As was the case a year ago, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers began smacking pads well before the first preseason game, as the veteran head coach had his team trading blows with the third practice of training camp—the earliest day possible.
It’s hard to say how much it benefited the team last season, if at all, considering the Steelers began the year 2-6 and finished 8-8. But considering they finished the year on a 6-2 run, it would be difficult to say that it negatively affected team stamina down the stretch.
Last season, the Steelers opened up training camp with round after round of live tackling drills during the first week of camp, during which young players and free agents alike were able to get more opportunities to showcase themselves than they normally would have.
The same could be said for this season’s first week of hitting, where some players like Jordan Dangerfield and Terence Garvin helped raise their profiles in the full-contact drills. Injuries, also, have been fortunately minimal.
As we wind down to the preseason opener, however, we may see those full-contact sessions begin to wind down as well.
Last season, such drills were incrementally phased out leading up to the second preseason game, and packed away until next year by the time the Steelers returned to the South Side facilities.
That might be a sound strategy to replicate in 2014. As I wrote about closing in on this time last year, Tomlin let the world in on a little secret that if you’re healthy and yet not getting playing time in the second preseason game, you’re probably going to be getting cut in the first wave of roster trimming from 90 to 75.
It’s rare to see live-contact drills in any training camp around the league, but prior to last season, it was quite a long time since the last time Latrobe saw one decades ago.
Tomlin felt it was useful to change the pace of things and incorporate the added physicality to the roster evaluation process in order to help set a tone for a young and inexperienced roster, while also providing additional avenues for said youngsters to showcase themselves and to stand out for their coaches.
If anything, the roster as a whole, as well as the starting lineup, has only gotten younger since last season with the additions of players such as Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Markus Wheaton, and Mike Mitchell—not to mention the subtractions of the likes of Ryan Clark, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel.
So it’s no wonder that we saw Tomlin introduce the live tackling periods for the second consecutive camp, which is an aberration regardless of how much he feigned disbelief in response to reporters’ inquisitiveness about the hitting. But the tone has been set, the auditions have been a success, and as the real hitting approaches, we can probably expect to see the pads popping less going forward.