I had planned to go to camp on Wednesday, but the combination of practice being moved up an hour and flood/tornado warnings on the weather site rather discouraged me. Instead, I jumped into the Momma-mobile (a 1997 Toyota Camry with an incongruous spoiler) and headed for camp on Thursday afternoon.
As I pulled onto the Parkway the Bucs were down 2-0. A year ago I would have said "Well, that's the game." After all, Andrew McCutchen was a late scratch, the rookie catcher was behind the plate, and the last match-up between Gerrit Cole and Jose Fernandez didn't go too well.
But the 2013 Pirates aren't called "the Battling Bucs" for nothing, and although Cole gave up two more runs in the fifth inning, the Pirates were creeping back into it as I pulled into St. Vincent's.
I drove to the "parking lot," a very large grass area immediately across the road from a cornfield. I then spent the next hour and a half checking my phone for score updates and writing frantically on my trusty yellow pad. Yes, I remembered to bring it!
Fortunately the day began rather slowly in Latrobe. It was, for the first time, genuinely hot. Even Mike Tomlin conceded something to the weather, to the extent that he was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt rather than his usual black. Todd Haley apparently said "the heck with that" and was back to a t-shirt and shorts.
Once again the majority of the action for a good long time was on the second and third fields, as the field closest to the bleachers is definitely showing some wear. Most of the activity on the other fields was of the miming a play variety, or involved elaborate arrangements of obstacles, jug machines, and what have you. In other words, nothing to get the crowd too worked up.
Behind me was a youngish couple (probably in their early forties—go ahead and laugh, you whippersnappers, then get off my lawn) and her father. After about 20 minutes or so, he started asking when they were going to sing "The Star Spangled Banner." His daughter said that they don't do that at practice, but he was insistent that he remembered them doing so before. As he seemed otherwise sound of mind, I'm not sure where he got that idea. When he had finally accepted the fact that clearly there would be no national anthem, I suggested that perhaps we could all hum it and thereby satisfy his patriotic sensibilities. He replied that he would hum along if I would sing it, and I was forced to tell him that I'm a conductor rather than a singer for a good reason.
At any rate, here's what happened at practice. The only activity on the near field for some time was the kickers practicing field goal kicks with those little plastic tripod stands, mostly from the 30 yard line or closer. They both look fine. It's pretty hard to get excited about place kicking when nothing is on the line. As a result I got out the binoculars to see who was dressed and who wasn't (in the "who is going to practice" sense.)
Cortez Allen was there in his practice jersey, but instead of shorts he was wearing sweatpants. Indeed, he didn't participate, but it was good to see him there without visible means of support. Nick Williams was also dressed but didn't participate in warm-ups, as was also the case with Curtis Brown. (Williams did participate in some of the drills later.) Terry Hawthorne was dressed, but his knee was either taped or in a brace, I couldn't tell which.
Emmanuel Sanders was nowhere to be seen, something I didn't actually notice until later during practice. I'm not sure what's the deal. There is no news for Sanders, as you would expect if he had any sort of an injury, and his Facebook page contains a video posted on Thursday, but nothing else.
Way back on field No. 3, the DBs were practicing catching the ball, while the offense was practicing handoffs and blocking drills. Scarcely compelling theater, I fear, but the Bucs were keeping it real. They had managed to tie the game, and were into the Marlins' bullpen (and their own.) In theory, we all know how that will end, but there were no guarantees at that point.
Finally the offense drifted closer and started doing a drill in which the receiver runs to a spot, tries to fake out a "blocker" (of the staff variety rather than a genuine defender,) catches the ball and runs. Markus Wheaton was particularly notable for the energy and craftiness with which he faked out his "blocker."
Plaxico Burress, on the other hand, moved his head a token amount, then grabbed the ball over the head of his blocker and took off. It reminded me very much of when he just swatted his defender away the other day in the receivers-on-backs drill. He seems to view the DBs as some species of pesky insect, to be ignored as long as possible. Whatever works, I always say.
In the meantime Butler was using Danny Hrapmann, who had finished the kicking practice, to field his punts and throw the ball back. Hrapmann throws a pretty pass. One field over, the backs were doing the drill in which five barriers are set up parallel to one another, and they have to sidestep quickly through them. LeVeon Bell's technique is somewhat different than that of the other backs. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but his motion seemed to remain more forward than the others. Maybe someone who knows something about this drill can tell me what I was seeing.
