Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Observations of First Weekend of Practice
A sun splashed Saint Vincent College was host to a perfect weekend for football practice. After a soggy Friday, the Pittsburgh Steelers had two hot days to prepare for the 2011 season.
Mike Tomlin, dressed in his traditional black long-sleeved shirt, pants and hat, had the team working hard over the first weekend of camp, including the first padded practice on Sunday.
Wearing helmets and shoulder pads only, the Steelers got in their first contact in a big way. Tomlin had one of his favorite drills, ‘Backs on ‘Backers, in which the running backs attempt to block rushing linebackers.
The drill provides good theater but also sets the tone of the physicality of what’s to come. It is also great theater for the fans.
The offensive and defensive line would later do a similar drill with much less fanfare.
When it comes to risers and fallers and how the roster is coming together, much is still unclear. Veterans such as Ike Taylor, Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott, William Gay, Mewelde Moore, Shaun Suisham and Daniel Sepulveda cannot practice until August 4, which has given young players plenty of reps in the first and second team units.
While the extra reps will help their development, it also hurts timing in the passing game and cohesion with the offensive line.
The inexperience has meant a lot of coaching from the veterans, highlighted by Heath Miller, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Ike Taylor spending significant time talking to or showing technique to younger players.
Maybe the best news of camp so far is that there are no significant worries as the team looks good. Pittsburgh is a veteran-laden group who can slowly bring along the younger players, who are at a disadvantage without offseason workouts.
Here is a look at what went down the first weekend of Camp Tomlin 2011.
Ben Roethlisberger came into camp in great shape and has been sharp early on. He has control of the offense and is moving well around the pocket, even with a makeshift offensive line in front of him.
He has thrown two interceptions, but those could be attributed to some early timing issues with Mike Wallace. Beyond that, Roethlisberger looks poised for a big year.
Byron Leftwich appears to be firmly entrenched as the backup. He has gotten the second team reps and has played clearly outplayed Charlie Batch.
Batch, working with a lot of rookies, has had a number of poor throws, missing open receivers.
Recent news on Dennis Dixon is that he wants traded.
Jeff Sperbeck, Dixon’s agent, told ESPN.com’s James Walker that “Dennis would love the opportunity to start” and that he did not want to back up Roethlisberger.
The Steelers would be wise to make a move, even if it is only for a sixth or seventh rounder, as Dixon would be hard-pressed to be third string let alone the backup.
Rashard Mendenhall has put his offseason controversy behind him and is having a great camp.
There is no running back on the roster that can cut as quickly as him, and he has been targeted for passes out of the backfield.
Isaac Redman is also improved and should leave no worries as to who the Steelers’ backup running back is.
He has showed some soft hands and is still running with power.
Camp favorite Baron Batch has flashed some of the potential that made the Steelers pick him in the seventh round.
Battling for the third down role, Batch had a chance to shine in the ‘backs on ‘backers drill. He did a fair job, and I am not going to rave about him like others have.
James Farrior schooled him on the first attempt, and he was beat by Jason Worilds as well.
Batch came back and made some great blocks, including stoning James Harrison in one of the most impressive plays of the day.
Regardless of this, Batch has made mistakes in the passing game, specifically with his routes, which has gotten him extra instruction from the coaches as well as Charlie Batch.
Batch also has "happy feet" when he has little room to run. When there is a hole, he is very quick to get through it.
Definitely a player to watch and is doing what he needs to do to make the roster.
But after practice, Tomlin put it best. “He’s a rookie.”
Another back of interest is John Clay.
Clay did not fair as well in the drill but did much better in team drills. He is a straight line runner who does not shy away from contact. If there is not a hole available he will go straight through the line.
Jonathan Dwyer has not shown much good or bad.
Pittsburgh has a lot of talent at receiver with Wallace, Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
Ward has not practiced and is on the PUP list but is coaching other receivers.
Wallace has the look of a veteran, instructing younger receivers and running great routes. His short and intermediate routes have improved, and he catches everything that comes his way.
