10 Things We've Learned from Pittsburgh Steelers' Training Camp so Far
It has been over a week of training camp now for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the team is beginning to come together.
The camp has been characterized by new schemes, the integration of young players into the lineup and hard-hitting action as Mike Tomlin prepares his team for the 2013 season.
Tomlin has been pleased so far with the effort of his players, particularly given the demanding practices that he has put them through over the past week.
As the Steelers enter their second full week of training camp and prepare for their preseason opener, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned from camp so far.
Mike Tomlin Has Run a Physical Camp
When it comes to football practice, one of the last things that you expect to see is tackling. That has not been the case at all this year.
Mike Tomlin wasted little time introducing live contact as the Steelers began hitting last Wednesday and continued to do so throughout the week.
Why so much hitting? Tomlin explained his rationale to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com last week:
It’s just appropriate in today’s NFL. We have off days. We only get a chance to practice once a day. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to sort themselves out. We’ve got some young guys. We’ve got to sort through a lot of young guys and we’ve got to take advantage of opportunities to show improvement. That is what it is about.
In all of my years of attending Steelers’ training camp, I can never remember this much hitting. Not early in Tomlin’s career and not during Bill Cowher’s tenure.
Beyond this, the practices are regularly running nearly two-and-a-half hours, up from the two hours that many have been the past.
The long practices and live contact drills will set a physical tone for the season, but along with the hitting comes worn down bodies as well as bumps and bruises. We will see how this translates to the regular season.
Special Teams a Focus
The Steelers struggled in every facet of special teams last season except for field goals, and they are in dire need of an upgrade. So far, special teams coach Danny Smith has been up to the task.
Smith is a high-energy coach, and it reflects in his coaching style.
The special teams drills are fast paced and done with a purpose. Each unit rotates in quickly so it can get in as many reps as possible during its allotted time and has worked on a variety of skills to improve the coverage unit and return game.
Each practice begins with players fielding punts and kicks from the jugs machine, with this session ending with a player or two trying to field a punt while holding as many balls as they can.
Outside of fielding, Smith has worked on beefing up the coverage units by avoiding blockers running down the field as well as shedding blocks. But it hasn’t stopped here as they have worked on forcing fumbles as well.
For the return game, Smith had his kick return unit work on the center wedge while kicking to all parts of the field. The unit has used other blocking schemes as well.
Smith used a high-energy drill to get his players blocking field goals and, on the other side, has had Shaun Suisham practice a kick in the final seconds.
We will finally get to see some of these results on Saturday when the Steelers open up their preseason against the New York Giants.
Outside Zone-Blocking Scheme Coming Along
The Steelers are integrating the outside zone-blocking scheme into their offense this year, and it has been a focus under new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.
Bicknell is constantly working with the line, including while the rest of the team may be standing watching another drill.
Virtually every positional drill that Bicknell has run has had this scheme in mind, and the players are adjusting well to the new scheme. There have been mistakes, questions and re-teaching, but things are starting to come together during scrimmages.
A part of the reason the Steelers should have some success with this scheme is the athleticism of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro.
Pouncey just attacks defenders while DeCastro is very fast off of the line. They have been integral in the runs to the right side of the line.
During the first 11-on-11 drill of each practice, the Steelers focus on running, and many of these plays are stretch plays to the right. They want to be successful running to this side of the line and have been putting in the work.
Competition Brewing at Left Tackle?
Speaking of the offensive line, things appeared set with Marcus Gilbert at left tackle and Mike Adams on the right side. That may or may not be the case.
According to WDVE’s Mike Prisuta, Adams has lined up at left tackle for three days in a row.
After the first two practices, Adams at left tackle was no big deal. The Steelers lack quality depth at tackle outside of Kelvin Beachum, and it is important that they have options.
If Gilbert went down with an injury, sliding Adams to left tackle and putting Beachum at right tackle could be the way to go. Adams has the ability to play left tackle, and Beachum has performed well on the right side.
However, three consecutive practices on the left side for Adams may mean that there is more to it than developing depth. There may be a serious competition for the spot, and that will play out as the preseason progresses.
More Deep Passes
In their first season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers offense focused on quick, short passes. These passes were highly successful, but it also meant that Ben Roethlisberger was taken out of his element.
The deep ball was missing. It is such an integral part of his game and to not use it meant that Haley was taking away one of Roethlisberger’s best assets.
After some modifications to the offense this offense, Roethlisberger was much happier, and it has now become evident why.
Roethlisberger has been airing the ball out often, with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders both getting plenty of looks. These passes have been very successful so far.
Once the running game gets going, it will set up the play-action pass—which will make the deep ball even more dangerous.
Lack of Depth Evident with Injuries
While there have been no significant injuries to any of the star players so far, there are plenty of Steelers who are dinged up right now.
The most significant injury has been Cortez Allen, who had minor knee surgery last week.
