Kendrick Green at fullback among compelling items to watch in Steelers' preseason opener

LATROBE, Pa. -- Kendrick Green wanted to run the ball in youth football.

A red sticker on his helmet signaled to everyone around him that he wasn’t allowed.

“I was always too heavy,” the 6-2, 315-pound Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman said after a training camp practice Tuesday. “Where I'm from, they give you a red sticker when you're too heavy, so you can't run the ball, you’ve got to play on the line.”

There certainly wasn’t a red dot on his helmet when he suited up for the Steelers’ annual Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium during the second week of training camp. With nearly 14,000 watching, Green ran on the field as an extra lineman. As Mason Rudolph corralled the snap, Green ran in motion from left to right, flaring out in a shallow route to the flat. Rudolph saw a wide-open Green and threw him the ball. And as Green pulled in the pass and rumbled forward for a couple extra yards, the packed municipal stadium erupted.

“I saw it on film and I was like, that's dangerous,” said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who heard about Green’s performance after missing the practice. “Somebody is going to get hurt. He's a big boy. It was funny, he caught a little pass in the flat today and I was like, ‘I definitely don't want to be tackling him. But hey, the more he can do.’”

Since that Friday night, Green has taken a couple snaps at every practice in an H-back/fullback role in plays designed for him to be the lead blocker, ball carrier, and yes, even pass-catcher, in addition to taking reps as the third-string center.

With their first preseason game against Tampa Bay on Friday night, the Steelers will enter the next phase in testing the viability of Green’s new role, one that could help the Steelers in short-yardage and goal line situations and strengthen Green’s somewhat tenuous case to make the 53-man roster.

“This is a time of year to experiment,” Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl said Wednesday. “You're seeing guys different up at different positions, and we're just trying to find out about players and their skill sets. We are getting creative with Kendrick … It's been fun to watch him work at fullback and he's done some good things out there.”

With his childhood hopes of being a running back dashed, Green spent most of his football career on the offensive or defensive line. He primarily played guard at Illinois, but the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2021 NFL draft and made him Ben Roethlisberger’s starting center for the final season of the quarterback’s career.

His second year in Pittsburgh was a forgettable one. After starting 15 games as a rookie, Green was inactive every Sunday. The team moved him back to guard and signed center Mason Cole in free agency.

“I don't even know anybody who's done what they asked me to do, honestly,” Green said. “Not trying to make excuses or anything like that. Coach Tomlin always tells me, just keep coming to work. Last year it was rough for me being inactive every week and stuff like that. It's mentally taxing for sure, but you’ve just gotta keep swinging.”

But in the midst of that challenging year, a new path started to open up. Green played the role of Baltimore fullback Patrick Ricard on the scout team in preparation for the Ravens matchups, and the wheels started turning in the minds of the Steelers’ coaching staff.

“We just kind of put that in our hip pocket,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “In an environment like this man, we want to see what guys are capable of doing, adding to their cause and ours, and he's shown some flexibility there.”

The Steelers always planned to try out more of those packages during training camp, but the surprise departure of rookie UDFA fullback Monte Pottenbaum left the team without a true fullback on the roster, making Green’s versatility that much more intriguing.

Using a sixth offensive lineman in goal line and short yardage situations is hardly unprecedented in recent Steelers offenses. In 2019, Zach Banner saw most of his action in those situations and was greeted warmly by the fans at Acrisure Stadium when officials announced his entry as an eligible receiver.

Banner, though, was primarily used as an extra blocker, while Green’s hands and relative explosiveness -- he recorded a 35 ½ inch vertical and 4.89 40-yard dash at his pro day -- make him a more viable offensive threat.

“He can really run,” wide receiver Gunner Olszewski said. “I've seen the dude dance. I've seen the dude in the weight room. He can run. He fancies himself as an athlete, so now he just gets to put up or shut up.”

Green got his most significant day of practice on Tuesday when the team emphasized those goal line and short-yardage situations. He caught a couple of passes and had a couple carries, too. Afterward, he waited his turn to get on the JUGS machine and caught passes for several minutes to wind down the day’s work. Approached for interviews since his first training camp catch, Green downplays the significance of the experiment. It’s a day-by-day thing, he reiterates, but his teammates are excited about the possibilities in their offense, and for their once-overlooked teammate to make big plays.

“When Kendrick gets in a huddle and he's wiping his jersey saying he's the F (receiver), we all get pretty excited,” Olszewski said. “Maybe we're going to throw him the ball, and I'll tell you, nobody wants to see him in the end zone more. I mean, everybody in that huddle wants to see him in the end zones. We're going to block our tails off of him. He's going to go in there and bash some heads for us.”