Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Observations from Wednesday's Practice
The Pittsburgh Steelers were back on the practice field after an off day on Tuesday. That meant fresh legs for the team’s second padded practice of training camp.
While it wasn’t quite as physical as Monday’s practice, there was still plenty of action in what was the longest practice of the summer. Mike Tomlin had his team on the field until nearly 5:30 p.m., which provided time for extra reps during team drills.
For the first time during camp, the Steelers focused less on passing and more on running the football in 11-on-11 drills. This provided everyone with a chance to see LeGarrette Blount featured as the top running back, since Le’Veon Bell missed practice.
Blount took advantage of this opportunity, but he was not the only one. Several new faces had impressive performances on Wednesday.
Here are some of my observations from Wednesday’s training camp practice.
Linebacker Depth Beginning to Show
Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier has received a lot of the attention in training camp so far, but a number of backups would like to share the spotlight.
Sean Spence has the chance to be one of the best stories of the year in the NFL. He is finally back after two years out of action and appears to be completely healthy. There are no signs that he has slowed down as he is flying around the field.
There was some concern as to how he would handle contact, but that has not been an issue. He is willing to stick his nose right in the action and has looked good running from sideline to sideline.
While Spence has gotten much of the attention, Vince Williams is on the rise following a solid rookie season. He has made the calls for the second-team defense and has been very good in defending the run. Unfortunately, he will have to sit the bench with Shazier and Lawrence Timmons ahead of him.
Arthur Moats continues to excel in the backup outside linebacker role. He has shown the ability to rush the quarterback and has improved each practice. The Steelers will need him, as no other outside linebacker has stood out.
Possibly the most impressive of this group has been Terence Garvin. He has been flying around the field and laying down some good hits. He was very active again on Wednesday and made several stops just beyond the line of scrimmage.
As one of the most athletic linebackers on the roster, he should once again shine on special teams and push for playing time as a backup for passing packages.
Coaches Get Feisty
Mike Tomlin was his usual vocal self. Joey Porter was barking during special teams drills. Mike Munchak was giving detailed instruction to his linemen. It was a normal day for the coaching staff—well, almost normal.
Todd Haley made his presence felt during the fade pattern drill. During this drill, two stacked garbage cans play the role of receiver in the corner of the end zone. The goal is for the quarterbacks to toss a fade pass that drops into the can.
After each quarterback took a turn in the rotation, Haley joined the mixed—and was the most inaccurate of the bunch. Ben Roethlisberger was the only participant to hit the target.
But not everything was jovial.
Defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky was irritated with the pace of the defense during team drills. After one play, the third-team defense was walking back to the huddle, which resulted in Olsavsky running about 30 yards to the players and yelling the whole way that there is no walking in practice.
A few plays later, he urged on the first unit as they were taking their time back to the huddle. No one would have confused the pace with a Chip Kelly practice.
The normally calm Dick LeBeau raised his voice after an interception by the defense in a seven-on-seven drill. Jordan Dangerfield made an interception and then lateraled it back to Isaiah Green.
LeBeau immediately told the two that they must not toss the ball around the field. Sure, it could result in a big play, but a fumble during the exchange could also nullify the turnover.
Mental Mistakes on Offense
Often, we see the Steelers offense look confused and use time outs at inopportune moments during the game, such as during the middle of the first quarter after a big play. Do not be surprised to be more of that early on in the season.
On two occasions during team drills, the offense appeared to be confused and took too much time while at the line. This resulted in the coaches telling the offense to huddle up. In a game situation, the team likely would have had to use a time out during each instance.
Those weren’t the only mental mistakes on offense. Quarterbacks had to fall on two bungled snaps. During a game, that could be a turnover or, at best, a wasted down. In training camp, it is a missed opportunity for an additional rep.
Besides the mental mistakes, the offense has failed to execute the deep pass. While the short passing game has been very effective, none of the quarterbacks have been consistent with their deep balls, even when the receivers have a step.
It is early yet, and the goal of training camp is to prepare for the season, but no one wants to see these issues during the season.
Landry Jones Not Ready for Prime Time
The Steelers invested a relatively high draft choice last in Landry Jones last season when they selected him in the fourth round. He wasn’t drafted to be the third-string quarterback but rather a long-term option as a backup or even a future starter.
A year in the system has benefited Jones, as he has looked much more comfortable in camp. He is quicker with his reads and more accurate with his passes. His arm strength has improved as well.
However, when he gets in seven-on-seven situations and team drills, he does not stand out.
While he has moved well around the pocket, he has had to scramble because of the failure to pull the trigger quickly. Unless a receiver is wide open, he holds onto the ball and has used his former college teammate Justin Brown as a safety valve too often.
During team drills, Troy Polamalu picked off Jones, which normally is nothing to be ashamed of. In this instance, it was all on Jones and nothing special that Polamalu did. The quarterback moved in the pocket and threw it right into Polamalu’s stomach. There were no receivers in the area.
