I was awfully tired this morning, as I was offered a ticket yesterday to the Pirates double-header, which proved to be even longer and more emotionally draining than expected. But knowing you all were relying on me, I sucked it up and got in my car.
I pulled into St. Vincent College about 20 minutes before the official start of practice, as I had a rendezvous scheduled with none other than Simonsen. It was really fun to finally meet someone I've corresponded with in multiple comment threads over the years. But pleasant as it was to chat, it soon ended, as we both had work to do.
The temperature in the bleachers at St. Vincent College was only slightly warmer than Monday, but it was cloudy and humid and consequently stuffy. As a result, the players seemed a bit desultory on the field at first, but the rookies were soon putting on a show with the help of the kickoff machine.
Eventually the stars sauntered in. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders quickly demonstrated how it is done, and then began a competition to see which one of them could catch a kick-off holding the most balls. Brown was quickly forced to concede, as he dropped a kickoff while holding a mere two additional balls. Emmanuel Sanders got up to three, then four, and then with the increasingly vocal encouragement of the onlookers managed to catch a ball while holding an additional five footballs. He immediately fell to the ground in a dramatic manner reminiscent of James Harrison's run into the end zone in Super Bowl 43, to tumultuous applause. Since nothing could possibly top that, they blew the horn to begin the warmups.
I used the opportunity the warmups provided for some observation. I can report that Brett Keisel's beard is neat but flourishing, and that Todd Haley is rocking a long-sleeved black shirt, rather like Mike Tomlin. However, Haley isn't going the whole way, as he was wearing shorts rather than long sweatpants.
Practice began in earnest with some snap count, handoff, and screen play drills. For those of you who are wondering why most of my comments are about the offense, the bleachers are two football fields away from the defense's practice area, so most of my observations are naturally on the offense, at least until we get to the 11 on 11s.
The TE blocking sled came out, and there was another player participating in this drill today in addition to Matt Spaeth, David Paulson, Jamie McCoy and Peter Tuitupou. I would love to tell you who it was, but he doesn't appear on the roster. He was wearing #49, and there is no offensive player identified with that number. There is a linebacker, Terence Garvin, who is assigned #49, but if I recall correctly the #49 jersey was a white offensive one. So either they've brought in someone else who isn't appearing on the roster or they sent Garvin over to have a go at tight ending. Garvin's listed size and weight of 6'3", 221 pounds would make a decent TE, I suppose. [Update: the Steelers signed UDFA John Rabe, TE, so the mystery is solved.]
At any rate, Tomlin didn't bother to saunter over while #49 had a couple of initial goes at the sled. And pretty woeful tries they were, too. The sled completely won the first round, not budging an inch forward, and finally falling over sideways as the frustrated player looked like he was trying to tame a rearing horse. The second try was a bit better after some suggestions from the coach, and Tomlin then joined them.
Jamie McCoy looked very good, receiving a commendation twice from Tomlin. Tuitupou had improved sufficiently from Monday to get a nod from the big boss. Matt Spaeth went through maybe once—clearly they feel he knows what he's doing already.
The TE competition is heating up, from what I see. McCoy and Paulson look pretty equivalent at the blocking drill. The TEs immediately went to receiving drills, and they all caught everything thrown at them when there was no competition from defenders, at any rate. Whoever #49 is, he had a nice grab.
The wide receivers then joined the TEs for route-running drills. Kashif Moore caught a ball on his way to the ground. David Paulson made a good adjustment to pick up a slightly errant throw. David Gilreath picked up a one-handed catch, and Marcus Wheaton showed great burst and quickness. Emmanuel Sanders continues to look absolutely terrific. If you ask me, he noted that the Mike Wallace method didn't lead to a great season for Wallace last year. I think Sanders also realized that he doesn't have the name recognition of Mike Wallace (or the raw speed, for that matter) so if he wants a big payday, either with the Steelers or another club, he is going to have to make plenty of noise. Suits me...
