I decided to venture out to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. on Wednesday to take in a session of Steelers training camp.
I hadn’t been to training camp in five years, and there was a good reason for it: I don’t like it that much. There, I said it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, if I was a reporter with credentials, I’d love it. For example, taking a chance on asking James Harrison questions while at the same time hoping he’s never read any of my articles about him? It would be better than being a contestant on Fear Factor.
But, sadly, I’m not a reporter with credentials, and this means fighting through crowds of passionate Steelers fans to try and find a decent vantage point to witness a practice in pads. At least that’s how it was the three previous times I went to camp. However, that was smack-dab in the middle of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLIII and XLV years, and I figured things might be different in 2016, especially if it was on a Wednesday.
I was so wrong.
When I arrived at the parking lot, I had to circle around about three times before I found a spot; it was so packed, I half expected to see Super Bowl LI taking place when I got to the practice fields.
Of course, I never really got to the practice fields. The hillsides near the fields were pretty packed, as were the stands at Chuck Noll Field (this is really where I wanted to sit). Instead, I had to find a spot on a hill adjacent to the stands. Fortunately for me, I brought my trusty binoculars that I got for my 18th birthday, which allowed me to see everything I wanted to.
I couldn’t see numbers on the back of the practice jerseys, however, because they don’t exist. This prompted a woman sitting near me to ask, “Who’s No. 14?” And, mistakenly, I said, “That’s Sammie Coates.” The mistake wasn’t that I told her the wrong player; the mistake was telling her anything, because she then proceeded to ask me the name of just about every Steelers player out there. I was on quite a roll, though, which made me a little too cocky, because when she asked me who No. 85 was, I said, “Oh, that’s David Johnson.” As you are probably screaming at your screen right now, 85 is no longer Johnson’s number. It belongs to Xavier Grimble, a tight end and one of this year’s UDFAs that fans are excited about, a player who will surely surpass Ladarius Green and Jesse James on the depth chart and become the next Rob Gronkowski.
Sorry, I shouldn’t be a smarty-pants about the potential of Xavier Grimble. After all, I thought he was David Johnson, so what do I know?
After about 30 minutes on the hill, I decided to move over to the right of the stands to catch some goal line and regular scrimmages.
As for the goal line scrimmages, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown appeared to have chemistry on-par with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman when they made that one movie. They hooked up two or three times for scores, and looked like two elite stars at their respective positions who’ve been playing together for six years.
I grew up watching some legendary quarterback/receiver duos, and if there’s a better combo in the NFL right now than Roethlisberger and Brown, I’d like to see it.
If No. 7 and No. 84 were a couple, they would finish each other’s sentences.
Speaking of Brown, if what I saw on Wednesday is any indication, he’s basically unstoppable right now. People have been giving first round pick Artie Burns grief for his failures trying to cover Brown at training camp, but nobody can cover Antonio Brown. Just ask highly-regarded Broncos’ corner Chris Harris Jr. who’s probably still having nightmares about Brown, after he scorched him for 189 yards last December at Heinz Field.
To continue with the movie theme, Brown’s new nickname should be Geena Davis, because the man is in a league of his own.
When the offense and defense switched from a goal line scrimmage to a regular scrimmage, I watched center Maurkice Pouncey pretty much own every man that went up against him. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, and could be just another reason to love the Steelers chances this year, what with a returning Pro Bowler anchoring the middle of an already very good line. Many fans and experts don’t value the center position as much as others, but there’s a reason why some centers go to the Pro Bowl and some do not.
During the regular scrimmage, veteran running back DeAngelo Williams ripped off two or three large gains, and he appeared to go right up the gut on each one. Perhaps this is an indictment of 2014 sixth round pick Dan McCullers, or maybe it’s just a testament to Pouncey’s greatness.
Maybe it’s a little of both.
I focused on Williams on one of those runs, and as he was flying down the field, I thought, “Wow, the old man really has some juice left and may actually be faster than Le’Veon Bell.” Of course, since I had my binoculars trained on Williams, I couldn’t see Double J, 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones, who came flying out of nowhere to make a pretty hard tackle. I’m no expert, but if I know my run responsibilities like I think I do, that’s some pretty impressive pursuit for an outside linebacker who was probably setting the edge at the outset of the play.
Does this mean Jones, who has failed to look like a first round pick so far in his career, will actually take his play to the next level in 2016? I don’t know, but again, that was some impressive pursuit.
Other takeaways from my visit to camp:
*At one point during the one-on-one drills between the receivers and defensive backs, an unknown receiver caught a pass and, in a scene straight out of Invincible, just kept on running down the field. As he did this, you could tell the unknown defensive back who was chasing him was thinking, “Come on, man, are you really going to make me chase you? You know I’m not allowed to tackle you, right?”
*The players really do sing “Happy birthday” to 33-year old DeAngelo Williams before each practice session.
*The fans were really, really into things on Wednesday. How into it were they? You ever go to a pro wrestling show and want to say to the fans around you, “You know it’s fake, right?” Replace “fake” with “practice,” and that’s kind of what I wanted to say. But, at the same time, much like Jones’ pursuit of Williams, that was some impressive passion.
*NFL officials were on-hand calling penalties at certain points in practice. After one pass-play, this fan behind me screamed, “That was interference!” He kept screaming it over and over again, and I thought he was talking to someone. Turns out, he was talking to all of us around him, and he wanted everyone to know of this injustice. It kind of reminded me of those times when I write an article and am off on a certain stat by one digit. And when I simply blow it off, someone says, “Well, it’s nice to know you don’t value credibility and accuracy!”
*As I turned off Saint Vincent Drive and was sitting in traffic on route 130, some college-aged looking kid sitting in the car next to me waved an object at me. This is a family site, so I won’t spell it out, but it rhymes with wildo, and it certainly took the “Saint” out of Saint Vincent.
*All-in-all, I left Wednesday’s practice session impressed by certain Steelers and awe-inspired by the many fans who showed up in the middle of the week. If 2016 is as special as I think it could be, my time in Latrobe will be the first of many great memories from the upcoming season.