For me as a night practice rookie, the day naturally began with some research. When does practice start, what does it cost, and when do the gates open? What about autographs? Answers to all of these questions were quickly found online, and I was ready to go. Well, not quite, because I was still sitting at work itching for the weekend to officially begin. For those of you pondering a visit next year, the cost of admission is a low $5 ($2 for people under 18), practice starts at 7:00 p.m., and the stadium gates open at 5:00 p.m. If you plan on hunting for autographs, the players have a 15 minute session along the fence before practice beginning at 6:45 p.m. In that case, make sure to be there when the gates open - the fence alongside the field fills up quickly. A quick note of caution though: The players randomly pick a spot along the fence to sign for their fans, so you can be lucky enough to get #43 or #56 to sign your memorabilia or unlucky enough to get one of the many camp scrubs.
But enough of the preface - let's get right to it. We arrived at the stadium armed with a notebook at about 5:20 p.m., which was plenty enough time to find a seat in the bleachers at the 40 yard line. In truth, we probably could have gotten the same seats had we arrived an hour later. A country band called "Saddle Up" was the pregame entertainment; if you like country, they were pretty good. Unfortunately, I don't. In other words, the wait began. I will tastefully skip the next hour and get right to about 6:45 p.m., when 8 school buses rolled into the stadium escorted by a police escort and loud cheers.
Coach Tomlin was the first on the field, waving to the cheering masses in his vintage black outfit. You could just see him soak in the atmosphere. Next was Daniel Sepulveda, who wasted no time going straight to the fence to mingle with the fans. You have to respect his effort, as he was also among the last to stop signing once the horn sounded to mark the beginning of practice. Among those attracting huge crowds were Troy, Ryan Clark (laughing to himself when people saw that Troy was signing about 20 feet away from him and pretty much left him alone), Ben, and Woodley. Speaking of Lamarr, the guy is quickly becoming a fan favorite, and he is starting to sport his smile almost as often as Hines Ward.
Remaining seated in the bleachers, unwilling to give up our prime seats, we had a great vintage point to watch the entire spectacle unfold. I think I even got a glimpse of Wes Lyons signing - not because I know at all what his face looks like, but because there was one person towering over everybody. Did I mention that Lyons is one tall human being? But the highlight of the pre-practice spectacle was Coach Cowher, in town for a visit and as I later found out also for the filming of the new Batman movie. The Chin attracted loud cheers, and was almost mulled by a crowd of autograph-seekers after completing a radio interview about 20 feet away from us. Throughout practice, he could be seen talking and joking with the likes of Dan and Art Rooney, Coach Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and some veterans including Ben, Hines, Troy, Farrior, and Larry Foote. He was clearly having fun.
Then, practice began. My observations, as thorough as I could being an amateur note taker, follow.
Quarterbacks: Ben looks sharp, but that shouldn't be a surprise for anyone. For the third straight practice I have watched, he also tucked the ball in and ran for a first down. However, he also made some questionable dump-off decisions in a drill where the offense attempts to get a first down from its own 1 yard line - a couple of which could have easily been safeties. He easily completed the 2 minute drill with a nice 20 yard TD on a fade route from Antonio Brown. Byron Leftwich did well in scrimmage play, and seems to have found a favorite target in Arnaz Battle to whom he completed all of his passes during the 2 minute drill. One of them was a 35 yard TD on which Battle adjusted nicely, but that didn't count because Leftwich would have been sacked by Worilds on the play. Dennis Dixon didn't look impressive, and had a couple bad throws even in Wide Receiver drills.
Running Backs: Friday night featured another edition of backs on backers. Unfortunately, a huge circle formed around the players, which made it difficult to see exactly who won - no guarantees that I got the following right. From what I saw, Baron Batch added to his prominent backs on backers victims by standing up Lamarr Woodley. Woodley got his revenge on the next play however, when he threw down Batch. The young RB also won easily against Chris McCoy and held his own against Jason Worilds, but lost to a spin move by Mortty Ivy. Rashard Mendenhall got beaten by Lawrence Timmons and Stevenson Sylvester, but won against Ivy. Redman beat Timmons once and held his own against Sylvester, but also got beat by a swim move from Timmons twice. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay where once again underwheliming, getting beat badly by the likes of Timmons, Sylvester, and Baraka Atkins. Finally, Mewelde Moore looked surprisingly good blocking, beating Atkins and Worilds twice, though he did get overpowered by Larry Foote. In scrimmages, Mendenhall had nice runs on the first two plays, one through the middle and one to the outside - each for first downs and more. Redman also had an impressive cutback through a hole for a first down, while Batch (interestingly playing with the 3rd team in front of Moore) had a nice run for five yards before first contact. Batch also had a drop in 7 on 7s, while James Johnson had a nice grab over the middle from Charlie Batch. In the above-mentioned 'reverse goal line' drill, Batch had a nice run for 5 yards in which he must have cut back at least 5 times but kept his feet turning to get some extra inches. Interesting note: in walk-throughs, only Mendenhall, Moore, Redman, and Dwyer were getting reps with the offense while Batch, Clay, and James Johnson got some extra work with coaches.
