Pittsburgh Steelers: Observations from Sunday's Training Camp Practice
After just their second practice, it is already clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be a much different team in 2013 than they were last season.
Besides the new starters on the defensive side of the ball, the offense has a much different feel to it. Todd Haley has blended the best from his offense with the best of what Ben Roethlisberger does, which includes moving in the pocket, working off of the play-action pass and throwing the ball deep.
The quarterbacks are already developing timing with their receivers, and this is going to go a long way as the offense tries to become more productive this season.
But it wasn’t just the wide receivers who were getting involved in the passing game. I will have more on that and the rest of the team as I share the rest of my observations from Sunday’s practice.
Note: All photos in this article were taken by me.
Brown and Sanders Step Up
There is no replacing Mike Wallace’s deep speed, but the Steelers should be in good hands with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
Brown has had a laid-back presence this camp and is just going out there and doing his job. He has matched up against Ike Taylor and William Gay and has done a nice job of getting open.
Early in practice, he made a great adjustment on the ball while running down the sidelines to make a fantastic reception while staying in bounds. No one on the roster can match the work that he does along the sidelines.
While Brown may be the No. 1 receiver, Roethlisberger has been throwing a lot of passes toward Sanders. It is important that they develop a rapport early on as Sanders figures to put up career numbers this season.
Both receivers have been effective on short and long routes. What remains to be seen is their performance in the red zone.
The quarterbacks worked on several different skills on Sunday, including scrambling.
One drill had them scramble in a simulated pocket while a coach held up a blocking pad to act like a defensive lineman with his hands in the passing lanes. The goal of this drill was for the quarterback to dump it off to the running back.
Another drill involved the quarterbacks taking a quick three-step drop and throwing a quick slant off of their back foot. Everyone looked comfortable in this drill except Landry Jones. While he got his passes off, he wasn’t as smooth as the other three.
When they began 11-on-11, I paid close attention to what they were doing with Roethlisberger.
After running the ball for most of the plays during the first session, they focused on the play-action pass and moving Roethlisberger in the pocket in the second and third team sessions.
Roethlisberger ran two naked bootleg plays, completing one and throwing an interception on the second. It appeared as though there was some miscommunication between him and the receiver on the interception.
I also tracked the time from snap to pass on eight passing plays.
Times ranged from 1.7 seconds for a short pass to 4.8 seconds on his interception described above. On average, Roethlisberger got rid of the ball in 3.01 seconds.
It is interesting to note that a designed screen took 3.2 seconds to develop and was stopped for a loss by the defense.
Line on the Move
There is a much different feel with Jack Bicknell Jr. coaching the offensive line compared to Sean Kugler. His focus so far has been getting his linemen on the move. He wants them to get out quickly and to stay with their blocks.
Early in practice, he yelled at Mike Adams and David DeCastro, telling them that they “gotta haul ass!”
They did on the very next rep, and he praised them for their efforts.
This was a common theme as the linemen seemed to correct their mistakes on the very next rep after Bicknell critiqued them.
Most of the offensive line positional drills focused on the outside zone scheme and involved the guard and tackles on either side of the line working in pairs.
During team drills, the Steelers ran to all parts of the field but focused the runs to the outside. Generally, the defense defended them well, which is the norm.
During team drills, Bicknell was not happy with the effort from Nik Embernate and yelled “Nik, block that guy. Keep goin’!” He apparently wasn’t satisfied that he did not finish his block on a running play.
Embernate and several other young linemen have been the target of questions from fans, and all I can say is that they are not wearing pads yet and these guys can’t truly showcase what they can do.
Backup Receivers Hit and Miss
Markus Wheaton had a tough day with a couple of drops, but he also had the catch of the day.
While working in various drills, Wheaton had two instances in which he had trouble breaking off of his route. This messed with the timing between him and the quarterback and resulted in two incomplete passes.
He would later have a drop over the middle of the field in team drills but made another fantastic reception across the middle.
Wheaton was matched up against Shamarko Thomas and ran a short crossing route.
As Wheaton broke, Thomas grabbed his jersey, but he was able to break free. The pass was thrown a bit high so he lunged out and the ball stuck right in his hands. He was able to hang on as he hit the ground.
Derek Moye is a favorite of some due to his size, but he is a rather inconsistent player. He had an easy drop today, but then used his height to make a reception over top of Terry Hawthorne, who never looked back for the ball.
The bottom of the depth chart may come down to Plaxico Burress or Justin Brown.
Burress is slow, but he is very crafty and still uses his size well. He made a catch on an out pattern in tight coverage and used his height across the middle to grab an elevated pass that the defensive back had no chance at.
Brown is more fluid and faster than I anticipated, but he has yet to showcase his playmaking abilities. It will be interesting to see how he looks once the pads go on.
While most of the receivers had a strong effort, Reggie Dunn struggled.
While he may be able to catch the ball in the return game, he can’t catch a cold on offense—well, maybe not that bad. For the day, he had three drops.
