Steelers Training Camp 2015: Everything Belongs to Ben*

via Steelers.com


Ivan Cole and Rebecca Rollett finally made it out to Latrobe for training camp yesterday afternoon to continue their patented series on what’s happening.

As usual they will cover both the footbally stuff (mainly Ivan,) the sartorial, crowd, and what you might call beefcake issues (Rebecca,) and jointly take you to camp in a way no one else can.

As for the title of this article, it refers back to the “Ben’s Battleship” article, and to the picture you will see below, which was taken yesterday afternoon on site at St. Vincent’s. 

The Opening Salvos

There are traditionally a number of contests in which the players amuse themselves, I presume, as well as the assembled masses before practice formally begins. Shortly after we arrived we noticed Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey locked in mortal combat.

Actually, they were taking turns throwing a ball from a goodly distance towards the goal posts. This contest, which we also observed last season, is apparently a competition to see who could bounce the ball off the crossbar. Ben won.

Meanwhile several of the receivers and defensive backs were taking punts from the JUGS machine. This competition, definitely a fan favorite, requires the receiver to catch a ball, then secure it and catch another while not dropping the first one.

I have seen this contest every time I have been at camp. But Marcus Wheaton came up with a variation. He caught one ball, and then as the next one was coming in he gently tossed the first one in the air, secured the catch of the second ball, and then re-caught the first ball.

I thought this was quite clever. The only problem is, it rather limits the number of possible balls caught to two. If they keep doing it this way, never again will we witness perhaps the pinnacle of achievement on this drill, when Antonio Brown managed to catch ball No. 7 while not dropping balls one – six. Amazing.

Practice Officially Begins

As usual there were a number of things going on in various areas of the fields. St. Vincent’s has three football fields put together, two longways next to each other and one crossways. It’s pretty hard to see what’s going on in the far fields, and even the field closest to the bleachers is often divided up, with two or three different drills being run on different parts of the field.

In other words, even with two of us, it was impossible to see what was going on everywhere. So a great many things happened that we won’t be able to share because we just didn’t see them. Last year Ivan described it as a seven-ring circus.

It took us a while to find Mike Tomlin on the field. We were looking for a MIB, [Man In Black] and found a couple, but neither were Tomlin.

As it happened Tomlin was rocking a Steelers gold t-shirt and hat, which is completely unprecedented. We don’t know whether it’s a provision in his new contract to sell more apparel, or whether his wife is designing a line of gold Steelers gear. Whatever the cause, it made him easy to spot on the field. No more stealth coaching for him!

We could not only see him but hear him as he came to the sidelines to run the tight ends through the sled-shoving drill. Tomlin loves that drill, and always oversees it, but curiously he only ran the TEs through once.

Heath Miller was first, and his studly sled-shoving garnered a chorus of “Heattttth” from the bleachers. Next came Matt Spaeth, who is presumably still waiting to become a father, as I haven’t seen any news of Baby Spaeth yet.

At any rate, he pushed the sled even further and faster than Heath, but made the mistake of making it look almost effortless, and thereby garnered little but indifference from the crowd. Not Tomlin, though. He loved it.

Jesse James was next, and Tomlin was visibly (and audibly) pleased with his effort. The only one who didn’t impress was #80, Ray Hamilton, newly claimed of waivers after Dallas cut him, and Tomlin didn’t look impressed. He was probably muttering under his breath about Dallas players…

Yes, apparently even the porta-potties are Ben’s.

Yes, apparently even the porta-potties are Ben’s.

Special Teams

Special Teams coach Danny Smith was in full tongue, at least at first, and as we told you last year, that’s an earful. I noted he now has an assistant whose entire job seems to be to yell for him, perhaps when he is overcome with emotion. It’s a miracle to me the man has any vocal chords at all…

There was some pretty impassioned body language as the guys worked on blocking the ball for kick returns. I expect they saw plenty of tape on the rather leaky coverage teams from last Friday, and Smith seemed prepared to continue reminding them about that tape for as long as necessary.

We also discovered an unexpected use for the back-up punter. (As it happens, it is Jordan Berry, but it could be most anyone, actually.) Berry held out the ball while men intent on mayhem charged him. The regular punter, Brad Wing, was standing safely behind him, handing up the balls.

We speculated that given the many acres of cornfields which surround the area, combined with the fact that the backup is also from Australia, makes it all too easy to dispose of the evidence if an errant special-teamer got carried away and things go badly wrong. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary, with both punters emerging unscathed.

The Biggest Takeaway

No, unfortunately, not that kind (although there was an interception of Landry Jones, and another potential interception that was dropped, causing Terence Garvin to drop to the turf and do ten pushups.) No, what we took away from camp was rather similar to last year. 

…it was nice to know that despite now being defended by hostile invaders, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were able to do whatever they liked, without reference to said threats. This may well turn out to be one of the pairings for the ages.

