It was probably the most gloriously beautiful day I have ever seen at training camp. There were just enough clouds to make the sky look even bluer, the sun was shining brightly, and the temperature at the 2:55 start time was an incredible 70 degrees. As I drove into St. Vincent's College the Pirates were up 2-0 over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, and it seemed life had nothing more to offer.
As is so often the case, though, beneath the placid surface of the afternoon lurked the Parcae. For the Pirates, they snipped the cord holding A.J. Burnett's control of his curveball, apparently, because he came unstuck in the fifth inning, a blow from which the Pirates didn't sufficiently recover, although it would take them seven more innings to actually lose the game.
In the case of the Steelers, they [the Parcae, that is] unleashed the injury bug and caused havoc amongst the halfbacks.
It all seemed innocent enough. When I arrived I set up shop in the shaded portion of the bleachers. The sun was strong, although the air was mild, and I didn't wish to lose my carefully cultivated pallor. (More to the point, I'm not a fan of sunscreen.)
My vantage point turned out to be an awesome one, as I was sitting near one of the more knowledgable fans I've ever shared a bench with, and she was a fellow female, if I may put it thusly. She was also following the Pirates game, so we were able to exchange snippets of information gleaned from Gameday while watching the activities on the field.
As it happened, practice began very slowly indeed, with the team broken up into units. They spent a considerable amount of time, probably almost the first hour, in various walk-throughs and drills, all of which were held on the fields away from the stands.
So once again I found myself juggling my yellow pad, my binoculars, and my phone as I attempted to keep up with the Pirates game and find anything of note to remark upon out on the field.
In re the Pirates, Triple-A call-up Andrew Lambo finally had his first hit (a double) in the majors after two and a half games worth of trying. On the field, Tomlin was back to all-black, and spent a lot of time at the beginning of practice talking to Special Teams Coach Danny Smith, who was already bright red before Special Teams had run a single drill.
All of the quarterbacks not named Ben were playing soft toss. Since they were in pairs, they were joined by Emmanuel Sanders to round out the numbers.
The training camp neophytes, of which there were many in my section, were getting pretty bored by the time the offense moved over to Field No. 1. They began clapping enthusiastically, and Ben Roethlisberger acknowledged them with a wave he appears to have learned from Elizabeth II. (In her case, it is because she broke her collarbone as a young woman and still has pain from the injury, a little-known fact which may or may not be true.)
Once they got to Field No. 1 the pace picked up, although not by a lot. A great many hand-off drills were run, which given the Landry Jones to Baron Batch debacle on Saturday seems like a good idea. The TEs, in the meantime, ran the sled (blocking) drill, and for once Mike Tomlin didn't join them.
Before they began, one of the players was getting private tutelage from one of the coaches. I assumed it was probably the new tight end, but in fact I think it was Will Johnson. Since he had been playing fullback I would have thought it wasn't necessary, but maybe it is. Or maybe they signed yet another TE, and ran out of numbers.
At any rate, the sled drill began, and it was heartening to see how much improvement Peter Tuitupou has made since it first roundly defeated him two weeks ago. (Tuitupou, I noticed today, looks a lot like Troy Polamalu would look if Troy had shrunk a bit in the dryer. Which is odd, because Tuitupou has six inches in height and supposedly 38 pounds in weight on Polamalu. I guess it must be Troy's gravitas.)
To return to the sled drills, the newly signed vet, Michael Palmer, looked pretty good at them. Nathan Overbay was struggling a bit. Paulson looked fine, and Jamie McCoy looked the best. Of course, we didn't have either Matt Spaeth or Heath Miller to compare them to.
Things were heating up on Field No. 1, and the double-high (as opposed to double-wide) garbage can came out for the quarterback competition. I didn't manage to see all of the attempts, as the sled drill was still going on back on Field No. 2, but Bruce Gradkowski and John Parker Wilson managed to land balls in the can. Coach Haley didn't.
Finally the TEs abandoned the sled, without much persuasion, I expect, and moved to Field No. 1 for some route running drills. Simultaneously the wide receivers began running similar drills at the other end of the field. I noticed that while the quarterbacks were alternating to throw to the receivers, somehow it was always Ben throwing to Markus Wheaton, and Wheaton's turn came up a lot more often than you would think likely. Look for a lot of 7-to-11 at the next preseason game. (Of course, this could be a sneaky subliminal endorsement deal...)
