harris carried four times for eight yards in the first team run period, getting stood up three times after breaking the first one for a 12-yard gain.
The issue after that was Alex Highsmith, who dominated rookie Dan Moore Jr., who was in at left tackle for Chukwuma Okorafor.
“I thought 56, particularly, Alex Highsmith was stout at the point of attack when we ran over in that direction,” Tomlin said. “But again, he was playing against a younger guy who was getting his first exposure to the drill because we didn’t have Chuks in there.
2 RB SETS
The Steelers brought out a lot of innovative things on Wednesday, but none were greater than their use of Pony sets. The Steelers ran multiple two-running back sets with McFarland and a variety of other running backs from multiple alignments.
On one play, McFarland and Ballage lined up next to Mason Rudolph. However, McFarland motioned out to the slot, and caught a quick pass off of an in-breaking route.
On another play, McFarland was lined up as an H-Back across from Pat Freiermuth. It was essentially a psuedo-Wing T formation. They faked the jet sweep to McFarland and hit him in the flat for a 15 yard gain. It seems the Steelers will use multiple backs at the same time and McFarland will be at the focal point of that portion of the offense. — Nick Farabaugh
Kendrick Green and Roethlisberger are new to each other and they certainly struggled with some snap exchanges today. Shotgun snaps seemed clean, but Roethlisberger went under center for a lengthy amount of time, and they lacked chemistry there, with a few rough exchanges. That is something that must improve throughout camp. — Nick Farabaugh
HIGHLIGHTS FROM WR-DB ONE-ON-ONES
Claypool dusted Justin Layne’s attempt at press coverage. Layne shot the outside hand with inside leverage, and Claypool attacked him to the outside. He then swatted his inside elbow away, and Claypool was wide open on a slant route.
James Pierre was impressive. On one comeback route by James Washington, Pierre stuck with Washington and mirrored him the whole way. It was then just a pass breakup at the catch point to finish it.
Diontae Johnson ran a pretty sail route against Sutton. Johnson’s quickness was on display and he created about five yards of separation.
Washington had a similar crime on Sutton. His quick outside release and jab inside caught Sutton off guard once he had flipped his hips, and Sutton fell to the ground as Washington ran wide open.
Simmons went up against Stephen Denmark and Acy on back-to-back reps and won both deep. At the line of scrimmage, Simmons has a nice stutter release to gain some separation. — Nick Farabaugh
The Steelers ran just as much motion as advertised. There was a variety of motion from jet motion to trade motion to yo-yo motion, to zipper motion, and even orbit motion.
Matt Canada’s fingerprints are all on the offense. In the running game in particular, the Steelers ran four straight plays with varying types of motion. Two were jet motion, one was zipper motion, and the last was a trade motion to make a formation unbalanced. All put together, the Steelers concepts of motion will be everywhere. — Nick Farabaugh
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