Ivan actually observed a throw from 7 to 84 which did not result in a completion, due to a combination of a bad throw from Ben and a slip by Antonio. Otherwise they look like money in the bank.

The main difference this year is that it wasn’t just Ben and AB. It was Ben and Marcus Wheaton. Or Ben and Le’Veon Bell. Or Ben and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Or Martavus Bryant. Or Ben and the gatorade boy. The truth is, we don’t see how any team can defend this offense if the “Big Three” is running on all cylinders. It just isn’t fair. And I think the rest of the league noticed last Friday night.

But if you don’t believe us, or for that matter the evidence of your own eyes, here’s what the ESPN writers for the AFC North had to say when asked “What will defenses do to contain the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell?” 

After the typical sort of homeristic reply you would have expected from the Ravens’ writer, Pat McManamom, who writes about the Browns, said this:

Hope to outscore them. It’s not a joke. Stopping all three of these guys is next to impossible, as they showed last season when Roethlisberger threw for 4,952 yards, Bell ran for 1,361 and Brown caught for 1,698. Conceivably, Roethlisberger could be better this season given the late-season development of Martavis Bryant and the drafting of Sammie Coates. Stopping Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell is impossible. The best that defenses can hope is to limit one or to force the Steelers to be patient and hope for a mistake.

However, my favorite response was the one from Coley Harvey of the Bengals:

Prayer could help. 

During the backs on receivers, here are the results of some of the contests we could actually figure out the jersey numbers for:

Cortez Allen on AB: Surprisingly good coverage, no catch

B.W. Webb vs. Marcus Wheaton: Completion

Antwon Blake vs. Martavus Bryant: Completion

Darrius Heyward-Bey vs. Brandon Boykin: An incredible catch

Doran Grant on Sammie Coates: great catch

Jordan Sullen vs. Shakim Phillips: knockdown of ball

Kevin Fogg vs. AB: great catch

C. Allen vs. Wheaton: great catch he really laid out for

? vs. DHB: DHB schooled the back, then dropped the ball

Grant vs. Tyler Murphy: Nice catch

Boykin vs. Coates: Nice catch

Allen Darby vs. Wheaton: Incomplete [Tomlin: “I see you, Darby.”]

Then in comes Landry Jones. (Cue music from Jaws.)

Several throws. All incomplete.

Back comes Ben, and we see a big long list more of the same.

I (Rebecca) found myself wondering a couple of things. First, is the defense that bad, or is the offense that good? Friday night’s game would tend to indicate the latter, even though the Steeler defense certainly didn’t move any mountains.

My second thought was, does it make the defensive backs better to play against such a high level offense, or only depressed? Ivan, the psychologist among us, assures me it’s a good thing.

Random Observations

Best Camp Question:

A small girl behind us asked during the 11 on 11s why they didn’t let the kids go out and play with them. I expect she wasn’t the only one wanting to do that—it’s just that the guys don’t want to look dumb, so they keep quiet.

Most Inexperienced Camp Question:

Another woman behind us asked why they didn’t have practice in the morning when it was nice and cool. We explained that Tomlin likes it to be hot, the hotter the better. She pointed out that it wouldn’t be hot later in the year. We opined that if Tomlin could find a way to hold some practices at 30 below as well, he would…

What a Difference a Year Makes:

Last year the smell of blood was in the air, and camp fights broke out on a regular basis. Yesterday we didn’t see even a hint of an altercation. (Although I believe the NFL has sent out a memo about fights, as in, they don’t want to see them, and are prepared to fine transgressors. So maybe that’s it. Tomlin is probably not amused.)

Player Stuff

Last year Daniel McCullers clearly stood out as the largest man on the field. This year, not only has McCullers lost some weight but he is overshadowed by Alejandro Villanueva.

I hate to think what Villanueva’s nickname is, if McCullers was called Shade Tree. Although I suppose when the guy you are nicknaming is a decorated war hero you might think twice about annoying him…

This Year’s Martavus Bryant?

Sammie Coates’ hands looked just fine to us. He had one drop but hauled in everything else like a pro. Our theory is it might be more a matter of overthinking, concentration lapses, or both than a hands problem, and he will soon learn to deal with them. 

Last Year’s Martavus Bryant…

looked considerably more raw in his rookie year than anything we’ve seen out of Sammie Coates. Here’s what we had to say then:

Just when you want to dismiss this guy [Bryant] as a total knucklehead, he comes up with a couple of brilliant catches towards the end of practice. On the very last play he caught one in the end zone, on Taylor, to the cheers of his teammates, and leaving Taylor to be taunted by LaGarrette Blount.

We all saw how that turned out. Coates is going to be just fine. And for the record, he hasn’t yet looked like a knucklehead.

Unexpected Awesomeness:

Tyler Murphy. He is causing us to question what the actual backup QB situation is, as he is looking at least a solid candidate for the practice squad. Admittedly, we didn’t see him do any QB work today, but he made a number of athletic and contested catches, and his positional flexibility, which Mike Tomlin loves so much, might give the coaches and front office something to think about. Landry Jones, after all, can only throw the ball, and sometimes he can hardly bring himself to do that.

