Starting today football goes underground for about six weeks. The players will continue to prepare for the season, but they will do so individually or in small groups; and privately. Steelers minicamp ended yesterday with an abbreviated (about 15 minutes) session that has come to be known as Hat Day. The team will reassemble on July 25th at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe for the commencement of training camp.
This is going to cause some problems on three levels. First there is the fact that as we approach the summer solstice, for football fans it is the dead of winter, metaphorically speaking. It's been nearly six months since the Steelers last took the field for a game and it'll be awhile before they do so again. That's bad enough, but I think we can agree that it's different this year as well. I can't recall the last time there was this much anticipation and excitement in advance of a season.
As datruth4life stated in a recent thread "I think Tomlin has a secret". That secret being that he is assembling a monster and many of us in the Nation can see it as plain as day (though we could be viewing things through the proverbial rose colored glasses, but this perception transcends the usual optimists and Pollyannas who always see the glass as full to overflowing). We've been feeding on free agency, the draft, OTAs and minicamp. And now, nothing; we're going to be left hanging for a bit, rehashing and reinterpreting the information we already have with very little new to work with.
Second, if you depend upon sports for gratification or distraction then the problem is that this is not just down time for football. I was looking at the schedule for broadcast sporting events this weekend, and well, pretty boring actually. The NHL is over; the NBA has about a week left. If you're into the Pirates then the times are pretty good. Folks are very excited about the Nationals in these parts. The US Open will be front and center through Sunday and Tiger is doing well so far. Beyond that, the WNBA.
The third part is personal. What am I going to write about in the Check Down? The Mike Wallace negotiations will be ongoing, that's something. It's possible that Tomlin might get a new contract. The player safety issue will probably make headlines at least once. Manny Sanders may throw a gum wrapper out of his car window and get fined, suspended or cut. Otherwise it might come to sharing Baron Batch's recipe for bean dip.
But enough of my problems. We're going to do things a little differently this time, hope you like it.
The Front Office
Art Rooney II made headlines on Wednesday when he said about Mike Wallace "He should be here". This was interpreted as a shot across the bow of sorts, but the actual process of the negotiation appears to continue to be free of acrimony. The deadline for Wallace to sign his RFA tender expired today (June 15th), but the team has not exercised its option of reducing the amount that is offered to the wide receiver. The hope on all sides is that an agreement on a long term contract can be reached. Wallace's coach (Tomlin) and quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) have both expressed optimism that there will be a satisfactory solution, but are noncommittal as to when that might be.
A couple of roster moves were made this week. The team signed former Bengals inside linebacker Brandon Johnson and seven year veteran long snapper Matt Kafula who has played for the Ravens, Patriots and most recently with the Vikings (Ravens and Patriots? Did they fumigate this guy before they let him mix with the other players?). These moves appear to be designed to add depth to the competition at various positions. Johnson, for example, is reported to be a good special teams player, but has never risen above the level of a reserve for the Bengals.
To make room for these new players tight end Wes Lyons was released and rookie wide receiver Connor Dixon of South Park H.S. and Duquesne was placed on the waived/injured list. Neither move should be considered surprising. With the logjam of talent both at tight end and his old position of wide receiver, unless there had been a spectacular improvement from last year, there was probably no chance of Lyons earning a roster spot. Being released gives him a fighting chance of catching on with another team. Dixon had a history of injury problems in college. It appears at this point that he might have been too fragile to have made it at this level.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin ran an abbreviated practice for the last session of minicamp on Thursday. Besides giving the team a head start on their six week break, there was another reason for the shortened session. Steelers.com reported that Tomlin left the Steelers facility and headed directly to Brashear High where he was running a two day camp for youth football players. He also took all of the Steelers rookies with him to serve as counselors for the day (What, do you think any of them would say no?). The nearly 250 participants of the free camp got the opportunity to work with the likes of David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Chris Rainey and Kelvin Beachum.
Both the Trib and the Post-Gazette ran pieces on Running Backs Coach Kirby Wilson. The remarkable and inspiring recovery of Wilson continues as his only concession to his injuries is the use of a golf cart when he is on the practice field. While on the subject, a good amount of press was devoted to the...
Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Baron Batch were profiled in two pieces that appear in Steelers.com. The common elements were that of guys trying to prove their value to their coaches and moving up the depth chart. Noteworthy for Batch was that the blue vest (signifying that there should be no contact) he was required to wear during OTAs was removed for minicamp. The reports concerning Batch during these spring sessions have been very good. But he acknowledged that he has yet to put on a team uniform even for a preseason game.
Chris Rainey was featured in a piece in Friday's Post-Gazette which highlighted the fact that he and center Maurkice Pouncey have been teammates in high school, at the University of Florida, and now with the Steelers. Rainey, who has been receiving high praise, expressed the hope to make a name for himself on special teams and eventually get an opportunity to contribute to the offense.
In the piece on Coach Wilson, fullback David Johnson credited his coach with helping him to accelerate his development at the position. Rashard Mendenhall was doing straight line running during minicamp. There is still no clarity as to where he is at this point in his rehabilitation.
