First Impressions of Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IJuly 27, 2013

First Impressions of Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp

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    Heavy rain may have put a damper on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first public training camp practice, but that did not deter the team from having a strong effort.

    Even though they were in shorts and jerseys, the Steelers made a positive first impression as they came out a focused, but relaxed, team that is poised to bounce back from a disappointing 8-8 record last season.

    While first impressions may mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, they were particularly important for several players, particularly LaMarr Woodley and Jonathan Dwyer.

    Both players appeared to be in great shape which should aid their performance in 2013.

    Even though my time at practice was cut short, I was still able to gather some information and get an initial read on the team.

    Here are my observations from Saturday’s practice.

    Note: All photos used in this article were taken by me.

New-Look Offensive Line

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    Training camp started off with a bang, as Kelvin Beachum was the first player to walk past the booming sounds from the Pittsburgh Steeline drumline.

    As he stepped onto the practice field, he was joined by Landry Jones and the two wasted no time taking some practice snaps.

    Jones took snaps from under center as well as in the shotgun, as Beachum continues to develop as the Steelers’ most versatile lineman.

    As expected, John Malecki got work at center as well and was working with Bruce Gradkowski prior to practice. His work at guard and center should make him a good bet to make the team.

    The encouraging sign was that both players looked comfortable with their snaps, but they also faced no pressure.

    Without any contact, it is difficult to get a read on the offensive line; however, I will say that this is the most athletic looking offensive line that the Steelers have had in recent years.

    While it is hard to call any of the linemen “fit” at over 300 pounds, virtually every lineman looked “fit.” What I mean by that is none looked sloppy with a hanging gut. Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are, by far, the most athletic-looking linemen on the roster.

    The starting line was (from left to right) Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, Pouncey, DeCastro and Mike Adams.

    Adams was not limited at all from the injuries he sustained earlier this summer when he was stabbed. We will have to wait and see how well he handles things when the pads come on next week.

    The second-string line was (from left to right) Beachum, Chris Hubbard, John Malecki, Justin Cheadle and Guy Whimper.

    A lot of people had questions about Mike Golic Jr., Joe Long and Nik Embernate—and for good reason. They are buried on the depth chart right now. Expect more from them as camp progresses.

Best Shape of My Life

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    Isaac Redman showed off his new physique with his sleeves rolled up for most of practice. He still has a powerful-looking upper body, but is thinner in the midsection.

    Fellow running back Jonathan Dwyer also appears to be in better shape than last season. These two backs realized that there will be competition for a starting job this year and put in the necessary work in the offseason.

    Marcus Gilbert may have been carted off the field following the conditioning test, but he looked fine in practice.

    Then there is LaMarr Woodley.

    He came down to the field in a large shirt which did a good job hiding his “figure.” However, once he got his jersey on, he appeared to be in great shape.

    Woodley is a big, powerful linebacker, so do not expect to see him looking like Jarvis Jones anytime soon. But he is not bulking up to play defensive end either.

    Not much was made about David Paulson’s fitness level, but he definitely added muscle over the offseason and now looks more like a tight end rather than a receiver.

Return Drills

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    Without Chris Rainey, and with Emmanuel Sanders focusing on his receiving role, the Steelers are in need of a punt and kick returner.

    After one day of practice, I learned that they are trying out just above everyone on the roster.

    Antonio Brown, Sanders, Justin Brown, David Gilreath, J.D. Woods, Markus Wheaton, Reggie Dunn, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Curtis McNeal, Kashif Moore and Terry Hawthorne all fielded punts or kicks from the jugs machine.

    Of that group, Hawthorne was the only surprise to me.

    Brown, Sanders, Brown, Wheaton and Hawthorne would focus on punt returns.

    It was hard to tell if it was a drill or showboating, but, at one point, the guys fielding punts had a ball in hand as a second ball was launched from the jugs machine.

    As the ball came down, they tossed the ball they were holding into the air and caught the simulated punt and then had to catch the second ball that they tossed in the air. All of the returners were surprisingly effective here.

    Brown would then go on to do the same while holding two, three and four balls. He was actually able to catch each punt with one hand while holding onto the other balls for all but his last try in which he was holding four balls—including one between his legs.

    The most popular name in the return game this camp will be Dunn. He muffed two of the initial kickoffs he fielded, but recovered nicely with the rest of his attempts.

New Conditioning Routine

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    In January, Art Rooney expressed concern over the number of injuries suffered by the Steelers last season and try to develop the team’s conditioning practices.

    Mike Tomlin implemented new techniques into their practice routine, and that has continued in training camp.

    After doing their normal stretches, the entire team participated in a jogging and footwork drill.

    The entire team jogged a lap using half of the field, but rather than just jogging, they had a couple of stations for footwork.

    By no means am I an athletic trainer, but I liked the idea of incorporating footwork into a light jog. It should only help everyone’s quickness and agility and hopefully reduce the number of soft-tissue injuries.

The Quarterbacks

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    There is nothing like testing your quarterbacks than having them throw in a steady rainfall. That is exactly what they had to do on Saturday.

    Ben Roethlisberger had no issues, putting plenty of zip on the ball. He showed a nice touch as well as he completed a couple of passes into a double-stacked garbage can simulating the fade pattern.

    Landry Jones also had a successful pass on this drill, but had a noticeably weaker arm than Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski.

    He lacked the velocity that those two had, and I noticed one or two short passes that he threw into the ground. That is not necessarily a problem in team drills, but not something that you want to see in position drills.

    It is also worth noting that Roethlisberger showed no signs of any knee discomfort. He moved around very well and was upbeat.

Camp Thoughts

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    I always find it interesting to watch the effort of veteran players compared to that of rookies. For example, Plaxico Burress caught a pass and jogged a few steps to finish out the play. Meanwhile, Markus Wheaton caught the same pass and sprinted up the field.

    Speaking of Wheaton, he is an impressive physical specimen. He is thicker than what I thought he would be. However, Tomlin did call him out once for not breaking out of his route on an incomplete pass on an out pattern.

    Justin Brown was pretty fluid for a tall receiver and has decent speed. He and the other receivers in camp are already ahead of last year’s group, which had trouble holding onto the ball.

    Shamarko Thomas is in incredible shape. I have seen him working out on the videos he has posted on Instagram, but to see him in person is even more impressive.

    Le’Veon Bell may be the most comfortable-looking rookie in camp. He was laughing and having a good time even though he was running last in running back drills. I will add that it is unusual to see a back as tall as he is.

    Curtis McNeal looks like a player who will go down easy in open-field tackle attempts. When lowering his body, he was getting too far ahead of his feet. Once your center of gravity goes beyond your point of support, down you go.

    In the three snaps Roethlisberger took in team drills, he completed one of three passes. The slick field gave the receivers some problems. Fans will be happy to know that he got rid of the ball quickly.