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View from the Sidelines: July 31st at Steelers Training Camp

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Have you ever been to Steelers Training Camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe and sat in the bleachers or on the lawn to watch your favorite players? If so, you have probably seen some fans who get to stand right on the sidelines, watching the action from up close. And if you are anything like me, you were both jealous and angry at how close these fans got to be to the players and coaches, watching their every move. Well, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to end July, I got to be one of those fans.

As some of you may know, I am a student at Saint Vincent College and work on campus this summer. And believe it or not, using the summer to work rather than relax actually paid off. I was awarded a special opportunity to work the registration desk for Steelers VIP Day. My pay? Two free tickets to the event itself! As diehard Steelers fans, my fiancee and I just couldn't say no. This post chronicles my experience at the event, which I won't soon forget. For those of you interested in what exactly went down on the field, I will even add some observations that I had during this first 2011 Steelers practice in pads! Read the entire story after the jump.

I will spare you my riveting experience of checking in fellow Steelers fans. So when my work was done, the fun began. At approximately 2:15, about 100 fans were led to a conference room in the Fred Rogers Center on campus, where someone from the Steelers marketing department introduced us to the schedule of the day and Father Paul Taylor of the St. Vincent Archabbey welcomed the guests. Afterwards, we were shown a highlight film of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steeler season produced by NFL Films, which was fun all the way through - until, of course, the end. Highlights like the Beard's 79 yard Interception Return TD against the Bucs and the Hair's Interception TD vs the Bengals were met with applause. But the loudest cheer, the play of the Season, was Rex Ryan's epic headset throw-down after Ben's game-winning first down in the AFC championship game. The man is hated here!

The highlight film was over quickly, though most of us could have dealt with skipping the last 5 minutes or, even better, erasing it from our memories. Either way, we were led down to the practice field at 3:00. And indeed, after a bag check and the assurance that we couldn't sit or drink water on the field during practice on a 90 degree day without a cloud in the sky, I stood right there, on Chuck Noll Field, watching my Steelers warm up right in front of me! My few notes from the practice itself follow:

