Ivan Cole and I headed out to Latrobe for the last time Thursday. Being as it was a 5:30 start to practice, we thought it behooved us to arrive in good time, and pulled into the barbered cornfield which serves as the parking lot shortly after 4:00. (If you think I'm kidding about the cornfield, you obviously haven't been to training camp.)
As usual I will facilitate this post, while Ivan will provide most of the actual substance. But first, I will set the scene.
Seemingly all of Western Pennsylvania was in full battle array as we made our way to the bleacher seats overlooking the field. Hats were screwed firmly down over clipped locks; tattooed arms bulged with, well, let's just say they bulged, and jaws were clenched. And that was just the women.
The prevailing mood was different than yesterday's practice. Then, none of us knew what to expect. Today, there was a feeling that although there might be some scuffling, the true war was reserved for the business of the day—football.
When the players entered the arena, once again the atmosphere was less charged, although certainly not insouciant. They were there for business, and we were the lucky witnesses. Here's what we saw:
The Best News
As far as we know, there were no additional major injuries in this camp session. Maurkice Pouncey was kept out of practice, as was Ramon Foster, Matt Spaeth, Will Johnson, Jordan Zumwalt, Jarvis Jones, and Will Allen. Returning today was Ryan Shazier. Le'Veon Bell was dressed and participated in some drills, but was for the most part kept out of harm's way.
Pouncey was a scheduled day off. There was no reason for alarm in re any of the other above-mentioned players. As we all know by now, Greg Warren has a serious enough injury to keep him out for four weeks, but not serious enough to have to IR him. If four weeks is realistic, he could even miss only the season opener.
And finally, the comment to yesterday's post stating Ben had left the field limping, with ice on his knee, apparently meant nothing much, as he had nothing at all on his knees and looked very much like usual. However, don't forget to set out some Tibetan prayer flags or your other petition of choice in a local stream. More on this later.
A Focus on Offense
There was a change in format today from that used yesterday. Whereas on Wednesday all activity was focused on one football field, today, perhaps because it was the last day of practice and the fields were dry, they used all three fields. This meant that almost everything we saw of Bills vs. Steelers drills were Steelers offense against Bills defense. Even the special teams drills took place on the far field, and so we couldn't tell much about them.
And so as not to waste a precious moment, there were still two or even three different sets of Steelers/Bills joint drills on the closest field. So once again we were presented with far more than we could reasonably expect to take in.
The news on offense was mostly good. The first half—dozen passes of the receivers on defensive backs drill were knocked down by Bills defenders, so the Steelers decided they had better get serious about it. Even this drill was split in half across the field, with Ben Roethlisberger on the near side and Bruce Gradkowski on the far side.
The remaining passes were fiercely contended by the Bills DBs, but almost all of the passes were actually caught by the Steelers receiver to whom it was thrown. This was even true of Bruce Gradkowski's receivers, we are happy to note.
Spectacular catches were made by Martavis Bryant in the end zone, Marcus Wheaton in the flat, and Antonio Brown in the back of the end zone. Derek Moye, Justin Brown, C.J. Goodwin, and Lanear Sampson all had numerous catches, and Lance Moore demonstrated on one catch how old age and cunning can win out over youth and enthusiasm.
In addition to these drills and the multiple defensive drills taking place on the other fields,, Landry Jones and Brendon Kay were running similar drills with the tight ends and running backs at the other end of the near field. David Paulson was doing his best to make a case for his retention, although that is still undoubtedly going to come down to whether he's learned to block anyone, ever. LaGarrette Blount demonstrated that he is as proficient at catching as he is at running.
To be fair, these drills tend to favor offense. From the little I could see, the Steelers defense wasn't faring all that much better on the far field.
The Most Spectacular Play of the Day
In an odd-couple moment, the man who can't throw threw a beautiful 60ish yard pass to the man who can't catch, who easily beat his defender and ran it in for a touchdown. Bruce Gradkowski showed a bit of the spark with which he ran rampant through the Steelers defense when he was working for the Oakland Raiders, and threw a gorgeous pass to the man the league mocked the Raiders for drafting, Darius Heyward-Bey. It was a moment to make Al Davis shed a tear, if he still could.