Finally, the big moment—the Pirates tied the game! Oh, and the Steelers headed over en masse to Field No. 1 for the build-up to the 11-on-11s.
They worked their way up slowly, beginning with a drill in which one defender was responsible for one (non-wide) receiver. I eventually noticed that none of the defenders were defensive backs—it was all linebackers.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for quite a while as various pairs of players had their turn. Most of them were won by the receiver, although Larry Foote batted a pass away from Isaac Redman and John Rabe (the next-to-the-last newly signed tight end) had one knocked out by Stevenson Sylvester. (Rabe, wearing No. 49, was really in the thick of things all afternoon, as I expect the coaching staff is in a big hurry to see what, if anything, they have there.)
The drill got kicked up a notch, with two receivers releasing at once against two linebackers. This time the linebackers won even fewer of the jousts, although Adrian Robinson seemed to make Baron Batch miss his pass (I think he forced him out of his route) and Terence Garvin did the same with Isaac Redman.
Peter Tuitupou, however, completely schooled Alan Baxter, and, more impressively, Jamie McCoy fooled Lawrence Timmons with a sweet move. David Paulson, who continues to impress, got way clear of Larry Foote. That just ain't fair.
Landry Jones took over the throwing duties, and his first couple of passes didn't, shall we say, help out his receivers all that much. But they settled in and once again the receivers generally beat the linebackers, except when Jones overthrew them. Jarvis Jones has clearly been working on his J.J. Watts impression, and batted a pass on its way to Tuitupou. (If he keeps this up, we'll have our own J.J...) LaRod Stephens-Howling made some noise by beating out Timmons for a long gain, and Baron Batch had a couple of great cut-backs after the catch to get clear of his defender (Terence Garvin again.) Finally, with John Parker Wilson throwing, John Rabe tried to escape Jarvis Jones, but he stuck like glue, and Rabe dropped the throw when it came, probably due to being off-balance.
The Pirates were toying with my emotions during this time, loading the basses in the 8th inning with no one out but somehow or other coming up empty. Luckily, my nerves were calmed by the horn sounding and the troops gathering for the first 11-on-11s. This was a live drill, and Ben was up first.
The first play was a handoff to Jonathan Dwyer, and he didn't get very far. He looked athletic doing it, though, as he attempted to hop over the pile, without sustaining any ill effects, luckily. He fared much better a few plays later with what I would describe as a stretch play, and gained significant yardage. Jerricho Cotchery picked up a quick dart on the sidelines, Wheaton made a terrific catch in the slot, and then Ben was done.
Bruce Gradkowski's few plays went nowhere, but John Parker Wilson had more success, including a completion to John Rabe. A couple of handoffs to Baron Batch gained maybe two yards and maybe nothing, and a fake handoff did not fool the defense at all, forcing Wilson to run for his life.
Landry Jones entered the fray and handed the ball off three times to No. 39, the newly signed Alvester Alexander. All three were completely stuffed, and we moved on to punt team drills. Mostly the return man had to call for a fair catch, so the excitement level was pretty limited. The Pirates took up the slack, though, as it was the bottom of the 10th inning, two men were on base, and there were two outs.
Catcher Russell Martin was sent in to pinch hit. A minute or two later the Pirates had another come-from-behind, walk-off win. All I can say is, I hope the 2013 Steelers have as much heart, as much desire, and as much perseverance as the 2013 Pirates, which sounds really odd. But honestly, when you looked at today's lineup, realized how many second-stringers were playing, looked at the results from the previous match, realize that they had already won the series, and remembered that they had to get on a plane after the game and fly to Colorado to play the Rockies, you would be excused for thinking they would give up when they were down 4-0.
I hope the Steelers are taking notes. Last year the Steelers lost several games they should have won, very possibly because they underestimated their opponent and were caught off balance when said opponent didn't just quietly concede. Any team can beat you given Sunday, and perhaps a younger, hungrier group of guys will realize that in their guts and not just in their heads.
After lots of punts, they lined up for more 11-on-11s, but just passing, and no tackling.
Ben continues to look fantastic—decisive, strong, and making generally excellent decisions. The line seems to be prepared to give him time, but he is getting off a lot of short, quick passes to help them do that. With a good running game, maybe his sack rate will continue to drop. If I were the coaching staff, I would make that a priority, and I get the impression they have in fact done so. He still gets to improvise now and again.
