Situational football was the name of the game at Pittsburgh Steelers training camp practice on Thursday.
Mike Tomlin had the team run two sessions of the two-minute drill with some very specific conditions. Both the first- and second-team got an opportunity to score in a specified amount of time.
The Steelers had the benefits of working with replacement refs during the team drills and other practice sessions as well.
In addition to the two-minute offense, Pittsburgh once again worked on the no-huddle offense, making for an action-packed practice.
Here are some observations from Thursday’s practice.
Cortez Allen has been having an outstanding camp this year and is making a strong push to start at cornerback over Keenan Lewis.
Allen has been working outside with the second unit and in the nickel with the first team.
Quarterbacks have rarely tested Allen. He has been excellent in coverage and is very physical against receivers.
Even when he allows a completion, Allen has had tight coverage.
For example, Ben Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass to Emmanuel Sanders that just flew over Allen’s head into the hands of Sanders. There was nothing Allen could do, as it was just a perfect pass.
In a rare event, Derrick Williams burned Allen for a deep touchdown reception during 7-on-7 drills. But Allen bounced back in a big way.
During the final set of team drills, the second unit was running the two-minute drill. Charlie Batch threw a pass to Toney Clemons, and Allen jumped over him to make the interception.
I have been very high on Allen since last year and have said it is only a matter of time before he starts. That time may come very soon.
Todd Haley had the Steelers offense once again working on the no-huddle offense. This time, it had mixed results.
Roethlisberger had a great pocket and plenty of time to throw, but there was excellent downfield coverage, and he used his outlet receiver—Isaac Redman.
Jonathan Dwyer later caught a screen pass, but it was well-defended, and he had no blocking in front of him.
Chris Rainey continued to get carries out of the backfield and showed how he can quickly hit the hole, even in very tight spaces.
The most interesting carry of the day came by Will Johnson, who was in the backfield while they were working out of the shotgun.
There was one instance when the defense was not prepared.
As they switched units, Andre Freeman failed to go onto the field, leaving the defense with only 10 players. Dick LeBeau was not pleased and voiced his displeasure, saying that they can't play with only 10 guys on the field.
That was one of the few down moments for the defense, though, as they looked dominant.
What has been lacking from the offense has been quick passes. The coverage has been good down-field and the quarterbacks have had to hold onto the ball.
As a result, they have been throwing to the backs, but that is not the first option. But it does take time for the offense to get on the same page, and it is good to see the defense performing well with the young defensive line and backups playing at both outside linebacker positions.
The real test will come when the Steelers face the Philadelphia Eagles on August 9.
The two-minute drill was the major focus of practice on Thursday.
For the first session, Tomlin said that the offense would need to go 62 yards in 1:52 with only one timeout.
The offense went with three receivers, one tight end and one running back.
Roethlisberger’s first pass was incomplete to Redman out of the backfield. He followed this up with a sideline completion to Antonio Brown for a first down.
Sanders then dropped a pass and had the next one tip off of his fingers and go high into the air before falling to the ground. Tipped balls like that are often intercepted.
On third down, Stevenson Sylvester applied pressure, but Roethlisberger got the pass away to Brown across the middle for a short gain.
Then on fourth down, Cameron Heyward collapsed the pocket, but Roethlisberger was able to step up and scramble for a big gain and a first down. He then used his only timeout.
Roethlisberger had a touchdown setup on the very next play. A good pump-fake fooled Curtis Brown, allowing Antonio Brown to get behind him, but Roethlisberger overthrew him. It was a bad miss.
Brown came back on the next play to make a tough first-down reception along the sidelines.
Adrian applied pressure which helped force an incomplete pass to Sanders, but Roethlisberger would come back and hit Jerricho Cotchery for a gain over the middle.
This brought the Steelers to inside the five-yard line, and the clock was running.
Roethlisberger got the snap off just before the clock expired and threw one up in the corner of the end zone, but Brown ran to the inside. It was simply a lack of communication in a pressure situation.
The offense failed to score, and they did not look very good.
Even with a couple of drops, Roethlisberger was not very sharp, and it was actually the worst that he has looked during camp.
