Pittsburgh Steelers: Observations from Friday's Steelers Practice
The Pittsburgh Steelers practiced in front of a crowd for the first time on Friday afternoon and they put on an impressive performance.
It was the first opportunity for fans to get a look at the draft class and they got to see these rookies do a lot.
The coaching staff wasted no time getting rookies involved working with the second team.
Sean Spence and Chris Rainey both got a significant amount of action while David DeCastro and Mike Adams not only got second-team reps, but also worked with the starters.
Besides the presence of the new players, this year's camp also had a different feel without veterans Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith.
While it is difficult to lose such great leaders, it also gives an opportunity for other players to step up and fill the void.
Here are some observations from Friday’s practice.
As the players walked onto the practice fields at Saint Vincent College, it was hard not to notice the absence of Hines Ward and James Farrior.
Looking across the field to see Sean Spence wearing the No. 51 jersey signified that a new crop of leaders would be needed for the 2012 season.
Of course, the Steelers are not without leaders.
Players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Keisel are vocal leaders within their respective units, but they may need to take on an even bigger role this year.
There will be others that step up as training camp progresses.
One of the most vocal players on Friday was Ryan Clark. He was giving a motivational pep talk during the stretches that stressed what it means to be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Leadership is not easy to replace, but it Pittsburgh, there are always players ready to step up and fill the void.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are the top two wide receivers at camp while Mike Wallace is absent.
Last year, Brown looked like a young player struggling to find his way early in camp. Now he looks like a veteran who is ready to take his game to another level.
Brown had an outstanding practice and was the top target for the day. He looked very comfortable with his routes and made several nice receptions.
It is a big season for Sanders, who is looking to make a major contribution for the first time in his career.
Sanders had a strong practice as well, but he is clearly behind Brown. That is not a knock on Sanders, but more of a credit to the talent of Brown.
There were a few receivers that will be in competition for the fifth spot that stood out as well.
Derrick Williams was right behind the top four receivers in terms of reps. However, he did not flash anything special during practice.
Toney Clemons had a great one-handed catch while working with the quarterbacks, but would later fail to come down with a couple of tough catches. Making the tough catches is what can allow a young receiver to make the roster.
Marquis Maze is at a huge size disadvantage. His lack of height will make things tougher on him as he challenges for a roster spot. The good news is that he performed well.
Maze made a terrific diving catch and looked quick going across the middle where the inside linebackers had no chance of keeping up with him.
Early signs show that the Steelers will have some options for the fifth receiver spot.
Mix and Match of Personnel
While working out of the shotgun, the Steelers used a variety of options at tight end and running back.
Heath Miller sat out of practice, so Leonard Pope, Weslye Saunders and others had an opportunity to work with the starting offense.
Saunders was the smoothest route-runner of the tight ends, though they were not a focus of the passing game.
That was because the quarterbacks were throwing to the running backs.
Yes, the Steelers were really working on the screen pass.
For a team that could not effectively execute a screen pass over the past few seasons, they looked pretty good for being so early in camp.
Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey all worked out of the backfield.
Dwyer is in much better shape and Batch looks to have recovered very well from his torn ACL.
Batch got a number of passes thrown his way, as did Rainey.
Rainey did make one nice move outside to make a nice gain. It helped that he had Willie Colon sprinting and diving in order to make a block.
Athletic Offensive Line
The most dramatic change with the Steelers this season is the amount of athleticism along the offensive line.
Overall, this collection of linemen is not overweight and they move very well. This will help in all phases of blocking.
There is no player that works harder during training camp than Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey’s ankle looked to be in terrific shape as he went through drills at full speed. He dominates drills like no other lineman on the roster.
Marcus Gilbert appears to be in better shape than he was at the start of camp last season. He looks very strong and was moving well.
David DeCastro did not look like a rookie, but rather like a veteran NFL lineman. It will only be a matter of time until he takes over the starting job.
DeCastro worked in offensive line coach Sean Kugler’s group and performed very well. He was rarely corrected and demonstrated good technique throughout the practice.
One thing that separated DeCastro from the other linemen is how he gets low going into his blocks and how powerful he is once engaged with the defender.
Mike Adams had a solid practice as well.
During team drills, Adams held his own against Cameron Heyward. He kept Heyward outside which allowed Roethlisberger to step up into the pocket and connect on a deep pass to Brown.
Roethlisberger actually had a pocket to work from throughout practice. This was not always common in previous years.
Kapinos' Job Appears to Be Safe
Jeremy Kapinos did not practice Friday, which gave Drew Butler all of the reps.
Butler’s first set of punts were very short and low. Several were even kicked out of bounds and it was an overall rough start for the rookie punter.
However, Butler then began to boom several punts that carried well over the heads of the returners.
Overall, it was a very inconsistent day for Butler, and if he wants to have a chance he must become more consistent.
Roethlisberger played defensive back in team drills at the beginning of practice. He blitzed once and was picked up by DeCastro.
The Steelers practiced a fake field goal at the end of the practice session. It was not successful.
John Malecki may not make the roster, but there are few linemen that work as hard as he does.
Brown, Sanders, Maze and Rainey all fielded punts.
Cortez Allen dropped an interception, but he still looks to be on his way to being a starter. Terrence Frederick dropped an interception and Terry Carter provided very good deep coverage on Williams.
LaMarr Woodley did a great job staying at home to shut down a reverse and a screen pass.
Jerrod Johnson was very hesitant throwing the ball in seven-on-seven drills.
Jamain Stephens was at camp watching practice from outside the fences. One fan yelled at Coach Kugler that Stephens was ready to play and to give him a chance. Kugler did not seem to be amused.