Unfortunately, he's finally learned to throw the ball far enough on a go route to Mike Wallace. Since Wallace is no longer with the team, he's had a couple of overthrown balls. But I expect that will get sorted out soon enough.
From my standpoint, the big moment in this drill was when Markus Wheaton beat Troy Polamalu for a long completion. Troy didn't look slow, either, or only by comparison. I'm pretty excited about Wheaton, as I expect you can tell. Cotchery had a nice catch on a fade, and #89, who I assume is the new corner, Devin Smith, managed to go toe to toe with Antonio Brown.
Once again the offense looked less impressive with the backups in, but Landry Jones was going against a lot of first-team defenders. (They seem to be mixing up who they put on the field, so it is more a preponderance of first or second defenders rather than all one or the other.) Derek Moye, however, had a nice completion, but Jones threw a pass to Reggie Dunn which sailed right over his head. Maybe Moye or Burress could have caught it, but Dunn didn't have a prayer.
Roethlisberger was back, and Isaiah Green knocked out a ball headed for somebody in the slot—I couldn't see who. Ben then faked a handoff and hit Paulson for a catch in the middle, and had a similar play to Wheaton on the side. Isaac Redman took a handoff, made a good cut, and gained a ton of yards.
It's worth noting at this juncture that the ballyhooed weight loss of both Redman and Dwyer have definitely made them faster and more agile. Good to see.
Ben's last few plays were throws. Antonio Brown made a great catch up the middle, but on the next play somebody messed up their assignment big time, apparently, because there was no one near where Ben threw, and I don't think he meant to throw it away.
John Parker Wilson took over, ran for a 1st down, and handed off to Will Johnson, who got stuffed at the line of scrimmage. He then threw a long pass to Plaxico Burress, who caught it but got knocked down and lost the ball, thanks to the tender ministrations of DaMon Cromartie-Smith and Ryan Steed. This prompted a comment from a 10-year-old or so girl behind me, who said of Burress "for an old man he's fast. And tall!"
I'm sure Burress would have been touched to hear this, but unfortunately the fall had injured his shoulder. He was later seen in a sling, so I fervently hope he's okay. I really want to see him contribute this year. Not because Burress has a future role with the team, obviously, but for the sake of Old People Power.
(Editor's note: Burress is feared to have torn h is rotator cuff, and could be lost for the season)
There were lots more special teams drills, including a kick-off drill in which the defenders had to put red stocking caps on their helmets, making them look rather like Sock Monkeys. I noticed Smith put Greg Warren and Drew Butler on the defenders' team, since they have to take sometimes defend a return of one sort or another, I suppose. The ball was kicked mainly to the young 'uns, namely Kashif Moore (who was making nice cuts) and Reggie Dunn (who probably would have had two touchdowns.) I'm a lot more excited about Dunn than I was about Rainey, but only time will tell what happens when there's tackling involved.
They then went to some 7-on-7s, and Ben's receivers were beating the defenders with ease. There were, as they say in garage sale ads, too many plays to mention, but a couple of notable ones were Justin Brown getting wide open with Wilson throwing to him, William Gay and Robert Golden knocking a couple of passes away from someone or other, and David Gilreath beating Isaiah Green for what probably would have been a touchdown.
The final 11-on-11s saw a few notable plays. Markus Wheaton made a catch, cut to shed his defender, and headed for the end zone. Isaiah Green batted down a pass. Jerricho Cotchery had another nice catch, and Dwyer had a decent gain on a handoff. The defense got their revenge on one play, as they absolutely swarmed over Ben. Nobody broke him, though. Which is always good news, and I like to end on good news.
So farewell until next week. Like all of you, I will be watching the first preseason game with great interest, and, I'm sure, discussing it as if it actually means something. And I can't wait!
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers Training Camp Updates
- Steelers vs. Giants 2013: 5 Questions with Big Blue View
- Why Derek Moye will make the 2013 Steelers roster
- Steelers vs. Giants: Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have to separate themselves
- Adams on left and Gilbert on right may be what Steelers start in Week 1
- Plaxico Burress injury: Judging by available free agents, Burress's spot more likely to be filled internally
- Burress confirmed to have torn rotator cuff; possibly out for season
- Preseason Steelers vs. Giants: Seven players who need to shine in week one
- National Steelers Bar Tour kicks off this Saturday
- Steelers Roster: TE Michael Palmer claimed off waivers
- Cardinals sign former Steelers DE Cordian Hagans
- Steelers players pulling for the Pirates