Wednesday, July 25, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Football practice was tough, physical, long, fast-paced, unprecedented, perhaps. And then it rained.
Mike Tomlin's first practice as the Steelers' head coach proved more than its billing when he put the team through what many believe was the most physical practice session at Saint Vincent College since the days of Chuck Noll.
No one could remember a tougher camp practice in Bill Cowher's 15 years as coach, not even a player who was with Cowher from the get-go.
"That was pretty tough, pret-ty tough," said former linebacker Levon Kirkland, a Steelers rookie in 1992 who is spending this week as a scouting intern with the team. "I'm sure the guys who have been here under Cowher are used to a certain way. You do it that way it's kind of tough. Makes you wonder what the evening practice will be about."
The afternoon practice turned into an indoors walk-through on a basketball court because a thunderstorm passed through Latrobe just before the players were to take the field. Nevertheless, that brutal morning session will stay fresh in their minds for a long time.
"Coach Cowher's not here anymore. We're doing it the way coach Tomlin's doing it," Hines Ward said. "He wants to prove to everybody he can be a great coach and he has a set way with the team. If you don't like it, get off the ship."
Nobody was jumping after the first day, although it was hard to find any players jumping for joy, either, after spending a morning in full pads. Previously, they would not have had practice on that first morning and, when they did practice, it would be in lighter pads called shells.
"Being here for 10 years, the morning practice is normally just shells, kind of more talking and running," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "Now, it's a little more contact. It's part of the game. It's still football. Guys will get used to it, but it's going to be tougher than years past."
The two-hour morning session began with some stretching and light special-teams work. Then came the 'backers-on-backs drill, where a pass-rushing linebacker tries to get through a block by a running back. It's as live as they go. Later, they moved to what they call 9 on 7, although it actually was 9 on 9. It's also called the middle drill, because backs run up the middle play after play. It looked like a live goal-line practice only it lasted longer.
"It's a good wake-up call," center Chukky Okobi said. "If you weren't awake, after that period you should be good to go."
Later, Tomlin gathered his team together for some 11 on 11 that was as live as anything except for tackling and went on for 20 minutes to close practice.
"That's the definition of a morning practice around here now, I guess," Okobi said.
The more strenuous practice session carried a message no doubt the coach wanted to deliver, and it came across clearly.
"It kind of sets the tone for what coach Tomlin is going to be like and what he wants for us," said safety Ryan Clark, who played for the Washington Redskins before joining the Steelers last year. "I think the biggest thing is you want to kind of leave your imprint on the team. Now we know what he's about. He's about being physical, being focused, getting to the ball on defense and executing the offense. I think it was a good start."
Tomlin did not have much comment on the morning practice, except to say that it was productive, upbeat, crisp. He mentioned the botched snaps (between Okobi and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on one, center Sean Mahan and Charlie Batch on the other) and some offside plays. The new coach seemed more impressed by the afternoon walkthrough and how players overcame the disappointment of not being able to go through another grueling practice.
"It's a mental-toughness exercise, because it's tough when you get ready to take the field and suit up and go out for an afternoon practice the first day of training camp and you get dealt a hand like they got dealt today. Their ability to deal with it and get some production out of what we had to do defined us. I like the way they got after it."
Today's another day, with two more practices scheduled. The morning practice is set for one hour -- unless the new coach wants to make up for lost time. It looks like the making of a long, intriguing training camp.