The first would have been a tough reception in traffic that bounced off of his hands. He should have caught the next two, including one in which he was wide open. He better be stellar in the return game if he can’t catch the ball on a consistent basis.
Battle at Running Back Getting Good
Remember, no pads.
Now that we have established that, the battle at running back is already starting to get very good. The Steelers look as though they have three legitimate starters right now.
Isaac Redman has been fantastic, demonstrating the ability to cut and get downfield. He appears to be a step faster than last season and still looks as though he can deliver some punishment when running between the tackles.
I did not view him as a viable candidate to start, but he has quickly changed my mind.
Jonathan Dwyer has done nothing to make me believe he can’t compete for the starting job either. He has good hands and is running well so far.
At the bottom of the depth chart right now, Le’Veon Bell does not always get to run with a quality line in front of him. On one carry, he had nowhere to go and was stopped for a one-yard gain.
However, he has been outstanding catching the ball out of the backfield. He has yet to drop a pass and has deceptive speed for a big back.
Bell demonstrated this when he beat Vince Williams to the outside to make a reception and pick up a nice gain. He was also very effective in the screen game when he had space to work with.
This will definitely be one fun battle to watch as camp progresses.
Will Johnson a Focus in the Passing Game
Will Johnson may be the fifth or sixth receiving option in the passing game, but the more I watch him, the more I want the ball in his hands.
He may be a fullback, but he has the hands of a good receiving tight end. The coaches appear to be taking full advantage of this.
Johnson has had numerous passes go his way, and he is good with the ball in his hands. On one play, he was actually lined up wide, so he has shown to be versatile.
If Heath Miller misses time, Johnson could be a sneaky good weapon in the passing game. He won’t outrun anyone, but he can pick up solid yards and help keep the chains moving.
Who Will Punt?
The battle for the punting job is underway, and I give Brian Moorman the early edge based on Sunday’s performance.
Moorman generally had more length on his punts than Drew Butler and more hang time. That is not to say that Butler had a bad day—he just demonstrated some of the inconsistencies that he had last season.
Butler’s punts did not travel as high as Moorman’s which would give the returners plenty of space after fielding the kick.
Butler averaged 4.31 seconds of hang time compared to Moorman, who averaged 4.82 seconds. Moorman’s best was timed at 5.2 seconds.
Jason vs. Jarvis
Jason Worilds vs. Jarvis Jones is a perceived camp battle, but in reality, I don’t give Jones much of a shot at winning the starting job.
Jones is going to have to shine rushing the quarterback if he wants to have any chance, because he has too much to learn about defending the run and dropping into coverage.
This was evident on Sunday where Jones struggled in coverage.
Jones was in charge of defending David Paulson. At the snap, Paulson went out for his route, made a move and went to the outside. Jones went inside, running against the grain of every other member of the defense. He was the only player on the field who didn’t know where the pass was going.
But not all was bad for Jones. He had a play later in practice in which he got into the backfield and stopped Baron Batch for a loss.
Worilds also got matched up against Paulson and didn’t do much better. While stuck with his man, Paulson’s speed was too much. He was easily beaten for a big gain on a post route.
We will learn a lot more about these two linebackers once they put on their pads on Monday.
When the Steelers ran their first session of 11-on-11, I was surprised to see that William Gay was in at cornerback. Then I noticed that Cortez Allen was on the sidelines with a wrap on his right knee.
During the punt fielding drills at the start of practice, a ball was heading right toward Antonio Brown’s head. He was done with the drill and walking away. Luckily, Emmanuel Sanders—who was up—jogged over and made a one-handed catch to save Brown’s head from getting hit.
Speaking of Brown, he is wearing a piece of tape across his helmet as Hines Ward did for years. Though I couldn’t see it, I would assume that he has his last name on the tape.
Nick Williams is one of my favorite sleepers this camp, and he began to show why today. On a run play, he beat his man and completely engulfed Dwyer for a loss. Williams has a long way to go, but it was a positive sign.
Williams wasn’t the only defensive lineman to make a play in the backfield. Steve McLendon broke through the line and had the chance to strip the ball from Landry Jones, who had his arm cocked to throw. If McLendon wanted to, he not only would have knocked the ball free, but he also would have ripped Jones’ arm off his body.
On Saturday, I expressed Curtis McNeal for his off-balance running. I have to give him props today. There may be no player on the team with quicker cuts. He did a tremendous job at cutting back to the running lanes and exploding through them.
It will be difficult to replace Heath Miller’s receiving production, but David Paulson is making it clear that he is the team’s best receiving tight end in the meantime. He moves very well and was very active in the passing game on Sunday.
Ike Taylor intercepted Roethlisberger. Granted the ball came right to him, but he caught it.
Just as I was commenting that the backup centers were performing well, John Parker Wilson dropped an exchange from Kelvin Beachum. I am not sure who was at fault, but Wilson bobbled the ball twice before completely losing it.
Ryan Clark was very vocal at practice and did a lot of trash talking. He also took some time away from the field and tried his hand at being a photographer.
The Steelers break out the pads for Monday’s practice.