The first day of pads means one thing. Backs on backers. It’s the highlight of the day, a drill that captures the physical nature of Steelers’ practice, and sets the tone for the rest of camp. For a couple of rookies, it was probably their first “welcome to the NFL” moment.
But Mike Tomlin was pleased with the reps rookies Anthony McFarland and Alex Highsmith received.
“Younger guys like McFarland, man, we’re going to want to see the same thing,” Tomlin told reporters via Zoom. “On the other side of the ball, you might have saw an unusual number of reps from, from Alex Highsmith. We realize that reps is the platform for learning. So they’re going to get reps and it’s their job to adjust and to show rapid improvement.”
The fact McFarland was even given the opportunity is a positive sign. That should end any concerns, which were silly even before today, of him being the next Chris Rainey or Dri Archer. Those players weren’t even allowed to participate in this drill, shuttled to work with the wide receivers instead. While McFarland isn’t the most accomplished pass protector, he’s much bigger than those guys and showed a willingness on tape to put his face in the fan. Being a well-rounded player is the key to playing time, especially if James Conner again struggles to stay healthy.
For Highsmith, it was his first crack at a true training camp environment too. In college, he was used as a true EDGE rusher for just one season, playing out of position as a base end before his senior season. We’ve noted he’s a more refined pass rusher than most guys following his career arc but today served as a good baseline for him to work on his craft at the NFL level. For as much as we’ve criticized Keith Butler over the years, the guy knows how to teach outside linebackers how to get after the QB.
Tomlin also cautioned to worry less about the results and more about the enthusiasm.
“Oftentimes like is the case, the first time you do backs-on-backers, it’s more about new people getting adjusted to the intensity of the drill and learning how important technique is,” Tomlin said. “Although it’s emotionally charged. So, it’s a lot of teaching and learning the first time through. I think always a good reflection of backs-on-backers is the second time we do it and people have a chance to digest and learn. So I’ll be excited about the next time we do it.”
Unfortunately, without us there at camp and traditional media not allowed to report very little, it’s impossible to know who impressed and who struggled. Sadly, that lack of information is likely to be a running theme throughout the rest of training camp.