PITTSBURGH -- A table-top soccer game set on top of a pool table was the focal point of the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room last year, but this training camp, the team's obsession is a little more active.
Between practices and meetings, members of the Steelers' defense gather around a small, black and yellow round net on the floor to play Spikeball, a modified volleyball-like backyard game.
"There are always a lot of fun and interesting conversations that you have in locker rooms and things that stay there, but this offseason, the different thing is that we have been playing Spikeball," defensive lineman Tyson Alualu said. "With anything as athletes, you get real competitive. It was like you formed teams and talk a lot of smack."
He's not kidding.
The game arrived in one of the four locker rooms used by the Steelers at Heinz Field for camp through defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. Element Sports Group, Heyward's agency, sent the Spikeball set a couple of weeks ago.
Binho Boards are so 2019.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 14, 2020
Steelers are all in on spikeball in the locker room this year, per Ola Adeniyi's IG story. pic.twitter.com/so28Z7gG8g
Two two-person teams face off in a game that begins when one team serves to the other. Players on the other team can move around the net after the serve and have up to three alternating touches to return the ball to the net. Points are scored when the ball hits the rim, the ground or bounces more than once on the net.
The heated battles are captured on Instagram, posted by spectators animatedly watching their teammates jump around the circular net, leaping and diving to keep the small ball in play.
The locker room bonding is even more important this year with training camp being held at Heinz Field rather than the traditional setting at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
"It's nice because usually it's all D-line versus linebackers versus safeties and corners and everything like that, but we were able to intermingle teams," linebacker T.J. Watt said.
"I'm with Tyson [Alualu], and we are just point-blank unstoppable."
The two also were among the best at Binho, last year's table-top soccer obsession. The ultracompetitive Watt, 25, introduced Binho to the locker room and promptly challenged everyone. While that game required concentration and a refined skill set of finesse moves to flick the marble at just the right angle to score, Spikeball allows the guys to channel their athleticism.
And boy, do they ever. Standing about 6 feet from the net, which acts like a miniature trampoline, any group of four playing the game deftly dances around, using their quick-twitch fibers to keep the ball alive.
"We have been playing pretty well," Alualu said of his team with Watt. "I think our record is like 11-1, so still the No. 1 seed. That has been fun being able to build that camaraderie with a lot of the other guys."
Watt and Alualu took their first loss this week against rookie Alex Highsmith and linebacker Tuzar Skipper, but a championship match is set for either Wednesday or Thursday against a tandem of Stephon Tuitt and Heyward. Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick, both explosive and light on their feet, also are on a team. The worst team, a pairing of defensive linemen Dan McCullers and Isaiah Buggs, was kicked out of the Spikeball league, Alualu said with a laugh.
"I think whoever was there, we just picked teams and started, and other guys started seeing us play and just picked their teams from there," Alualu said.
Looks like Devin Bush captured the Alualu-Watt team's lone spikeball loss on his IG story. Based on the celebrations afterward, I think that's Alex Highsmith and Ola Adeniyi who took them down. https://t.co/kPGngsOZ0S pic.twitter.com/eNgCEThLSz— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 23, 2020
With camp different than any previous one, it could be hard to replicate the intangibles that come with holding a sequestered camp. But activities like the Spikeball competition are keeping the Steelers plenty close.
"It feels very much like camp," coach Mike Tomlin said when asked about team bonding after Tuesday's practice. "The isolation maybe of the COVID circumstances and so forth, I believe that there has been time for that. I believe that is happening in a very natural way. I don't view this environment any different than Latrobe from that perspective, surprisingly so.
"There is always some angst when you change the environment, particularly in some unofficial-like developing things and I don't think that has been compromised at all from what I have seen thus far."