Then came the above-mentioned garbage can drill. The staff brought out two tall, thin gray plastic garbage cans fastened together, which I presume makes it even more difficult to hit, and the quarterbacks, with the exception of Ben Roethlisberger, took turns trying to throw the ball into the can. I believe Ben won the competition the other day, and probably decided that was good enough. He was looking on, though, and appeared to be enjoying the (mostly futile) attempts of his colleagues.
Bruce Gradkowski managed to land two in the can, but neither of the younger guys did better than a rim shot. Coach Haley decided to insert himself into the competition, and he was mostly way off the mark, although not noticeably more than Jones or Wilson.
They then changed the distance and angle of the can, and Gradkowski didn't manage to get the ball in the can again. However, both of the young guys landed a ball inside the can. Coach Haley didn't improve. The QBs then began throwing drills to actual receivers.
It was interesting to compare Landry Jones, John Parker Wilson, and Bruce Gradkowski. Of the three it looks to me as if Wilson is the best natural athlete. Jones looks less fluid but his throws have a nice spin on them and were accurate in the short and medium range throws they were practicing.
The crowd began to buzz as the defense made their way over for the first round of 11 on 11s. These were all running plays, and they were very interesting. The first ball was handed to Isaac Redman, who displayed the skills that made him the No. 2 halfback in the league in Pro Football Focus' Signature Stat "Elusive Rating" last season. (C.J. Spiller was No. 1.) The defense got their revenge on the next play, though, when Brett Keisel took Redman down in the backfield.
LeVeon Bell was next, and results initially looked to be the same. He had a great first run, but seemed to get stopped shortly after the line of scrimmage on his second carry. Yet somehow he emerged several yards downfield and kept going.
Both the offense and the defense switched out, and Jonathan Dwyer took two handoffs from Landry Jones for no gain. Next up was LaRod Stephens-Howling, and my is he ever small. He didn't have any better results against the 2nd team defense than Dwyer.
John Parker Wilson took over the handoff duties, and Bell got completely stuffed on the next attempt by the defense. Baron Batch got the ball next, and Jarvis Jones took him down what looked to be about six feet behind the line of scrimmage. Finally, Wilson handed the rock to Curtis McNeal, who squirted out from between the line like he was in a tube of toothpaste.
Next was a drill in which the player had to run around two guys in his way, engage the third, and then go grab the guy with the ball. Since both offensive and defensive players were taking their turns I presume it was basically a special teams drill. I'll tell you what, Josh Victorian looks fast. It was really interesting to see how many of the players lost a lot of momentum when they engaged the third player. The ones who looked the best after contact were Baron Batch, LeVeon Bell, Shamarko Thomas, and Marcus Wheaton, who was commended several times by the officiating coach. Another mystery player emerged, wearing a defensive jersey with the number #38. He looked quite fast, as did Kashif Moore. [The other mystery man is CB Ryan Steed, another UFDA signing.]
Sitting behind me in the bleachers were a family who live in diverse locations—Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Ohio. The pater familias comes from Ohio, and was an extremely enthusiastic observer. I probably have some minor hearing loss after today, but was vastly entertained both on the field and on the bleachers. This family will figure again in this memoir before I finish. At any rate he was in full tongue during the next drills, the passing 11 on 11s.
Interestingly the first team offense was facing the second team defense. Ben began the festivities and was given plenty of time to throw by the offensive line, as you would hope. Ben threw a pass to Antonio Brown that had everyone cheering and cost me another few months of hearing at the end of my life, I suspect : ) Jerricho Cotchery had a lot of yards after his catch, and Emmanuel Sanders got himself wide open for a long throw. (That may have been partially because of Robert Golden's lack of sticking with him, or it may have been Sanders just being awesome, or perhaps both.) Sanders then fought for a contested ball and came away with it. David Paulson went up and got a high throw.
