The Pittsburgh Steelers went through one last practice before the preseason opener on Saturday. For the players, hitting the field at MetLife Stadium will be a nice change of pace for the monotony of training camp.
That seemed to get the best of the team on Wednesday, when they had their worst practice of the summer. It was an overall lackluster effort and one that did not have Mike Tomlin happy, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
Our work was not as good today as it had been other days, a little sloppy –some pre-snap penalties on defense, some dropped balls on offense. I acknowledge from time to time that you’re going to have those days, but you can’t like it and you can’t stack them one after another. So we’re going to challenge this group to come back out and have a more productive day tomorrow.
Tomlin’s challenge worked as the team looked much more crisp on Thursday. The receivers were much more consistent at catching the football, the defense was aggressive and there was an overall increase in hustle from the previous day.
That is exactly what they needed as they underwent their final preparation in pads for the game on Saturday night.
Here are the main takeaways from practice on Thursday.
Veterans Must Lead Team
The talk of training camp has surrounded the 2014 rookie class. It is hard to ignore them. Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant are four young, exciting players who have all earned rave reviews at some point during camp and have Pittsburgh buzzing.
As integral of a role that they will play this season, they are not the most important players for the success of the 2014 Steelers. A youth movement may be in place, but it is still a veteran-led team. Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Antonio Brown and others are the key for the Steelers this season.
In case anyone forgot, the veterans left little room for doubt over the past two days. Lawrence Timmons was dominant on Wednesday, as was Antonio Brown, who spent the entire day making the defensive backs look silly.
Troy Polamalu still is one of the top playmakers on the defense and will once again roam all over the field. Cam Heyward, though young, has had to step up as the veteran leader of the defensive line and will once again be a disruptive force.
Of course, Ben Roethlisberger is the most important of them all. Bruce Gradkowski may be a fine backup, but he just can’t perform to the level of Roethlisberger. In other words, there is no “next man up” when it comes to the quarterback position.
We were all reminded how quickly things could go downhill on Thursday when a number of veterans sat out of practice, including Polamalu, Heyward, Brown and Ramon Foster. A veterans day off is nice, but it was clear that the replacements weren't early as good.
At the end of practice, fans were treated to the two-minute drill led by none other than Landry Jones and Brendon Kay. A slight difference from Roethlisberger, who had an early end to his day so the second and third teams could get some work in preparation for the game this weekend.
As the saying goes, “you are one play away.” Luckily for the Steelers, they have had a relatively healthy training camp, and they will hope this continues so their veterans can lead the way this season.
Learn to Live with Rookie Mistakes
Drop a pass, go see the coach.
That is the routine for Bryant. He has consistently received one-on-one attention from offensive coordinator Todd Haley and wide receivers coach Richard Mann after he has made mistakes. They aren’t limited to dropped passes either.
On Wednesday, Bryant didn’t come back to the ball on a pass from Roethlisberger, which had the quarterback heated. He let Bryant know that he needs to make a play on the ball. Rather than sulk in his mistake, he went right over to the coaches who spoke with him.
After a dropped pass on Thursday, he did the same thing. Haley instructed Bryant what to do when coming out of his break, and the receiver soaked it up.
The coaching staff is paying attention to detail because of what Bryant can bring to the field. He has been excellent in the red-zone offense and continues to terrorize defensive backs on deep routes. He had a beautiful reception over Antwon Blake on Thursday. It was only one of his big plays.
Archer is another player who has received this treatment, except he also has the luxury of speaking with special teams coach Danny Smith and running backs coach James Saxon. Even Tomlin got involved when Archer muffed a punt, yet he said nothing when Jordan Hall did the same.
As though there was any question, defensive line coach John Mitchell and other defensive assistants have focused a lot of attention on Tuitt, and all of the coaching is beginning to show. At times, he looked dominant in practice.
On one play, he collapsed the pocket while being double teamed, escaped and chased down to force the quarterback to throw the ball away. Tuitt accomplished it with not just raw power, but technique as well.
