LATROBE, Pa. — The lights came on and the fans showed out, as the Steelers held their annual Friday Night Lights spectacle at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.
The marquee event of training camp had been on hiatus since 2019 due to the pandemic and then massive thunderstorms last season. The black and gold faithful made the return a memorable one, as 13,957 packed the stands on both sides of the field and spilled out around the length of the track. That’s a record crowd for the stadium (somehow exceeding the fans that showed up when I played a middle school football game on the same turf).
“It was like I was at Beaver Stadium again,” Penn State alum and rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. said.
In a lot of ways, the yellow bus ride to the stadium and the fan interactions are what make this event special. But there was also a little football, too.
Friday Night Lights pic.twitter.com/2r32exlG3u
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) August 4, 2023
Here are my 10 observations:
Sticking with the theme of fun, the Steelers unveiled a few unique wrinkles on offense Friday. Green, an offensive guard, lined up at H-back for a handful of reps. He had a pancake block on a running play. Then, Mason Rudolph hit Green with a pass, and he plowed over linebacker Toby Ndukwe, much to the delight of the offensive linemen.
Considering Green wasn’t active for a single game last year and faces even more competition on the offensive line this season, don’t count on seeing this on Sundays. But it was a fun look during a light-hearted segment.
Under the bright lights, the Steelers’ undersized receiver had one of his best practices of camp. That included arguably the biggest highlight of the entire night, when Mitch Trubisky connected with the second-year receiver on a pass that traveled about 40 yards in the air. Refs called defensive pass interference, but Austin hung onto the ball to remove any doubt. Austin also scored in Seven Shots and caught about a 30-yard gain on a sail route.
Trubisky goes DEEP for speedy Calvin Austin. Crowd liked this one. pic.twitter.com/0Bb2QTWnI5
— Pago (@kaedynpago) August 5, 2023
That’s a significant development. Austin was up-and-down early in camp, with a handful of drops. He’s been much more sure-handed of late and is showing how his 4.3 speed can add explosiveness to the offense.
3. Offense finally wins Seven Shots
The defense has dominated the Seven Shots drill for the most part during training camp. Coming into Friday, the only session the offense won came in a non-padded practice, when they first dusted off the fan-favorite drill. That changed Friday. The offense won the session, 5-2.
- On a pick play, the defense lost track of Allen Robinson. He was wide open for a score. (1-0, offense)
- George Pickens made a toe-tap grab along the back of the end zone. But for the second time this camp, he stepped out of bounds, and the play was waived off for illegal touching. (1-1)
- Another pick route. This time Diontae Johnson was wide open. (2-1, offense)
- Pickett rolled to his left and took off. He extended the ball to the pylon for the score. (3-1, offense)
- Trubisky connected with Gunner Olszewski on an in-breaking route over the middle. (4-1, offense)
- Trubisky read the nickel blitz perfectly and hit Austin on a slant with Madre Harper in coverage. (5-1, offense)
- Trubisky’s pass intended for Miles Boykin was broken up by Harper. (5-2, offense)
‘Seven Shots’ drill is more than just a fan favorite at Steelers training camp. Here’s why
4. Porter penalties
Coming out of college, two of the knocks on Porter were that he caught only one interception at Penn State and that he was a bit grabby in coverage. So far, one of those is less of a concern, and one is something to keep an eye on.
First, the good. Porter has snagged several interceptions in camp, including a pair of picks during Thursday’s practice. Often, when a talented college corner doesn’t have a lot of interceptions on his resume, it’s simply because teams were not targeting him. It appears that’s probably the case with Porter.
When it comes to his physicality in coverage, that’s something to monitor. The referees flagged him for pass interference Friday during one-on-one reps against receivers. As he adjusts to the NFL rules on contact, he’ll need to lean on his footwork to avoid flags. It’s something he improved upon his last season in college and will need to continue to focus on at the NFL level.
5. Gunner makes his case
Coming into camp, Olszewski was probably on the roster’s fringe. Pickens, Johnson, Robinson and Austin are likely locks to make the team. Boykin has a strong chance to make it because he’s arguably the best special teams player on the roster. That leaves room for about one more receiver.
Olszewski has quietly had a solid camp from a receiving standpoint. But maybe more significantly, he’s been taking the first rep at punt returner. On Friday, the Steelers did a small kick return segment. Again, Olszewski was the first return man. Others in contention for that job include Austin and running backs Anthony McFarland Jr. and Jaylen Warren.
Speaking of receivers, Butler’s stock is falling. He came into camp as an intriguing talent with a 6-5, 227-pound frame. During the rain-soaked mid-week practice, he reeled in two big gains. However, he’s been awfully quiet since and struggled with drops on Thursday. He was flagged for offensive pass interference Friday during a red zone segment.
7. No Tomlin
Coach Mike Tomlin, who always speaks highly of the Friday Night Lights event, was not in attendance. He had a good reason. The coach was in Canton for the Hall of Fame’s Gold Jacket Dinner with Ronde Barber, whom he coached with the Buccaneers.
8. Mount Washington
While rookie tight end Darnell Washington fully embraces the physical side of his position, he’s continuing to show he’s more than just the “sixth lineman.” During one-on-one reps against linebackers, Washington used his 6-7 frame to box out defenders on numerous instances.
The Steelers will have the chance to use him as an interesting chess piece. He was split out wide during Seven Shots and then motioned inline. Based on the way defenses choose to cover him, he’ll have a lot of chances to take advantage of mismatches and could help improve the red zone offense in more ways than one.
Steelers camp: Darnell Washington making progress, Joey Porter Jr. makes a big play
9. Money Mitch
With all the hype surrounding Pickett, Trubisky has flown under the radar. Quietly, he’s been having a solid camp. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect backup for the Steelers’ current situation. He’s embraced the QB2 role and talked about how he wants to be someone Pickett can count on. But through camp, he’s also shown that if he is thrust into action, there should be confidence he can keep the offense afloat.
10. Safety dance on pause
Defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal and safeties Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal sat out as they recover from injuries. Minkah Fitzpatrick has not returned to practice. He’s still excused due to a personal matter. The Steelers are likely to run a lot of three-safety looks this season, but there have been no chances to practice that personnel grouping with the first-team defense given the missing pieces. On Friday, all three of the top safeties were out. It’s not a concern yet, as the Steelers practiced that defense extensively during OTAs, but it’s something to keep an eye on as camp continues.
(Photo of Calvin Austin: Barry Reeger / Associated Press)