Watching the offense perform, you also had to question how much better they could be with Mike Wallace.
Not that Cotchery is a bad receiver, but the Steelers are in a much better situation when Sanders is in the slot, or even using four receivers instead of three.
The second-team offense struggled against the starting defense and failed to score.
Ike Taylor popped Williams, who dropped the first pass, and then Byron Leftwich overthrew David Gilreath.
On third down, Ziggy Hood drove David DeCastro deep into the pocket, and Leftwich’s pass was tipped.
They converted on fourth-down on a pass to Williams, but the defense probably should have been credited with a sack as a couple of players got to Leftwich.
The starting defense did exactly what it should have against the second-team offense—dominate.
The second two-minute drill had the offense going 48 yards with only 1:06 on the clock. This time, they had two timeouts to work with.
Roethlisberger connected with Redman in the flat for a big gain.
The play probably should have been stopped for only a few yards, but the defender did not put a hit on Redman.
Roethlisberger then threw a deep pass to Brown, who beat Lewis for a 36-yard touchdown reception.
After a disappointing first session, Roethlisberger and the offense were much better the second time around.
They went for a quick-strike approach—which failed in the first session—and it worked to perfection.
Communication and execution are important in any situation in football, but they are magnified in a two-minute offense.
After missing an open Brown in the first session, Roethlisberger did not make the same mistake and threw a perfect deep pass.
What is more encouraging is that Brown has been able to get open for big scoring plays. That is important with Wallace out.
When the second unit got onto the field, Charlie Batch threw an interception on the very first play.
Allen jumped over Clemons to make the pick. That was the final play of practice.
Replacement refs were working at training camp, and they had a couple of notable moments.
At one point, the team had to be reminded that the refs were at practice for the day.
Later, Tomlin may not have wanted them there.
After a Shaun Suisham kick that went out of the end zone, one of the officials blew his whistle.
Tomlin yelled at the official, and another member of the staff shouted over that it was suppose to be a “live drill.”
Taylor or Lewis (both players were in the area after the play) drew the first flag on the day when covering Brown.
Later, Taylor grabbed Sanders by the jersey that certainly would have gotten a flag, but the refs were not working during this drill. Sanders was able to break the hold and make the reception.
Thursday’s practice had an excellent crowd. It appeared to be the largest weekday crowd of camp.
Tomlin was very vocal throughout the entire practice, maybe the most vocal he has been all of camp.
Clemons did not have the best day. While he is an excellent physical specimen and can get open, he lacks concentration. He allowed one perfectly thrown ball to go through his hands on a drill.
Later, Clemons would burn Walter McFadden and dropped what should have been a touchdown, but failed to adjust. Haley was not impressed and did not hide it. He got behind the defense one more time and failed to adjust to the ball.
Not to pile on, but Clemons had one thrown behind him on what should have been a comeback route, but he failed to turn to look back for the ball.
Gilreath dropped a pass and had to do another rep. He made the play the second time. Gilreath made an excellent catch over Freeman.
Tyler Beiler did not have his best practice. He was given instruction by the coaches on two reps in a row.
In what seemed like a theme for the day, Juamorris Stewart ran a great route and dropped what should have been a completion.
Jimmy Young put an excellent move on Freeman to make a reception.
Marquis Maze tweaked his lower leg after making a reception. It appeared as though his foot got caught in the grass. He was fine.
Will Johnson was very involved in the offense and may be pushing David Johnson for the starting job.
Willie Colon absolutely dominated Chris Carter one play during team drills.
David Paulson got time with the first-team offense once again. He looks comfortable as a receiver, but needs to improve his blocking.
In his short time in camp, Paul Cox has performed well. He is very tall and lanky, but can catch.
Ryan Clark was very vocal again on Thursday. He complimented the officials for ruling Williams out of bounds on what could have been a reception.
Clark also got on the fans for only cheering for the offense and told the fans they were going to play Renegade after an interception by Walter McFadden.
Terrence Frederick batted down one pass.
Ike Taylor dropped an interception. It is good to see that he is in midseason form.