PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger understands the irony in suggesting the Pittsburgh Steeler practices might be too rough. The $20 million franchise quarterback, after all, is off limits.
Still, a quick scan down his team’s crowded injury list left him wondering if it’s time for the coaching staff to ease up just a little bit.
“I will stand up for the guys up front and running backs, guys who take a pounding every day during a long season,” Roethlisberger said. “The season is super long as it is and very physical. And when you’re doing it over and over and the guys’ shoulders are getting sore, knees start getting sore, and hips and hamstrings and quads and things, and then, they re-occur, you have to take a look at maybe what you’re doing.”
Five weeks into the season, the Steelers already have seen a series of bold-faced names miss time, including right tackle Marcus Gilbert and guard Ramon Foster, the guys who are in charge of keeping Roethlisberger’s jersey clean when it counts. Defensive end Cameron Heyward will miss the first game in his career on Sunday when Pittsburgh (4-1) visits Miami (1-4). Linebacker Ryan Shazier and his sprained MCL are out for a third straight week, and Markus Wheaton’s shoulder continues to bother him.
While Roethlisberger allows that coach Mike Tomlin has to walk a “fine line” about the tenor of practice, he’s also wary of the possible toll it could take over the long term.
“You see those pads on top of lockers being worn all year long,” he said. “Like I said, for me, I can’t complain too much because I’m not the one getting hit. But, I will stand up for the big boys.”
It’s a gesture center Maurkice Pouncey appreciates, even if he’s not completely sure where he stands. Pouncey stressed, “I’m following Ben, baby,” but also understands he gets paid a lot of money to do what the coaching staff asks.
“I’m a lineman,” he said. “I go get it every day and I eat afterward. But nah, it’s cool. We’ve got a physical camp man and it’s paying off now.”
In reality, practices are as gentle as they’ve ever been. The collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 outlawed “two-a-days” during training camp and limits teams to one fully padded practice over the season’s first 11 weeks and three over the final six. That’s in contrast to early in Tomlin’s tenure.
“Our first year we were hitting every day,” said cornerback William Gay, a rookie when Tomlin took over in 2007. “You can’t get no more than that.”
The Steelers like to “thud up” on Wednesdays, meaning defenders will wrap up ball carriers but don’t take the hit all the way to the ground. On Fridays, the first-team offense faces the first-team defense in the “seven shots” drill from the 2, whichever side getting to four stops or four conversions first claiming bragging rights for the week. And it gets pretty heated. That’s kind of the point.
“It’s a very competitive thing,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “We talk a lot of mess.”
What they don’t talk about, at least not in public, is easing up. Tomlin’s training camps can be a six-week battle of attrition, particularly this summer when he tried to help toughen up a defense that finished 30th in yards allowed. The early returns are mixed. Pittsburgh is 25th in yards but ninth in points in large part because of better play in the red zone. Tackling is a vital part of that equation, one that needs to be practiced to be perfected.
“You can’t get in shape hitting until you hit,” Butler said. “When you stress muscles for the first time in trying to hit early in games and preseason, early in the season sometimes and you haven’t hit then, sometimes you’ll have injuries.”
Heyward’s tweaked hamstring had nothing to do with getting overworked in practice and everything with landing awkwardly in the second quarter last Sunday against the New York Jets. He understands Roethlisberger’s role as a captain speaking up for the benefit of the team. He also understands that hitting is a necessary part of the game and with that comes inherent risk.
“We don’t even get that much in as it is,” Heyward said. “You want that hardening so when you get down the road, you want to use that as an asset.”
Roethlisberger’s words might not have fallen on deaf ears. On Thursday, the Steelers wrapped up practice five minutes early, a rarity.
Notes: WR Sammie Coates (finger), Gilbert, Heyward, Shazier, Wheaton, C Cody Wallace (knee) and S Shamarko Thomas (groin) did not practice on Thursday. … Shazier was limited while CB Justin Gilbert (knee), S Robert Golden (hamstring), RB Roosevelt Nix (back) and WR Eli Rogers (toe) were full participants.