(A brief note - for reasons I'll explain below, I don't have much in the way of specifics from my visit to camp. If you're looking for an inspirational, get-excited story, though, I might be able to help you there.)
Last week, I found myself planning a weekend road trip -- a trip that would take me too close to Latrobe to miss a chance to visit training camp. I laid on the smooth-talkin', and convinced my wife that we should make the stop.
Unfortunately, that's where the smooth ended. A few projects at work kept me at work later than I expected that Thursday, pushing back the start of our trip. I completely forgot my baby's suitcase at home. We had directions, but we got off the highway too early, and ended up spending an hour or so on Route 30, winding around through the mountains. We arrived at training camp about 4:45, and almost turned around and left. There was a large amount of fans leaving the camp, and we were worried things had ended early. I found a parking spot anyway, grabbed our baby's things quickly, and found a worker/guard at the camp who told me that practice was still running. I was relieved, but because I'd hurried out of the car, I realized that I had left my notebook and autograph marker back in the car.
After all this, I have to admit my mood was pretty low. I'd built up in my mind what the training camp experience was going to be like -- I had some errant thoughts about asking Keisel to sign my baby -- but none of my plans included showing up late with half of the things I'd planned to bring along.
Despite these problems, I couldn't be happier with what I saw at training camp.
Let's talk first about the facilities. If you have the opportunity to go to camp, go to camp. Seriously. I lived in Pittsburgh for seven years without going to training camp, and now I'm kicking myself. There is absolutely nothing inconvenient or poorly planned about the public's access to camp. It's a little bit of a drive, but nothing you should complain about on a sunny summer day. Parking is easy to find and plentiful, and the route to the fields is plainly marked. Despite arriving about two hours after the start of camp, my wife and I easily found a spot on the bleachers to sit. There was also plenty of space on the hillsides nearby to sit. Don't worry about it. The only place that's crowded is the autograph line, but I've suffered far worse crowds on the D.C. Metro.
Next, I want to give a shout out to Steeler Nation. You rock. You're vocal, appreciative, friendly, and enthusiastic. No one gave me dirty looks when my 8-month old child started fussing and crying. Thankfully, a bottle was all he needed, and then he was happy again, but I'd like to thank the people around me in the bleachers for being understanding.
But you probably came to this article hoping for a few scraps of news about the players. I'll provide what I can. The team was running some 11 on 11 drills -- two minute drills, unless I'm horribly mistaken. Here are my observations:
1. The team ran a lot of short, quick passing plays. Ben didn't hang on to the ball forever. I did see him buy a little time on 2-3 plays, and he connected one deep to Antonio Brown for a TD, but this wasn't the offense's focus.
2. Speaking of Brown, he looks really, really good. If you're not excited about his recent contract, you should be. He made catches all over the field.
3. WRs generally look good. Wallace will be a great addition when he comes back -- note my optimism -- but I think that Brown, Sanders and Cotchery can handle the workload. Marquis Maze looks hungry for a roster spot, and the opportunity is there for him. Let's see how he looks in the first preseason game.
4. Defense time. I have to admit, it was weird watching my defense playing my offense. It's quite a conflict of interest. I'll start by mentioning Ike Taylor, who seems bent on proving that he's the #1 CB on the team, if not the division. Many of the other veterans don't seem out to prove themselves -- I'll mention Troy Polamalu, who impressed me with his after-practice work ethic, but seemed to be holding himself back in the 11 on 11s -- but Ike looks like he's making the most of every minute of this offseason.
5. I think Sean Spence is going to make an impact this year. Maybe not right away, but when he gets the opportunity to play under the big lights, watch out.
6. I'm liking the Steelers on the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball. The coaches moved a lot of guys on and off the line while I watched, so it's hard to make too many specific comments, but these guys are set on proving themselves. The men who make it through the fire are going to be ready to compete toe-to-toe with the league's best. Don't write off the older guys in your excitement over the rookies, either. The story of this offseason might very well one William B. Smashmouth Colon. On the other side, I think that McLendon is going to make a legitimate claim to a starting position.
Practice ended all too soon after my arrival. I'll end with a comment about Mike Tomlin. The guy has presence. He's surrounded by young men, most in the peak physical condition of their lives, and he still manages to dominate the field. The long-sleeved shirts he wears out to the field in the hottest of weather tells me something about his temperament and his approach to problems. He can take the heat. The best contract signing of this offseason was his.