And Then They Hit

After three months of playing patty-cake, the Steelers got down to some fierce hitting at Monday's practice.

Mike Tomlin joked during his Sunday press conference when a reporter asked Tomlin if there would be tackling on Monday.

"Yes," Tomlin said, before adding: "You guys amaze me. Tackling is an element of football. It's like it's a special treat, 'Tackling?' Yes, tackling. We're going to wear helmets and shoulder pads, too."

And they used them on Monday. Ferociously.

Here's the rundown of the first live tackling session of the season:

* Backs-on-backers was the opening act, and right away Vince Williams and rookie tight end Rob Blanchflower hit each other so hard that all eyes were awakened. The previous three months of walk-throughs and touch football were all now a distant memory.

New linebacker Arthur Moats, one of the big surprises throughout the day, thrashed David Paulson twice before an embarrassed and hungry Paulson came back a few matchups later to stuff Jarvis Jones.

Undrafted rookie tight end Eric Waters also had a couple of highlights. Against first-round rookie Ryan Shazier, Waters appeared beaten by Shazier's speed but recovered to keep Shazier away from quarterback Joey Porter (who, by the way, provided more trash talk than any quarterback in perhaps the history of the game.) Tomlin called for a rematch and Waters stopped Shazier again, but with the help of a handful of jersey. This enraged Shazier, who ripped his own helmet off as if he wanted to fight. Waters later took a best-of-three series from undrafted rookie, Howard "HoJo" Jones.

Not that Shazier was done. Pitted against king-sized running back LeGarrette Blount, Shazier slipped past Blount easily as Porter repeatedly yelled, "Speed is your asset! Speed is your asset!" And Shazier proceeded to use that speed to juke and then sprint past Blount a second time. On the third rep, Blount stepped up quickly and belted Shazier in the head. Dazed at first, Shazier spun away to chase the QB. Both players appeared dizzy as they walked back to their respective sides.

"It was a hit," Shazier would say later. "We're going to lay some to each other. He's going to give me some; I'm going to give him some."

Waters matched up with Shazier again and again stopped the speedy linebacker both times. On the second, Waters flung Shazier to the ground.

While Waters may have announced his presence with authority in this drill, it could very well change the next time out. It's the nature of training camp, so don't weigh any singular accomplishment or solid day too strongly.

* Now, to the main event: Team scrimmage. The first period was live tackling, something Tomlin brought back to St. Vincent when he was allowed by league rules last season. It was the only period of live tackling of the day, and it was fierce.

Ask Michael Palmer.

The veteran tight end was eviscerated by a safety named Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone covering the team now knows his name because after the echo from his hit on Palmer wafted into the Laurel Mountains, seemingly every reporter reached for his roster to look up No. 42.

Dangerfield was signed last January. The 5-11, 200-pounder went undrafted out of Towson last year, signed with the Buffalo Bills, and was cut last August 30. And it appeared as if he has been waiting that long for redemption. Dangerfield later filled a hole at the line of scrimmage to cut down a running play before it got rolling.

A couple of plays later, Matt Spaeth, whose legs look fresh and young early in this camp, took a pass from Ben Roethlisberger over the middle and began rumbling deep into the secondary. Spaeth then lowered his helmet on Ross Ventrone and flattened the 195-pounder to the delight of the crowd.

Big Daniel McCullers also got into the act. Playing second-team nose tackle, McCullers was stood up by the center and guard, due to the 6-7 giant's high pad level, but McCullers fought through the double team to tackle Tauren Poole, and as a bonus McCullers dropped all of his 352 pounds straight down on Poole as they crashed to the ground.

Much the same can be said for Cam Thomas, who got too high, but in occupying the center and guard Thomas allowed linebacker Sean Spence to whistle through the hole and pop a running back in the hole.

Spence looked spry, strong and instinctive throughout the practice as Shazier's backup. Spence said after practice that he now considers himself to officially be back after two years of extensive rehab on his knee.