And I realize we are rather ragging on Landry Jones. As Ivan says, it only goes to show we didn’t realize how good we had it with three NFL-starting caliber QBs on the roster. (Note I didn’t say “excellent,” or “franchise,” but all of them were NFL starters at one time or another.)

Not that we appreciated what we had. And now that Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have ridden into the sunset, and Bruce Gradkowski is hurt, we see what the difference is between a franchise quarterback and everyone else. And the drop is bound to be bigger when it is between Ben and  a guy who has never started a (real) game in the NFL. Jones may be a complete bust, but maybe he’s actually just what one should expect out of a third-string quarterback.

And speaking of Gradkowski, he was dressed, and while he didn’t play a lot he did throw some passes, which looked alright, right up until the interception…

At the end of practice we were amused to see him and James Harrison running sprints. Although “sprints” might be too lively a word for the stately progression across the field these two grizzled veterans made. Mind you, they were some of the few doing sprints. Gotta give them props for that.

And speaking of veterans, sprints, and apparently non-mandatory activities:

Separating the Men from the Boys

So who is the next Antonio Brown? Not a wide receiver, necessarily, but the guy who is going to overcome a lack of experience or background and work his way to greatness? This is why the end of practice after most everyone has gone to the dorms is so interesting.

Today we saw, naturally, the present Antonio Brown working at the JUGS machine. Because it isn’t as if he has already caught about a million footballs in his life. Waiting to take his place when he finished was Will Allen.  Not a young, up and coming DB but a 12-year veteran. Let that sink in for a moment.

Next up was Niko Davis, a UDFA who signed with the Steelers in early May. Prior to the end of practice he also spent a considerable amount of time running sprints with Cameron Heyward.  I’m guessing he couldn’t quit until Heyward did.

Also running sprints were, big surprise, Antonio Brown, with Heyward-Bey, another player whose number we couldn’t catch, and coach Carnell Lake.

Interestingly, Lake was actually winning, and AB turned on the jets because that wasn’t happening in his backyard.

Later AB and Bell were running together, and as they turned we discovered they had sparkles on the bottoms of their cleats. My granddaughter would have approved. 

Final Impressions:

Last year we felt the Steelers had considerable promise. We thought the offense would be amazing, as you can see from the quote above, and the defense would take some time to sort itself out.

This year, there’s no doubt about the offense, and it looks like the defense will still need some time, but that may not matter much. Rebecca cracks that we’re going to be picking 32nd in next year’s draft, and nobody thinks it’s absurd.

The receiver corps looks awesome. We saw a lot of plays that would have gone for six points in a regular game. Antonio Brown made a catch in which the throw had elicited a groan, because it was obvious it was going to be way over his head. And yet he went up and came down with the ball. (This makes the NFL Draft Profile comment about Brown, “Not tall” all the more humorous.)

DHB made a sweet juke move that totally lost his DB. Marcus Wheaton looked really good, except that the level of play around him was so spectacular he looked ordinary. There were a couple of Dri Archer sightings, literally. One moment you didn’t know what was going on, and the next moment he squirted out of the mass of humanity. Bryant showed potential last year. This year he looks good and looks like he’s going to get even better soon.

We saw a running back (26) making moves one might associate with Barry Sanders. DeAngelo Williams looks like a great pickup who is going to be a complement to Bell all season and can carry the load at the beginning of it. We think that, without exaggeration, this offense  looks to be unstoppable.

With the usual enormous proviso that Ben stays healthy.

Because make no mistake, he’s the straw that stirs the drink. It was an amazing drop-off to any of the other QBs. They made some competant plays (as well as some that weren’t so competent, alas,) but Ben was transcendent. On a hot Sunday afternoon at training camp. He made it look easy.

Those who clamored to trade him or not renew him might be happy to be “proven right” should he have a career-ending injury before this new contract is up. And they will deserve what they get. As Ivan says, a franchise quarterback is a rare and precious thing. If they grew on trees everybody would have one. It is a serious concern to think who the Steelers will replace Ben with in the fullness of time, because hopefully they will never be drafting in the earlier part of the first round, where you can maybe, if you’re very lucky, draft one.

And with that admonition we will sign off. 

Late-breaking update—When asked about the potential of the Steelers offense, DeAngelo Williams said: “I wouldn’t even say the sky is the limit. I would have to go beyond that and say outer space is the limit.”

One would hope he would be enthusiastic about the offense, but this goes a bit beyond the usual hyperbole…

*Even more late-breaking update: See if you can guess who won the Steelers 2015 Home Run Derby? That’s right, Ben Roethlisberger. Or as Coach T said when announcing the winner, “7.” Ben then took his trophy (a baseball bat,) and yelled up to the spectators “That’s for you, O. You’re my boys!”

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