LATROBE, Pennsylvania -- Mike Tomlin is hoping that his offense is able to complete more big plays in 2023. That said, the Steelers' coach probably wasn't upset with his unit's unsuccessful deep shot that took place on the very first play of training camp.
On an 11-on-11 drill, Kenny Pickett threw a deep pass down the right sideline to George Pickens, the player many expect to be on the receiving end of many big plays this fall. But on this play, Pickens was upstaged by a new Steelers cornerback wearing No. 20: Patrick Peterson. Peterson, 11 years Pickens' senior, stayed with Pickens before knocking the ball out of his hands to force the incompletion.
Steelers fans, recognizing the moment, gave Peterson's breakup a rousing cheer. It was the type of play the Steelers likely envisioned Peterson making when they signed the eight-time Pro Bowler this offseason. And while he may be asked to move around Pittsburgh's secondary this season, the play showed that Peterson is still more than capable of holding down the fort at cornerback.
Sure, it was just one play, and it should be noted that Peterson may have gotten away with being a little handsy while guarding Pickens. But it was nevertheless a noteworthy play that symbolized the Steelers' focus on building a strong defense when seemingly every other NFL team is prioritizing offense.
Peterson's breakup was the first notable moment of Thursday's practice, but it wasn't the last. Here's a rundown of some of the other noteworthy moments from Saint Vincent College.
Everyone has been anxious to see how good Kenny Pickett will be in Year 2. If Thursday was any indication of what's ahead, it's safe to say that Pittsburgh's second-year quarterback will take a sizable step forward.
Pickett looked noticeably stronger than he did a year ago, a testament to the work he did over the offseason. He was also considerably more decisive while getting the ball out quickly. A play after Peterson's breakup, Pickett rifled a quick pass over to trusted teammate Pat Freiermuth. Two plays later, Pickett rolled to his right before hitting Connor Heyward for a solid gain. Pickett later completed a nice pass that was an even better catch by backup running back Anthony McFarland.
It wasn't a big day as far as his workload was concerned. But Pickett largely made the most of his reps. Along with testing the defense in a multitude of ways, Pickett spread the wealth around, which is one of the things the Steelers want to do more of this year. That, however, will require Pittsburgh's skill players to be unselfish, something Heyward and running back Jaylen Warren do not think will be a problem.
"Whenever the ball does come your way, you have to make the most of your opportunities," Heyward told CBS Sports on Thursday. "If you do that, I feel like you'll get more chances to get the ball. I think we have a deep, talented offense that's very versatile and well-rounded."
"(Being unselfish) is going to be very important because we're going to need each other to get to where we want to go," Warren said. "Hopefully, everyone is bought in and we establish that."
When asked earlier in the day about a perceived lack of depth at running back behind Warren and Najee Harris, Steelers GM Omar Khan mentioned McFarland, a four-year veteran whose career to this point has been hampered by injuries. McFarland, a blazing fast back who averaged 6.7 yards-per-carry at Maryland, was a 5-foot-9 ball of energy during Thursday's muggy practice.
McFarland made several nice plays that included snatching Pickett's pass out of the air midway through practice. He showed off his conditioning by sprinting to the end zone following a play. This is a good sign for both McFarland and the Steelers' offense, who are hoping to lean on their running game at times in 2023 similarly to how they did at the end of the 2022 season.
A surprise on Thursday was Duke Dawson getting first-team reps at nickel. A second-round pick of the Patriots back in 2018, Dawson hasn't played in a regular season game since the 2020 season as a member of the Broncos. While injuries have plagued his NFL career so far, it's clear that the former Florida Gators standout still has the potential to be a solid player.
Incumbent Dan Moore Jr. started practice in front of rookie Broderick Jones. Khan said earlier in the day that Jones will have to earn the starting job over Moore, who has been a fixture in Pittsburgh's starting lineup since his rookie season back in 2021.
Speaking of the offensive line, the unit did a solid job protecting the quarterbacks. While Pickett and Mitch Trubisky occasionally left the pocket, it was often the byproduct of giving their receivers time to get open. It'll be interesting to see how well the O-line does when Pittsburgh practices with pads for the first time (next Tuesday).
A tale of two WR's
Thursday was a good day for Cody White, who made a few solid combat catches. Conversely, it was a tough day for Hakeem Butler, who was signed by the Steelers this spring following a successful season with the XFL's St. Louis Battlehawks. Butler, wearing No. 21, failed to hang onto several catchable passes. White and Butler are competing with Miles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski (among others) to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
No Seven Shots
That's right, the Steelers did not do their customary seven-play scrimmage pitting the offense and defense against each other from the three-yard-line. Stay tuned to see whether or not this becomes a trend or if the Steelers resume Seven Shots on Friday. If they do, it would be interesting to see which unit will win what is usually the highlight of practice.
No Minkah, no problem
The only notable absence during practice was Minkah Fitzpatrick. The All-Pro safety didn't practice but he was on the field watching his teammates. Tomlin said after practice that Fitzpatrick's absence was "nothing of significance."
Teamwork makes the dream work
The scene reinforced what Khan said earlier in the day when asked about the significance of keeping his quarterback room in tact.
"Continuity is great, especially when you have a young quarterback," Khan said. "Mitch is just tremendous there. The three of those guys have a great relationship, and they have it with Coach Sully and Matt.
"It made sense for us. We're very fortunate to have those guys back and very fortunate to have them for the camaraderie that's in place in that room."