The Pittsburgh Steelers are still getting accustomed to life without Troy Polamalu. Without No. 43 prowling the secondary with his long hair flowing out of his helmet, the defense just looks different. Not only because Polamalu officially retired this offseason, but also because through two preseason games the team has shuffled a wide variety of 'who's who' in both the free and strong safety positions.
It isn't anyone's fault in particular, after all, after nearly three weeks of training camp, projected starters Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas have only been active participants in two padded practices. Those two practices just happen to be this past week. Barring a setback, the safety tandem is prepared to make their preseason debut together this Sunday when the Green Bay Packers travel to Heinz Field.
For defensive coordinator Keith Butler, seeing No. 23 and No. 29 in the secondary will be a welcomed sight.
"It's easy to draw it up on the board and stuff like that. We have to get out there when things are happening fast. They need that experience," Butler told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "This is Mike's second year in the system. The first year you're kind of looking around and trying to figure out what's going on. This year he should grow in that aspect, in what we're doing and what offenses are trying to do to us. We need for them to be out there on the field and practicing and getting the experience with the guys who are out there so they get a feel for each other."
Some might shake off the preseason in terms of significance, but when it comes to player development and continuity, it can't be understated just how important these practices and games are for players like Mitchell and Shamarko.
When head coach Mike Tomlin was asked how big it was to get both players back on the field in practice, he chuckled and stated, "It's pretty big. That's why we come to camp, to develop cohesion and understanding."
Despite neither player being a rookie, or brand new to the Steelers system, this doesn't mean there won't be growing pains. Thomas has been hampered with injuries since entering the league, and Mitchell is entering just his second year in the Steelers system. They haven't played alongside one another very often, if at all, and on Sunday they need to hit the ground running in preparation for the regular season.
"Being out there in real game action is different," Thomas said. "We communicate on the field all day [in practice] as it's moving slow. In the game, when the bullets are moving fast, we have to see where we're at. I think this week will be a great experience."
Thomas benefited from seeing significant repetitions in the last preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, even if he made a few mistakes in coverage. Butler doesn't always see mistakes in the preseason as a negative.
"It was a good experience for Shamarko," Butler said. "That was what we call quarter, quarter, half coverage, but it was the same principle for him as cover-2. Sometimes young guys get caught up doing this. We asked him to disguise. The thing we can't do is disguise at the expense of the coverage. That gets them in bad positions sometimes. That was a good learning lesson for him and all of us in the secondary. We can all learn from that."
Needless to say, the more Mitchell and Shamarko can be in the deep secondary together, the smoother the transition will be from Dick LeBeau's coverage schemes, to Butler and Tomlin's Cover-2 philosophies.
"We're getting used to playing cover-2," Thomas said. "We're playing it a lot now. We definitely have to adjust. We're getting into the role of playing it. It's not so much mental as it is technique. You have to learn it, see your keys and read things the right way."
For Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas, who are finally on the field together at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, the Steelers are hoping practice makes perfect.