OTAs ended for the 2012 pre-season on Thursday. What remains is next week’s mandatory minicamp and then, for those of us who are excited and anxious for the start of the season, a long, difficult dead period lasting about six weeks until the start of training camp on the 25th of July. No big, earth shattering stuff in terms of news this week, but a lot of nice little tidbits that could serve to fire the imagination and fuel discussions through the summer lull.
These days, it seems like the Steelers value chemistry more than most teams in the league. While many teams are moving their training camps to team headquarters, the Steelers are the only team left in the AFC North to go elsewhere in the summer. Working and living at St. Vincent College develops a bond that is lost by staying in-house
ESPN’s Jamison Hensley wrote this as part of a piece commenting upon the Steelers’ tradition of blowing off one of the practice sessions (which they did on Monday), and going out as a team for a day of ‘entertainment’. Hensley acknowledged the chemistry and "camaraderie" these types of activities build. The concluding practice session was held at Heinz Field on Thursday (all the other sessions were conducted at the South Side facility). No one has said it explicitly but I suspect that practicing at the game site is a pretty big deal for the young players. There were a few interesting interviews conducted on Thursday as well. One was with quarterback…
You can find the video of the interview on Steelers.com. I believe its sinking in that the alleged controversy concerning Ben’s reaction to the new Haley offense is more a media contrivance than real. Interviews conducted this week with Heath Miller, Byron Leftwich and Haley himself confirms the challenges everyone is facing with mastering the new terminology. Ben mentions in the interview that progress is being made on the offense and that more is anticipated during the minicamp.
Ben was wearing #78 in practice on Thursday in honor of Max Starks. He is repeating an action he took last season in openly lobbying for the team to resign the tackle. There are a couple of things that can be said about this gesture. Expressing appreciation for offensive linemen can be viewed as good politics for quarterbacks and running backs, but Ben has by all accounts a strong and sincere bond with many of his offensive linemen. You’ll remember that one of Ben’s companions when he was having his difficulties in Georgia was Willie Colon. Starks and Ben were part of the same draft class and have been in the wars together, including three Super Bowls, for the entirety of each man’s career. Ben reports that Starks is in good health. And though he would not project to being a starter, with a rookie and a second year man at the tackles Starks would be a good person to have in the mix, unless you believe that it would make no difference than say, Jonathan Scott.
But the most interesting portion of the interview to me was when Ben was asked who impressed him during the practices. The question came in two parts; one focusing upon returning veterans, the other on newcomers. The two names he mentioned from the returning veterans were Willie Colon and his switch to the interior of the offensive line, and receiver Antonio Brown.
In terms of the newcomers he was high on free agent acquisition Leonard Pope, commenting on his size and comparing him favorably with Heath Miller as a pass catcher. Ben was reluctant to say anything about the rookies, echoing Tomlin’s take that first year players haven’t accomplished anything of significance where it counts, in the games. But having said that he did go on to express how impressed he has been with fifth round draft pick Chris Rainey.
Ben was also asked if he had any problems with having two rookies possibly starting on the offensive line. He said no, and also said that he had spoken on the phone with first round draft pick David DeCastro and offered to help him with travel arrangements for next week’s minicamp.
Another intriguing interview conducted on the last day of OTAs was with…
One of the nice things about this time of the year is that the assistant coaches get to have their moment in the sun. Butler (whose interview is also available on Steelers.com) was one of four Steelers assistants to be interviewed this week.
When asked, Butler revealed that the group of younger linebackers was one of the more impressive groups that he has had while adding as a caution that this was all about what was being accomplished in shorts and that the real test would come when the pads went on.
He had a lot to say about third round draft pick Sean Spence that was eye opening. Spence, who had a spectacular interception during the Thursday practice, is picking up the system so quickly that it is likely that he will see the field on defense in addition to special teams duties. Butler pointed out that none of his linebackers has ever started as a rookie, but it was noteworthy to me that he didn’t entirely close the door on that possibility for Spence.
The remainder of his comments were made in reference to Jason Worilds and Chris Carter. Worilds has had wrist surgery, and though he is expected to be available for camp and the season, he is being held out now as a precaution. Carter is another player who has impressed. And Butler pointed out something that many of us may have forgotten. Because of the lockout last year this is Carter’s first OTAs. Second year players such as Carter and Cam Heyward may make more spectacular progress this year as they have a full year of preparation under their belts for the first time.