  • Unfortunately, a few of the Steelers that I was particularly interested in watching did not practice. Limas Sweed still sat out with Achilles problems, Keenan Lewis stood on the sidelines with his jersey on but his pads off, Emmanuel Sanders was still dealing with foot issues, Chris Scott also sat out practice, and Curtis Brown had to leave early due to his illness. The rest though was definitely fun to watch.
  • The Running Backs: in individual drills, fan favorite Baron Batch seemed overwhelmed and didn't hit the dummies straight on. At one point, he even got knocked into the framework of a punching bag apparently designed to improve ball security, hitting his head off an steel pole. On the other hand, both Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay looked powerful in RB drills. However, the roles were reversed in the first installment of this year's backs on backers. Here, both Dwyer and Clay looked completely overmatched, getting run over by the likes of Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds. On the other hand, after a mediocre start Baron Batch looked great, standing up James Harrison and Worilds, and even knocked the latter on his back once. Blocking Harrison got a roar from the crowd together with raucious cheers from Tomlin and Arians, who hugged the young back yelling "That's what I'm Talking About!" Scrimmage was Isaac Redman's time to shine, as he went through the hole hard for two huge gains on the first two plays. Mendenhall and Batch also had a couple of great-looking cut backs and runs in scrimmage. Also nice to see: Redman tutoring Batch after the latter was confused on how to attack a blocking sled.
  • The Wide Receivers: Hines Ward was unable to practice, but ran sprints on the turf field nearby with a trainer. Mike Wallace looked sharp on his routes, but dropped a couple of balls in the drills (one of which was an admittedly poor throw from Charlie Batch) and was not on the same page with Ben on a deep ball in scrimmage that was intercepted by Bryant McFadden (picture above). Emmanuel Sanders was held out of practice, while Antonio Brown seemed to miss hot reads more than once. It's only the beginning of camp though, so I won't read too much into it. Both Arnaz Battle and Tyler Grisham on the other hand had some nice catches in scrimmage. In unrelated news, Wes Lyons is one tall human being! See picture below for more.
  • Tight Ends: Heath Miller is a beast. Is that really news? Mr. dependable made nothing but play after play in practice, catching passes over the middle repeatedly in scrimmages and sneaking behind the defense for a touchdown in the two minute drill. He seemed to be consciously held out of blocking drills and backs on backers, which I am perfectly fine with - we need him to be healthy. Speaking of backs on backers, I finally saw why so many here consider Weslye Saunders to have a good chance at making the roster. The guy can block, and has a mean streak to him - he repeatedly stood up linebackers in practice, and had to be told to stop blocking almost every single time. More often than not, the LB he blocked ended up on his behind. Definitely the strongest person facing linebackers in that drill. He also looked pretty good in pass protection in scrimmage, but I didn't see him catch or even targeted for a single pass.
  • The Quarterbacks: Not much to say here that people don't already know. Ben, who wore a #78 jersey today in honor of Max Starks looked sharp, even scrambling for 20+ yards and a first down in scrimmage. The interception by McFadden was his only blemish. Batch and Leftwich both looked sharp, which they need to be considering Dennis Dixon is reportedly asking for a trade to a team where he has the chance to start. 
  • Offensive Line: Maurkice Pouncey looks like even more of a beast up close! So does the entire line, who for the majority of the time practiced on a field too far away for me to judge them. Kemo wasn't practicing, but worked out with trainers throughout the practice. Colon on the other hand could be seen tutoring other linemen.
  • The Defense: was mainly practicing far away from us, so I can't report much there. Highlights include Ziggy hood tackling a blocking sled so hard that it literally flipped over ('grown-ass man strength!'), Jason Worilds showing a few nice moves in backs on backers, and McFadden matching Mike Wallace step for step on his interception (a nice over-the-shoulder catch). From the two practices that I have seen so far, McFadden looks like a true starting corner, covering whoever lines up opposite him - let's hope that continues into the season.
  • Mike Tomlin: How can you not love the guy? Dressed in a black long-sleeve shirt and long black pants (most on here know the story behind that by now), he was seemingly everywhere. Tutoring the defensive backs, standing with Coach Kugler harrassing OLinemen, cheering on backs on backers, playing ref in scrimmages, and greeting ESPN AFC North Blogger James Walker (who picked the Ravens to win the division this year) with "What's up, Baltimore James?" The guy is a joy to watch.
  • Some more random observations included a Mean Joe Greene Sighting, Kemo walking right past me making me feel like a hobbit, and Coach Kugler doing his best 'chin' impression when chewing gum and yelling at his O-Linemen. Plus probably a million other things that I will remember later and regret that I didn't share.
So much for my practice observations. Unfortunately, every VIP fan on the sidelines was kicked off the field and let back into the Rogers Center at about 4:50, while the Steelers were still holding their scrimmage. "Don't worry," we were assured, "practice is done soon anyways." Back in the Rogers Center, the fans were promised autographs by two Steelers. While waiting in line, I casually checked my Twitter feed - and what do you know? The players are still out there, practicing their hearts out, until about 5:35. I sure didn't feel like a VIP having to read highlights from scrimmage over my Twitter feed for 45 minutes, while I could have been out there.

In the end though, the wait was worth it as both McFadden and Antonio Brown were gracious enough to come down and sign autographs for all of the approximately 100 fans right after practice, before their dinner. And speaking of dinner, our night also ended in style when we got served a hot dinner consisting of Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Corn on the Cob, Grilled Chicken, and other deliciousness. Just like that, the VIP feeling was back. What a great day! Following are just a few pictures that I took while enjoying practice from my view from the sidelines. Excuse the quality, my cell phone hasn't learned yet that you need more than 4 megapixel to zoom in.

Watching a recap of the 2010 season on two big screens


Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin, in vintage black



The Running Backs warm up together



Hines Ward doing sprints on the Turf Field



Wes Lyons (6 foot 8) is one tall man



Bryant McFadden (back) and Antonio Brown sign autographs for VIP Day participants