Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: First Impressions from the Opening Practice

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IJuly 27, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: First Impressions from the Opening Practice

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    Ben Roethlisberger stepped onto the practice fields wearing Brett Keisel's No. 99 jersey.
    Ben Roethlisberger stepped onto the practice fields wearing Brett Keisel's No. 99 jersey.Chris Gazze

    Sunny skies over Saint Vincent made for a beautiful start to training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the players strolled down the hill to Chuck Noll Field, there was a sense of confidence and enthusiasm for the 2014 season.

    After back-to-back missed playoff appearances, head coach Mike Tomlin has a renewed focus with his team, and it showed on the first day of camp. So far, he has been pleased with the results, per Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:

    “It was a good start for us today—good energy, enthusiasm, but you can anticipate that on the first day,” said Tomlin. “More than anything I liked the communication, the giving and receiving of information, coach to player, player to player.”

    There will be a significant amount of teaching and learning in this year’s camp with so many young players on the roster, and several new starters prepared to enter the lineup. That means that the Steelers will not only have to rely on their coaching staff but also the veteran leaders to help bring these new players along.

    While there will be struggles throughout the rest of training camp and the preseason, the Steelers had a strong opening practice and made some strong first impressions.

    Here are my observations from Saturday’s practice.

Ben Roethlisberger Very Sharp

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    Chris Gazze

    With two years playing under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger looks very comfortable in the offense, and it is clear the two are on the same page.

    Roethlisberger has completely embraced the quick-passing attack, and it showed on Saturday. He was quickly and accurately firing his passes out. In the first team session, he completed five of six passes and continued to display this accuracy throughout the rest of practice.

    Rarely did he have a poor throw, but there were two of note.

    The first was a pass slightly behind Matt Spaeth. In an incredible display of concentration, Spaeth bobbled the ball when hit by the defender, but scooped it out of the air as he fell to the ground to make the reception.

    Roethlisberger missed on a deep pass to Markus Wheaton when he had to scramble in the pocket. The pass was thrown too far inside, but was in no danger of being intercepted.

    One of Roethlisberger’s best plays came in a drill with receivers when he threw a beautiful deep pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey for a touchdown. He hit Heyward-Bey right in stride.

    Unlike Roethlisberger, backup Bruce Gradkowski did not have the best practice of his career.

    His accuracy was off in team drills, which resulted in several incompletions. It did not help that his protection broke down at times as well.

Offensive Line Athletic

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    Mike Munchak provides instruction to David DeCastro during linemen drills.
    Mike Munchak provides instruction to David DeCastro during linemen drills.Chris Gazze

    Each year you always hear about players who “are in the best shape of his career.” Typically, they're not, but that is not the case for the offensive line.

    Several years ago, Pittsburgh linemen were massive humans with huge guts hanging over their shorts. That is not the case anymore.

    The five players who lined up with the first team—Kelvin Beachum, Cody Wallace, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert—all appeared to be in top shape and were very active with their movements.

    This is an encouraging sign as Mike Munchak installs the outside zone-blocking scheme.

    Munchak will take advantage of his linemen's athleticism when developing blocking schemes, but he used most of his first practice to work on hand placement.

    He also paid great attention to detail and provided hands-on examples of what he wanted from each player prior to most drills.

    As far as drills go, Munchak had several to develop handwork technique. He also had linemen work in pairs to toss a medicine ball back-and-forth as they side-shuffled down the line.

    Munchak singled out DeCastro on a dual-blocking drill where the tackle and guard pulled to the outside in tandem. As a student of the game, DeCastro took the instruction and corrected his technique on the next rep.

    Without pads, it was difficult to evaluate the line during team drills, but it did give Roethlisberger plenty of time to throw and did a fair job of opening holes for the ground game. It was a good start for what was once the weakest spot on the team.

Deep at Defensive End

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    Josh Mauro and Stephon Tuitt paired up at end with the second team defense.
    Josh Mauro and Stephon Tuitt paired up at end with the second team defense.Chris Gazze

    At first glance, I had thought that the Steelers had issued the No. 99 jersey to a rookie. As the players got closer, I realized it was Roethlisberger wearing it to support his former teammate, Brett Keisel.

    There is still a chance that the Steelers will bring in Keisel, but they have a number of quality developmental options. Even without pads, you could already see flashes of greatness from this group.

    Brian Arnfelt and Tuitt both got looks with the first-team defense, and Josh Mauro was consistently running with the second team.