The players switched and Bruce Gradkowski started slinging the ball. David Gilreath (who seems to keep popping up in today's notes) had a great catch and run, and Marcus Wheaton showed amazing evasiveness after his catch. But then Jarvis Jones got to Gradkowski and forced him to throw the ball away.
Landry Jones came in for a few plays, the best of which made him look like RGIII as he squirted through the line on a broken play. But speaking of looking like people, it's uncanny how much he looks like Ben as he lines everyone up. I don't know whether it is the body type or subtle mannerisms or what, but I'm beginning to think more and more that the Steelers thought Ben would be the perfect person for Landry to study.
Next came the Special Teams drill in which one guy engages the ball carrier while a third player strips the ball out. I'm glad to see them working on that. But after a while I grabbed my binoculars and checked out the veterans, which meant I got to see Troy and Ben talking with Dan Rooney along the sidelines. He looks impossibly tiny next to the players, who clearly respect him tremendously.
Next came the 7 on 7s, and Ike Taylor accomplished something no one else had—he stuck with Emmanuel Sanders like glue, and upended him as he caught the ball. I had my first Curtis Brown sighting—yes, I was watching for him, PaVa, but hadn't seen him before. He prevented Antonio Brown from getting in proper position for a catch, although Antonio then figured out a way to catch it anyhow, to the delight of the crowd. DaMon Cromarte-Smith would have had a great interception of Ben if he hadn't then dropped the ball. He was pretty disappointed with himself.
It began to rain hard enough at this point that I had to put away my notebook, for fear of losing all my notes. So there is a chunk of time that I'm not covering.
The next set of 11 on 11s began, and I'm going to have to reconsider the remark I made after Monday's practice about Plaxico Burress. He may have at least 10 years on most of the other wideouts, but I'll tell you what, he beat out three DBs in full pursuit to pull in about a 40 yard pass, and cruised into the endzone.
Marcus Wheaton, not to be outdone by an old man, juked several defenders on a comeback route for a good many YAC, and Max Spaeth made a nice catch in the slot, but then appeared to trip over his shoelaces.
That was about it for practice. As usual, I waited to see who hung around to do extra work. The Big Eaters, both offensive and defensive, ran the length of the field and then walked back several times. Troy was doing his Zen catching and throwing drill, and Ben was taking passes from Antonio Brown.
As Brown got nearer the edge of the field, the woman behind me (wife to the above-mentioned enthusiastic patriarch) yelled out Brown's name in an incredibly impressive voice. Brown half-turned and waved his fingers to acknowledge her, which sent her into a frenzy. She was in a walking boot, with a cane, and shouted "I came in a cane!" This didn't get any rise out of him, so she then yelled "I make great fried chicken!!!"
At this Antonio turned around with a big grin, and she said "I want an autograph! You're gonna have to come up here—I'm crippled!!!" But he and Ben went back to finishing their drill, as the kids waiting at the railing also went into high gear.
I offered to take her Terrible Towel down to the railing, as I was pretty sure Brown wasn't going to come up there, even when he finished his drill. After all, it was evident that she didn't have any fried chicken with her, great or otherwise. But eventually she managed to make it down the steps, and I turned the towel back over to her. As I was heading out I could see that Antonio had finally finished with Ben and was signing stuff, including her towel. It was a fun ending to another great afternoon, and the Pirates capped the day by coming back to beat the Cardinals.
It's good to be in Pittsburgh right about now!
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers training camp updates
- Shamarko welcomed to the NFL
- DeCastro doesn't have to sing
- Steelers Injury Report: Johnson out two weeks
- Former Steelers Joey Porter accepts coaching internship at Colorado State University
- Timmons taking Jones to school
- Le'Veon Bell impressive in Wednesday's practice
- Steelers Injury Report: DeMarcus Van Dyke injury is 'significant'
- Steelers emphasizing running game in live team drills
- As Cortez Allen and Terry Hawthorne miss time, other Steelers seize opportunity
- Veteran Foote left 'humbled' and 'hungry' after 2012 Steelers season