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Inside the ropes: Steelers defense spending time on the “dollar”

August 6, 2018
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Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger directs traffic during practice Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, at Saint Vincent College.

Less than three years ago, it was newsworthy when the Pittsburgh Steelers began using a defensive subpackage in which former Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons came off the field on some passing downs in favor of a sixth defensive back.

Inflation is hitting the Steelers: They’ve taken that “dime” and now added a “dollar.”

The Steelers are using seven defensive backs with regularity during team drills a week into training camp. On Wednesday, even with three starting defensive backs not practicing because of injury, the “dollar” was used extensively.

When the subpackage was utilized, there were no inside linebackers on the field -- only two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers in addition to four cornerbacks and three safeties.

While the absences of Morgan Burnett, Sean Davis and Artie Burns makes it difficult to draw conclusions as to whom the seventh DB is on the first-team defense, Cameron Sutton (a corner) and rookie Marcus Allen (a safety) played more up toward the line of scrimmage Wednesday as “quasi-linebackers.”

• With the Steelers running base, nickel, dollar and some occasional dime while assimilating several new players into their secondary, it perhaps isn’t surprising communication has at times been an issue. At one point Wednesday, eight defensive backs (and 12 total men) were on the field, drawing an admonishment from coach Mike Tomlin: “Cumon, DBs! Communication! Too many guys on the (dang) field!” Another time, veteran Coty Sensabaugh screamed three times at Sutton: “Cam! Cam! Cam!” before yelling out the package name. “You’re out there!” Defensive backs coach Tom Bradley repeatedly walked up and down his position group, listing personnel groupings.

• The defense continues to win “seven shots.” They took five of seven of the 2-point conversion-style plays that open every practice, including all three when Josh Dobbs was at quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger guided the offense to scores in two of his four snaps: once on a slip over the middle to Marcus Tucker and once to a wide-open Justin Hunter on what was a miscommunication. Damoun Patterson appeared to drop a ball in the end zone from Dobbs, although Sensabaugh was in good coverage and might have gotten a piece of it.

• After rain earlier in the day, the practice opened on the artificial turf field and finished on the far field away from the Chuck Noll Field bleachers at Saint Vincent. Fans lined up on the street at the top of a hillside overlooking the field.

• With Antonio Brown missing practice because of an undisclosed injury, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey saw plenty of reps with the first-team offense. He took advantage of them, making several catches -- including beating Joe Haden deep down the right sideline to catch a pass Roethlisberger deftly sailed into his waiting hands for a long gain.

• Perhaps because of the new kickoff rules this season, the Steelers appear to have altered their return alignment they’ve used for several years. Instead of two men deep to receive kicks, one was deep in the end zone and two running backs lined up at the 10. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Quadree Henderson, Sutton, James Washington and Justin Thomas served as “deep” return men. James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Jaylen Samuels and Fitzgerald Toussaint were rotating in front of them.

• Henderson is seeing increased reps at receiver as camp progresses. The undrafted rookie from Pitt is more of a known quantity as a returner.

• With Alejandro Villanueva missing most of practice (upper right arm), rookie Chuks Okorafor served as first-team right tackle, the most concrete evidence yet the third-round pick is the front-runner to serve as the top backup “swing tackle.” Okorafor generally performed well, though he was once beat badly by Bud Dupree during a drill.

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