Steelers camp: George Pickens’ jaw-dropping catch, rookies highlight Day 1 in pads

LATROBE, Pa. — First, it was Najee Harris with a strong inside run behind the combo block of Isaac Seumalo and Mason Cole. Then it was Harris on the same inside zone run behind James Daniels, who pushed Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts out of the way.

The first live plays in this training camp were two downhill runs in a Seven Shots period that rarely calls running plays. Both resulted in scores, finally putting a visual to what the Steelers have continued to say about how they want their offense to run this year — a physical style behind a new-look offensive line and a healthy Harris.

Some might point to those plays as a tone-setter for the season. Deliberate by Mike Tomlin or just a crazy coincidence?

It was sort of reminiscent of many years ago, when they threw the ball with Tommy Maddox on the first two live goal line plays of camp — a no-no for what had always been a run-first team. It resulted in a 6-10 year.

Now, if Tuesday’s first plays in pads were tone-setters dialed up by Tomlin, the players didn’t quite view it that way.

“No, no, that wasn’t the plan,” Daniels said with a laugh. “We haven’t run the ball in Seven Shots all year because we were just in helmets, so it was nice to run the ball in that situation because that close, you want to want people hitting each other. It is not like that, I promise you that.”

It sure did resemble that.

As the Seven Shots drill continued, the second team started with an inside handoff to Anthony McFarland Jr. Tomlin was so disgusted that he made them run it again. After an incomplete pass, an inside handoff to Darius Hagans found the end zone just ahead of the charging inside linebacker Tanner Muse.

There were four run play calls, and all were inside zone, downhill run calls in a span of eight plays. They might not have run four running plays in Seven Shots all of last year combined, including the regular season.

“No, we don’t,” Cole said about running in Seven Shots. “But we also have thrown the ball 3o times over the past four days. We were itching to run the ball and felt good about it. They keep talking about leaning on his offense, and it was something that we wanted to do and the coach wanted to do, and it worked out pretty well.”

Even in the live team period, the Steelers ran the ball downhill.

Behind a solid block by Dan Moore Jr., Jaylen Warren raced 70 yards for the score against the first-team offense. Warren looked sharp all day. Harris didn’t have many reps at all, but the point, if there was one, was taken.

“It was an OK first day with pads on, but just OK, and that’s not good enough,” Daniels said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Here are my 10 observations from Day 5 of practice:

1. Pickens vs. Porter … again

The Steelers are five days into practice, and nearly half of them now have had an incident between George Pickens and Joey Porter Jr. Last week, Pickens slammed into Porter down the field in an attempted block that created a ruckus and a broken chain. On Tuesday, Pickens hauled in a one-handed catch over Porter 25 yards down the field, then got up and shoved the ball directly into Porter’s chest.

“I don’t know how he caught it,” Porter said. “We are teammates, so we want the best out of each other at the end of the day. We are going to talk a little, but it is never going to be past that point.”

Porter grabbed the ball and fired it back at Pickens as he celebrated with his teammates. Defensive backs coach Grady Jackson instantly went over to Porter to have a discussion with him, most likely about retaliating.

“You know they’re young guys, both trying to find a place for themselves in this thing and improve daily,” Tomlin said. “And it’s a natural thing that they come together and compete against each other. As I’m sure there’ll be some other similar matchups that may draw your attention.”

Porter had an interception off of Mitch Trubisky later in the practice.

Seeing what massive rookie third-round tight end Darnell Washington could do with pads on was at the top of the list of many at Chuck Noll Field on Tuesday, Tomlin included. It is not unusual for Tomlin to use the backs on ‘backers live drill (running backs and tight ends against linebackers) to get a read on a certain player.

This time he was interested in Washington. Tomlin called out T.J. Watt twice to go against the rookie early in the drill.

Washington won the first rep when he got his hands on Watt, who tried to dip his shoulder and go up and under. The second rep was won by Watt. Later, Tomlin called on Alex Highsmith to go against Washington. Highsmith dipped under the 6-foot-7 Washington for the sack.

“It’s tough with no pads on,” Washington said. “It’s just pulling jerseys and stuff. Now that you have pads, it is legit.”

