I checked another item off of my football-related bucket list when I visited Steelers’ training camp on Thursday. Here are 15 thoughts and observations from my time in Latrobe, with some “awards” thrown in for fun at the end.
Latrobe is an amazing setting for training camp. The campus is idyllic, with beautiful brick buildings amid rolling hills framing pristinely manicured grounds. I’m a sucker for a newly-mowed football field, with the scent of fresh-cut grass in the air. When I got my first glimpse of the practice area, I felt like Kevin Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams” surveying his creation in the corn. A special moment, for sure.
2. PRE-PRACTICE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Before practice formally began, players assembled in small groups to work specific skills. The QB’s repped play-action fakes then booted out and mimicked throws to imaginary receivers. The OL worked on reach steps (Kevin Dotson doing his in a tan-colored bucket hat). WR’s did their warm-ups by throwing and catching rugby balls. The DL looked like they were practicing martial arts, honing their hand play with lots of waxing on/waxing off. LBs and DBs walked through some coverage responsibilities, likely working on communication.
3. LORD OF THE MANOR
Mike Tomlin strode through the team during the stretching period like the Lord of the Manor. There was no question who the boss was, as Tomlin slapped players five, joked with some, bent to whisper private thoughts with others. At one point he was laughing with Alex Highsmith and Chris Wormley, who appeared to be talking trash with some of the offensive linemen. Tomlin slapped Highsmith on the back, then trotted over to say something to Robert Spillane, after which Spillane gave him a fist bump. It was easy to see how much Tomlin enjoys this early-season process, and why he remains, fifteen years into his tenure, one of the best head coaches in the business.
4. COACH T AND THE D
As head coach, Tomlin has a vested interest in every player on the team. But make no mistake about it — he is partisan to the defense. That’s where he spent most of his practice time, monitoring the linebackers and defensive backs, and when the players came together for 11-on-11 team periods, Tomlin mostly stood with the defense. He is a defensive guy at heart, and it’s hard for him to conceal that fact.
5. STARS ON THE SIDELINES
This practice lacked star power. On offense, there was no Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth or Chase Claypool. On defense, no T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi or Tyson Alualu, and no 11-on-11 reps for Minkah Fitzpatrick and Levi Wallace. It would have been nice to see the big names, but it also provided plenty of opportunity to assess the younger players, whom I will get to shortly.
6. DJ IN THE SPOTLIGHT
One high-profile player who did participate was Diontae Johnson, fresh off of his contract extension. He received the biggest ovation of any player who was introduced as he came down the hill onto the practice field. Johnson was out early, too, and must have caught 100 balls before practice started. His participation was limited, but in the live routes he did run, he looked fantastic. His stop-and-start and change-of-direction abilities are different than anyone on the roster. He was un-coverable in one-on-one drills and made some nice leaping grabs in team sessions. Johnson looked ready to go, even with the missed practice reps during his “hold in.”
7. SHARPENING THE AXE
One of my favorite historical quotes, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, is this: “If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” Football practice is just that — the sharpening of the axe. Training camp in particular, since that’s the time a team does the bulk of its sharpening. The Steelers did a lot of that on Thursday, paying great attention to fundamentals.
The wide receivers, in particular, focused on details. They drilled route running, coming out of breaks and stalk blocking. I loved the energy of new receivers’ coach Frisman Jackson. He was coaching constantly, never passing up an opportunity to instruct, correct or encourage. At various times I heard Jackson say (or yell), “Eyes up,” “Get your head around,” “Run him out of there,” “Feel the boundary.” That last comment referenced a route by Cody White where he came out of a speed cut too quickly and nearly ran himself out of bounds before the pass arrived. Jackson impressed me on Thursday as much as any coach on the field.
