Ivan Cole and I headed out to Latrobe again today, a bit earlier than we went yesterday. For one thing, Ivan didn't have to drive in from Virginia, and for another, we expected there would be a great deal more competition for seats than there was yesterday. (In fact the attendance yesterday was by far the lowest either of us had ever witnessed, probably because of the forecasted rain in combination with people waiting for today's practice.)
It was just as well we arrived when we did, because we still had a decent choice of seats, but they filled up quickly. The atmosphere among the gathered fans was palpably different than yesterday, and as the teams filed onto the field it became clear they were as excited as we were.
Just as we did for Tuesday's report, I will type and interject pointless comments, and Ivan will pontificate about the footbally stuff. So here goes:
Long before practice officially began, the two teams began running warm-up drills on separate fields. We could smell blood in the air, though, as the players sniffed at the cage bars from time to time.
However, the advent of the strength and conditioning drills calmed the flames, as the mind-numbing dullness of them got the players back to a point where they could consider putting them on the same field. (Okay, that was still Rebecca, and shoot me if you like—I prefer a little drama with my facts.)
So on to the facts.
If you've ever been to training camp at St. Vincent College, forget everything you've ever learned. This was on a completely different order of magnitude. The difference is between eavesdropping on a practice and being in close quarters to a war zone. A hundred and eighty angry young men on one football field, with double the coaches, is an almost unimaginable sight to behold. The screaming, the cursing, the anguished cries of their women—and we haven't even gotten to the actual hitting.
Every drill took on a seriousness that was beyond what you normally expect in Latrobe. In fact, even the preparations for the drills which took place wore a much more serious aspect. The drills themselves were pretty much the standard drills we see every practice. But the intensity with which they were run could not possibly be reproduced in an ordinary practice environment. This idea is pure genius.
A Seven-Ring Circus
They began with a version of back-on-backers and tight ends on outside backers, but the main attraction was receivers on defensive backs. From different teams, and even different divisions. It was not a good time for defensive backs wearing either gold or blue. The receivers were pretty much abusing them, leaving them only the mockery of the assembled crowd.
Ben was a surgeon, carving up the Bills defensive backs with ease. If E.J. Manuel was a slightly more accurate quarterback, the carnage on the opposite end of the field would have been equally impressive. As it was, Sammy Watkins demonstrated what it was that had the NFL so excited about him prior to the draft.
Pittsburgh responded with a squadron of receivers, including Watkins' college teammate Martavis Bryant. After this first round of drills was the main event—the Steeler offense vs. the Bills defense on the left end of the field, and the Bills offense vs. the Steelers defense on the right end of the field. The result?
All Hell Breaks Loose
First came the hitting. Then the fights. And those were before a ball was even snapped. (Not really. But it seemed like that.) There was no randomness in evidence. All the fights without exception were between the Steelers defense and the Bills offense. And make no mistake as to who was instigating this. Let us introduce you to the secondary of the Pittsburgh Steelers, specifically Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas, and Ike Taylor, with cameo roles by other players. They were encouraged by the efforts of Antonio Brown to channel Ike's aggression in other directions.
The Steelers' secondary may or may not turn out to be a good unit, but they aren't going to be a complacent one. If they can't get you before the whistle, they'll be back after it.
For the sake of the players and those present with impressionable minds, the edict quickly came down from on high—the live hitting was done for the day. At this point, the players were forced to be content with curses, stealth attacks, and the occasional helmet fling, strategically placed.
There were officials present. However, never has the statement "just let them play" been more in evidence. I wonder if they actually forgot to bring their flags and were too embarrassed to own up to this.
Now, before you conclude that this is just representative of the degradation of America's youth, you should have heard the coaches, none of whom really qualify as "youth" anymore. My favorite was a Steelers coach admonishing two defenders on a punting drill to take the gunner from Buffalo and, quote, "run his ass down." This was no doubt somewhat modified from what he would have said had the bright eager young faces not been peering down at him from the stands.
At one point on the same punt drill, rookie Shaquille Richardson trapped a Bills defender near the Steelers bench and pummeled him until the whistle blew. Richardson's exploits were greeted with cheers and flying hip bumps from his teammates.
This was in stark contrast to the earlier team-only exercise in which one defensive player running with a ball was intercepted and moved out of his path by another. Some of these looked more like Swan Lake than Armaggeddon. Apparently the animus towards ones fellow players is nothing like as complete.
Danny Smith continued...
