LATROBE – On the first day of real football this season, Mike Tomlin matched his first-round pick against his second-round pick as often as he could, and then he said it was good.
“It’s an easy match,” Tomlin said after his Steelers donned pads for the first time. “I think it is appropriate. I’m sure they will continue to see more of each other.”
Tomlin threw Jarvis Jones and Le’Veon Bell at each other four times in the backs-on-backers pit. And after they battled to a draw, each received several first-team reps during team scrimmages – and each made a first-team accounting of himself.
“Obviously they want us to be a part of this team and they want to use us this year,” said Jones, the first-round pick. “We’ve got to be ready for it. I think we play our first game in a week and a half from now, so they’re trying to put us in position to learn as much as we can.”
The learning started early in Monday’s practice in the middle of a coaches/front-office/media/fans horde that encircled the running backs and linebackers.
The backers approximated a blitz with a running head start while the poor running backs braced for the contact and then tried to hold on.
Isaac Redman showed the backs how to block by stuffing Jason Worilds on the first rep, and Lawrence Timmons violently cracked Will Johnson’s helmet in showing the linebackers how to stampede the backs on the second rep.
And speaking of violence, Marshall McFadden thrashed Baron Batch, who foolishly came back at McFadden for some post-whistle shoving. It would’ve ended badly for Batch had angry coaches not separated the two.
Finally it was the featured cage match between the two top picks. They went at it four times; each won twice.
Yet, the violence exhibited by the other linebackers wasn’t evident when Jones hit Bell, or anyone. Jones seemed to lack explosiveness.
“Like pop?” asked Bell. “Well that’s not him. He uses his hands a lot more. When he bull-rushes he doesn’t really lead with his shoulder and head, it’s his hands, and that’s what was getting me at first because I want to kind of pop him, but he just got his hands on me and kind of moved me out of the way.”
After Jones got to the imaginary QB the second time against Bell, Tomlin said, “Ninety-five’s heavy-handed.”
Bell agreed with that assessment of Jones.
“Yeah. He’s thick,” Bell said. “I don’t know how to explain it. He’s just like a special player. He knows how to push a guy back. He’s strong and knows how to use his hands.”
Later in the practice Jones showed off another asset: his coverage skills. Lining up as an inside backer, Jones dropped into coverage and was in position to obliterate David Gilreath after the wide receiver caught a short pass on a crossing pattern. Of course, Jones held back as teammates are expected to do.
A play later, as an outside backer, Jones dropped deep to cover tight end Jamie McCoy. Jones instinctively came off McCoy to make a quick stop on an underneath receiver.
Jones also batted a ball into the air after slipping past tackle Joe Long. It was caught by the unfortunate quarterback, John Parker Wilson, whom Jones hit immediately.
“I’m just doing what I’m asked to do and I’m making plays and having fun doing it,” said Jones. “I think coach is coaching me right, putting me in the right position to make plays, and when the opportunities come I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
Jones’ showing in coverage came as a bit of a surprise for a player who rarely dropped into coverage as a 3-4 OLB at the University of Georgia.
“Coach Butts really put an emphasis on that,” Jones said of Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler. “He talked about how bad I dropped in college. He talked about it a lot. I really wasn’t asked to do it much in college, but he really wants me to improve on it. He really wants me to better my technique. Every day we work on the techniques involved and we’re getting better at it. I’ve been doing it for quite some time now. I did it in rookie minicamp and OTAs and now we’re in training camp, so I understand what he expects out of me and I’m going to try my best to make it work out for him.”
As for Bell, he not only split the blocking competition against Jones, he split against LaMarr Woodley, and took on an explosive blow from Timmons before slipping.
Bell also caught a crafty sidearm slingshot pass from Ben Roethlisberger during team scrimmage, and received most of the first-team reps in the final scrimmage.
Bell broke off one long run during the practice and appeared to find the right holes in the zone-blocking schemes.
“I’ve come a long way,” said Bell. “There’s not a lot that confuses me now. The only thing that gets me is the pre-snap reads. The defense still can mess around with me a little bit. But I’m still young. I’ll continue to grow. I’m a lot more comfortable when we break the huddle.”
What did he think of his first full-contact NFL practice?
“It’s a lot harder in the NFL, obviously,” he said. “Just running today, guys are bigger and stronger, and in pass protection I could feel how much stronger guys are. It’s going to take a lot of technique things to help me overcome those. I’m a smart player, so I can adjust and get used to that.”
NOTES – Three cornerbacks – Cortez Allen (knee), Terry Hawthorne (knee) and DeMarcus Van Dyke (hamstring) – missed practice and Tomlin termed them “day-to-day.” But Van Dyke was limping so badly on the field that “month-to-month” might seem more appropriate. ... On Hawthorne, the fifth-round pick who missed most of spring drills after undergoing knee surgery, Tomlin was asked if he held the rookie out as a precaution. “No,” Tomlin said. “It’s not good to give a guy who is fighting for a job precautionary rest. It was necessary and hopefully not long-term.”
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