3. Welcome to the NFL

John Lovett spent the morning at St. Margaret Hospital getting a physical and the afternoon getting run over by two large humans. The Steelers signed the former Penn State running back in the morning and threw him in cold in backs on ‘backers against Elandon Roberts and Mark Robinson.

Both had the same result — Lovett on his back after a booming collision. It is hard to criticize Lovett with that, considering he had zero acclimation time leading up to it, but one thing is clear: Roberts loves to hit people. When you think of a downhill ‘backer who seeks out physicality, that is Roberts. “He does everything with intensity,” Tomlin said.

4. Matchup of the day

Sure, Washington was out front and center during the drill, but the most competitive was rookie Nick Herbig against Connor Heyward. Herbig has been the darling of non-padded pass rushing over the first four days, and many have been critical of Heyward’s blocking. In backs on ‘backers, the two went up against each other at least a half-dozen times, with the results being pretty even.

The first set of reps was a three-peat — Tomlin made them go a third time after the pair stalemated the first two. They were good reps because both are undersized for their position. I am not sure how either would match up with bigger outside linebackers or bigger tackles or tight ends.

5. Jump ball

Washington is 6-7, so he can be a target in the red zone. Trubisky knows that. When a play broke down, Trubisky rolled right and tossed the ball high in the air like an alley-oop. Washington jumped up and caught it for the touchdown.

“It was like a basketball play,” Washington said. “I have been doing that my whole life. I just went up and got it.”

The team’s first-round pick was in the same category as Washington — a rookie who is hard to evaluate until you see how performs with pads on. Jones took maybe two snaps in live team periods at left tackle, so it was hard to see his development there.

However, the team did do live one-on-one linemen drills, where Jones arguably won all four of his reps — two against Larry Ogunjobi and one pancake against Markus Golden. Still, one-on-one drills aren’t football. They are football-like.

“They all did well,” Daniels said. “But it is such a bad time to look and see how guys are doing. I will tell a new offensive lineman to try to set like this even though he never set like that before just to add more to his toolbox in a situation where there is no help and if you miss a block here, the QB doesn’t get killed.”

7. Pickett opening it up

If the Steelers don’t allow Pickett to throw the ball down the field this year, it won’t be because of what they saw in camp. The majority of Pickett’s passes on the day were down the field, whether it was team periods or seven-on-seven. He threw down the field with ease and accuracy all day, hitting big plays to Diontae Johnson, Pickens, Hakeem Butler, Calvin Austin and Ja’Marcus Bradley.

8. TDs for DJ

Johnson looked the best he has all camp, as he hauled in two pretty touchdown passes — one against Levi Wallace and the other against Patrick Peterson. Johnson did not catch a touchdown all of last season. He has been banged up during a portion of camp but has put together a solid performance when he has been out there.

9. Seven Shots results

  1. Harris plowed his way into the end zone. (1-0, offense)
  2. Harris did a repeat performance. (2-0, offense)
  3. Pickett’s fade to Pat Freiermuth was knocked away by Peterson. (2-1, offense)
  4. Pickett threw the ball away as he scrambled to his left. (2-2)
  5. Trubisky’s pass to Zach Gentry fell incomplete. (3-2, defense)
  6. Inside handoff to Hagans got across the goal line as Muse couldn’t bring him down. (3-3)
  7. Trubisky’s pass to Dez Fitzpatrick was defended by Cory Trice. (4-3, defense)

10. Odds and ends

Trice had a non-contact left knee injury while covering Butler. … Minkah Fitzpatrick was excused from practice again. … Tre Norwood used his body as a missile at least twice — connecting once. … Nate Herbig pancaked rookie Keeanu Benton during a live team period. Benton got up and was favoring his leg. … Mason Rudolph isn’t having the best of luck so far in camp. On Tuesday, he got his foot stepped on but still was able to get the handoff to McFarland, who fumbled it. Muse returned it for a long gain. Rudolph is getting very limited reps. He was intercepted on Sunday after a receiver ran a route too shallow in the end zone. … Highsmith’s spin move is at a different level this year.

(Photo: Barry Reeger / Associated Press)

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