Despite his struggles, Jones did get an opportunity to run with the second-team offense at the end of practice. Though he wasn’t terrible, he didn’t look the part of a No. 2 quarterback either.
Top Receivers Looking Good
Over the first few days of camp, I have focused much of my attention on Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant for good reason. Brown has been nothing but impressive, and Bryant continues to show why the Steelers think so highly of him as a developmental project.
Now it is time to hear about the top three receivers—Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore.
Antonio Brown has been uncoverable during drills and has never looked better. Not only is he eating up the defensive backs on short routes, but he is getting by them on deep patterns as well. Even though he has developed into one of the top receivers in the game, he never takes a play off.
As good as he has been, Brown is continually looking to improve. On one route, he was not on the same page as Roethlisberger and the two immediately discussed the play. Brown made the proper adjustments.
Brown’s quick feet separate him from the rest of the receivers on the roster. On one reception in front of Cortez Allen, Brown did some fancy footwork that you would normally see from some of the best ball-handlers in the NBA and completely juked Allen.
Markus Wheaton continues to demonstrate why he should be the No. 2 receiver. He has shown no ill effects from his injured finger and has caught just about everything that has come his way.
During return drills, Wheaton fielded a punt while holding four balls. One would end up between his legs. He also made an incredible diving catch, twisting his body around on his way to the turf during passing drill with the quarterbacks.
Moore has been a nice addition to the slot position, where he has excelled at running routes across the middle of the field. He has developed chemistry with Roethlisberger already and always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
In addition to the production that he will bring, Moore is like another coach on the field. After burning a young defensive back for a big gain, Moore instructed him how to improve his coverage on the play. That was veteran leadership at its best.
Rob Blanchflower was sidelined with a boot on his left leg.
C.J. Goodwin, Alvester Alexander and Le’Veon Bell did some light jogging on the far practice fields. None of the three practiced.
Speaking of Bell, he appears to be in incredible shape. His weight loss is very noticeable, especially when he stands next to LeGarrette Blount. We will see if this translates to speed and quickness once the games start.
Roethlisberger went off on his own to do some slow sprints on the second practice field, while the special teams did work on the primary field.
Eric Waters is near the bottom of the tight end depth chart, but that doesn’t mean that the coaches don’t care. He has received more individual coaching—specifically from coaching intern Mike Sellers (h/t Mark Kaboly)—than any other tight end on the roster. He is a good candidate for the practice squad.
Troy Polamalu sat out during some team drills, which allowed Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas to get snaps with the first-team defense. Both had good moments and big hits. Golden had the biggest hit of the day when he nearly decleated a member of the offense.
In addition to lining up at strong safety, Thomas got several snaps with the first-team defense at free safety as well. He spent more time in deep coverage than the previous practices.
Ryan Shazier continued to shine with another strong practice. He stepped up to knock away a Roethlisberger pass to Matt Spaeth. He was lightning-quick when blitzing up the middle and got pressure on the quarterback multiple times.
Stephon Tuitt continues to push for a starting job. He was flat-out dominant at times and did a good job of applying pressure from the outside. If he were permitted to hit the quarterback, he would have had at least one sack.
Jarvis Jones was very active against the run. He was able to fight off his blocks and made plays at or behind the line. The inside move that he has developed when rushing has looked dominant in one-on-one drills with the linemen.
Daniel McCullers had the best practice of his young career. He continually collapsed the pocket with his sheer size and attempted to get his arms up in passing lanes. When working in a two-on-two drill against offensive linemen, he came off his man and collided with Mike Adams, knocking him down to the ground.
Ethan Hermer has had a quiet camp but had an impressive pass rush in a drill against the offensive line. He lifted Emmanuel McCray and brought him to the ground.
Jarvis Jones hit the “quarterback” in a simulated pass-rushing drill. That prompted the coaches to remind all of the players that they must not make contact with the quarterback. Luckily, for Jones, the “quarterback” was just a member of the staff.
William Gay has provided some of the tightest coverage of any cornerback during camp. He was beaten on a play by Moore, who finished it off by sprinting to the end zone. But Gay didn’t give up on the play. Not only did he chase him down, but he made the stop just before the goal line.
Antwon Blake is the best of the backup cornerbacks. He is physical against receivers and has shown decent coverage skills.
Ross Ventrone won't jump ahead of Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas or Robert Golden, but he had a very good practice on Wednesday. He made several nice hits and was decent in coverage. The coaches noticed his presence.
Blount had one of the best runs of the day when he burst through the middle of the line and knocked over Shazier for a gain of nine yards or so. Dri Archer had a big run as well, darting through a hole and then exploding in the open field before he was stopped by a safety.
In addition to lining up in the backfield, Blount ran a pass pattern out of the slot once. He had some miscommunication with Roethlisberger, and the pass fell incomplete.
Archer received extra coaching from wide receiver coach Richard Mann prior to one-on-one drills with the defensive backs. After a few reps, it became clear that he has a lot to work on, especially beating the press.
Shaun Suisham has not had to do much during training camp. However, on Wednesday he did participate by holding a blocking pad during special teams drills.