Today was a challenge to the Pittsburgh special teams coach. With all the yelling and cursing doubled and a whole other team worth of coaches with whom to compete, how is a chihuahua to be heard among so many barking dogs? However one feels he met the challenge, any shortcomings weren't for lack of effort on his part.
Brad Wing, in contrast to his frequently anemic punts in the Giants game, was booming them down the field as if he were an animated jugs machine. His first punt was from the end zone, and ended up at the opposite 30 yard line. At one point the returner quit running after a punt, because it was so far behind him.
Ike Taylor's Handicap
Rebecca has persuaded me to change the focus from "Man Bites Dog" to "Dog Bites Man." And in other non-breaking news, Ike perfectly covered a play, only to have the ball go right off his hands and back into the hands of the intended receiver. I'm sure said receiver was duly grateful.
Curiously, Ike as usual caught every single ball thrown at him in the DBs catching drills. Ivan and I speculate that he has a special pair of prosthetic hands which he wears on these occasions but which are not approved for use in an NFL game, much like stickum or other such substances. A great pity, that...
Unlike yesterday, this did not disturb Coach Tomlin, who was deeply immersed in his role as host and ringleader of the festivities. Thus he was spared unnecessary disappointment.
The Fearsome Twosome
This should actually have been noted in the writeup of Tuesday's practice, but it was nice to know that despite now being defended by hostile invaders, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were able to do whatever they liked, without reference to said threats. This may well turn out to be one of the pairings for the ages.
Ivan actually observed a throw from 7 to 84 which did not result in a completion, due to a combination of a bad throw from Ben and a slip by Antonio. Otherwise they look like money in the bank.
Absences (Which Don't Make the Heart Grow Fonder in Training Camp)
Though fully dressed and a full participant in the individual team drills, Le'Veon Bell was essentially held out from the joint exercises. Also held out were Ryan Shazier, Ramon Foster, Matt Spaeth, Vince Williams, and Jarvis Jones (who wore a natty chapeaux on his head in lieu of a helmet.) Will Johnson left the field before the conclusion of practice, but did not appear to be seriously injured. Perhaps he had a boo-boo.
On the other hand, a brand-new running back wearing number 44 appeared on the field just before the rest of the team showed up. This would be, we assumed, Stephen Houston, a promising UDFA whom the Patriots cut after a fumble in last Saturday's preseason game. There isn't anything else to report on him at this juncture.
That's about all the news that's fit to print from Wednesday's practice. We are very much looking forward to tomorrow's scrimmage. And although the players did appear to get somewhat less rabid as the afternoon wore on and they wore out, we expect the white hot heat to be in evidence again at St. Vincent's.
Odds and Bits
Before practice officially began, Ben and Maurice Pouncey had a throwing contest. The object appeared to be to throw a pass towards the goal post, hitting the bottom bar. Pouncey throws a rather pretty pass, although he doesn't look particularly natural doing it. In fact, he looks a bit like a shot putter. But he did win the contest. Ben will probably not sleep tonight.
And speaking of non-quarterbacks who throw a pretty pass, Marcus Wheaton was throwing passes to Justin Brown after practice. He actually looks fairly natural at it, in fact more so than some of the back-up quarterbacks we saw today on both teams hem hem hem.
And speaking of Wheaton, he and James Shaw engaged in the contest beloved of the St. Vincents crowds, to see who could catch and hang on to the most balls. Wheaton won it handily, with six. Shaw never managed more than four.
Finally, the picture which heads the article reminded us of a lovely sight today. When the players removed their helmets to do their stretches and other strength/conditioning stuff, they lined their helmets up along the end zone, which would have made a great picture had either of us had a camera capable of capturing it. So you get one helmet instead...
Life is Stranger Than Fiction Report
In late-breaking news, it seems long-snapper Greg Warren left practice with what Mike Tomlin was calling a "significant leg injury."
Oddly enough, before practice commenced, Ivan and I were discussing the long snapper's role, and what a cushy job it was, as they hardly ever get hurt. We then idly speculated on who the back-up was, (a TE named Brice Davis is listed as TE/LS on the roster) how different it must be to long-snap in practice or in a game, and how bad the competition must have been for James Harrison to have won the back-up job. Oh the irony.
Having agreed that it makes sense for a team to carry a dedicated long-snapper, since they can screw you up so badly, the Steelers now look to be without theirs. Harrison is currently, I believe, on the couch, but I hope there are better candidates who get a call from Kevin Colbert...