It's a long drive to St. Vincent College, where the Steelers hold their annual training camp. It is an especially long drive if you start from Northern Virginia, as Ivan Cole did yesterday morning. And it is a rather discouraging drive as well, if it is raining the whole way, as it was. But Ivan kept the faith, and he and I set out in the new Mommamobile (a poison-green Kia Soul, replacing Momma's 1997 Toyota Camry, which was a bit the worse for wear.).
We were rewarded by a beautiful afternoon which only threatened rain as practice was ending. It was a great time for me, as I finally got to meet one of my very favorite co-authors on BTSC and watch the 2014 Steelers at the same time!
So I am going to provide the color commentary and the typing, and the actual content is going to come from Ivan, who has forgotten more about football than I will ever know. Take it away, Ivan...
The activities that we could actually see, since the initial warmups and drills took place at a rather far removed field, began with Ben. (This is from Rebecca—Ben looks incredibly thin and fit, with impossibly small legs... Ivan supports that notion). People around us were commenting on that very thing, and Ivan says Ben looks in the best shape he has ever seen. But the really interesting thing is his arm strength. He was zipping balls that even Antonio Brown was having trouble handling. We may be looking at the potential of Ben's best football of his career being on display this season. And that will be necessary, because of what we saw from Bruce Gradkowski—a continuation of the underwhelming accuracy we saw in the first preseason game.
The good news is that Gradkowski is on track to throw not a single interception. After all, if you throw the ball at least 20 feet from any potential receiver, friend or foe, you're not likely to throw any. So get out your prayer beads and incense for Ben, because as Ben's health goes, so goes the season, at least from this vantage point.
The Three-Ring Circus
Anyone who goes to a training camp practice understandings that decisions have to be made in terms of what you focus on. At this point the practice broke into three parts. In front of us Mike Munchak was taking the offensive line through its paces.
Two things were interesting about this. First is the atmosphere. The offensive line is the biggest group on the team. They move in unison. You understand how the Roman Legions conquered the world. (The defensive line is just as big, but they are the barbarian hordes.)
There is a fellowship which is obvious among this particular group of offensive linemen.
The second point of interest was the workout itself, which was something we have never before seen. It wasn't that it was particularly complicated. In fact, the interest was in its simplicity. The drill focused on footwork and placement —in other words, fundamentals. Fancy that...
Of course, the more interesting exercise occurred near one of the end zones. This was where the running backs, tight ends, and linebackers ran a passing drill. It's here where we learn that Le'Veon Bell and LaGarrette Blount are not big backs, they are running backs who happen to be big. Mike Tomlin tends to have certain moments during a practice when he gets excited. His greatest moment of excitement yesterday was on a passing play in which Bell abused someone, we can't remember who, leaving everyone else in the dust.
Not to be outdone, Blount caught a sideline pattern 20 yards down the field while perfectly covered by Arthur Moats on his back shoulder. And for the most part, he reduced Sean Spence to ordinary. The man can run.
Rebecca says, and I concur, that there will be a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of the Steeler running game this season, because what was demonstrated is that a very good linebacking corps could not stop these two players.
(Sidenote from Rebecca—I find myself wondering if, at least early in the season, we don't see a return to the almost 60/40 run/pass percentages which were typical of the Steelers offense early in Ben's career. And when the Steelers have established they can run on anyone and that Ben is as strong as ever, teams won't know what to defend. I'm pumped!!!!)
Oh, and did we mention Dri Archer? Archer wasn't part of that particular drill—he was running with the receivers at the time. However, it's clear that Archer has that "it" factor. Or, translated to PG language, an "Oh, crap!" factor. Rather like the Giants' defense must have been saying after that simple little screen pass last Saturday night.
One play exemplifies the potential Dri Archer brings to the Steelers. The offense is in the red zone, operating against the defensive backs. Archer goes out into the flat. Ben turns to Archer and cocks his arm. Every person in gold goes "oh, crap!" This is not a circumstance where you say "Well, if he catches the ball, we'll just mosey on over there and bring him down." The entire defense musters itself to address the threat that is Dri Archer.
Now here's the thing. Ben, as he is has the knack to do, simply pumps the ball in the direction of Archer, and then throws it to a ball boy or some such who slipped coverage, because the person assigned to cover him froze when he thought the ball was going to Archer. Said ball boy waltzes into the end zone, unimpeded, while the defense asked itself what just happened.
(Note from Rebecca: The big difference between the way Todd Haley is going to be able to use Archer and the way the team used Chris Rainey is, Archer can be on the field for every play if they like. When Rainey came on the field, the defense knew, as clearly as if they were looking at the playbook, what was about to happen, and as a result, nothing did...)
While watching Blount and Bell brutalize the linebackers, I missed the beginning of a fight. See if you can guess between which defensive back and which receiver. Ding, ding, ding, you win the cigar or the stuffed monkey, according to choice. Yes, friends, it was Antonio Brown and Ike Taylor. Again. They do this every year.
