Steelers Training Camp: Defense dominates dull goal-line drill
Ben Roethlisberger finds a place to try to catch a break from the heat and humidity Saturday at the Saint Vincent College training camp.
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If there's one thing that can excite everyone at Saint Vincent College besides Mike Wallace strolling onto campus, it is that annual rite known as the goal-line drill.
It's live, it's intense and it grabs the attention of fans and players alike.
"It's always a good drill," said running back Jonathan Dwyer. "It's to see how we are as a team. That's a big, big part of the game -- can you score inside the red zone, inside the 2-yard line? It's a very important drill and very important part of the football game."
Saturday, the defense dominated against an offense without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, No. 1 halfback Isaac Redman and starting guard Willie Colon. The offense scored just twice from the 1 1/2-yard line on seven tries. John Clay returned to practice following a groin injury and dived over the middle, stretching the ball over the goal line for one score. Byron Leftwich faked a handoff, rolled to his right and hit tight end Leonard Pope for the only other score.
The offense ran only seven plays, and it certainly did not rank among the more memorable goal-line drills.
One occurred in 2004, and took place at night. Ken Whisenhunt was the new coordinator, and the Steelers were coming off a disastrous 6-10 season in which Bill Cowher was convinced to lean on Tommy Maddox and the passing game, including replacing Jerome Bettis with Amos Zereoue at running back.
The results were horrible, but it did not keep coordinator Mike Mularkey from getting a job as head coach in Buffalo. Cowher then promoted Whisenhunt.
Maddox was the starting quarterback in training camp, but Whisenhunt went back to the running game as the bedrock of the team. He emphasized that point on the first goal-line drill in training camp when he ran the ball 14 consecutive times. All power runs.
The Steelers would go on to a 15-1 season in 2004 with a rookie quarterback before they lost the AFC title game to the New England Patriots and set the stage for a Super Bowl run a year later.
Then there was '09. This time, the goal-line drill was held at Saint Vincent during the day. An unknown, undrafted rookie back from a tiny school was given the ball, and he scored. He kept getting it and kept scoring.
Redman earned some spurs and a nickname that day -- Red Zone Redman. He didn't make the team that season -- many disagreed with that decision -- but he made the practice squad. He found a spot on the roster in '10, became the top backup in '11 and now is the starter with Rashard Mendenhall out.
The Steelers also worked on short-yardage at mid-field and their red-zone passing game.
Rookie Mike Adams has been promoted to first-team left tackle. Can he stay there? Adams leapfrogged veteran Trai Essex, who opened camp with the first team.
The rookie lined up with the first unit each of the past two days.
"Mike's been doing a nice job," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's earned those snaps. We'll continue to do that. But, again, far from ready."
Still looming for possible competition for the starting job is Max Starks, the starter last year who is on the physically-unable-to-perform list after ACL surgery.. There is optimism he will be ready to start the season.
Tomlin holds little Chris Rainey out of the blocking drill known as backs on 'backers, using the now-famous line to explain why: "I'm not going to pull my boat with a Ferrari."
Does Rainey, a fast 5-foot-8, 178-pound scatback, consider himself a Ferrari?
"I would like to drive one!"
Rainey was hoping to get a shot at the goal-line drill Saturday, but did not. He was not allowed to do it at Florida, even though he said he scored about 98 percent of the time at the goal-line in high school.
"It's always the big backs, and I hate that," Rainey said.
It looks as though he will be used the way Todd Haley used Dexter McCluster in Kansas City, another little back and Florida native. He will line up in the slot, in the backfield, next to the quarterback in the shotgun. He and linebacker Sean Spence have been the most exciting rookies since the spring.
"I'm doing everything I can, so wherever they put me, I can look good in it, do good in it, do great in it, all that stuff,'' said Rainey. " I don't care where they put me."
Among the rarest things to find in college football is a pure fullback, the lead blocker who dives into a line, knocks people over or blows them up in order to facilitate a hole for his halfback.
Think Dan Kreider.
The Steelers got him by way of New Hampshire, did not even have to draft him. Will Johnson would like nothing better than to follow his path.
Johnson went undrafted after playing in 45 games in four seasons at West Virginia. Not only that, no one signed him as a free agent. This is his first pro camp, having signed with the Steelers in March after his second Pro Day workout at WVU.
Colleges don't employ pure lead blockers much anymore as they lean more and more on spread offenses. The pros don't use them as much either. But with Haley returning the fullback to the Steelers' offense, Johnson finds himself in Kreider's spot, trying to show he knows how to block for the running game the way they used to do it.
Johnson gave a description of the job requirements: "Just blow people up and have a vision at the same time. And have a nasty attitude, really just that."
With former tight end/H-back David Johnson moved to fullback full time, there's likely not room for two on the 53-man roster. But Kreider cooled his heels on the practice squad before he made it big, and Johnson just wants to show he can do the job.
Colon (ankle) and Redman (groin) remained out, Tomlin calling them "day to day." With Colon out, Ramon Foster started in his place at left guard and rookie David DeCastro ran with the first team at right guard.... Linebackers Ryan Baker and Brandon Johnson each left practice with ankle injuries. ... Asked why Roethlisberger stopped practice early, Tomlin said that somebody "stepped on his foot. You guys love the Ben updates."
Game: Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles in preseason opener, Lincoln Financial Field.
When: 7:30 p.m.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am