Steelers training camp recap: First day in pads

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

In which the author makes it to Latrobe for the first day in pads...

Up front disclaimer: those of you who know me from back in the day know my football-y knowledge is not necessarily operative in real time, if you will. Especially at training camp, where several different drills are often going on at once. Instead, I bring you impressions. Some of which may be wrong. In that case, I have discovered the regulars on this august site are happy to put me straight.

Today was the first time I've ever been at training camp when it wasn't blisteringly hot. In fact, it was so cool that Mike Tomlin eschewed his usual long black sweatpants for long grey sweatpants. I guess he didn't have to prove he was hotter than everyone else today. He still wore his standard-issue long sleeved black shirt, though.

Between one thing and another I didn't make it to the stands until almost 3:30 (the practice allegedly begins at 3:00 and ends at 5:00.) I had to shame a woman into removing her gear from one of the few remaining spots on the bleachers. There were also masses of people on the hillsides ringing the practice fields. I'm always amazed at how many people come out for camp on a weekday.

I didn't miss much, as far as I know. In my experience, practices typically begin quite slowly, and a bit late, and tend to end late as well. Today was no exception, as the players were still doing warm-ups when I sat down.

However, things quickly heated up, and out came the sled for what seems to be Mike Tomlin's favorite drill—the TE sled-shoving drill. Tomlin has never missed watching this drill in the many times I've been to camp, despite the fact that numerous other things are taking place on the various fields, and he stares intently as each man has his turn.

Today was no exception. He had less to say than usual, but his face told the tale. Every time Matt Spaeth shoved the sled Tomlin had a big old grin on his face. He was loving him some Matt Spaeth : ) This year, what with the decimation of the TE corps, there were only four players participating—Spaeth, David Paulson, Jamie McCoy, and Peter Tuitupou. I would say they basically impressed in that order as well. Both Paulson and McCoy had some good goes at the sled. Watching Tuitupou, however, Tomlin's look was definitely one of modified rapture.

After these were finished I turned my attention to the wide receiver drills. There was someone standing along the sidelines (one of a large group of fans who got to be special for some reason) who screamed "Plax!!!!!" every time Burress ran by. Burress looks tall in comparison to most of the rest of the receivers. Very tall. But as the drills heated up throughout the day it was interesting to see that he and Jerricho Cotchery definitely showed their age. This isn't to say that they might not be very effective in certain situations, but I'm guessing neither of them will be running a go route on a regular basis.

As for the young "vets," I thought Antonio Brown looked terrific. I also thought Emmanuel Sanders looked much shiftier than I have noticed before, and he used this to beat out backs a couple of times later in the day. I realize the Steelers have lost the pure flat-out speed of Mike Wallace, but I'm not sure that means they can't still beat people deep. I definitely saw some stretch-the-field type plays from several of the players.

Although I'm sure it means absolutely nothing at this point, the depth chart for the WRs, according to the order they ran the drills today, appears to be Brown, Sanders, Cotchery, Burress, and, strangely, Justin Brown. Brown is pretty nippy. However, Wheaton got plenty of reps and targets as the day unfolded.

The TEs also ran some passing drills, and they all looked just fine. I'm sure it's too soon to say, but it wouldn't surprise me if the ultimate decision, barring injuries, comes down to blocking and veteranosity, as Clint Hurdle might say. Which means a not very surprising 1-2 punch of Matt Spaeth and David Paulson. And later, in the 11-on-11s, it looked to me as if Ben has already slotted Matt Spaeth into the "Heath Miller" portion of his brain, and Spaeth is rising to the occasion. I think we may look back in a few months and decide this was a pretty good free agent signing.

Shortly before the Backs on Backers I had a DVD (DeMarcus Van Dyke) sighting, and while he wasn't wearing any sort of a brace or bandage that I could see, he was definitely gimpy.

And now on to the B on Bs. LeVeon Bell had his number called early and often, as Tomlin is clearly interested to see what he's got in this young man. Overall, the defense won the majority of the contests. (I gather the defense actually has an advantage in these drills, as naturally they don't let the backs cut block.) But a few of the tilts went to the running back, or it was a draw. The winners? Isaac Redman beat Jarvis Jones, Will Johnson stoned Vince Williams, and David Paulson managed to sufficiently delay Brian Rolle, although Paulson got absolutely steamrolled by Jason Worilds the time before. LeVeon Bell was sent up against LaMarr Woodley (who owned him twice in a row, as you would hope,) Lawrence Timmons (ditto,) Chris Carter, who also schooled him, and twice against Jarvis Jones. Bell was getting pretty frustrated by then, I think, and a fight almost broke out. But Bell did better with Jones than with the wily vets, which isn't terribly surprising. He also had a draw against Alan Baxter, and won another match with Jones.