A critical question for the post-Taylor days are, with whom will Antonio Brown fight? Stay tuned.
He's a big boy. Which was a surprise. Both Ivan and I agreed, he didn't look at all like we expected. Nor did he play like a seventh-round rookie. He looks like he will fit in well with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, both in terms of his appearance and his play. Although his eyes may never be as dreamy as Heath's. Sorry. Back to Ivan now.
The only downside for him is that he occasionally attracted the ire of special teams coach Danny Smith. More on Smith later.
I (Ivan) believed when he was drafted that McCullers had the potential of being a training camp darling because of his impressive and unusual physical dimensions. This is playing out, but not in the way I expected. First of all, you must understand the phenomenon that is McCullers. Yes, he is a huge man relative to those surrounding him. Don't forget, though, the people surrounding him are huge in relation to ordinary people. Which is what McCullers makes them look like.
True to my prediction, whenever he was on the field you heard shouts of "Go, Dan!" However, it took me a while to realize those shouts were not coming from the spectators—they were coming from his teammates and coaches. A prediction: I don't know if this man is going to make the team, but if he doesn't, the Turk had better watch his back. It will be one of the most unpopular cuts in team history.
Man Bites Dog
Ike Taylor drops an interception. (Ivan, shouldn't that headline actually be "Dog Bites Man?")
This was the only time that Mike Tomlin showed true exasperation, because otherwise the play was perfect. On the other hand, we must salute Taylor, who has crafted a long and distinguished NFL career despite the distinct handicap of being born without hands.
And while we're on the subject of dogs, special teams coach Danny Smith once again impressed me (now Rebecca) with his similarity to a chihuahua. The man's motor never quits, and neither does his yapping. He was at least as involved in every special teams drill as any of the players, and in some case seemed to be working at least twice as hard. If special teams doesn't continue its heady ascent from last season, it won't be because of any deficiencies or lack of effort in Smith's coaching.
Just when you want to dismiss this guy as a total knucklehead, he comes up with a couple of brilliant catches towards the end of practice. On the very last play he caught one in the end zone, on Taylor, to the cheers of his teammates, and leaving Taylor to be taunted by LaGarrette Blount. (Strangely, this did not lead to a fight. Maybe Taylor doesn't like to fight with guys who aren't smaller than he is.)
The Bad News
We saw any number of quality players who we would have been delighted to have on this team who just aren't going to make it. The numbers just don't add up.
It isn't just the receivers that are clearly on the bubble such as Derek Moye and Darius Heyward-Bey. It is even people further down the depth chart who are performing extremely well but likely have no chance of making the final roster.
The same could be said for linebackers such as Dan Molls, who had nine tackles in the Giants game but is not going to climb over Sean Spence or Vince Williams or Jordan Zumwalt or Terence Garvin.
There were very few players who you would easily dismiss as being dogs, and in another reality they could play quality roles for this team. But if I were another NFL GM I would sit on the cuts on this team.
The one place neither of us felt that way is the secondary, with one notable exception. Jordan Dangerfield and Robert Golden are going to represent a very difficult choice for the team as to who they retain, at least from our vantage point.
And (this is Rebecca now,) I truly believe the lack of concern in addressing perceived deficiencies in the secondary is as much a result of the glut of quality linebackers and the presumed return to the Blitzburgh days as anything else. If you are pressuring the quarterback early and often, the secondary isn't left with all that much to do other than mop-up duty.
Looking ahead, we are very much looking forward to the joint practices with the Bills. Though contact is allegedly limited, Steeler players are on record as predicting "Let the fights begin!" which has been the track record in joint practices around the league this summer.
And a final note from Ivan—Josh Harrison. Just that. Yeah, baby. If you can't find him on the Steelers roster sheet, have a look at the Pirates. Because they are worth looking at, and none more so than the scrappy Harrison. At 5'8" he was "too short for baseball." As a utility outfielder, he was going to be exposed as what he was by playing every day. Last night, as we watched, he qualified with enough plate appearances to appear in official league standings, and immediately supplanted the injured 2013 NL MVP. Andrew McCutchen, as the team leader in batting average. (Oh, and BTW Rebecca hijacked these thoughts, because Ivan doesn't love him as I do, and therefore would not have been able to give appropriate voice to his praises.)
So what does this have to do with a Steelers blog? Well, nothing, unless sports is a metaphor for life. Which I believe it is. And Harrison exemplifies the blue-collar, work-harder-than-everyone-else ethos that made the Steelers of the 1970s the greatest teams in league history. (No bias here!) And I believe we are seeing a team-wide return to these values in this most exciting of preseasons.
Does this mean the 2014 Steelers are going to win the Super Bowl, or even make it there? Nobody knows. Injuries are one of the wild cards no one can predict, just for starters. But I'm more excited about how this team is shaping up than I've ever been in my few years of fandom. Ivan, how do you feel?
A hearty "Amen!"