These three rookies—and Shazier—will all see time on the field. Each has flashed the potential to be big-time playmakers, and that has to leave the coaches salivating. But as good as they look on one play, that is how bad they can be on the next.
That is the life of a rookie, but unlike previous years, it is a life that the Steelers should and need to live with. These guys are too talented to stash away on the bench for a year. They need to be on the field and put in positions to succeed.
If they can live up to their performances in practice, it will only be a matter of time before they reach their potential and become not only regular contributors, but full-time starters.
Take the Preseason More Seriously
Save your breath. I know that the preseason games don’t matter. No one remembers who the preseason champion was last year, and no one cares who it will be this year.
But I bet everyone remembers the Steelers’ winless preseason last year, as summed up perfectly by Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain in his postgame wrap-up of the final loss last year:
Then there was second half Landry Jones. He threw three interceptions as the Steelers failed to score a point over the final two quarters.
He was similar to the Steelers' 2013 preseason slate of four losses; inconsistent with questionable decision-making, and walked off the field seeming more like a work-in-progress than a legitimate participant.
These were all common themes in the preseason, and they translated over to the regular season. Whether it was turnovers, the lack of protection for the quarterback or zero splash plays from the defense, the Steelers were a bad football team, and their poor play carried over right from the preseason.
Tomlin didn’t—and won’t—acknowledge that his approach will change this year, but he did have some interesting comments, via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:
What we’re looking for in this first time out really is quite simple: I want the group to play fast, I want them to play with the urgency that’s required to play winning football in a stadium setting. I’m looking for that. We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum, we’d like to play assignment-clean football, but at this stage of the journey we’ll see where we are in that regard. But what’s paramount is that we play fast and we play hard and we play with urgency.
No mention of game-planning. No mention of keeping in the starters longer. However, it sounds like it is more about evaluating individual players this year and more about setting the tone for the regular season.
Urgency is the perfect term for it. Last yea,r the quality of play was far below the line, but you will not see that if the team plays urgent. If they can play with a sense of urgency and play “assignment-clean football,” all the better.
The preseason may not matter for guys like Roethlisberger and Polamalu, but it does for the young players, especially those who are going to play a significant number of snaps this year.
A competitive tone has been set in training camp. There is no reason they should turn it off once the preseason games begin. The coaches shouldn’t just use these games for evaluation, but for preparation.
Steve McLendon, Ryan Shazier and Darrius Heyward-Bey missed practice. Ramon Foster, Antonio Brown, Troy Polamalu and Cam Heyward all sat out. Jarvis Jones was limited.
Cam Thomas started in place of Heyward at right defensive end. Stephon Tuitt played left defensive end, and Hebron Fangupo was at nose tackle.
Several backups of note playing on the first unit of special teams includes Antwon Blake, Chris Carter, Michael Palmer and Terence Garvin.
Danny Smith is one of the most energetic coaches on the field, but Jerry Olsavsky may have him beat. During punting drills, the return team was getting set up, and Olsavsky was yelling at the punt team to not wait for the snap.
Speaking of special teams, Brad Wing has looked very good in camp. He has been one of their best young punters in camp in recent memory. Overall, he has had very good hang time on his punts and very few shanks.
Bryant bounced back from a poor practice on Wednesday and dominated in the deep passing game but showed he could do more. In one sequence, he beat Blake for a long reception and then made two consecutive short catches. He added a touchdown reception during the two-minute drill.
Besides the two-minute offense, a focus of practice was third downs. There seemed to be a balance of success between the offense and the defense.
The second-team defensive line looked solid against the second-team offensive line. The quarterbacks were either sacked or left scrambling.
In what was one of the nicest plays of the day, Roethlisberger threw a pass to Lance Moore on an out pattern before Moore made his break. The ball hit him right in the numbers for a nice completion. That is what a veteran like Moore can bring to this team.
LeGarrette Blount looked like Archer running through a hole today. No, not with his speed, but rather fitting through a hole. First time I have seen his nimble feet in camp.
The Steelers open their preseason schedule on Saturday night against the New York Giants.
Note: All photos used in this article were taken by me. Unless otherwise noted, all observations were made firsthand. All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.