This was not an anomaly for Heyward-Bey either, as he had several other clutch catches. And Gradkowski seemed to have generally improved in accuracy, although he still prevented several potential interceptions.
Role Reversal on Unplanned Violence
Fortunately (this is Ivan speaking,) as on the previous day, there were fights. However, they were reduced by a third. In other words, there were two. Of course, there were also four times as many policemen on the field, although only two of them were actually on horseback, probably a necessity to chase down any potential offender, given the speed on this team.
Additional good news is that, unlike the previous day, all fights were initiated by the offense. The headliner was a scrum involving Cody Wallace. At this point the entire Bills defense ran onto the field to help "break up the fight." It was touching to see how committed they were to a peaceful, non-violent practice. Naturally, the Steelers offense responded in kind. Head Coach and Ringmaster Mike Tomlin disappeared into the middle of the scrum, and emerged shortly afterwards, looking not as grieved or disappointed in his men as you might have expected.
It should be noted, the chief instigator, Antonio Brown, was deeply involved in the peace talks. In fact, he didn't quit talking for quite some time, continuing his efforts to bring calm to the troubled waters.
There were other conferences involving a variety of pacifists, including David DeCastro, Marcus Wheaton, and most of the rest of the offensive line, demonstrating the effects of the level-headed leadership of line coach Mike Munchak.
It could also be said that these young men were free from the corrupting influences of Maurkice Pouncey. They gave him that day off just in time!
Winners and Losers of Bills Week
As is always the case, some players have helped their cause over the past three days, while others made it seem more difficult to imagine them surviving into September. While tight ends Rob Blanchflower and David Paulson helped themselves, it appeared that Eric Waters fell behind. Brice Davis comes under the category of "One man's misfortune..." as he will have an opportunity to prove his value if he can successfully replace Greg Warren this weekend.
Wide receiver Kashif Moore had some nice catches today, but they may not be enough to keep the Turk from his door. Derek Moye didn't hurt his cause so much as he didn't gain any ground on anyone in front of him. Conversely, Martavis Bryant showed more confidence and surer hands than we seen thus far, and is showing some distinct flashes of the abilities which attracted the Steelers' scouts' notice.
Once again we did not see anything from any quarterback not named Ben Roethlisberger to give us confidence in any interim period which may have to be filled. Let us fervently hope it won't be necessary.
LaGarrette Blount continues to impress, as did Tauren Poole. The new guy, Stephen Houston, did not thus far carve out a spot for himself. Dri Archer showed just enough flashes that Rebecca thinks they shouldn't let him on the field again until the regular season begins. She doesn't want to see this lovely new toy broken before we've even gotten all the presents opened.
A Few Final Thoughts
First, when sending up those prayers for the health of Ben Roethlisberger, you might throw in a few for the offensive line, because the second line did not impress for the most part.
Although we had little opportunity to observe the defense in action, we did see a few of the early drills before the teams joined forces. Once again one could not help but notice Dan McCullers. It isn't just the fans who are eager for him to succeed. During the sled drill McCullers, unlike most of the other defensive linemen, was asked to repeat the exercise with a different position and approach. This was not because the others all did it perfectly by any means. They really want this kid to pan out, from all appearances.
To our knowledge, Ike Taylor did not drop a pass today. Of course, to our knowledge, Ike Taylor was not tendered the opportunity to do so. However, he was wearing gloves, the nature of which we speculated upon freely.
Saturday night will hold even more than the usual fascination for us. Part of what we will be watching for is how many players on both teams appear to be marked men. Baseball has the outlet of plunking. Perhaps something similar needs to be developed for football in these instances. It seems to me that more than the usual number of resentments and grievances between two teams could have accumulated as a result of these practices. All I can say is, thank God the Steelers didn't run joint practices with the Ravens...