Pittsburgh Steelers: Rounding Up Latest Buzz from Training Camp
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been in their 2017 training camp for nearly a week, which means there is no shortage of news coming out of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where the Black and Gold convene every summer.
Positional battles are reaching their peak, players are suffering various injuries and roster moves are frequent.
Here is the latest buzz emerging from the Steelers' training camp this week.
James Conner Impresses, But...
Rookie running back James Conner, selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 draft, has been an early standout in training camp.
Though not currently the leader in rushing attempts while starter Le'Veon Bell continues his holdout—that would be Knile Davis, according to the count kept by Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora—his performance during backs-on-backers (or running backs vs. linebackers) drills certainly proves that Conner is every bit the physical, downhill runner the Steelers drafted.
Tomlin elaborated on this to former Steelers cornerback and current NFL Network correspondent Ike Taylor, saying of Conner:
"[He's] got a reputation that he doesn't back down from physical confrontation, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to confirm that on day one. He did in a lot of ways. He's a highly competitive guy, he showed some good technical things. Obviously, it's day one, he's got a ways to go. His mental approach and demeanor is what we desire."
However, there have been setbacks. Conner suffered a shoulder injury in the team's first padded practice on Sunday; it's the second time he's been hurt this year, having missed most of OTAs with a hamstring injury.
The verdict, according to the Associated Press' Will Graves, is a sprained AC joint in the shoulder, which is not deemed serious and makes Conner "more day-to-day than week-to-week." That is good news, at least, given that Conner seems on track to have an important role to play in Pittsburgh's offense this season.
Justin Hunter Steps Up
With Martavis Bryant still awaiting full reinstatement (and thus currently unable to actually practice during training camp) and Sammie Coates recovering from a knee scope, opportunities have been opening up to other wide receivers on the Steelers roster.
Over the last few days, the one taking the greatest advantage of them has been Justin Hunter, a veteran free agent the Steelers signed to a one-year deal in March.
According to Sam Quinn of 247Sports, Hunter has been working with the first-team offense to open training camp and has impressed receivers coach Richard Mann. Mann said that Hunter has "passed all the tests thus far," adding: "His hands look pretty good to me. If you watch practice you see him catch the ball."
Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora had Hunter as the Steelers' most successful receiver in the first four days of training camp, with nine catches on 16 targets yielding four touchdowns.
Though Hunter may see his first-team reps drop once Bryant is fully cleared to practice, it does appear that he has the edge over the likes of Coates, Cobi Hamilton and special-teams standout Darrius Heyward-Bey when it comes to securing a roster spot this year.
Slot Cornerback Update
One of the Steelers' top positional battles this summer is for the team's starting slot cornerback job. And on Monday, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert gave a brief update on the contest when speaking to 105.9 The X (via Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot).
For now, it appears that the Steelers are willing to lean on veteran William Gay, who moved to the slot halfway through the 2016 season with the emergence of Artie Burns as a capable cornerback on the outside.
Colbert did say that "we also have a few young guys if we can find out what they're capable of," but the players he was referring to—2015 Round 2 draft pick Senquez Golson and rookie Cameron Sutton—are currently working through injuries.
However, "Coty Sensabaugh ... will also be able to provide some competition," which at least hints that the slot cornerback job doesn't automatically belong to Gay. But it also means that the Steelers may prefer a veteran, whether Gay or Sensabaugh, to handle the job at least to open up the season.
Latest on Martavis Bryant
As mentioned earlier, receivers like Hunter and others are getting greater opportunities at the start of the Steelers' training camp in part because Bryant has yet to be fully reinstated by the league following his one-year suspension that kept him off the field for all of 2016. Though conditionally reinstated in April, he can only observe on-field practices and not participate until the league gives him full clearance.
At this point, it only seems like a matter of time until the league office gives the thumbs-up, but that time is starting to wear on the team, particularly quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger said on Wednesday Bryant "has done all of [what the NFL] has asked of him," and is wondering what the holdup is, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette.
Bouchette also wrote on Tuesday: "I don't think some people in the Steelers organization are happy with the NFL for dragging their feet over the delay in reinstating Bryant fully. They believe he's done everything they've asked."
Head coach Tomlin said last week that the delay is merely "procedural," though he had no further information, adding, "The league's in charge of that and what we're going to continue to do is cooperate fully as we have and wait for them to instruct us what to do next."
So, no matter how antsy Roethlisberger and other members of the Steelers organization may be, they can do nothing but wait for the league to act.
The Steelers have made only one roster move so far since the start of training camp, announcing on Wednesday that they have waived-injured rookie tight end Scott Orndoff and have signed tight end Jake McGee.
Orndoff suffered a hamstring injury a few days prior and could land on the team's reserve/injured list after clearing waivers. He was a teammate of running back Conner at Pitt and had practice-squad potential as a developmental pass-catching tight end.
Much like Orndoff and fellow tight end Phazahn Odom, McGee will be at most a practice squad player following training camp and the preseason.
No Steelers players have suffered significant, season-ending injuries in the first five practices of training camp, though there are those who are being held off the field for varying ailments.
These include the aforementioned Conner, who has a minor shoulder sprain, as well as cornerback Golson, who will miss some time with a hamstring injury but will not require surgery, according to the Associated Press' Graves.
Per Bryan at Steelers Depot, the other Steelers sidelined for Wednesday's practice were rookie cornerback Sutton (lower body), quarterback Landry Jones (abdominal) and safety Mike Mitchell (soft tissue).
Linebacker Ryan Shazier also didn't practice on Wednesday and had a wrap on his right knee, but he may also be dealing with heat-related illness.
Linebackers Vince Williams (soft tissue) and Stephon Tuitt (ankle) left practice early on Monday, according to PennLive's Lauren Kirschman. However the two (as well as defensive end Lavon Hooks, who had an undisclosed injury) returned on Wednesday, per Alex Kozora of SteelersDepot.com.
More good news came for the offense, with rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster resuming practice on Wednesday after missing Saturday through Monday with an ankle issue. He donned full pads for the session and also received some tutelage from former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who was in attendance.