Training Camp, Day 1
Well, folks, football is back, and it was a welcome sight! I should say “sights,” as it was the usual problem of one set of eyes and many places to look. But I did my best. Here’s what I saw, and heard. I apologize if it seems disjointed, but I’m giving it to you more or less as I experienced it, with a few clarifications due to later information.
Practice began with receiver drills, and a #83 was throwing some really sweet passes. It wasn’t Canaan Severin, though, it was Ben, who wore Heath’s number for the first part of practice to honor him. He said after practice that it was a shock to look out and see #83 and have it not be Heath, and that he kept wishing Heath would show up and play a little bit. Heath’s departure seems to have hit him harder than any of the other players who have retired, which makes sense…
Ben wasn’t the only player wearing a different jersey number to honor someone else. Long snapper Greg Warren was wearing a #6 for Shaun Suisham.
When you are sitting cheek by jowl in the stands at camp you hear stuff from those around you, which may or may not be correct. The guy behind me noted to his friend that Warren’s job isn’t a gimme anymore, as they have brought in another long snapper for competition, and in fact this turns out to be correct—Matt Dooley, #42, was brought in earlier in the year. So we will see how that goes. There wasn’t much in the way of live punting or kicking, and Warren was the snapper for everything I saw.
One of the guys I noticed early on was #87. He’s a big boy—a 6’5″, 260 lb. tight end. I noticed him in the early receiver drills because he dwarfed most of the guys on the field. He’s a rookie, from Michigan State, signed in early June, but I missed him somehow. He’s harder to miss in person…
The emphasis then shifted as the JUGS machine was brought to shoot some kickoffs. I quit writing numbers down after a while, as it seemed as if every offensive player who isn’t a lineman or a QB, and a few defensive guys as well, was out there taking kickoffs. As far as I could tell (there were two going at once) only one guy dropped a ball. That would be Roy Philon, a DT, who according to the roster weighs almost 300 lbs. There is another #69, but he’s an offensive lineman, and this guy was wearing a defensive jersey. It seems surprising he would be out there anyhow.
The horn blew and they all ran to the middle of the field for warm-ups. Like Hines Ward before him, Antonio Brown does his own thing, with a trainer who assists him in some of them. I guess that’s what happens when business is boomin’.
And speaking of AB, he was in fine fettle, encouraging the very enthusiastic onlookers into a yelling contest between the bleachers and the people sitting on the hill behind the end zone. I don’t know who won. However, there were also a few shouts to this effect—”Pay the man!!!!” I’m guessing it won’t make any difference to the front office decisions.
After the warm-ups were finally over, the offensive drills began with short passes to the running backs. (I’ll warn you, as usual the defensive drills all took place on the far field, and even with binoculars it wasn’t really possible to see what was going on, so I gave up.) But my attention was drawn to the sled drill, and sure enough along came Mike Tomlin, who loves this drill.
Tomlin, since I know you need to know these things, was sporting a long-sleeved white T-shirt and grey sweat pants. Apparently, at 88 degrees and humid, it wasn’t hot enough to make him break out the long blacks. James Harrison, however, was wearing full sweats, and a helmet, but as far as I could tell didn’t actually participate in practice. I think Mike Tomlin keeps him out just to make him mad.
To return to the sled drill, I missed most of it, apparently, as they only went through the TE group once or twice. Nobody looked particularly impressive, especially after past years when Heath and Matt Spaeth would come in and kill it. Apparently Mandel Dixon and Paul Lang looked particularly bad, because they had to stay after class and do it again a few time. I warned Dixon in my post about that, and I guess he didn’t believe me. Tomlin had a discussion with them, which was naturally inaudible, considering everything else that was going on.
They then joined the rest of the TEs for some short pass drills. David Johnson looked great, coming back to pick up a pass and picking another high one out of the air. Dixon redeemed himself with a great leaping catch, and Xavier Grimble had a big miss. Paul Lang looked good when catching throughout the day, with seemingly soft hands and good instincts.
Ben then started putting some real mustard on a few passes, and Jesse James missed the first one but not any of the subsequent balls. He is clearly the top TE in the absence of Ladarius Green (who is on the PUP list.)
Then the wideouts came in for some drills. In case you were breathlessly wondering, by the way, the QB progression is most definitely Ben, Landry Jones, Bruce Gradkoski, and Dustin Vaughan, for the moment. For that matter, I won’t keep you in suspense—the WR lineup is clearly AB, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, and then a competition for the next place, which Eli Rogers seems to be winning at the moment. (Shakim Phillips is on the PUP list, and given the opportunity which exists because of Martavis Bryant’s suspension, that may be really unfortunate for him.) And Alejandro Villanueva is, at least for now, the first-team left tackle.
AB looks fabulous, of course. He’s AB. Markus Wheaton looks like the player at least one commentator said might be the steal of the AFC North draft classes in 2013. And I’m happy and relieved to say that Sammie Coates, a favorite of mine, looks just as good as I was hoping, given the reports from earlier this summer. He’s fast, his routes looked crisp, and he didn’t drop a ball all day as far as I could see, which was not the case for AB, who dropped a couple. (Maybe this is AB’s way of holding out…)
As for the others, Levi Norwood had some nice catches. He was the only one I noticed in particular. This may well change in the days to come, and is undoubtedly at least partially due to the sensory overload which is training camp.