The big news here is that receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown pled guilty to and were fined for the crime of littering. The two left some cardboard boxes next to a private dumpster. For this abomination that warranted feature coverage on the front page of the Trib, each man was fined $300 and Sanders was removed from his position as spokesperson for an anti-littering campaign. No word so far from Commissioner Goodell's office. If you want to have a good laugh you might want to check out Anthony Defeo's fine article on this subject on the BTSC front page.
This was the area of the team that attracted the most media coverage by far.
First round pick David DeCastro and second round pick Mike Adams joined the team for the first time since rookie minicamp. League rules prevented them from participating in OTAs. Both men spent time on both the second team and first team groups. Adams caught some grief when he was beaten on a play by his former Ohio State teammate Cameron Heyward. But generally they both received high marks for their grasp of their assignments despite their absence. The Tribs Dejan Kovacevic is predicting that they will be in the starting lineup against Denver, and also quotes high praise for the two from Maurkice Pouncey.
Usually overlooked in all the discussion of the first year offensive linemen is seventh round pick Kelvin Beachum. In a piece by Jim Wexell in Steel City Insider, Beachum has also been attracting a lot of positive notice. Trai Essex points out that Beachum is both smart and talented. He also brings a trait that the higher draft choices do not; position flexibility. A lot of people who comment on this site have written this player off. My guess at this stage is that their judgments are premature.
Essex has also been attracting some positive notice. While much has been made of the physical transformation of Ziggy Hood, Essex has gone through some changes himself, losing a considerable amount of weight. He is also one of the players who has stepped up his game in the leadership department as well. One indication is that Essex was assigned to the first team line during minicamp; playing in a group that also included Marcus Gilbert, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster. Like Beachum, a lot of people in these parts have been quick to write off Essex as well. Maybe, but I don't think so. In addition to his apparent physical rededication, Essex also brings the valued skill of position flexibility (his stint at center during last season's game against the Rams earned him a game ball) and, like Max Starks, he is a veteran of three Super Bowl squads. You learn things during a championship run that cannot be taught.
Guard Ramon Foster was also profiled in an article in the Trib. The piece emphasized that this isn't the first time that Foster has been challenged by a player who was viewed as being better on paper or reputation and prevailed. On the other hand he is a realist who knows that a first round draft choice is another matter. But he vows that he won't go down without a fight. His contract situation (the Steelers offered him a nice tender for this year but he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013) would indicate that he will have value to the team for his experience this year, but may be allowed to walk afterward.
The only really fresh news in this area is the release of Lyons. But reading between the lines it seems clear that Leonard Pope has impressed, if for no other reason than his size and the range that it brings. By all indications the new offense will be more tight end friendly, particularly in the red zone.
The big news of the week for Ben was the announcement last Saturday that an addition in the form of a son will be coming to the Roethlisberger household this year. That was followed by some accounts that basically declared the full rehabilitation of Ben's image. He was also the subject of speculation and debate on the NFL Network and elsewhere as to whether he would or should alter his game if, for no other reason, self- preservation. Ben's answer was no.
The minicamp ended with a throwing contest involving Troy Smith and Byron Leftwich. Smith made an impressive throw of 68 yards, but Leftwich won with a toss of 70. This was the one piece of good news for Byron who was reported to have some accuracy problems during drills.
Not as much attention as the group on the other side of the ball, but it was something of an active week for these guys as well.
A video on Steelers.com showed nose tackle Casey Hampton tutoring fourth round pick Alameda Ta'amu on some technical points. Two things stood out. First, Hampton looked to be in very good shape, relatively svelte. Second, the solidly built Ta'amu was bigger than Snack. And, of course, there is the matter of McLendon who is the favorite to start the season at the position. A few short months ago people were wringing their hands over the future of this position. At this point it might be one of the most solid and deep positions on the team.
The dominant story concerning this component of the team has been the preparation regimen of end Ziggy Hood. Reviews have been positive, but it is still unclear to what extent this will translate to game performance. And even putting that issue aside, there are many who believe that Cam Heyward could be breathing down both Hood's and perhaps Keisel's collective necks this year. Besides his schooling of Adams, it is believed that Heyward could make a significant leap this year given his lack of off season work last year due to the lockout.
Besides the addition of Johnson, not much new here. There is still some conversation about the football smarts of third round pick Sean Spence and the possibility that he could play a significant role in the defense sooner rather than later. LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote and Ryan Mundy will be working out together in Michigan in preparation for training camp.
The entire defensive backfield cohort got to spend some time with Hall Of Fame inductee Jack Butler when he visited the South Side facility during the first day of minicamp.
With all the excitement surrounding this team you can be forgiven if you have forgotten that the Hall Of Fame induction ceremony will be a pretty big day for Steeler Nation. Besides Butler, Dermontti Dawson will be inducted as well. Two inductees from one organization is not common. If you haven't already, you might want to consider attending the ceremony in Canton, Ohio in early August.
And to all for whom it applies, have a great Father's Day!