DeMarcus Van Dyke and Terry Hawthorne have both missed time as well, leaving the Steelers very thin at cornerback. Nick Williams has had a knee problem and Matt Spaeth has missed time, thrusting David Paulson into the starting lineup.
In addition to these injuries, a number of veterans have sat out of practice or left early here and there, but it has been nothing more than bumps and bruises.
One major injury did occur when Nik Embernate went down during a blocking drill with a torn ACL and MCL.
Embernate was not a lock for the team, but he had been performing well and had a strong chance of making the final roster if he continued to improve.
Now one of their most promising young linemen is out, leaving an already thin offensive line depth chart even thinner.
The Steelers had depth problems last season, which showed as they lost five of their final seven games. With even less proven depth this year, any long-term injuries could spell major problems.
Injuries Slow Development of Young Defenders
A couple of injuries have hampered the development of Cortez Allen and Jason Worilds.
Allen is taking over for Keenan Lewis in the starting lineup, and the Steelers need him in the lineup. Without his presence, their secondary could go to toast.
Even though he had some playing time last season, Allen is going to have to step up his game as he will face off against some of the top receivers in the NFL last season.
Expected to miss several weeks, Allen not only can’t practice against Brown and Sanders each day, but he won’t get that valuable in-game experience. However, at this point, as long as he is healthy for the season opener, the Steelers should be fine.
Worilds missing action is nothing new. He has had injury issues over the course of his career, and this is just another setback.
The problem is that he no longer has James Harrison ahead of him, and the Steelers need him on the field. Worilds has some big shoes to fill, and he can’t do it from the bench.
Worilds flashed some potential last season when given the opportunity to play, but he has room to grow as he continues to develop into an all-around linebacker.
The only good news with his injury is that first-round rookie Jarvis Jones is getting more repetitions in practice.
Offensive Rookies Making an Impact
In need of playmakers on offense, the Steelers may have found a couple in this year’s draft.
Le’Veon Bell and Markus Wheaton have had terrific camps so far, and it will not be very long before they develop into significant contributors for the offense.
Bell has been the star of the backfield and is making a serious push for the starting job. He runs with speed and authority and has been the best back during team drills.
One of the reasons he has performed so well is his speed. While he may not be a burner, Bell runs very well for a big back and is able to get to the outside and cut back when necessary.
Besides his running, Bell has exceptional hands and has been one of the focal points of the passing game. He continually makes plays in the open field and is poised to lead all running backs in receptions this year.
Wheaton came into camp behind after missing OTAs as Oregon State’s semester had not ended. After a week of camp, he told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com that he is feeling much better in the offense.
“I felt like I was behind, but I picked it up really quickly,” said Wheaton. “I had the playbook at home. The plays weren’t a problem. It was getting used to the speed of the game.”
After beginning camp sixth in the rotation, he has quickly moved up the depth chart and got time as the slot receiver during the first week of camp.
He is a terrific route-runner and has the speed and quickness to get deep or make plays after the catch. He has been very dangerous over the middle of the field.
As long as their development continues, it won’t be very long until Bell and Wheaton are regulars in the offense.
Defensive Rookies Impressive as Well
There may not be a rookie starting on the defense, but Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas are making a push for playing time early in the season.
Jones started off camp slow, but as soon as the pads went on, a light clicked. He began to make plays and is showing why the Steelers took him in the first round.
The Steelers need Jones to perform rushing the passer, stopping the run and dropping into coverage. He has been improving in each of those areas but still has ways to go.
One of Jones’ highlights thus far has been an interception in which he batted a pass and caught the tip. It was a very impressive play and something that you typically don’t see from an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defense.
Worilds is still the starter, but Jones is providing plenty of push early in camp.
Thomas has been impressive. Dick LeBeau has already entrusted him at playing deep as well as near the line of scrimmage.
What has been most impressive so far has been Thomas’ ability to play the slot. He has had plenty of good battles against Wheaton, and while he has been beat over the middle several times, Thomas has looked good in that role.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PG+ subscription site) stated that Thomas should have a prominent role in the defense, particularly in the "big quarter" defense in which there are three cornerbacks and three safeties on the field.
Expect Thomas to get plenty of time in the nickel while Cortez Allen is out as the Steelers lack depth at cornerback.
He won’t start this year, but Thomas should get plenty of on-the-job training as an extra defensive back.
Besides the four rookies mentioned in the previous two slides, there have been two other stars of training camp.
David Paulson has really stood out as a receiving tight end, making at least one difficult reception in nearly every practice. He has the speed to beat linebackers and the height to snag the ball out of the air above defensive backs.
It appears that Paulson added some bulk in the offseason, and this has translated as he has been able to withstand big hits while making a catch.
Will Johnson has excelled as a receiver as well.
He has deceptive speed for a fullback and extremely soft hands. He has lined up in the backfield, as the lone back in the shotgun formation and as a wideout.
Coming off of a solid rookie season, Johnson looks even better this year and is now a viable weapon for Roethlisberger in the passing game.