Justin Brown continues to impress, and the occupant of a No. 10 jersey was getting a good look. I inferred this was probably the newly-signed Tyler Shaw and indeed Steelers.com confirmed my hunch.
Finally the defense poured over to Field No. 1, and they began with two DBs on two receivers. Robert Golden, Josh Victorian, and Ryan Steed were all burned in their turn by Ben to Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Justin Brown, and Derek Moye. John Parker Wilson took over, and Reggie Dunn got behind his DB (I couldn't see who) for a very clutch catch.
Tyler Shaw got welcomed to the Steelers by an exceedingly frustrated Robert Golden, who gave Shaw a late shove after he had already taken his catch out-of-bounds. I trust he was given a tongue-lashing for that. He could have hurt a teammate, however temporary his tenure might be, and it would have been a penalty in a game. Several plays later, a desperate Golden grabbed a hold of Justin Brown's jersey. I'm hoping Dick LeBeau takes him to one side and looks sorrowfully at him for a while.
Ben came back to the quarterbacking duties, and had nice completions to Cotchery and Sanders, but the defensive backs pulled up their collective socks after that and showed better coverage. Dunn burned someone (probably Steed) for another catch, though. He's a little spitfire...
They then switched to the other end of the field, and Plaxico Burress was spotted hanging with the guys, arm in a natty sling. I suspect he is acting as a sort of coaching intern, as Willie Colon did the year he tore his Achilles.
A couple of notable catches were made by Justin Brown, who managed to get way open, and by, again, Reggie Dunn, who beat out Curtis Brown and then fought him for the ball. Dunn won. I hope this means Dunn is awesome, rather than that Curtis Brown is completely inadequate.
Finally, the big moment. The players lined up for the 11 on 11s. Nemesis reared her ugly head, and in the first handoff Isaac Redman goes down. Or at least it would have been Nemesis if Redman suffered from hubris. As he actually seems a humble young man, apparently it was one of those dang Parcae, meddling in affairs they know nothing of. Redman was down for quite a while.
It was pretty scary for a bit. The rest of the team moved down the field, as practice time is limited and precious, and the trainer saw to Redman. To the vast relief of the assembled onlookers he eventually got up. From the various prodding and manipulations the trainer was doing it seemed as if the problem was in his left arm and/or shoulder. He eventually walked off the field under his own steam, and didn't practice after that, but he hung out on the sidelines.
Which meant he was available for aid and comfort when Le'Veon Bell went down. He, too, was on the ground for a considerable period of time, and in his case the problem was obviously his left knee. Once again the rest of the players moved downfield to continue the 11 on 11s as Bell was tended.
Again a collective sigh of relief issued from the bleachers as Bell finally managed to walk off the field on his own. He didn't walk far, though, and thereafter sat or stood with an enormous ice pack bandaged around his leg. For unknown reasons (unknown to me, anyhow,) Lawrence Timmons spent considerable time with the two wounded warriors.
But the standard is the standard, and the next man was up. Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch were the primary beneficiaries of the sudden dearth of ball carriers, and they made the most of it. Unfortunately Landry Jones managed to drop the snap halfway through his set of handoffs, and Coach T was not amused. The following play, though, was a sweet fake handoff to LaRod Stephens-Howling, with Markus Wheaton taking an end-around for a big gain, so Coach was somewhat mollified.
Alvester Allen also got a couple of handoffs, but he didn't do much with them.
The horn blew and Coach Smith burst out of whatever crate they were keeping him in to run kickoff drills. Drills were run to block for the returner, to engage the defenders, and so on. Players other than the usual suspects to receive kicks were Tyler Shaw and Terry Hawthorne, who looked good as new.
11 on 11s resumed with the first team defense defending the first team offense, something they don't seem to do all that often. First was a short screen pass to Will Johnson, followed by a long pass to David Paulson. (Ben would have gone down at the end of that pass if it was a live drill. I couldn't see who it was that got to him.)
Although there was some excellent coverage, there were a number of quick completions by Antonio Brown, Baron Batch, and Nathan Overbay, who promptly fell over after his catch. As the drills went on and the personnel switched out, the defense started making some headway. Adrian Robinson got to the backfield so quickly you would think he started out there. Jarvis Jones tried that (in other words, false start, d'oh...) Baron Batch later caught a pass from Bruce Gradkowski and made a really slick cut to lose his defender and pick up a few more yards. There were also a several plays in which the defense prevented a completion, or got into Ben's grill and forced him to throw the ball away.
Just about this time, Russell Martin homered, evening the score. I do love me some Russell Martin!
