LATROBE, Pa. -- In many ways, the Steelers' training camp practice was a metaphor for Hakeem Butler's pro football career. Amid a torrential downpour, the former XFL star weathered the storm and made the day's biggest play while showing why the Steelers picked him up this past spring.
Late in practice, Butler screamed down the near sideline while catching the attention of Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky decided to give Butler a chance, and he rewarded his quarterback by catching Trubisky's deep ball after wresting it away from the defender. While it was one of several impressive plays made on the day by Butler, he's keeping it all in perspective.
"It's only Day 3," Butler told reporters after practice. "Just trying to show I know the offense and can make plays."
Just two days earlier, Butler had struggled to hang on to several catchable passes. But facing and responding to adversity is nothing new for him.
A former Cardinals fourth-round pick, the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Butler's NFL career was initially derailed by an injury that was sustained during his rookie camp. After short stints in Carolina and Philadelphia, Butler failed to get onto the field with both of his Canadian Football League teams.
Butler's luck finally began to change this past spring. As a member of the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks, Butler caught 51 passes for 599 yards and eight touchdowns. His success in the XFL led to him signing with the Steelers on May 16.
"Just proving to myself that I can still do it," Butler said of his XFL experience. "A lot of people gave up on me. Almost gave up on myself truthfully, almost gave up on the game. But kept fighting, kept my head up. This is just another chance to prove that I'm still that guy, can be that guy. I feel that in myself."
Butler's breakout season in college took place in 2018, his final season at Iowa State. His quarterback that season was Brock Purdy, who burst onto the scene last year with the 49ers. Butler is surely hoping to mimic the success Purdy has found in San Francisco. If nothing else, Butler is giving himself a chance to earn a role on a NFL team after nearly giving up on his dream.
"I would definitely say (I have) confidence in myself," Butler said. "But I wouldn't say it's back now. I probably got it back like two-and-a-half years ago. Early on, rookie year, got hurt, had no confidence. Year after that, came back a little bit. Did a lot of self evaluation, a lot of growth.
"I've been back, just on a bigger stage now."
Here's a rundown of what else went down during what started as a sunny but later turned into a rainy practice from Latrobe.
Defense dominates Seven Shots
A day after losing Seven Shots by a 5-2 count, Pittsburgh's defense won the drill, 5-2.
The unit got some help on the first play when George Pickens failed to hang on to Kenny Pickett's slant pass in the end zone. The offense quickly fell into an 0-3 hole after an incomplete pass to Najee Harris and a deflected pass by Cam Heyward. The Steelers' first-team offense saved face when tight end Zach Gentry made an impressive catch against linebacker Mark Robinson to cut the deficit to 3-1.
Things temporarily got interesting when the second-team units took the field. Connor Heyward made a diving catch over Joey Porter Jr. to make it a 3-2 score in the defense's favor. But the offense's comeback died when Trubisky and Cody White were unable to connect on a fade route on the following play. On the next play, rookie cornerback Cory Trice Jr. put an exclamation point on the win when he tackled Gunner Olszewski a yard short of the end zone.
Offense initially struggles to find its footing
The offense's shortcomings in Seven Shots carried over to the next phase of practice. Pickett was forced to scoop up several low snaps during third-down drills. He was able to recover the first low snap before hitting Diontae Johnson on a short crossing route. Pickett wasn't as fortunate a few plays later, however. After picking up another low snap, Pickett was nearly picked off by defensive back Tre Norwood on a pass intended for Pat Freiermuth.
Along with low snaps, Pickett also had to endure T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith applying significant pressure on nearly every play. While it made Pickett's Saturday tougher, he surely won't mind watching Watt and Highsmith do the same thing against opposing quarterbacks this fall.
Similarly to the previous day, the offense eventually got on track. Calvin Austin III, one of the stars of Friday's practice, had another solid outing. Ditto Connor Heyward, as it appears that the second-year tight end will have a bigger role in the offense this season. Pickens bounced back from his drop during Seven Shots by taking a slant pass to the house to the delight of the fans who braved the less than ideal weather. Watt also received a hand from the crowd as he tried in vein to catch Pickens from behind.
The running game also continues to show signs of promise. Jaylen Warren made an impressive catch before receiving a cheer after scoring on a run to the outside.
In the end, however, the defense made more plays. Heyward batted down a second pass during the second half of practice. Shortly after that, safety Damontae Kazee was the recipient of an intercepted pass off of a deflection.
Yes, the weather surely aided the defense. But that doesn't take away its performance on Saturday while reinforcing the fact that the Steelers' better unit is still on that side of the ball.
Following practice, coach Mike Tomlin informed the media that Kazee suffered an ankle injury during that practice that may keep him sidelined for a few days. Defensive end DeMarvin Leal, who missed parts of Friday's practice with heat-related issues, was carted off the field following Seven Shots. He did not return to practice after being evaluated. Tomlin said the team will monitor Leal's situation.
Finally, running back Alfonzo Graham left practice for good after suffering a shoulder injury during 7-on-7 drills.
Missing during Saturday's practice was safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was excused for personal reasons. Fitzpatrick has yet to take part in a training camp practice but was an observer during the first two practices.
The Steelers will practice for a fourth consecutive day on Sunday before getting Monday off. Sunday will be the final helmet-only practice; Pittsburgh will bring out the pads on Tuesday.