While on the subject of assistant coaches talking to press, let’s also include…
LeBeau was interviewed by the Post-Gazette and at Steelers.com this week. He commented on the Denver debacle and the one area that was a cause for concern from last year’s defense, a lack of turnovers. The defense bore the brunt of the player losses during the off season (The release of James Farrior and Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke’s retirement and the loss of Willie Gay to free agency) but LeBeau expressed confidence that the pieces were available to keep the success of the unit going.
Like Butler, LeBeau was very high Sean Spence and what he has shown so far. (Maybe we’re not overstating how impressive this year’s draft has been). The bulk of his remarks on Steelers.com were concerning the position competition at cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. LeBeau heaped high praise on all three candidates; Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, encouraging us to dream that we may see an era when there exists both quality and depth in the secondary. Is that really possible? And it should be noted that Allen and Brown are also second year players which could mean that they too may make a dramatic jump after a having a full year of preparation.
But probably the most noteworthy interview was with offensive coordinator…
The interview that was published through the Post-Gazette on Haley's offensive concept but he also seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time reassuring the press that he and Ben Roethlisberger weren't at each other's throats.
"We want to be, No. 1, a physical group whether we're throwing it or running it. We want to be a smart group and -- its coach speak -- but we want to be a disciplined group. If we're that with the guys we have out here working, at least in my estimation, we ought to have a chance to be pretty good."
And staying with the offense, also in the spotlight this week was offensive line coach…
We learned from Kugler that the first and second round draft choices David DeCastro and Mike Adams, prevented by rule from participating in the OTAs have just not been sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. Each was given a laptop loaded with the team playbook. They have been contacted and quizzed on a nightly basis by Kugler. He has been impressed by the quality of the questions he has been fielding in these nightly conversations. Kugler stated that Adams and DeCastro are slated to run with the first team when the minicamp commences next week.
Kugler also had some things to say about some of the returning veterans being very excited about the potential of Willie Colon’s move to guard and claiming that Maurkice Pouncey was having his best off season (Really? Wow!)
Leaving OTAs for a bit, let’s talk about…
Sapp continues to endear himself to Steeler Nation, once again opining that Pittsburgh lacks the necessities to successfully compete for a championship. You may recall that in the wake of the early season loss to the Ravens, Sapp declared the Steelers as being "Old, slow and done". Apparently a 12-4 record and a playoff slot constitutes being "done". High praise indeed.
It should not come as a surprise that a large number of fans are heaping abuse on the business end of Sapp’s digestive tract. But now it seems that the Steelers players have had enough of Sapp as well. Ike Taylor and Larry Foote lit into Sapp on Taylor’s radio program and pulled no punches as they ridiculed Sapp’s financial problems. Foote also alluded to an incident during the 2002 season that may be the genesis of this animosity. Before a game between the Steelers and Tampa Bay, Sapp and another player disrespectfully intruded into the Steelers’ warm up area. The situation climaxed with a physical altercation involving Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. I would have loved to have seen that one.
A growing consensus says that Sapp will be eating his words in a few months.
Back to OTAs where…
Much has been made of an exchange involving Troy and Florida State Alum and Rhodes Scholar Rolle as they were exiting the field after practice last week. The two players, dripping in sweat, were having an animated discussion. Were they unpacking the intricacies of LeBeau’s defense? Deciphering Peyton Manning in high altitude? Dissecting strategies that counteract New England’s two tight end attack?
No. They were discussing whether a world with a population of 6.4 billion could sustain the lifestyle aspirations of a growing middle class. The thing is I can easily imagine these two having that kind of a conversation in the middle of football practice. Throw into the mix Ryan Clark who held forth this week on the NFL Network’s Total Access program and one thing is clear; the Steelers’ crew of safeties, if nothing else, have the potential of being the most erudite and opinionated group in the league.
Miscellaneous football news
You may want to keep an eye on the defensive end spot for the Steelers. Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward have been attracting attention with their preparations for the season. Don’t be surprised if one or both players make a quantum leap in their play.
Negotiations between the NFL and their game officials are at an impasse. The possibility of a lockout and the hiring of replacement officials are a real possibility. With safety issues still front and center this could cause some problems for the league down the line.
Speaking of safety concerns, the lawsuits of former players concerning head injuries have been consolidated into one massive lawsuit. The legal issues that the league faces over these issues continue to evolve.