8. RECEIVERS IMPRESSIVE
Jackson’s group was impressive, too. Johnson looked excellent. Anthony Miller made some nice catches and absolutely dusted Arthur Mallet on a wicked double move when he feigned an in-cut then burst up the seam and caught a nice ball from Mitchell Trubisky for a would-be touchdown. Cody White looked good high-pointing the football. The rookies who have garnered so many accolades the past few days — George Pickens and Calvin Austin III — were relatively quiet, but already look like veterans. And Gunner Olszewski, the return specialist and occasional slot receiver, had a good day, too. He made several combat catches and looked fast running jet sweeps. The Steelers have a deep receivers room with Johnson, Claypool, Pickens, Austin, Miller, White, Olszewski and Miles Boykin. Two of those players will not make the roster, although all eight seem NFL worthy. If I had to guess the two cuts right now, I’d say Boykin and White.
9. MORE GUNNER O
Olszewski was by far the most impressive of the return men. He looks so natural catching punts, like there’s a magnet in his chest drawing the ball to him. The really impressive part, though, was what happened once he fielded the punt. In a pseudo-live return drill, his ability to find a cut, make a defender miss and then accelerate was unparalleled. Before today, I thought keeping Olszewski and Austin III was redundant, and that the rookie would displace the veteran. After today, I don’t see how Olszewski gets cut. He possesses a skill as a returner the Steelers need, and he impressed me enough as a receiver to make him useful there as well.
10. SEVEN SHOTS
The first team period of the day was the Seven Shots drill, where the offense has seven chances to score with the ball at the 2-yard line. The defense won the drill, 4-3, getting nice plays from Cam Sutton, who broke up a flat pass that could have been a pick-six, James Pierre, who denied Boykin on a fade ball, and Alex Highsmith, who blew up a run block by Cody White to help snuff out a toss sweep to Benny Snell Jr. The offense got one touchdown pass apiece from Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett. Trubisky hit Pickens on a slant, Rudolph found a wide-open Jace Sternberger on a pick route and Pickett made what could have been the throw of the day, dropping in a perfectly-placed ball at the back pylon to White with heavy pressure in his face.
11. QB BATTLE
Pickett had a strong day. He was accurate and appeared decisive. He’s been accused at various times throughout camp of holding the ball too long, and also of getting rid of it too quickly (go figure). Thursday, he did neither. He is likely becoming more comfortable with the offense and the speed at which things are happening. He was probably the best quarterback of the day.
There was nothing remarkable about either Trubisky or Rudolph. No big mistakes, nothing eye-popping. If this had been a game, both would have earned “game-manager” labels. All things considered, that’s not too bad for what is likely to be expected of them, at least early in the season.
As for the passes the QB’s were executing, it was lots of quick throws, play-action passes and bootlegs. In other words, pretty much what we’ve been expecting from Matt Canada. There was a period dedicated to “choice” routes, where a receiver settles down at the linebacker level, then bursts away from an imaginary linebacker based on the movement of a coach. Austin III was lightning quick bursting away from the “LB” in this drill, although his size is not ideal for these types of routes. Zach Gentry was the opposite — slow to stop and start, but a huge target. As each player broke away, Frisman Jackson yelled “Burst!” Did I mention I was impressed with Jackson?
12. OTHER STANDOUTS
Sternberger, the third-year tight end formerly of Green Bay, had a great day. He made several tough catches, including a beauty on an out-and-up against Spillane where he went high in the air, twisted around and snagged the ball over his shoulder. Sternberger is listed at 6’4-250 but looks smaller. He runs routes like a receiver and has soft hands. He may not stick, but he looks like he can play in the league.
Anthony McFarland had a solid day taking reps in the absence of Najee Harris. McFarland was especially effective as a receiver out of the backfield, where he had several nice grabs and dusted Devin Bush in one-on-ones. He made some nice cuts on inside zone runs, too, and showed a willingness to square up and run hard between the tackles.
Carlins Platel made some nice plays at cornerback, especially in the run game. The Steelers had him in the slot at times where he knifed in to make several tackles in 11-on-11 sessions. Platel, a rookie free agent from South Carolina, is having a nice camp and could be a practice squad candidate.
And DeMarvin Leal, in whom I have high hopes, absolutely destroyed John Leglue and then Kendrick Green in back-to-back pass rush reps. Leal is very quick off the ball and uses his hands well. He got inside on Leglue and from there drove him back like he was a child, prompting a celebration from his fellow defensive linemen. Leal vs. Leglue has become one of the testier battles in camp. Leglue plays with an edge, and Leal has a motor. They were fun to watch.
