A physical tone was set on Wednesday as the Pittsburgh Steelers participated in live-hitting drills. That intensity continued on Thursday as the team once engaged in live tackling during the 11-on-11 session.
The Steelers ran the ball on every play of the first session, as they are trying to improve upon one of the worst ground games of 2012. After two practices, it is clear that they have plenty of room to grow.
Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. expressed some displeasure with the line after the running back was stopped for several small gains in a row. While some may be concerned over this, you also have to remember that the Steelers’ run defense is still pretty good.
Besides the hitting, special teams continues to be a point of emphasis as the kick return and coverage units got plenty of work, as did the field goal crew.
But the biggest news of the day was some new faces that moved into the starting lineup. I will break that down and more as I share my observations from Thursday’s practice.
Note: All photos in this article were taken by me.
Rookies Moving Up
It did not take long for Le’Veon Bell to get reps with the starters in training camp, but the other top rookies had continued to run with the second team.
That all changed on Thursday as Jarvis Jones and Markus Wheaton all got time with the first unit.
Jones stepped in at right outside linebacker as LaMarr Woodley was limited in practice due to an injury. Jason Worilds then shifted to the left side.
As camp has progressed, Jones has shown more and more. He is aggressive when rushing and even jumped offsides. While you don’t want to see penalties, it is encouraging that he is ready to get at it.
Bob Labriola of Steelers.com speculated that Jones may have an opening to take hold of the starting job, as Jason Worilds may miss time with a toe injury.
Wheaton got a little taste of Jones on a crossing route. He made the reception, but was stopped after a hard hit by Jones. It was an impressive play, but not his best of the day.
Jones was lined up on the outside when Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass. He got his hands in the air and deflected the ball straight upwards and made the interception when the ball came down. It was exactly the type of play that you expect from your first-round draft pick.
By contrast, earlier in practice a tight end had a pass bounce off of his hands and into the air. LaMarr Woodley was in the area, but failed to make the play.
For a defense in need of creating more turnovers, they must make plays as Jones did on Thursday.
On the offensive side of the ball, Wheaton had been running sixth in the receiver rotation, but he got a chance to play in the slot throughout practice.
His quickness and willingness to go across the middle continued to make him a target for all of the quarterbacks. Early in practice, he put a nice move on Troy Polamalu to make a reception. Watching it, the fact that Polamalu wasn’t going full speed may have contributed to that catch as well.
But from everything I’ve seen so far, Wheaton should find himself in as the third receiver early in the season, as he is a more dangerous option than Jerricho Cotchery.
Lack of Cornerback Depth
The lack of depth at cornerback is really beginning to show as Cortez Allen, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Terry Hawthorne missed practice again.
William Gay continues to allow big plays to Antonio Brown in the passing game, as he lacks the speed to run with him. But the Steelers have more concerns than Gay.
Curtis Brown has had some mixed results in camp. He has been beaten badly at times, but has also shown the ability to make a play on the ball. I have not been formally keeping track of passes defended—though he did knock one away from Derek Moye on Thursday—but he would be near the team lead in this category in practice.
Behind Gay and Brown, there is very little to be excited over.
Josh Victorian continues to get burned deep, including at least two passes on Thursday. One of the plays involved Antonio Brown adjusting for the ball and leaping over Victorian to make the reception.
One of the most entertaining plays of the day sums up the depth problems at cornerback right now.
Isaiah Green was matched up against Plaxico Burress and was promptly beat off the line. The pass was thrown high and Burress went up to try to make a one-handed circus catch. He was unable to come up with the reception, and as he hit the ground, Green ran up to him and signaled incomplete.
If you make play, fine, go ahead and do that. But if a receiver easily gets by you and drops a tough catch, taunting should be the last thing on your mind.
Injuries Beginning to Mount
Besides the injuries at cornerback, LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds being limited at outside linebacker is a concern.
It remains to be seen if either of these players will miss practice, but if either must miss some time, it will open the door for Jarvis Jones to impress the coaches and increase his odds at winning a starting job.
Woodley and Worilds have a history of injuries and if they miss any significant action, it will really test the Steelers’ depth.
Besides Jones, there are no definitive backups who are guaranteed roster spots.
Chris Carter is supposed to be a good speed rusher, but was invisible when he had the opportunity to start last season and has yet to make an impression this year.
Adrian Robinson has flashed some abilities in camp, but as a second-year player, he is still developing as an all-around linebacker.
While the injuries to Woodley and Worilds appeared to be minor, the Steelers may have suffered their first significant loss of training camp.
During a one-on-one blocking drill with Coridan Hagans, undrafted free agent Nik Embernate collapsed and looked to be in extreme pain.
As I watched the play through my camera lens, Embernate’s right knee gave out and he instantly fell to the ground. Trainers immediately came over and would remove his right knee brace.
Embernate left the field on a cart.
There were NFL officials at camp on Thursday. They made a couple of calls, including one on the defense which prompted Roethlisberger to say “that’s the first time we got a call in I don’t know how many years.” He had a big smile on his face when he said it.
The Steelers tried out a new punt returner today, as Maurkice Pouncey decided insert himself into the fielding drills. He had one punt bounce off of his hands and was nowhere close to fielding his second attempt.
Speaking of the fielding drills, Ben Roethlisberger closely monitored the jugs machine. As much as he may have wanted to, he did not launch any balls from the machine.
Will Johnson had the best catch of the day when he reached over Chris Carter to make a one-handed reception along the sidelines. Carter had excellent coverage on the play.
Curtis Brown was the extra back in the nickel package, but he played on the outside. William Gay moved to the slot.
The defense was very aggressive and had multiple players jump offside on the quarterback’s cadence multiple times throughout practice.
Jarvis Jones and Markus Wheaton weren’t the only two players to move into the starting lineup. Cameron Heyward got some reps at right defensive end with the first unit during 11-on-11 drills.
Steve McLendon continues to play well and has been strong against the run, but there are still plenty of questions behind him.
DaMon Cromartie-Smith and Robert Golden laid some of the biggest hits of the day. Golden’s best came as he stopped Jonathan Dwyer after a nice gain.
Antonio Brown continues to shine as the No. 1 target. He has the ability to get deep and is solid in short and intermediate passes as well. As long as he stays healthy, he seems poised for a big season.
Landry Jones struggled during the 11-on-11 session. During one session, he had two throws that went off target and another that he threw just short of a receiver.
Shaun Suisham nailed a 52-yard field goal. He had at least eight yards to spare.
Danny Smith had the special teams practice a “Mayday” field goal. He uses this term for when there are only a few seconds left and no timeouts. Suisham hit both of these field goals as they were able to run onto the field and execute the kick in less than 12 seconds.