Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Throwing Down the Gauntlet.
Photo via Steelers.com
Saturday’s practice was a big upgrade in terms of what we could actually see. [“We” being Ivan, Homer J., Greg, and me.] We snagged seats in the shade, fortunately, as it was plenty hot that day. (However, by the MT Hotness Index, it wasn’t really hot, as MT was only wearing a grey long-sleeved shirt over his long black sweat pants. If it had been really hot the shirt would have been black.)
One of the first things we got to see was Ben Roethlisberger—the new, reduced Ben—actually throwing the football. He hadn’t played at all on Friday night. After the usual warm-up drills, out came the trash can for the QB competition. With the trash can to their left, the results were Trash Can 20, QBs 0. The trash can was then moved to their right, and after a number of failed attempts by everyone, Landry Jones drew first blood, to great acclaim from the fans. This was not going to stand, of course, as Ben then stepped up and landed one inside the can. More cheering was followed by numerous bows and acknowledgments of the audience. Competition over. (You knew it was going to go on until Ben won…)
The punt-holding drill, another crowd favorite, was pretty good this year. By far the best was Cam Sutton, who managed to corral six balls before being unable to hold on to No. 7. (I believe seven is AB’s record, never bested.)
The only thing that was missing was the Ben and Maurkice (Pouncey) Goal-Post Hitting Competition. I don’t know why they skipped it, but we were happy enough to have them move on to actual football activities.
One more note on the pre-practice activities—Ben spurned the usual warm-up exercises as usual, doing some soft tosses instead, but during the stretches actually got down on the ground and did some. He looks incredibly flexible, and, as noted by Dale Lolley, is not wearing anything resembling a brace on any limb whatsoever—a first for quite some time. Score one for his personal trainer and low-carb regimen. Let’s see if he can keep it up!
Saturday was a non-tackling day, so it was a bit difficult to take away meaningful conclusions from some of the drills. But it was heartening to see the defense batting away passes and challenging receivers for the ball. As usual it was a three-ring circus, and there was just too much to watch. But here are some of the things that stood out to us:
The first two draft picks this year appear to be the real deal. I already talked about Terrell Edmunds yesterday, so I’ll just say that James Washington is very impressive. He is smooth, physical, and doesn’t have any objections to fighting a DB for the catch, unlike the guy he is presumably replacing, Martavis Bryant. Furthermore, the Steelers have him for four years. Somehow I can’t help thinking Kevin Colbert is laughing like a butcher’s dog over that trade. (Especially now that it is rumored Bryant is heading for another suspension.) I wish nothing but the best for Bryant, but one has to wonder whether he is too damaged, by whatever it is, to manage to stay the course.
As for Mason Rudolph, he shows flashes of awesomeness in a sea of struggles to get up to NFL speed. The great thing about him is that none of it flusters him. He came from a similar situation as Landry Jones, but seems to have a deep well of confidence Jones never possessed. Rudolph appears to be able to chalk each misfire of whatever description up to a learning opportunity. I will be watching him with great interest on Thursday night.
And speaking of NFL speed, one of the most impressive things I saw, in a funny way, was a pass completed to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who took it 40 or 50 yards to the endzone. He took it those 40 or 50 yards in the blink of an eye. Whatever else he is, he is still blazingly fast. You can see what seduced Al Davis. And by all accounts he is spending a lot of time working with the young receivers.
One of the items of interest is always who is this year’s camp phenom? I would say there is nobody who has yet qualified for the Isaac Redman award, but there are several guys making a play for it. Two of them are (as usual) wide receivers, but ones coming from the absolute opposite ends of the spectrum.
The first is Justin Hunter, a rather disappointing second-round pick for the Titans in 2013. He is looking like a serious red-zone threat, something the Steelers have been lacking outside of AB. This would be great news.
The other is Damoun Patterson. This young man received a camp invite after what had to have been a truly disheartening UDFA experience. After he went undrafted this year, he got a call from the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons were his team and his dream—he had even written an essay as a kid about playing for the Falcons. Less than an hour later they called back and rescinded the offer, and he didn’t receive any others. The Steelers had been at his pro day at Youngstown State, and when his agent reminded them, they gave him an invite to minicamp. He was one of only two invitees to receive a contract—the other was offensive lineman R.J. Prince.
Luckily for him, the minor injuries to AB, Juju Smith-Schuster, and now DHB have given him a chance to run with the first team, and he has made some eye-opening plays. His agent calls him a “physical” player who is well-suited to the Steelers’ philosophy. We’ll see where it goes.
They aren’t the only receivers making some hay, though. Trey Griffey has also looked really good. Once again the Steelers appear to be bursting at the seams with receiving talent. Add to this the great improvements seen in Jesse James and Xavier Grimble, and the intriguing traits of Vance McDonald, which we will hopefully see if he ever manages to stay on the field, and the passing game looks pretty exciting.
As for the running game, James Conner, Fitz Toussaint, and Jaylen Samuels all looked good. Both Conner and Samuels have reportedly improved enormously in blitz pickup (something Samuels was never asked to do in college, so there was nowhere to go but up.) But in a practice with no live tackling it’s pretty hard to tell what’s really happening in the running game.
That’s it for the moment. I for one can’t wait for Thursday’s game. I know many people hate the preseason, but I love seeing the young guys have a chance to show what they can do. And the other thing about it is its crocus-like nature—when you see it, you know the season is on its way…
And for anyone who might have been mystefied by the post title, I completely forgot the point to using that, which was things like the vast improvement in the TEs after Tomlin said that James and Grimble weren’t playing varsity football last summer (and hence the signing of McDonald.) They took this personally, and it is paying dividends. I’m quite certain they aren’t the only position group Tomlin called out, although perhaps not so publicly. DBs, anyone?