Training Camp Vignettes No. 2: Tuesday August 8
Via Tribune-Review/ Christopher Tyler Randolph photo
This is a very special edition of TCV, if you will, because I was joined by none other than Homer J and Ivan Cole! We met up at the
Ruths Chris Steakhouse—well, okay, it was Eat 'N Park—just east of St. Vincent's to plan our strategy. And as long as we're on the subject, can anyone explain to me why it is "Eat 'N Park" rather than "Park 'N Eat?" It isn't like they visit your car, like Sonics of old. You have to park before you can eat, unless you walk there. The Eat 'N Park in my neighborhood (Squirrel Hill) doesn't actually have a parking lot, so it would be more accurate to characterize it as "look for a long time for a parking spot, then eat." I suppose that's rather long for a sign…
But I digress already. We finished our lunch, headed over to the promised land, and claimed seats. Unlike last week, we didn't get seats in the shade right off, although we were shaded by about halfway through practice. It almost wasn't necessary, though. Mike Tomlin must have been cross, because it was the most perfect day imaginable. There was absolutely nothing to make anyone uncomfortable—beautiful blue skies with scarcely a cloud in them, temperature around 75 degrees, and the gentlest of breezes. It was, in a word, perfect.
Practice itself had an odd feel to it, which Ivan and Homer summed up as we discussed it through the miracles of modern technology. (I called their car as they were driving home after I had reached mine.) And speaking of modern technology, please pardon another diversion, but I think part of the point of these vignettes is to give my readers a feel for what it is like at camp.
As usual, I was surrounded by folks from all walks of life, some more interesting than others. I couldn't help taking in the lively discussion in front of me, in which the two main protagonists debated whether the moon landing was real or simulated. The most telling argument, perhaps, of the pro-simulation proponent was that "heck, back then we were using 8-track players." The point, apparently, was that with such relatively crude music reproduction systems, the chances of a system with the technical requirements for a moon landing were not good. I had to admit it was a novel argument.
To return to the subject at hand, the "odd feel" of practice I mentioned above had something, perhaps, to do with our pre-practice discussion about the rash of camp injuries. We pondered how many of them seemed very convenient for the purposes, perhaps, of a red-shirt year for promising newbies who would need to be stashed on the practice squad. I'm not sure the Steelers stoop to that level of deception, but I have to admit I'm not sure they don't, either.
But here's what we saw from some of the guys who were practicing:
First off, it was nice to see both Sammie Coates and James Conner practicing, albeit in a very limited fashion. Artie Burns was also wearing a jersey but only did a few individual drills. Senquez Golson was practicing for real, which is exciting, because given the past it was easy to assume the latest injury would linger for some time.
But the main story of practice will be told by Homer:
"Imagine a receiver with the grace of Lynn Swann and the blocking ability of Hines Ward. You won't have to imagine such a receiver anymore, because we have him, and his name is JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Like Fred Astaire, he was doing incredibly difficult things and making them look easy. He caught my attention as soon as I saw him handle the ball. He's a natural.
For those who question the Steelers drafting him in the second round when they had perhaps greater needs, I ask you this—would you, needing an inside linebacker or a tight end, pass up Jerry Rice if he was available?"
In a less poetic vein, Homer said that he had read the hype on Smith-Schuster, but was reserving judgement until he could see for himself. What he saw exceeded his expectations. Ivan and I agree, of course, but Homer stole our thunder. Homer also noted that the earlier injury to Sammie Coates and the status of the as-yet un-reinstated Martavis Bryant have given Smith-Schuster the chance to grow quickly in the same way Lynn Swann and John Stallworth did in 1974.
In more receiver news, Antonio Brown was back at practice, and nothing we saw led us to believe that he has lost anything at all. Reports are that Artie Burns, before he was injured, was doing about as good a job covering AB as is possible, but the same could not be said for Ross Cockrell, who finally has his chance to cover AB due to Burns' injury. There was, however, a rather lovely moment during one 11-on-11 session when what I presume was a busted coverage left AB wide open. He headed for the end zone and scored easily, of course, but Sean Davis ran like the dickens and almost caught up with him. It was nice to see the effort, and with a slightly slower and less crafty receiver it might not have been all for naught.
