Pittsburgh Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania is one of the most unique, fulfilling and engaging experiences of the early NFL season. Annually, Steelers fans in bunches make the trek to watch their gridiron gladiators prepare for the upcoming campaign, sitting on the hillside and enjoying both scenic beauty and intense team preparation.
The “ooh’s!” and “ahh’s!” of spectators during a late summer in Latrobe are not uncommon. I personally remember my own excitement whenever a rising Steelers star made a spectacular diving catch in the end zone during a red zone drill during an August 1999 afternoon practice. That dynamic playmaker was Hines Ward, who would go on to become the team’s all-time leading receiver in most major statistical categories.
Certainly, the path to his fall feats and winter wonderment came with solid preparation. In other words, Hines’ days as a Pittsburgh top dog were born from hard work during the summer’s dog days.
For many athletes fighting for starting positions or roster spots, the results of their preseason performance are born from the sweat (or lack thereof) at St. Vincent College.
Unfortunately, this part of the season exposes a hybrid of athletes performing at different levels. Whereas many players flourish while showing off their potential, others fall short under the scorching heat of NFL expectations and the hot summer sun.
As we continue through the exhibition phase of the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers season, here are five players whose camp performances or preseason experiences to-date have left something to be desired.
Left tackle Mike Adams, the team’s second jaw-dropping value pick this past April, is still the projected starter at left tackle, though his performance during the team’s first preseason outing against the Eagles proved to be an obvious struggle.
Adams had difficulty, particularly in pass blocking assignments, giving up 2.5 sacks. On one particular gaffe, the tackle struggled with getting off the line of scrimmage and positioning himself properly, unable to contain pressure from around the edge. The result was not only a sack on Byron Leftwich’s first play of the evening, but nearly a devastating fumble and recovery by the Eagles defense.
This is particularly surprising in light of his outperforming Trai Essex for the starting tackle spot in camp by a decent margin.
Most fans will view this performance as an aberration, which is likely the reality for a lineman who has shown so much early promise at camp to-date. As such, the alleged disappointment for this athlete is not particularly his camp performance, which has been at least par at all times, if not beyond; it’s the circumstances going forward…and their timing.
A right knee sprain will sideline the rookie for a couple of weeks, taking away valuable practice time…
…and, just as importantly, not taking away that bad taste from Adams’ mouth, allowing it to fester until he is able to take the field and showcase his skills again.
Sometimes, the notion of being "disappointing" has to be considered in a specific context. Take touted guard David DeCastro as a case study. By all reasonable considerations, the first-round selection is having a fine camp, learning...developing...improving.
However, with the hype and hysteria of the "next Alan Faneca" dominating Steel City airwaves and headlines over the early summer, expectations for the rookie guard are sky high. In fact, any reasonable person knows that meeting that benchmark is nearly impossible so early.
Seriously, the "next Alan Faneca?" For the first-rounder, that could require a few takes and retakes before the role is satisfied. Sadly, until then, anything short will be labeled disappointing by the larger public.
In the case of DeCastro, the context for camp is expectations versus time. Put up against his projected self, David is having camp struggles, though no more than any first-year guard would have at this level. The NFL is a physically taxing, strenuous and almost unreasonably demanding game, particularly in the under-glorified and sadly unmagnified trenches.
In the optimistic hearts of many fans, DeCastro was going to be above the struggles. He simply isn't; don't hit the panic button yet.
"The mental part I got. The physical is a lot tougher. These guys are really good."
In stark contrast to his fellow rookie along the line during the opener, DeCastro excelled in pass protection against the Eagles.
Run blocking? Different story.
Though he had a key block, he largely struggled in this phase of the game. The good news is that there is a lot of time left for performance to meet (or almost meet) lofty (and, perhaps unfair?) expectations.
A three-way battle for the starting corner spot across from Ike Taylor may already be dwindled down to a two man showdown...if that.
Truthfully, barring unforeseen circumstances such as injury or a radical change in performance, I believe Keenan Lewis is already cemented as the incumbent "other" corner.
Considering the expectations for both corners drafted in 2011, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, a lot of folks had very skewed expectations favoring Brown. However, it is the "Citadel kid" who is showcasing more ability in camp, albeit only slightly, while the more touted Brown has been a huge disappointment. Many questioned whether Allen would have what it takes to make it with the NFL's "big boys"; their scope was looking at the wrong target.