Wide Receivers: In individual drills, Antonio Brown, Tyler Grisham, and Adam Mims dropped some easy passes while Limas Sweed made some good catches in which he used his hands nicely, including a nice high-jumping grab. Wes Lyons had a great catch in a drill that matched up Wide Receivers with Defensive Backs, and Arnaz Battle also showed off his receiving skills. Brown had a great scene in which he faked out his defender by stopping on a dime for a huge gain, and had another nice catch in front of Keenan Lewis. Brown continues his roller coaster camp in which he has easy drops and is not on the same page with his QB, only to come back and make great plays. He had some huge plays in scrimmage while playing with the first team, including the above-mentioned TD, as well as an amazing play in which he was covered by Ike Taylor who knocked the ball out of his hands, only to adjust extremely well, still catch the ball, and turn the play into a huge play. He also had a couple of nice plays on returns in which he got to show off his speed. And he even made some fair catches when needed! Mike Wallace missed part of the scrimmages because he was being stretched, but returned for the end. He had some nice catches, but also dropped one in the WR drills only to come back and make a leaping catch his next turn. Additionally to his nice catches in the WR drills, Sweed had a couple of catches in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11, one of which was a catch at the ground. Another, on a throw by Leftwich in the 2 minute drill, was a great backwards catch along the sidelines that unfortunately was ruled out of bounds. Still, great effort. Finally, Sweed also got some work as a gunner on punt returns, where seemed to do a pretty good job getting down the field.
Tight Ends: Weslye Saunders had a couple of good catches in scrimmage, but also fumbled the ball on a violent hit by Ra'son Harris in the 'reverse goal-line drill' mentioned above. Heath Miller had an uncharacteristic drop in 7 on 7s, as did David Johnson in scrimmage plays - however, both also made some nice catches as safety valves for their QBs. UDFA Jame McCoy held his own against Timmons and Chris Ellis in backs on backers, but also got beat a few times - as did Saunders, who as far as I could tell did not repeat his surprise victories from Sunday. McCoy also was used on punt returns, and I was impressed by his effort on one occasion where he was the first person down the field to would-be-tackle the returner.
Offensive Line: The first team offensive line had two variations for walk-throughs and scrimmages. The first was (right to left) Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky, and Willie Colon, while the second variation substituted Chris Scott for Legursky. As far as I could tell, the first team line did well blocking for both Ben and the running backs, opening some nice holes. The OL and DL also had what seemed like an intriguing drill going on behind the 7 on 7 scrimmage, in which an offensive lineman was matched up against a defensive counterpart similar to backs on backers. Unfortunately, because of the 7 on 7 drill, I was unable to watch what was going on there.
Defensive Line: As with the offensive line, I didn't see a lot. Harris did have the nice hit for a fumble on Saunders, and Aaron Smith continues getting first team reps and warrants them with the HOF play that we have come to expect from him. Aside from that, not much to report here.
Linebackers: You heard it here first (probably not, but it sounds good) - Stevenson Sylvester is a star in the making, and was easily the star of practice on Friday night. He dominated in backs on backers, winning against the likes of Mendenhall, multiple times against John Clay, Jonathan Dwyer, Redman, and others whose numbers I couldn't see. Additionally, he made some great plays in scrimmage, including snuffing out a RB screen for what would have been an easy safety. Larry Foote also did well in backs on backers, beating Mewelde Moore and David Johnson, as did James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. Worilds had his moments as well, both in backs on backers and on the would-be sack on Leftwich mentioned above. I think it's safe to say that we don't need to worry about our pass rushers. Finally, Lawrence Timmons had what might have been the tackle of the day when he literally body slammed David Johnson on a dump of from Ben in 7 on 7s.
Defensive Backs: Where to begin? Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Crezdon Butler, and Bryant McFadden were not practicing, but Keenan Lewis returned to the field playing some first and second team defense. He had some very encouraging plays, including a couple of leaping catches for interceptions in individual drills and coverage on Battle and Mike Wallace who he matched stride for stride on a long ball to break up the pass. He also was worked as gunner on punt returns, and broke up a pass to Limas Sweed while not being able to hang on to a potential interception in the 11 on 11 scrimmage. Ike Taylor and Willie Gay looked decent as the starters, but did allow the TD drive on the 2 minute drill mentioned above; with the TD by Brown coming against coverage from Taylor. I was a little worried that while Butler was working out with trainers and the other injured defensive backs joined their teammates to watch during practice, Curtis Brown sat isolated by himself on a bench to watch. I hope I am reading too much into it, as he did join his teammates for the second half of practice.
Specialists: None of the kickers really stood out above the others; both Shaun Suisham and Swayze Waters had some nice field goals, from up to 50 yards out. Daniel Sepulveda boomed a few kicks, one of which I estimated to be at least 55 yards with great hang time. Jeremy Kapinos had the highest punt of the day, but also had a couple of 30 yard duds to go with his regular-length punts. Both were impressive in directional punting,and consistently placed their punts inside the 10 yard line. Adam Mims muffed a punt for a fumble, while Antonio Brown made sure he safely caught his before starting to run.
So much for my practice observations! Though long, they aren't nearly complete as there was so much going on that it was nearly impossible to watch everything at the same time. After practice, the night was topped off with fireworks at the stadium - a perfect ending to a great night. I also took some pictures, and attached them to this post; once again I am sorry for the quality, my cell phone camera doesn't seem like it when the sun goes down. If you plan on making it down to Latrobe next year, I strongly suggest you consider the night practice!
First one out: Daniel Sepulveda
Where to sigin first? Casey Hampton ponders
Aaron Smith and William Gay sign
Suisham practicing field goals
Coach Cowher (in organge/pink) gives an interview, the fans wait
The Rooneys, Cowher, Harrison, Woodley, Batch, and Troy - the Creme de la Creme of Steelers Football
Dennis Dixon throws under the watchful eyes of Byron Leftwich