Friday, Aug. 2, Latrobe, Pa.
Finally, a team that tackles.
Ninth team I’ve seen practice. First team that tackled.
But first, running backs against linebackers in blitz pickup. The back’s alone, behind center, protecting a ballboy with the ball—and with very nimble feet, because 15-year-old kids don’t want to get steamrolled by Larry Foote. The linebacker comes in with a running start, from five yards away. Maybe the backer jukes the back, and maybe the backer slams into the back to overpower him and get to the “quarterback.”
Mike Tomlin runs the drill. He loves it.
“Two-six!’’ the excitable head coach yells. “In there, two-six!’’
In steps Le’Veon Bell, the second-round running back who’s supposed to win the starting job. But he won’t win anything if he can’t pass-protect. And this is the crucible.
Across from him, to his left, is the 240-pound veteran inside backer, Foote. The whistle blows, and Foote sprints into Bell. BOOM! Foote plows into Bell’s solar plexus and pushes him back but doesn’t destroy him. The collision prompts hoots and howls. Cornier than thou, but this is what I’ve seen for nearly three decades coming to Steeler camp. Steeler football.
Foote, from Michigan, lines up again. Bell (Michigan State) lines up again. There will be a round two.
“Your problem is you went to Michigan State!’’ Tomlin hollers at Bell. “Foote don’t like you!’’
This time Bell handles Foote, blocking him to the outside and pushing him off his path. If Foote won the first, the second round goes to Bell. “The good thing about him,’’ Tomlin says later, “is he’s patient in his blitz pickup. That’s important. He doesn’t fall for the fakes. He focuses on the technique.’’
Then they go 11 on 11, and Bell jukes corner Curtis Brown to the ground in a move that leaves the crowd of some 10,000 oooohing. That, you don’t teach. The kid’s got the guts to stand in there against a veteran linebacker knowing he’s going to get plowed, and you can see he knows how to make people miss. He tweaks his left knee a few plays after the juke; the Steelers say it’s minor. But it is another reminder that the majority of teams never get too physical in training camp anymore, and the Steelers do.
I ask Tomlin after the 150-minute practice why the Steelers do it this way when so many teams do not.
“I just think physicality is an asset of ours, collectively,’’ Tomlin says. “In order to make it an asset, we’ve got to do it. You’ve got to pit man versus man out here. You’ve got to compete. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to run away from it. Football is a game that’s continually evolving, and we acknowledge that. But the physicality of the game will never go anywhere.”
You see the players, in an 11-on-11 first-team two-minute drive, competing excitedly. Tomlin has always put a premium on drafting and acquiring guys who love what they do. Give him a choice between the better player and slightly lesser but feistier player, and Tomlin will take the latter every time.
“That love [of football] is essential for us,’’ he says. “In football, we spend a lot of time talking about things you can measure. But that’s black and white. Everyone, every team, can measure those things. So, internally, we spend our time talking about things you can’t measure, the things that are truly mystical. We realize that’s what’s going to be critical in winning and losing. And to me, love of the game is going to be a critical part in finding Steelers.’’
We can see that.