    Tuitt already looks like an NFL player. He is a massive presence on the defensive line and demonstrated his power when he blew up a running play, which had someone yelling from the sideline, “There you go, Tuitt!”

    The surprise of the day, though, was Mauro.

    Mauro didn’t make any spectacular plays during his first practice, but he stood out because of his sheer size. He looked even bigger than his listed 6’6” and 282 pounds on Steelers.com. In other words, he has the size to contribute on the defensive line right now.

    Over the next few weeks, it will be worth watching Mauro’s place on special teams. If he works his way up the ladder, he will have a great chance to make the roster.

Dri Archer as Fast as Advertised

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    Dri Archer gave everyone a taste of his speed in the first practice of training camp.
    Dri Archer gave everyone a taste of his speed in the first practice of training camp.Chris Gazze

    We all know that Dri Archer is fast, but it is truly something special to watch in person.

    It is one thing to have straight-line speed, but Archer has more than that—he has football speed. It did not take long for him to demonstrate this in practice.

    On his first carry during team drills, Archer took a handoff, cut back to the left through a small hole and then exploded for a big gain. Later, he reversed the field and outraced the defense to the outside for a big run.

    Archer would also line up in the slot where he caught some short passes in the flat. He would also draw enough attention from the defenders to free up Eric Waters for a reception.

    Haley didn’t do anything innovative with Archer, but it was enough to flash what he is capable of doing. However, he is doing this without pads and live hitting. Monday will be his first true test, as the pads go on and the hitting gets started.

Defense Lacks Size Behind the Line

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    Size is at a premium at linebacker and defensive back.
    Size is at a premium at linebacker and defensive back.Chris Gazze

    Football players are typically massive humans who tower over the average person. That is the case for Pittsburgh’s defensive line but not for their linebackers and defensive backs.

    The backups at both positions lack size and look tiny compared to their defensive line teammates.

    The 6’2” Arthur Moats is the tallest second-string linebacker, while there are only two backup defensive backs at least 6’0,” per Steelers.com. They will need their massive defensive front to control the trenches and not allow the offensive linemen to get to the second level.

    As long as they are allowed to roam free, players such as Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Shamarko Thomas can move around fast enough near the line to make plays.

    One player who does not lack size—Daniel McCullers—can eclipse every player on the roster. He is a massive presence in the middle of the line and got a lot of action on his first day of camp.

    It may have been too much action, as he was the only player to be hunched over with his hands on his knees after every play near the end of practice. Who knows what the future holds for McCullers, but he is not ready to be anything more than a situational player right now.

Camp Notes

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    Linebackers and cornerbacks spent time stretching using hurdles.
    Linebackers and cornerbacks spent time stretching using hurdles.Chris Gazze

    Fans came from all over the country to attend the first Steelers training camp practice. I spotted license plates from 12 different states—Pennsylvania, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and one from Ontario, Canada.

    Cody Wallace started at left guard in place of Ramon Foster, and Will Allen stepped in for Mike Mitchell.

    Early in practice, the linebackers and defensive backs stretched using hurdles. A dynamic stretching routine should help prevent soft-tissue injuries throughout camp and the season.

    Dri Archer was the first player to field punts and looked good. While he returned kicks in college, he only has limited experience as a punt returner.

    In addition to receivers and defensive backs fielding punts, tight ends and defensive linemen fielded kicks. Special teams coach Danny Smith is preparing his players for pooch kicks.

    Joey Porter isn’t the only former Steeler coaching this year. Jeff Hartings is working with the offensive line as a coaching intern.

    Darrius Heyward-Bey is known for his dropped passes, but that was not an issue on Saturday. In addition to the deep ball that he caught from Roethlisberger, he made a difficult sliding reception near the sideline.

    Martavis Bryant had a drop early in practice when the receivers were in a footwork drill, but he bounced back nicely. On a scramble play, he broke his route and came back to the quarterback to make a full-extension leaping grab.

    Justin Brown and Derek Moye ran with the second team. Brown had a terrific day and was one of the top targets for the quarterbacks. He caught everything that came his way.

    Howard Jones is one undrafted rookie whom everyone should keep an eye one. However, he is clearly a developmental player. He is very tall and thin and will need to bulk up to play outside linebacker.

    Sean Spence and Maurkice Pouncey both looked healthy and had no problems running around the field. This is particularly impressive for Spence after missing two straight years with a major knee injury. He spent time with the second-team defense.

    Note: All photos used in this article were taken by me. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com, and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.  

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