Saturday afternoon, Saint Vincent College.
I'm not feeling Steely McBeam. At the risk of being perceived as crank or even a really bad person, I have no use for the Steelers 'mascot', at least not as conceived. My reasoning here is much the same as my not favoring cheerleaders. Now I can't think of a lot of situations where I would be against half naked women running around (and they're usually a lot more than just half naked), but professional football, and particularly Steelers football is one of them.
What's my problem with Steely? At bottom it's a puppet; a wannebe Muppet. Western Pennsylvania takes its football seriously. On Friday night I witnessed parents patiently explaining to seven year old girls the intricacies of the zone blitz. It is neither necessary nor desirable to tart up the proceedings with preening women. And we don't need to pander to children with puppets. Every Steelers home game I fully expect to see a shot of Steely McBeam face down in the Ohio River. I know I'm not the only person who harbors fantasies about euthanizing this thing. It is probably only out of respect for the Rooneys that it hasn't happened already.I have given the matter some thought, and believe that Steely can be re-imagined in a way that better represents Steeler football and the Pittsburgh Way. We begin by sticking a knife in his back. Well, not literally. Stick with me on this one. Pittsburgh's heroes tend to be tragic figures and that's the direction this needs to go. So, we stick a knife in Steely's back (fake of course) right between the shoulder blades. The handle of this knife is purple and is engraved with the name: RAVENS. And just to make sure we get the point, written around the wound in magic marker is the message "Ray-Ray Was Here". And just to make the taunt complete add one of those smiley face emoticons. Then you take the smile off Steely's face. You have a knife in your back you're not likely to be smiling. His cheeks are streaked with black and gold tears.
Even though puppets don't talk the message could not be clearer as Steely wanders among fans and the team; "Will I not be avenged?" Now, that's a mascot I can get behind.
Injuries. Willie Colon and Isaac Redman sat this one out with ankle injuries. What I found interesting about this is that a lot of people insisted that Colon was present on the field. I asked two different groups of people on two separate occasions if they had spotted Colon. Each time they swore that they did. My guess is that there are some similarities in body type and hair style with Colon and tackle Chris Scott. There is even a relative similarity with uniform numbers; 74 vs 71. Brett Keisel and Manny Sanders who both sat out Friday's practice returned to action.
Todd Haley. I was watching one of the other position groups when the roar of the crowd pulled my attention to the quarterbacks. A big fan favorite on Friday night was a competition where the four quarterbacks attempt to drop footballs into a barrel on the sidelines. They were at it again on Saturday. Byron Leftwich started off strong this time, but all four quarterbacks had their moments. The reactions when they succeeded, saluting and playing to the crowd were hilarious. There was a fifth player in the competition, Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley. Haley did alright, but as they say; those who can't do, coach.
What has stood out about Haley over the two days is how physically active he is with his coaching. On Friday night when the tight ends were practicing pass patterns Haley would drop into coverage to give the players a picture. He didn't do this once or twice but consistently throughout the drill, as he also did with this passing contest. He's definitely involved, and from the body language he seems comfortable with the players. But that wouldn't make for good headlines, would it.
Antonio Brown. When he's not busy working, and Brown continues to work as hard as anyone, he has terrific chemistry with the crowd. During warm ups he gets the crowd into a competition. He points to different sections to determine which group cheers the loudest. When he made a decision he throws a football into the winning section. Everybody likes Antonio.
One of the few areas where there is sustained competition among top players is between the wide receivers and defensive backs. The headliners are Antonio vs Ike Taylor. Each player won their share of rounds, but what stood out was a pass to the corner of the end zone. Taylor had great position and it seemed that he would either knock the ball away or intercept it. Well, this being Ike, maybe not. Somehow the pass got through, Brown made a great catch. Ike went ballistic. He ranted, he snatched off his chin strap, he interrupted the rant to congratulate Antonio, and then continued to rant. Seems most folks really like Ike too.
On the other side Manny Sanders and Keenan Lewis were going at it. With all the talk about Brown and Wallace it is easy to overlook Sanders. Lewis did well, but Sanders was better, and in my view gave away nothing to Brown. In the undercard Jerricho Cotchery abuses a bunch of people and once again turns Will Allen into burned toast. Extremely impressive for the second day in a row was David Gilreath. It's still early but I would say that this guy can play in this league, whether it is with Pittsburgh remains to be seen.
The running backs continued to impress. All of them scored in one drill or another. But the most impressive from my perspective was Chris Rainey who demonstrated that he could be just as lethal in the relative close quarters of the red zone as he is in the more open spaces. Clay scored on goal line by leaping over the line breaking the plane into the end zone.
I've become a fan of the kicker Daniel Hrapmann. I haven't seen enough to speak to his accuracy, but no question he has the stronger leg. He was doing kickoffs today and was consistently making it into the end zone.
With Willie Colon being out the starting line up for the offensive line was (left to right) Adams, Foster, Pouncey, De Castro and Gilbert. It appears that Adams has earned his way to the first group, at least until Starks returns.
He hadn't shown much previously, but toward the end of practice cornerback Curtis Brown had a nice interception that would have been certainly a touchdown in a game situation. Safety Robert Golden also had a quality interception during a seven on seven drill. At the opposite end of the spectrum Tony Clemons did have a drop on a pass from Byron Leftwich during the short yardage segment.
While there were some interesting individual and position group battles the most interesting aspect of this practice were the eleven on elevens. The reports that I had heard up to this point would seem to indicate offensive dominance. If so then a sense of balance has been restored. The defense won the short yardage and goal line drills. The offense did better in when there was more room such as red zone passing.
Perhaps the most impressive offensive play was a pass play where Ben dropped back, bought time by scrambling right and then hit Manny Sanders crossing to the left in the end zone covered by Ike Taylor. This seemed slightly uncharacteristic given the fact that the quarterbacks have been more prone to throwing the ball away if the player was not open initially.
Emotion and pride were evident with the defense. During the goal line drill in particular the leadership of three players stood out from my vantage point; Larry Foote, Ryan Clark and, in particular, Ike Taylor. And while many were happy when the offense did well in the drill (especially Clay's touchdown) the Nation's passion for defense was clear as chants of "Defense!" rang out from the crowd.
Finally, a word or two about process. I believe the value of reports of this type is that while the facts are important, context is important as well. For example, one of the things I noticed with eleven on eleven over two days is that only three of the four quarterbacks play. On Friday Ben was the odd may out. Saturday it was Jerrod Johnson, who only played because Ben was pulled for a minor injury. If you attended only one of those practices you might be inclined to come to an inappropriate conclusion concerning what was going on.
Many of the top line players haven't done much, and I believe that is pretty much by design. They need a certain amount of reps for timing and conditioning purposes, but they don't have much to prove unless they are in a position battle. Consequently, players such as Polamalu and Woodley have been essentially invisible over the past two days. Although I saw some promising things and had some concerns over these two days I have enough sense to know I don't have enough information to draw any final conclusions. And it frankly amazes me that there are those who are writing people in, or out after witnessing a practice, or even worse, on hearsay from someone else. And we're not privy to half of the practices. Can we at least wait until they've had an opportunity under game conditions before making final judgments?
The evaluation process is a movie. The information that I and others have been giving you have been snapshots; maybe indicative of broader truths, maybe not. I think we might all be well served to keep that in mind over the coming days and weeks that remain before Labor Day, when half the people who are currently in uniform will be out of football.