Training Camp Vignettes: Wednesday August 2nd
Tuesday was supposed to be my first day at training camp. In fact, I got about a mile from my house in the Mean Green Momma-mobile before I thought to myself, "Wait, aren't the players usually off on Tuesday?" I pulled over, checked the schedule, and the answer was yes, they were.
So yesterday I repacked my cooler bag with St. Vincent's-approved beverages (water, in this case), grabbed my binoculars and a hat and various other necessities, including, for once, a yellow pad and pen, and headed out again. I was rewarded with a beautiful day in Latrobe. It was just the way Mike Tomlin likes it—sunny and hot. Fortunately I got there early enough to snag a seat in the shade, but it was still plenty warm.
As I sat and waited for practice to begin, which it wouldn't for another 45 minutes or so, I observed my fellow thrill-seekers. On my left was a family who had driven up from Atlanta. They were at St. Vincent's primarily because their son, who looked to be eight or so, is a rabid Steelers fan. (He inherited this from his grandfather, a Pittsburgh ex-pat.) His mother said that on the Friday before the Super Bowl the kids at his school were encouraged to wear their jerseys. Apparently the teachers forgot to specify which kind, because the son proudly rocked his Antonio Brown jersey amidst the sea of red.
As usual the crowd included the young (sometimes the very young) and the old, the barely ambulatory cheek by jowl with the hale and hearty. There are the excited, the disinterested (generally dragged there by a significant other,) and the vocal. Very vocal. There are those from nearby and those from a fire (as the Southerners might say.) An elderly gentleman showed up in an Antonio Brown jersey and was enthusiastically greeted by a group of men near me, who identified said gentleman as the retired head of the anthropology department at Pitt. He might have been doing anthropological research, but I think he was just there, like the rest of us, because he loves the Steelers. In other words, it was a snapshot of Steeler Nation.
Our patience was soon rewarded as players began to appear. Two of the backup quarterbacks, Joshua Dobbs and Bart Houston, set up in the middle of the field and did some gentle throwing, with the aid of Colin Holba, randomly enough. A bunch of players congregated near one of the goal posts and started throwing balls to see who could hit the bar from the longest distance, but as usual the competition narrowed to Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey.
First from the 20 yard line, then the 25. Ben would come over to Maurkice and give him throwing tips, which, oddly, didn't seem to improve Maurkice's accuracy. First one, then the other would nail the crossbar, and generally do a little victory dance. Finally they moved back to the 30 yard line, and Ben whipped up the crowd, as it was apparently double or nothing. Maurkice's throw was close but Ben's was exquisitely on target, and you had the sense he was just toying with Pouncey in the previous rounds. Ben of course ran a victory lap, to the cheers of the crowd, and then the horn blew, stopping all the nonsense.
This being my first day at camp, I spent quite a lot of time just looking at everyone to see who looked different, for better or worse, and for that matter who was there at all. There were some interesting omissions. Le'Veon Bell wasn't there, but I didn't expect to see him, and we might not see him until September 10th. But, oddly, Antonio Brown wasn't there either, or, even more curiously, Landry Jones. [It turns out Jones was injured in Monday's practice.] James Conner was absent—he's rehabbing a shoulder injury—and Senquez Golson, who can't catch a break, is day-to-day with a "soft tissue injury." There were still a great plenty left, however.
At this point the practice descended into orchestrated chaos as various groups of men went various directions at the bidding of their coaches. I plied the binoculars eagerly to see what I could see, and by gum if Colin Holba, drafted long-snapper, wasn't practicing snaps to his holder—Ben Roethlisberger! Ben's place was shortly taken by Jordan Berry, presumably after Ben gave him some tips as well. All in all, Ben's demeanor made me think strongly about the piece I wrote last year, Everything Belongs to Ben.Throughout the day you would see him talking to this receiver or that tight end. Personally, I think Ben wants to win another Super Bowl this year so he can retire. He's certainly leaving no stone unturned.