"Yeah, it was Day One," he said. "But I'm going to continue to take one day at a time and continue to get better."

Is his burst back?

"I think so, yeah," he said. "But I think it could get better."

How difficult was the road back?

"It was very difficult," he said. "I cried myself to sleep some nights. It was tough watching the games, sitting in meetings and not being a part of the team or the game plan."

Did he feel like a football player once again today?

"I definitely did," he said. "It was hard sleeping during nap time thinking about what I was going to come out here and do. All my emotions were running wild."

Tomlin, on the other hand, was unfazed.

"I really didn't think a lot about it today," Tomlin said of Spence, "because we've had a great deal of comfort in where he is for some time."

* In the second scrimmage period, free safety Will Allen mistakenly rocked Will Johnson over the middle as the live tackling period had ended. On the next snap, Antonio Brown caught a pass over the middle and high-stepped his way through a secondary that let onlookers know that touch football was back for the time being.

But Moats wasn't finished. He got his hands on quarterback Landry Jones for virtual sacks on consecutive snaps. Jones did continue through on one of the "sacks" and was nearly intercepted by Antwon Blake. Jones rebounded with a sharp pass over the middle to Waters on his third snap.

Roethlisberger replaced Jones and was promptly intercepted by Jason Worilds, who was running down the sideline with speedy Dri Archer. Roethlisberger underthrew the ball a bit as Worilds leaped into the air to make a circus catch. This brought Tomlin to the sideline where he joked about Worilds' catch with the rest of the defensive unit. After practice, Tomlin was asked why he was so amused by Worilds' interception.

"That's the first time Jason Worilds has caught a ball in any fashion out here in practice, in a walk-through," Tomlin said. "I'm going to paint that ball and give it to him."

Tomlin was asked whether he was more impressed with the interception or the fact Worilds was running with Archer.

"The fact that he caught it," Tomlin said. "I know he can run."

* After the teams switched sides of the field -- "Riverside" -- in order for the camera to better monitor the offensive line, I chose to focus on second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt, a defensive end.

On the first snap, Tuitt continued hand-fighting long after the pass had whistled past his helmet. It showed a lack of ball awareness.

On the second snap, Tuitt slipped and ended up on the ground.

On the third snap, Tuitt pressured quarterback Bruce Gradkowski into an incompletion.

Two other notes during this period: Cornerback Shaquille Richardson made a diving interception in front of the receiver on a Gradkowski out, and on the next snap Richardson went way up to defend a pass thrown to 6-4 rookie Martavis Bryant. So Richardson got down and dirty and also flew high with a giant.

And also, fifth-round rookie Wesley Johnson moved to center for his third position of the practice. Johnson also played left tackle and left guard and seemed to hold his own against reserve defensive linemen.

* There were three outstanding performers in the one-on-one drills by the linemen.

The first was Jarvis Jones, who ran past left tackle Kelvin Beachum on the first snap, juked Beachum with an outside step before beating him back inside on the second snap, and on the third snap knocked Beachum to the side with a punch to open a clear path to the quarterback.

The second was David DeCastro, who beat Tuitt handily on the first rep. In attempting to gain redemption, Tuitt jumped offside on the next two snaps before doing a better job against the technically sound DeCastro on the final rep.

And finally, undrafted rookie center-guard Chris Elkins out of Youngstown State, a 300-pound fireplug who doesn't look close to his listing of 6 feet 4, beat two opposing rushers to force the defensive coaches to counter with Cameron Heyward. But Elkins kept Heyward from the quarterback on two reps, which will certainly cause OL coach Mike Munchak to look more closely at the kid from Beaver Falls.

* On the injury front, RB Le'Veon Bell stayed out another day with a tight hamstring and WR C.J. Goodwin sat out with a sore shoulder. Tomlin reported that rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt's groin tightened and was the only in-practice casualty.

"The extended-out guys are starting the process of working their way back," Tomlin said. "I'm talking about Alvester Alexander and Mike Mitchell (PUP). They had a good run session this morning with the training staff."


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