He will need to get his timing down with Roethlisberger.
Sanders had a strong start but did not practice on Sunday, leaving Brown in the starting lineup.
Brown’s physical tools are there. He has great speed, runs good routes and will drop the occasional pass, but physically, he is good. Mentally, he is not ready yet.
Roethlisberger has had to direct Brown where to line up multiple times, and there have been instances of possible wrong routes.
Veteran Arnaz Battle may have to play the role as fifth receiver, as he is proving he can still get open, albeit against backups, and catches nearly everything that comes his way.
Limas Sweed looks more confident, and after a couple of drops Friday, bounced back Saturday with a solid practice. He has shown he can get open but has plenty to prove.
Tyler Grisham is his usual self, making nice plays and then dropping the easy pass.
Wes Lyons is massive at 6’8” and made a great leaping catch Sunday. He runs well for being so tall but has not gotten many looks in team drills because he has not been open.
Adam Mims is being used a lot across the middle of the field and has demonstrated good quickness.
No other receiver has stood out.
Heath Miller has been great this camp and made a touchdown catch Sunday as well as a beautiful diving reception across the middle of the field.
Backup David Johnson has looked much improved. He had a strong performance in ‘backs on ‘backers and may be the best blocker on the team.
Johnson has adding receiving to his repertoire, as he is catching everything thrown to him, and they are going to him a lot out of the back field and in the flats.
Weslye Saunders is next in line. He has been a bit inconsistent with a drop here and there and doesn’t have great speed. But when Saunders makes plays, he looks like an NFL player. He works the middle of the field well.
No other tight end besides Saunders has stood out, and he is the early favorite as the third stringer if no veteran is signed. He has a lot of work to do, though.
The offensive line has been a bit of a mess, with Kyle Jolly at left tackle, rookie Keith Williams at left guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, Ramon Foster at right guard and Chris Scott at right tackle.
Pouncey is in a class of his own, working harder than anyone in camp.
He has great feet,and coach Sean Kugler used him as an example. By the way, Kugler is a great coach. He really explains to the linemen in detail what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Scott has shown some potential, though he did get a good shot from Ryan Clark today.
Ramon Foster is getting an edge on Doug Legursky, who is not in camp yet.
Willie Colon and Jonathan Scott have been watching from the sidelines.
Second round pick Marcus Gilbert struggled on Saturday and did not practice today.
Chris Kemoeatu tested his knee at the beginning of practice but remains sidelined.
The Steelers have the deepest defensive line in the league with the addition of first round draft selection Cameron Heyward. Now they need to bring Chris Hoke back, which they may not, according to the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac.
Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel are their usual selves, and Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Heyward have been rotated in with the first team defense.
Hood looks stronger than last year, and Heyward has held his own, winning a nice battle during team drills on Saturday against Foster to pressure Roethlisberger.
Undrafted free agent Anthony Gray got some good penetration today to pressure the quarterback.
Not much to say about the starting linebackers other than Lawrence Timmons completely trucked Rashard Mendenhall on the first matchup of ‘backs on ‘backers. It was very impressive.
Harrison had the hit on Batch that echoed through the hills of Saint Vincent, but was stopped.
Worilds did a fair job in the drill and has gotten some pressure on team drills. He is on track with his development.
Stevenson Sylvester looks bigger this year and did well beating his backs, including three straight against Clay to finish off the drill.
He also spent a lot of time in coverage during team drills today, an important part of being an inside linebacker.
Outside of the offensive line, the cornerback situation has been jumbled the most.
Taylor has been on the sidelines, and Gay just signed, leaving Bryant McFadden and Keenan Lewis as starters.
Crezdon Butler got time as the nickel back, and Cortez Allen was fourth.
Today, Butler sat out, and Lewis stopped mid-practice, leaving Allen with the starters.
McFadden finally looks like a starting cornerback. He has run stride-for-stride with Wallace and has two interceptions while defending him, including a nice diving interception over his shoulder today.
