Almost every NFL team brings two punters to training camp if for no other reason than to keep the starter fresh. But free agent Brad Wing has taken every rep in the first two weeks of camp and will be the only punter for the Steelers’ first preseason game against the New York Giants Saturday night because veteran Adam Podlesh remains away from the team with an excused absence for a family matter.
Wing, trying to make his first NFL roster after the Philadelphia Eagles cut him last summer, hopes he can take advantage of the increased workload.
“To take all the reps has been good for me,” Wing said. “That’s the only way you can get experience in this league is to get the reps and do it. I look forward to the game Saturday. I think I’ve prepared well. The coaches have put me in a good position. I just have to go out and execute. That’s what they want to see, so that’s what I have to do.”
Wing was not brought to camp as an extra leg. The Steelers wanted to stage a legitimate competition between Wing and Podlesh, a seven-year veteran who played for the Chicago Bears the past three seasons. Podlesh was with the Steelers in the spring, but his wife’s difficult pregnancy has prevented him from participating in training camp.
“All I’m focused on is trying to get better,” Wing said. “The coaches will make whatever decision they feel like is the best one. I think if I keep my head down and keep working, good things will happen for me.”
Another milestone for Spence
Linebacker Sean Spence will play in a football game for the first time in nearly two years Saturday. He missed the past two seasons after a devastating knee injury in the 2012 preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field.
He returned to practice briefly last fall, but was never activated. He was placed on injured reserve for a second consecutive year.
“I’m excited,” Spence said Thursday afternoon. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. I can’t wait until Saturday.”
Spence tore three ligaments, including the anterior cruciate ligament, and also damaged the peroneal nerve behind the knee, which made the rehab particularly long because the nerve takes time to regenerate.
Many believed his career was over.
“I’m very appreciative,” said Spence, a third-round pick from Miami in 2012. “Pittsburgh is one of the best, if not the best, organizations in the NFL. I appreciate them sticking with me, showing patience with me and showing faith and giving me a chance to come back. A lot of teams probably would have cut ties with me a long time ago, but this organization didn’t.”
With starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier out of practice the past three days with a knee injury, Spence has taken reps with the first-team defense alongside Lawrence Timmons. Coach Mike Tomlin said Thursday the coaches will evaluate Spence over the four preseason games and determine if he is good enough to make the 53-man roster.
“I think I’ve been pretty consistent and said I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a full recovery,” Tomlin said. “I just know the type of young man that he is, the type of worker that he is and things usually work out for those guys.”
A sense of urgency
Tomlin said the Steelers will not put a greater emphasis on trying to win preseason games after what happened in 2013 when they started with eight consecutive losses.
But Tomlin acknowledged he wants all his players to play faster and with greater urgency when the Steelers face the Giants.
“What we’re looking for the first time out is really quite simple — I want the group to play fast, I want them to play with the urgency that’s required to play winning football in a stadium setting,” he said. “At this stage of the journey, we’ll see where we are. What’s paramount is we play fast, we play hard and we play with urgency.”
The Steelers went winless in four preseason games in 2013, then followed that by starting the regular season 0-4. It was only the third time since 1970 that the Steelers went winless in the preseason.
In each instance — 1987, 2006, 2013 — the Steelers won only eight games in the regular season.
Tomlin said he doesn’t know if several injured players who have not practiced, including No. 1 draft choice Shazier, will face the Giants.
In addition to Shazier, who has missed the past three practices (right knee), the list includes outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (groin), nose tackle Steve McLendon (concussion), wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (concussion), and two rookie draft choices — inside linebacker Jordan Zumwalt and tight end Rob Blanchflower.
“We’ll wait till the 11th hour whether or not to play them,” Tomlin said. “Our goal is to get full participation and get those guys off to a good start, show what they’re capable of and move forward with the developmental process of the team.”
Tomlin did not say how long he will play his starters against the Giants, but indicated the amount could vary with different players.
“Our goal is to give these guys what we deem it is they need or what it is we need to see from them,” Tomlin said. “It will be different things for different people.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.