13. JET, JET AND MORE JET
The Steelers ran dozens of jet motion plays, in both group and team sessions. In one group period, the following players all carried the ball on jet sweep: Austin III, Olszewski, McFarland, Pickens, Boykin, White, Steven Sims, Tyler Snead, Tyler Vaughns, Connor Heyward and Derek Watt. Yes, Heyward and Watt. Likely, Canada was just practicing the timing of the play. But the fact nearly every eligible running back and receiver on the roster was getting reps means we should expect it to be run in almost any situation.
14. TRENCH REPORT
While the defensive line got the better of the offensive line in 1-on-1 sessions, the OL afforded itself well in the team periods. McFarland and Snell both had success running between the tackles, particularly on inside zone plays. The line was doing a nice job getting hip to hip on its initial double-team and staying on the double until the linebackers showed. This looked to be a significant improvement from a technique standpoint over last year’s line, which did a poor job on combination blocks. Pat Meyer’s group spent a lot of time working double-chip technique in the group periods. On Thursday, against backups on the defensive front, that instruction paid off.
15. ODDS AND ENDS
Tuzar Skipper had the hit of the day, flattening Jaylen Warren on an inside run that drew “Ooohhs” from the crowd. Isaiahh Loudermilk and Jake Dixon had some good battles in one-on-ones, with each getting the better of the other at times. Kendrick Green looks athletic at guard. He can get out and pull. But, as his rep versus Leal showed, he still struggles with power at the point of attack. Devin Bush didn’t make a single play that impressed me, and he got beat in coverage a few times. You can’t put too much stock in one practice, but it wasn’t a great day for No. 55. Myles Jack, on the other hand, looked solid. He has fluid hips and covers a lot of ground. Arthur Maulet impressed at times. He has a spot on this roster. The question is, where?
And now for some awards:
Matt Canada Ridiculous Shift Award
To the play the Steelers ran in pre-practice where Dan Moore Jr. moved from his left tackle position out to wide receiver and proceeded to block for Calvin Austin III on a quick screen.
Cranky Fan Award
To the older gentleman in a Joe Greene jersey who ripped Kenny Pickett after Pickett completed a pass. Pickett slid left in the pocket, found a clean lane in which to throw and then hit White on an in-cut about 15 yards down the field, prompting applause from the crowd.
“What?” the gentleman said. “I’m supposed to be impressed by that? He had a wide open lane to throw, no pass rush, he put it low and the receiver had to fall down to catch it. But go ahead, clap like he’s Joe Montana.”
Enjoy the Kenny Pickett Era, sir...
Not Your Grandfather’s Offensive Lineman Award
Remember when linemen were big fat guys? Or at least big and burly? That’s not the case anymore. As evidence, check out this photo I took of Chuks Okorafor, who is listed at 320 pounds:
Okorafor is the most svelte 320 I’ve ever seen. He’s in great shape, and it shows in his exceptional lateral movement. The question is, will he be powerful enough to knock a 3-tech off the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 1 when the Steelers need to make a yard?
Magnitude “Pop Pop” Award
Only fans of the irreverent and wonderful T.V. show “Community” will get the Magnitude reference. But this award goes to the player whose performance “popped” the most on Thursday. Or, put differently, the guy who, for whatever reason, most stood out.
There were several worthy candidates for this award. Pickett, Miller, Sternberger, Olszewsky, Maulet and Leal all had good days. But the winner is Anthony McFarland, whose shiftiness, pass catching and open-field running got my hopes up that this could be the year he puts it all together and becomes the third down back this team has lacked the past few seasons.
Sign of the Apocalypse Award
To the skies over Latrobe, which darkened quickly, exploded with bolts of lightning and caused the Steelers to wrap practice about 15 minutes early. My wife and I dragged our kids to the car moments before the clouds burst, then sat inside listening to the rain pelt the roof while excitedly recounting our day.
I can’t wait to go back.