And speaking of sensory overload, there was a bee plague (or wasp, or something) at camp. They weren’t too bad where I was, but some people were moving up from the lower bleachers because of them. Joe Starkey, who was in Latrobe for 93.7 The Fan, and whom I was listening to during my drive out, complained about them too. Odd.
Anyhow, the big moment finally arrived when the defense came over for the 11 on 11s. Mike Mitchell grabbed a drop by someone whose number I couldn’t see. Artie Burns knocked out a pass Sammie Coates caught securely, or so it seemed, leading to great excitement in the crowd. I think all of Steeler Nation is pulling for this kid. Arthur Moats was up in Landry Jones’ face almost immediately on the next drop-back. Steven Johnson almost intercepted Ben on a contested catch. But other than that it was all the offense, even at times when someone besides Ben was at quarterback.
Which reminds me to say that I don’t believe a single Landry Jones pass went to anyone other than the intended receiver, which has always been his big weakness. I thought he looked good so far, and if he’s the de facto No. 2, the Steelers must think so as well, as he has to overcome the Bruce Gradkowski veteranosity…
Next came punt drills, without actual punts. It was all about the blocking. Danny Smith was in mid-season form are he shouted non-stop at the guys. His voice is some sort of a medical miracle. I don’t know how it stands the abuse. At one point he turned back towards the stands, and as I fortunately had the binoculars trained on him I can inform you that he said, with great disgust to the latest blocking group, “You don’t get a second chance! Don’t give me this stuff!!!” At least I think he said “stuff.” Perhaps not. By the end of this drill he is bright red from head to toe, although he started out pretty normal-looking.
The next segment of practice was another set of 11 on 11s, in which we had our first Le’Veon Bell sightings. Bell appeared to cut and run pretty much as he always has, amazingly in other words. Interestingly, in the interview with Ben after practice he was asked about the impending suspension and basically said “we’ll see what happens. If he does have to miss games it’s next man up, just like Coach Tomlin always says.” The person reporting this (Mark Kaboly from the Trib, IIRC) said that a number of people on the team have used the “we’ll see how this plays out” line. In other words, they aren’t convinced either that Bell will be suspended, or that he won’t. So more people than just Bell himself must put some credence in his “my dog ate my phone”-type excuse.
DeAngelo Williams was up next, and man, he looks great. He had a couple of good runs, and also made a catch in the middle of about five guys. Fitzgerald Toussaint had a nice run or two, although at one point I wrote “#33 was stoned” before realizing that in the context of a Steelers offensive weapon it is probably an unfortunate phrase.
I liked Daryl Richardson, a guy who has knocked around the league for several years after the Rams drafted him. But maybe what I really liked was his amazingly long braids. They go way below his jersey number. Cameron Stingily had a nice run behind Roosevelt Nix, who later caught a dump-off pass and had a good run. Brandon Johnson also had a good run.
Later in the practice, in the last set of 11 on 11s, somebody on the staff yelled “D! It’s going to be a run!” It was, and it didn’t help, as Cameron Stingily had a nice run yet again. Of course the difficulty of judging is this—they can’t hit, they can’t tackle, and I don’t know what the arrangement is and whether the offensive player is supposed to basically give himself up if they are contacted in a certain way. I’m guessing there is probably something like that, something which is mainly honored in the breach. It’s the question Ivan and I pondered last summer—is the offense this good, or is the defense this bad? Personally, I think there is some of both things. The offense is going to have more of a challenge when an actual opposing defense actually opposes them. On the other hand, if Ben and his mighty minions are anything like they look so far, it really isn’t difficult to see them putting up 30 points per game.
This is getting way too long, so I’ll just mention a couple of other highlights. L. J. Fort intercepted a pass on a Dustin Vaughan rollout. He looked pretty pleased about that. Brandon Johnson looks fast to me. Fitz Toussaint looks shifty, in a good way. AB was breath-taking on an end-around. I suppose I should just stop saying stuff like that. DeAngelo Williams looks tiny—I hadn’t realized he is so short. I think the 5’9″ he is listed is a courtesy. It doesn’t matter, though. He’s terrific.
After practice, here’s a shocker—AB went straight to the JUGS machine to catch balls for about 10 minutes. The other wideouts ran sprints, and then they took turns after him. Artie Burns stayed for quite a while, working with another guy on what looked like man coverage. Then he and a couple of other DBs ran sprints. Ben came out with his right elbow in an ice pack, took it off, and signed a ton of autographs. And speaking of Ben, he and Mike Tomlin had a long discussion—probably five minutes at least—in the middle of the field while the special teams drills were happening down at the end. And speaking of talking, he talked to his receivers all the time, pulling them aside as soon as he could to talk to them about what went right or wrong. He’s grown into leadership in a way some of us feared we would never see, back in the day.
All very satisfactory.
Pdate: something I forgot to include, and which Mark Kaboly’s column reminded me of, was that, according to Joe Starkey, there was a guy walking around in a Vontaze Burfict jersey yesterday, which wasn’t going down too well. Here’s what Kaboly reported from Ben’s interview:
On the Bengals rivalry: “I want it to be a good, clean rivalry. I don’t want it to be a rivalry where people are tuning in to see a fight, to see penalties. I think it can get out of control, and it did at times. I am out there and you see all the stuff going on under the piles. It is one thing to talk a little trash and another thing to say some of the things that are being said.”
to be continued