The fun continued, but my attention was drawn elsewhere, to the receivers on DBs. We've got two cornerbacks sharing number 39, Isaiah Green and Nigel Malone, so I don't know which was which, but one of them almost ripped J.D. Woods' jersey off. Some other observations:

I like this Justin Brown kid. He beat out Curtis Brown and possibly also Justin King. (I was scrawling on a yellow legal pad, and occasionally the 1s and 7s are hard to tell apart.) Sanders absolutely schooled Robert Golden. He's got a couple of little shimmies that really seem to confuse the backs. Ross Ventrone broke up a pass. Marcus Wheaton also got held by Josh Victorian, although there were no wardrobe malfunctions. Emmanuel Sanders out-danced William Gay for a big completion. Plax swatted DaMon Cromartie-Smith out of the way like an annoying insect. Derek Moye burned Shamarko Thomas, and Ike intercepted a long Roethlisberger pass to Antonio Brown. The crowd went silent, and the paramedics had to be called to treat a number of people for shock.

Danny Smith, the Special Teams coach, is nuts. It's a miracle he has a voice. During the ST drills he runs alongside the guys and yells incomprehensibly (to the fans, at least). I watched a few punt returns, taken by David Gilreath, Marcus Wheaton, and Reggie Dunn. The punts were by Brian Moorman, and man does he have great hang time. Dunn is like a comet when he gets the ball. And I'm going to make a (possibly totally off-the-wall) prediction here—J.D. Woods is going to make the team, and be a ST standout. (I'm not a betting woman, though, which is why I can make predictions like this, based on nothing of substance whatsoever...)

And while I'm throwing out random observations, I noted that LaMarr Woodley looks very trim and fit, as does Ben. Ben does not appear to be favoring his scoped knee at all. And while I'm on the subject of Ben, it was interesting to watch the drills where a pair of QBs threw to a pair of receivers. Ben and Bruce Gradkowski were paired up, naturally, and Landry Jones was paired with John Parker Wilson. (I note that, perhaps not surprisingly, Jones appears on the rosters they hand out at camp as Landry, Jones, right next to Wilson, John Parker, which would make him Jones Landry in real life...)

Anyhow, it's easy to see why they pay Ben the big bucks when you see him in conjunction with Gradkowski. It's like seeing a thoroughbred next to a pack mule. The pack mule is useful enough and can (hopefully) get the job done if necessary, but the thoroughbred is a different class of being.

And to continue with the random observations, anyone who thinks Todd Haley is going anywhere is likely wrong. He and Tomlin are not only comfortable but look like they really enjoy each others' company.

Chris Hoke was there, I believe, in a staff t-shirt. If I'm correct that it was him, he's lost about 100 pounds.

Finally, we got to the first set of 11-on-11s. The first team offensive line appears to be Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Mike Adams. Little surprise there. The first set of plays was mostly running plays or screen passes, with deep passes mostly saved for later in the day. The majority of the handoffs went to LaRod Stephens-Howling and Bell. Stephens-Howling is very shifty, and Bell impressed me, although perhaps I'm easily impressed.

After seeing Landry Jones running the offense a couple of times I wonder if the Steelers didn't draft him because he looks so much like Ben. He was much more inclined than either of the other two QBs to try to keep the play alive, and once ran around for what seemed like half an hour, finally completing a pass to somebody or other. He's presumably not nearly as polished as Ben was coming out of college, and may have less raw talent, but the style is certainly reminiscent. My favorite moment was when someone (perhaps Jarvis Jones, who seemed to be pretty comfortable in the backfield) tipped a (Landry) Jones pass. L. Jones managed to catch it himself and took off running. He would have made a long gain, too, if they hadn't blown the play dead.

When the 11-on-11s resumed later with a concentration on the longer passing game, the first team defense seemed to be absolutely swarming the offense. The second team D got their licks in as well—Jarvis Jones knocked Bruce Gradkowski back on his butt about .0125 seconds after the snap on one play. Not a great sign for the offense, of course, but good to see the D making headway. William Gay got beaten a few times, but also had a big interception. It's not good news that Cortez Allen was on the sidelines today, but I suppose it's good practice for the rest of the DBs. Curtis Brown laid a big hit on Sanders, who congratulated him. And there was lots of barking back and forth. The D seems pretty pumped...

On the positive side for the offense, Reggie Dunn went up for a ball in an almost A.J. Green-like manner. Gotta love it. Marcus Wheaton had a catch in a ton of traffic, and LeVeon Bell had a run for a nice long gain after squeezing through what didn't look like a hole to me at all.

By this time it was almost 5:30 and the team knocked off for the day. However, Ben took Antonio Brown to one side and worked with him on various sorts of catches for probably 10 minutes. William Gay stayed to run sprints. And Troy Polamalu stayed for sort of a Zen-like drill in which he got someone to lob balls at him that he caught in various ways.

Well, that's it for today. The guys are off tomorrow, probably nursing their bruises. I'll be back on Wednesday with any luck, and will file my report then. Feel free to ask me stuff to watch out for, and I'll try. Just remember my limitations.

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