He still susceptible to short and intermediate routes where he could not defend Wallace.
Lewis had very little action to his side of the field, which is very encouraging.
Butler has had mixed results so far, getting beat deep a couple of times, including once by Grisham. He did recover on another deep pass to knock a ball from the receiver forcing at tipped interception by Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith.
Allen has been a pleasant surprise, with at least one deflected pass, and did not see a ball go his way today. He is still getting plenty of coaching but it is impressive for a later draft pick to get an opportunity this early.
Curtis Brown has started practice the last two days but did not see him finish either.
I would speculate that Daniel Sepulveda was re-signed because both Aaron Bates and Swayze Waters were not impressive with their punting.
Waters has a decent leg for kicks, but will have a tough time beating out Suisham once he begins practicing.
Derek Chard had trouble with low snaps the first two days from camp, which drew some ire from Tomlin, who shouted at him “You better get that damn ball up.”
He did, but does not look to be the answer.
Antonio Brown is the clear option as returner. His prime competition will be Mims.
'Backs vs. 'Backers
This is a great drill to watch. It is very physical, and players do not want to do poorly.
The defense started out very well, with Timmons blowing up Mendenhall and Harrison getting by Redman, forcing Redman to attempt to hold him (something Harrison is familiar with).
Batch followed by whiffing on Farrior before Johnson finally put a bruising hit on Chris Ellis to stand him up.
Defense picked it up again, with Worilds demonstrating a power move and Larry Foote some veteran savvy to get around the outside. Sylvester also had a good early showing and would later have a huge hit again Dwyer and then finish the drill off by beating Clay three times.
Saunders got abused on his first attempt but got the better of Timmons in his second go around.
As mentioned earlier, the block by Batch on Harrison was an exciting moment for the rookie and impressed all who were watching. But he was beaten a fair amount as well and will need to improve.
Sleepers, Works in Progress and Camp Duds
Baron Batch: OK, everyone likes him, but he is slowly earning his roster spot.
John Clay: Physical straight line runner, needs to improve blocking.
Adam Mims: Quick threat over the middle and returner.
Wes Lyons: Great size, runs well, needs to get open.
Weslye Saunders: May just do enough to earn third tight end role. Looks the part.
Keith Williams: I put him here because he is getting reps with the first team given all of the absences, and I initially thought he would have trouble making the roster.
Anthony Gray: Holding his ground well against backups.
Cortez Allen: Athletically gifted, looks good so far.
Works in Progress
Antonio Brown: Must improve mental game.
Chris Scott: Could earn top backup role if he continues to progress.
Jason Worilds: Must continue to develop run defense, dropping into coverage.
Crezdon Butler: A bit inconsistent but has the tools.
Cameron Heyward: Missed time on Friday but is physically gifted.
Limas Sweed: Want him to succeed, getting open, better hands.
Jonathan Dwyer: Batch and Clay are overshadowing him.
Marcus Gilbert: Early yet, but was knocked to ground three times on Saturday; did not practice Sunday.
Curtis Brown: Lack of practice time for a guy the Steelers could use.
Do you think Roethlisberger wants the Steelers to re-sign Max Starks? He did wear the No. 78 jersey Sunday.
Steelers have been throwing a lot to their backs and tight ends in the flats and over the middle. A lot more quick hit passes as well.
I saw two wide receiver screens today and was not impressed. Time to get ride of these from the playbook.
Sunday was the biggest crowd of the weekend, and they got a chance to see a solid first padded practice.
During the 'backs on 'backers, the running backs kept getting in the way of the cameras, and they kept getting yelled at. The offensive line later came over and got yelled at as well.
Reminder of Eight Camp Battles.
Steelers night practice is this Friday. Check it out.
This was only a small taste of this weekend’s camp. I don’t have full assessments on everyone, but please ask questions in the comments section.
Also, check my Twitter feed history for a play-by-play recap.
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