Josh Victorian dropped another interception. Emmanuel Sanders got way downfield for a long bomb, and was not overthrown. Derek Moye made some more catches, and was willing to fight for one of them.
It was Special Teams time again, and this time they practiced defending the punter so he could actually get the ball off. Seems like a good plan. Since these drills didn't provide a great deal of excitement, though, the people around me started discussing the events of the day. The knowledgable lady nearby confided that she was very much hoping J.D. Woods would make the squad, unlikely as it seems, since he wears No. 17. She plans to hang her now-useless Mike Wallace jersey in her office with the name against the wall, and it will do perfectly well for Mr. Woods. On that theory, of course, one could hope for Tyler Shaw to stick, as I'm sure there are still quite a few Santonio Holmes jerseys in the backs of Western Pennsylvania closets (or cupboards, as they call them in these parts.)
This same lady put forth the theory that Bell isn't really injured—he is just acting. In fact, the team doesn't want him to play in any preseason games, and will then be able to unleash him upon an unsuspecting Titans team who hasn't had any tape to watch on him. It's a great theory. I wish I thought it was true...
After many, many more special teams drills the guys reconvened for 7 on 7s. They started with 3rd and 5 drills. Paulson had a great catch, and I was tempted to yell "Heath" in the "the white guy did something really great" sense, but I refrained. Justin Brown was getting a lot of looks with the second and third teamers, and caught everything thrown at him. Tuitupou also had several catches, as did Woods and Jamie McCoy. There were even throws to spare for David Gilreath and Michael Palmer. Palmer's pass wasn't in a great spot, and he couldn't reel it in. The last throw on that side of the field was a 1st and 10 setup, and John Parker Wilson threw a long low strike to Nathan Overbay, who caught it at his knees.
The team moved to the opposite end of the field for 11 on 11s, and on the first attempt Jason Worilds would have had a sack if sacking were an option. It was good practice for him to have to not touch the quarterback : ( A few plays later another defender made it into the backfield immediately, which chuffed the defense to no end. I thought it was Jarvis Jones, and it may have been, but I saw reports that he had "tweaked" his groin injury, so it might not have been him. There was a lot to keep track of at that point.
Baron Batch made the most of his opportunities and took a handoff right through the middle of the defense for a first down, breaking some tackles on the way. Jonathan Dwyer also had a decent gain. Derek Moye made a catch in the slot which he almost dropped, but managed to secure it. The final play of practice was a handoff to an unspecified back for no gain.
The horn blew and the players mostly headed off into the sunset. Isaac Redman was carrying his young son, and although he mainly carried him with his right arm, he started out with him in the left one, so hopefully the reports that he just has a stinger are correct. Le'Veon Bell left the field on a golf cart, but he stayed until the end of practice.
Tomlin eschewed the sprints today, but as the vast majority of the players headed for the dorms Antonio Brown began his work with the jug machine, taking a 5-yard pass, throwing the ball back to be fed into the machine, and catching it once again. If there is anything to the 10,000 hours theory, Brown should just about be there by now.
Troy Polamalu prefers a real person, and grabbed a staff person to throw to him. He commandeered Brett Keisel to throw the ball back a couple of times, but pretty soon the calls for Keisel became overwhelming, and he headed to the sidelines for a long autograph session.
I, on the other hand, headed for my car, and whiled away the weary miles with the hope that the Pirates might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Alas, it was not to be.
Perfection is seldom achieved in this life, either in our actions or in our surroundings. All in all, though, it was a pretty amazing day. I would have preferred a few more points from the Pirates and a few less injuries from the Steelers, but at my age you learn to take the bad with the good and treasure the moment. I wish you all could have been there.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers Beachum to take second team snaps at center vs. Redskins
- Taylor says Wheaton looks like a veteran
- Steelers bodies hitting the floor Thursday
- Steelers injury update: Thursday practice brutal for running backs
- Steelers rookie RB Le'Veon Bell suffers knee injury in practice
- Isaac Redman gets 'knocked out' by Larry Foote in Steelers training camp practice
- Seven Steelers who need to shine in second preseason matchup with Redskins
- Steelers Brett Keisel focused on now not future
- Steelers snubbed in recent 2013 rookie power rankings
- Steelers Jerricho Cotchery could be trade bait writes Jason La Canfora
- Steelers are 14th most valuable NFL franchise according to Forbes
- Father-to-be Al Woods loves the Steelers and doesn't want to move