Ivan was particularly struck with the receiver in the hard hat, Eli Rogers. (He was, of course, wearing a proper helmet for practice itself.) Rogers looks as if he has continued to grow after last year's baptism by fire.
As for the quarterbacks, the first thing to report is the results of the garbage can competition. The four contestants were Ben, Joshua Dobbs, Bart Houston, and Todd Haley. The idea is to land a ball in a big plastic garbage can (which is bolted to another of the same size beneath it). Ben was the first to succeed, to great applause. Dobbs was next, and, surprisingly, Haley landed one in the bin, eliciting cheers from the spectators and the other contestants alike. Surprisingly, though, if you only consider the balls that actually went in, rather than measuring how close they were, Bart Houston won, as he was the only one to land two in the cans.
In the drills, though, it was a different story. Ben was the undisputed winner of the drills, if you want to look at it that way. As for the other two, Homer commented that Houston is possibly better than just a camp arm, and might get a job as a backup some day. Of Dobbs, he said:
"I'm neither impressed nor unimpressed. He doesn't have a great sense of timing, although he clearly has a terrific arm. Just what you would expect, in other words—the natural talent is there, but needs experience."
At which point we generally agreed that the continued absence of Landry Jones with an abdominal injury is giving both guys (but particularly Dobbs) a chance for very valuable experience.
And as long as I'm throwing out stuff about random people, Homer also feels Fitz Toussaint looks good, and that he is going to be around for a while. This, of course, makes it even less likely that Momma favorite Terrell Watson can sneak onto the roster. He is a bruiser, though, and served as Joshua Dobbs' security blanket during what I think was a two-minute drill. He caught several dump-off passes and looked comfortable doing so.
The other player who caught Ivan's eye was Bud Dupree. He was all over the place. It isn't difficult to think as you watch him that he could end up having an unbelievable year. I'll add that DB Mike Hilton continues to impress, and just seems to be around the ball. Tunch Ilkin noted that he has the most passes broken up of anyone at camp.
But generally speaking, Ivan thought it seemed as if the team was practicing with one hand behind their backs—that the Steelers are being careful not to give out any information. We didn't see much (or anything) of some of the guys we were interested in looking at, including Johnny Maxey, LJ Fort, or Jerald Hawkins. (Maurkice Pouncey and Al Villanueva were also not playing due to injury.) And to add to the conspiracy theory, we didn't see either Ike Taylor or Hines Ward. Ivan figured they are probably in New Jersey, scouting out the Giants' practice.
We did see Mel Blount, though, in his trademark cowboy hat. Which set Homer to talking about whether it is a common thing for former players (and Hall of Famers to boot) to "hang out" with the team in the way that so many of the legendary Steelers do. He asked what it must be like for a young impressionable player to see and have the chance to interact with one of the greats at their position, and to get some sense of the legacy they now have the chance to become a part of. As he said:
"How many other teams have something like this? How much is this involved in team building? Is this why Steelers teams seem to get better as they encounter adversity?"
He then talked about Todd Haley being a ball boy, and some of the men who have done likewise, including Bill Nunn Jr. and Art II—about the lineage that emanates from the Rooneys.
Which lead him to opine that this team has a chemistry you can feel. It's the little things that tell the tale. The defensive tackles hang together when not actively practicing, just like you see the o-line doing. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown seem to be having the time of their lives at camp. It isn't just the spectators applauding a great catch or a great play. You definitely feel the "band of brothers" vibe, which seems unusual considering how many of the guys there know they are just passing through. Because sad as it is, it's a numbers game, and there are almost twice too many guys there at the moment.
And, reluctant as Ivan was to say it, he believes this is the team and this is the year. Homer urged him to amend it to this—the window is wide open right now, are there are opportunities now they won't have in the future.
And as always, the question is, can they grasp the opportunity laid before them? Stay tuned : )