As We Near The Preseason, Time To Tone Down The Steelers Physical Practices

By Matthew Marczi

The 2013 edition of training camp, and in particular the padded practice portion of the proceedings, really opened up with a bang. Or rather, a series of bangs, spread out throughout the past week or so. More bangs than have been a part of a Pittsburgh Steelers training camp since Chuck Noll patrolled the sidelines.

And with that series of bangs followed a series of bumps and bruises, or training camp “nicks”, as head coach Mike Tomlin is inclined to refer to them, “associated with this time of year”.

There is no question that the physical nature of this edition of training camp has made its mark on the roster, both for better and for worse. Young players are getting the opportunity to showcase themselves in live fire drills, opportunities to put themselves on display in front of the coaches that they otherwise might not have.

With those opportunities, however, come injuries, and the Steelers have certainly had their fair share of injuries. While not all of them should be contributed directly to the live tackling portions of these practice sessions (Cortez Allen’s injury, for example, occurred before the padded practices began), a number of them most certainly have come as a result of the full contract scrimmages.

Joining Allen on the sidelines over the last few days due to injury are players such as Curtis Brown, Terry Hawthorne, Le’Veon Bell, Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Adrian Robinson, Nicholas Williams, Matt Spaeth (who had his knee drained), and DeMarcus Van Dyke. Should it be surprising that the linebacker and cornerback positions have suffered the largest amount of casualties due to the increased contact?

During the Sunday edition of Steelers Live on the team’s website, hosts Bob Labriola and Mike Prisuta talked about the physical nature of this past week of practices and the tone that it has set in training camp. Prisuta at one point said that the point has been made; I think I agree.

The point has been made. The tone has been set. The players are hungry and understand what it takes to make 2013 different from 2012. Perhaps it is time to start dialing down the physicality of practices as we approach the beginning of the preseason, which started last night with the Miami Dolphins taking on the Dallas Cowboys.

The Steelers play their first preseason game against the New York Giants on Saturday. How many more full contact scrimmages will take place between now and then? The coaching staff must determine whether the increased chance of injury is outweighed by the potential growth some of the young players can achieve during those drills.

Another Tomlinism applies to iron sharpening iron, but iron can only be sharpened to so fine a point until it breaks. As valuable as these training camp snaps might be to the growth and development of the back half of the roster, and for integrating new elements of the offense, they are still snaps that do not count.

Nor do they fully replicate game-like scenarios. After all, that is what the preseason games are for. And now that the preseason is just around the corner, it seems appropriate, to me at least, to start to tone down the physicality to preserve the players’ bodies.

It is all fine and good to learn and grow from a live tackling drill, but it benefits nobody when you are missing practices due to injury. Look at Curtis Brown; he got the opportunity to enter the starting lineup in the nickel with Allen out, but now he is with Allen on the sidelines watching Josh Victorian, Buddy Jackson, and Ryan Steed.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • steeltown

    I agree for the most part.. the live drills were completely necessary to separate the men from the boys, so to speak, but now with preseason right around the corner they probably could tone it down just a little, and I mean just a little

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    The key to gauging how much hitting you schedule is the ability for the team to practice at full speed the next day.

  • cencalsteeler

    There are only a few weeks left to start setting the roster. Tomlin is auditioning these young guys with physical play to see who stands out and makes the team. Of course, there are always going to be injuries, but that is football. I just read the Raiders have already lost 12 players, with 6 being starters. I’d say were lucky.
    As Matthew mentioned, Cortez’s injury happened before pads. I like Tomlins approach. A lot of the vets are getting less reps and days off, so he’s aware of how far to take it. If these guys aren’t battle tested in practice, imagine the injuries that will pile up once you start playing. Again, Tomlin has a short window to audition these young kids in pads, so lets see if they’re Steeler material.

  • westcoasteeler

    Let me reiterate this last statement.
    “Tomlin has a short window to audition these young kids in pads, so lets see if they’re Steeler material”.
    While we want no injuries, I like the intensity Tomlin is bringing this preseason.

  • steeltown

    Agreed, save Embernate, we seem to be relatively healthy when you consider “major” injury that can occur..still a long way to go till the regular season, so lets hope that remains the case

  • DoctorNoah

    I think we all like the physicality. Watching the types of drills in evidence last Friday, my overall impression was that the actual hitting was fairly limited – backs v backers and the limited scrimmaging.

    I think it’s important to remember that most ACL tears are non contact injuries, as are hamstring strains and many other injuries that have afflicted the Steelers and other NFL teams. In Embernate’s situation, watching the guards practice, they have to move and block and thus their practices are going to look like scrimmages anyway. Lineman are more likely to have contact knee injuries. Still, you can hardly blame the increased physicality of practices for that…

  • Matthew Marczi

    Well said, and succinctly put to boot.

  • Matthew Marczi

    While the Steelers may be comparatively lucky from a long-term injury standpoint, they already have a number of young players who need every practice rep possible missing practices because they’re banged up from the live contact drills (Worilds, Jarvis, Bell, Curtis Brown come to mind). Missing practices offsets a lot of the gains a player can make by going through the tackling drills. So while I certainly don’t think they should stop doing it, I do think they should do it less often. As in less than every day, as they have been doing.

    And now I see that they’re in shorts today, with Tuesday being an off day, so it seems that that was the team’s plan anyway.

  • SteelersDepot

    Matt was right on time with this post. Steelers back in shorts today.

  • cencalsteeler

    I can certainly see how Tomlin is easing his way into the off day. More time to heal and get ready for Wednesday. That’s smart coaching.
    Though I see your points as valid, I don’t think associating live contact drills with injuries is a fair assessment. Most injuries have occurred during non contact drills and Curtis Browns recent injury backs that. I think Tomlin knows when to push the gas pedal and when to let up, but I am all for live contact drills. It’s the only way to assess the talent level with the young guys. If we had six months to determine who makes the team, I would be right there with you, but unfortunately, time is not on our side.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I think it is fair to say that live tackling increases the risk of injury. I mean, that is really the reason why every team in the league doesn’t do it all the time. More injuries occur in non-tackling drills because live tackling drills only account for a small percentage of any given practice. Yes, you can get injured at any point, but you are more likely to get injured in live tackling, and many of the players who’ve missed time recently, including the team’s top two draft picks, did in fact receive their bumps and bruises during these live tackling drills, based on Tweets and other accounts of those who attended the practices.

    Curtis Brown may have had to be carted off today in an unrelated drill, but he already injured himself during live tackling before that. He missed the last two practices before today due to that. As I said, the full contact sessions are all well and good and help the young players grow, but when you get banged up in these sessions and miss practices, it undoes a lot of the good that it brings.

    Live tackling in practice is a tool, but it’s just one of many tools, and it’s not something that needs to take place in every single practice. The team just went through five straight sessions of live hitting from Wednesday to Sunday, and it’s time for a breather. From now on, I expect live tackling to be a less frequent occurrence, perhaps one to three times per week. I believe part of that is because some of the young players have already begun to distinguish themselves. After all, young players on the team have been able to do so for the past 20+ years without tackling in practice (and that is what preseason games are for; they’re basically glorified situational live tackling drills).

    Rest assured, however, that they will continue, because the team firmly believes that it is essential in trying to implement zone blocking. And as I wrote previously, I see no reason why they would go away next year. I hope to see it become a fixture of future training camps, but I also hope to see it used in moderation.

    Edit: That was a lot longer than I thought it was, haha…

  • cencalsteeler

    Well Matt, I’m going to have to meet you in the middle. You make some great points and I enjoy these discussions with you. Thanks for the posts and more importantly all of your great articles.