Ivan suggested, some time ago, that Joshua Dobbs would be the camp darling. He may not be the camp darling, but he is certainly the darling of a man sitting behind me, who explained at every opportunity to the young man sitting next to him just how good Dobbs was, why drops were the fault of the receiver, and so on. (And to be fair, Dobbs did look good. Not compared to Ben, naturally, who is in an entirely different class now, and looks absolutely otherworldly. But certainly at least compared to Houston…)
An illustration—there was a QB drill in which the QB took the ball, ran around a bit to avoid someone coming at him, and threw to a "receiver" (which was a coaching-type person.) First it was not much more than moving around in the pocket, but eventually they were throwing on the run from a large circuit. Ben's "receiver" never had to budge to catch the ball, unlike the balls from the other two. Which you would hope, of course. But it was striking nonetheless.
Eventually we got down to business—AKA the Tomlin favorite "Seven Shots." I gathered from Monday's Steelers Live report that the offense wiped the floor with the defense, not just in Seven Shots but generally, and I think there were some motivational speeches given by the defensive coaches in the meantime. Or something like that. At any rate, all four of the first-team attempts were wins for the defense. The second team (QBed by Dobbs) fared better, with a touchdown. The third team defense won both the remaining attempts, for a final tally of 6-1 for the D.
There were a great many drills and 11-on-11s, and one or the other person impressed during the course of the afternoon. Both Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort made some great plays on the running drills. Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster was back after a minor injury earlier in the week and looked really impressive. Artie Burns is growing by leaps and bounds. It hardly seems worth mentioning, but the offensive line is fantastic. Knile Davis was a great pickup from what I saw today.
A few downers:
Cobi Hamilton continues to drop stuff, and I'm guessing his window is getting smaller. He was continuously beat by his defenseman in the run blocking drills as well.
From what I could tell in the kick return drill, either every single man who was returning kicks was magically endowed with superpowers which made him untouchable, or else the coverage team really sucked. I hope it was the former, but suspect the latter, especially from the high red color Danny Smith's face was taking on…
Some final random observations:
Joshua Dobbs is thin. I mean, he looks almost frail. He doesn't look frail in the backfield, though.
Vince Williams was feeling a little salty, apparently, and put a pretty good hit on David Johnson. He didn't seem sorry, either. It was, as you would suspect, a good clean hit, unlike the hit Vontaze Burfict apparently put on Giovanni Bernard's repaired knee in practice this week.
Big Al is aptly named. Among a group of offensive linemen, none of them small men, he looks huge.
During the warmups, Mike Tomlin randomly walked up to one of the guys, said something to him and shook his hand. I looked the guy up, and it was Justin Hunter. No clue what that was about…
David Johnson looks taller than I remember, and fitter. He looks great, actually.
One of the wide receivers we sort of forgot about because he was hurt last year was Canaan Severin. But he didn't forget about himself. He looked good in the catching drills, and I'll tell you what, he was the only guy in the run blocking drills who routinely destroyed his defensive player. He absolutely pancaked one of them. You heard it here first—he may surprise us all.
In the same drill, Demarcus Ayers tried valiantly, but generally the defenseman just dragged him along while he calmly tackled the back. There is definitely something to be said for size.
And the nugget I'm sure you've all been waiting for—watt about T.J.? As usual he made a few eye-opening plays, and the reports are that he came to camp after working out with his brothers with an additional 20 pounds or so of muscle. None of it, however, appears to be in his butt, so I suppose he's doomed to never be a good athlete. Conversely, Colin Holba, long-snapper extraordinaire, definitely has a big butt. No wonder the Steelers snapped him up.
That's all for now, as I am rehabbing from a soft-tissue injury sustained while leaving the field. It's just minor, so I'm day-to-day, like half of the Steelers, and definitely feel a kinship with them.
To be continued…