Sure, Brown has held his own on the practice field, but he's yet to make any in-game impact at the professional level aside from NEGATIVE impact.
The rest of the preseason will be a huge showcase for both young corners, but Cortez to-date has a near lock on coverage assignments from the nickel set. Brown should also qualify for nickel and dime packages, but he'll have to do better than he did against the Eagles.
In a largely disappointing showing, Brown allowed two touchdowns against the Eagles. The most alarming came in man coverage down the left sideline against undrafted free agent receiver Mardy Gillard. Rookie quarterback threw a pristine 44-yard lob, and Brown was in direct pursuit; had he looked for the football or showcased more awareness, he likely would have made a play on the ball.
Instead, not only did Curtis fail to react to the pass, he made little effort to dislodge the reception, was unable to prevent Gillard from scoring and looked completely unaware in being burnt by the not-so-proven Foles to Gillard combo.
If your loyalty lies with a team that has a solid punter who is always ready to perform on Sundays (cough-Andy Lee?!-cough), don't take it for granted.
On a team with so much offensive talent, the punter is the one thing you don't want to see on the field, save for turnovers. A classic football adage for many announcers is that "a punt isn't always a bad thing." Fair enough, but for a greedy analyst like myself, only points will suffice.
And, while a punt can—by inference of the above phrase—be a good thing, that doesn't mean it will be a good punt. Based on what camp has shown so far, hang time could be at a premium in 2012. One of these men will be kicking to the opposition directly after the Steelers offense aggravates us, and their camp form so far hasn't given any indication that they will allay any negative emotions resulting from the opposing defense's success.
Drew Butler has shown the same type of huge leg that Daniel Sepulveda once used to awe camp-goers with. However, his sonic booms are mixed with sorry busts, a combination of cranks (65-yard thunder kicks) and shanks (30-yards or under bricks) that have made each snap of the pigskin off his foot a new adventure with an unpredictable ending.
If Butler could show some consistency with his form and power, he would have the punting job locked up.
While Jeremy Kapinos' high-end range isn't as distant as Butler's max distance, he is certainly a more consistent and reliable 40+ yard "poocher." Yet, whereas Butler has Sepulveda's leg but lacks his high percentage of power, Kapinos' main issue happens to be his own commonality with the Steelers' former punter.
Sepulveda's ongoing injuries kept him from becoming a great punter. Kapinos' health issues certainly don't help his case for staying on a roster that clearly has need for only one punter.
It's still early in the preseason, and the newest members of the NFL fraternity still have a lot of time to refine and develop themselves for the readiness needed to contribute at football's professional level.
Therefore, if it seems like I'm picking on the rookies, forgive me.
However, as it concerns the popularly phrased "here and now," Alameda Ta'amu is the third Steelers rookie that isn't quite living up to expectations thus far in camp. Don't fret! In three weeks, perhaps we'll be talking about three world burners.
The two offensive linemen haven't entirely disappointed, except suffice to say that some "rookie blues" have inserted themselves into their high-touted realities. Ta'amu, however, has absolutely underperformed.
The battle for nose tackle may have effectively ended with Steve McLendon's dominant effort against the Eagles. Indeed, his performance was that convincing, a mere continuation of the sheer beast mode he's shown off during training camp.
Opposed to McLendon's yeoman's effort, Alameda has showcased a layman's approach. He himself ought as well be called "Big Snack," having shown up to camp slightly out of shape, an alarming sign for any player, in my opinion, but a sin for a first-year athlete with a shot to start at the premiere position for a proud franchise defined by defense that largely depends on its keystone starting tackle.
At that, Casey Hampton's injury and current status should have opened the door wide open for Alameda, prompting a much more focused preparation and offseason effort from the youngster.
There is no excuse for Ta'amu to have shown up to St. Vincent College in anything less than pristine shape, both with consideration to the message it sends and the difficulty of the starting position for which he was set to battle.
The rookie tackle has appeared lethargic at moments, at first lacking energy but slowly improving in both approach and performance as camp has moved along. Fellow contributor ChrisG. said the following about Ta'amu, which I adamantly agree with:
"Alameda Ta’amu has looked like a rookie.
He has not been terrible, but Ta’amu may not be ready to contribute as a backup, let alone start.
Ta'amu has been slow out of his stance and does not have the technical side of the game down."