After two weeks of training camp, it has become clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers are ready to see some guys in a different colored jersey.
A physical training camp with live hitting helped the team take out aggression and get a better feel for the speed of the game, but Saturday night will be the true test.
But before the Steelers open up their preseason against the New York Giants, they had one more public practice on Thursday. While it was in pads, it was dialed back as far as the hitting goes, but still had plenty of energy as the coaches kept things moving at a fast pace.
During team drills, the offense went without a huddle for a session as they continue to help prepare the defense for the up-tempo offenses that they will face this year. Special teams coach Danny Smith did his part, as he had the first and second units quickly run on and off the field during special teams practice.
Besides the tempo, the Steelers worked on situational football including 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills in the red zone as well as field goals.
This was just a taste of Thursday’s action. Here are the rest of my observations from practice.
Note: All photos in this article were taken by me.
Offensive Line Shuffle
The offensive line continues to be in flux as Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert switched positions.
After struggling at left tackle as a rookie, Adams looked much more comfortable there in his second training camp. There were no instances in which he got off-balance or let a defender blow by him. He was even able to demonstrate his strong run-blocking skills.
Adams didn’t seem to have any problems standing up Jason Worilds on pass rushes and devoured him in the ground game. The backs seemed to have more success finding room with the newly configured line.
When Adrian Robinson stepped in against Adams, he decided to go low and pound him right in the chest. Despite having the leverage, Adams stood tall and held his ground.
Gilbert did not appear to have many problems on the right side, but that did not stop the coaching staff from inserting Kelvin Beachum into the starting lineup during the last session of 11-on-11 drills.
Beachum held his own at right tackle. He had already had a strong practice at left tackle with the second unit. He is very mobile and has shown to be a strong fit in the outside zone-blocking scheme.
Besides the tackles, I spent some time watching David DeCastro. He looks like a different player than he did as a rookie.
No longer does DeCastro struggle against power, and he knows exactly what he is doing on the field. One of his most impressive blocks came when Ziggy Hood exploded off of line and DeCastro had no problems handling him and taking him out of the play.
DeCastro had another nice block when he engaged with Hood and then effectively passed him off to Maurkice Pouncey, who was waiting for this to happen.
As far as the backups go, John Malecki has held his own at center and should be a favorite to make the team as a backup at center and guard. Joe Long has also played well at left tackle and will be one to watch on Saturday night.
I was not impressed with Guy Whimper or D’Anthony Batiste. They are not known for their pass protection and lived up to that reputation on Thursday.
Anyone Stepping Up?
There is plenty of room for young players to step up and make the team as backups. There were a few players that stood out on Thursday.
Hebron Fangupo continues to hold his own at nose tackle. He has done nothing spectacular, but isn’t ineffective either. He will have to hold off Alameda Ta’amu, who returned to practice this week.
Ta’amau caught my eye on a couple of plays. The first was when he got a good jump off of the line and pushed the offensive lineman that he was matched up with at least three yards into the backfield. He commanded a double team a couple of plays later.
Alan Baxter has been a popular name in camp, and impressed defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky. It was a stretch play to the right that was stopped for the loss. Though he didn’t make the tackle, he was in the right position to keep the back from gaining positive yardage.
The final player that stood out on Thursday was DaMon Cromartie-Smith.
Cromartie-Smith was in position to make big hits and plays on the ball. He is very physical and is taking advantage of the lack of depth in the secondary.
With so many injuries at cornerback, the Steelers may elect to keep an extra safety. Even though Cromartie-Smith allows quite a number of plays to be made, they are almost always made in front of him.
Meanwhile, there is a guy like Josh Victorian that is always in position to make the play, but never does. There were at least two passes on Thursday that he was in good position, but did not make a play on the ball.
Roster spots are available, the coaches are just waiting for players to step up and take them.
Injuries Continue to Mount
The Steelers may not have had a significant injury occur outside of Nik Embernate, but there are a lot of guys out of action right now.
Cortez Allen, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Curtis Brown, Terry Hawthorne, Nick Williams, Matt Spaeth and Cameron Heyward all were out of practice on Thursday.
Van Dyke did a light jog across the field and was clearly favoring his leg. He appears as though he is nowhere near ready for a return.
Williams did some light jogging around the third practice field and was moving pretty well. He is still wearing a brace on his left leg, but was at least able to move well.
Heyward’s injury did not appear to be significant either. He spoke with head trainer John Norwig at the start of practice and did some reps out of a three-point stance.
Another name not on the practice field was Emmanuel Sanders. He did not stand with the other injured players, but instead stuck with the receivers.
During practice, Guy Whimper was carted off of the field, but did not appear to be in any pain.
Plaxico Burress was carted off as well with a shoulder injury. The injury likely occurred when he went up for a pass between two defensive backs and came down hard onto the ground.
He stayed on the ground for a minute, but got up under his own power.
With several young receivers performing well, the injury to Burress could provide them with a big opportunity to jump him on the depth chart.
Special teams is a great way to make a team, so I took note of which “bubble” players were on the first field goal and punt units. On the field goal unit were Jamie McCoy and Chris Carter. Baron Batch, DaMon Cromartie-Smith, Stevenson Sylvester and Marshall McFadden were all on the first punt team.
Jerry Olsavsky spent time working on lateral movement with the linebackers. He would roll balls along the ground and the linebackers would have to sidestep to the ball so that it would roll between their legs. He was not impressed with Adrian Robinson during one of the reps.
Besides footwork, the linebackers were also working on their hands. Tunch Ilkin held a punch mitt in each hand and the players had to throw three or four punches at them. LaMarr Woodley owned this drill, and had the fastest hands that I saw. Jarvis Jones was terrific as well, while Lawrence Timmons had surprisingly slow hand speed.
What separates good quarterbacks from bad quarterbacks? One thing is their play in the red zone. Ben Roethlisberger puts some serious velocity on the ball when throwing into tight spaces and he is tremendously accurate. Bruce Gradkowski and John Parker Wilson perform “okay” in this area, but Landry Jones' passes had no zip.
For rookies Shamarko Thomas and Vince Williams, training camp is not just about learning the defense, but also special teams. Danny Smith told Thomas that he could not cheat inside while on the front line of the kick return team because it sets up a surprise onside kick. Williams was instructed on his blocking so he would not get a holding penalty.
The battle for punter is an important one, but not an exciting one. Drew Butler and Brian Moorman were terribly inconsistent. Moorman continues to have the edge in hang time while Butler has the stronger leg—that is, when he gets off a good kick.
David Paulson continues to impress in the receiving game and drew a loud cheer from the crowd when he beat LaMarr Woodley for a reception.
Shamarko Thomas had the tackle of the day when he wrapped up Alvester Alexander just below the neck and whipped him to the ground.
Thomas may have had the best tackle of the day, but Jarvis Jones had the best hit. He was lined up for a blitz and was actually hopping in anticipation right before the snap of the ball. The instant the ball was snapped, Jones exploded in and destroyed Justin Cheadle, knocking him to the ground.