Training Camp Diary: Tuesday August 9th

Lions-SteelersIt was a big day in Going Deep land. Homer J., Ivan, and his brother Andy drove up from DC and we met up at Saint Vincent. Ivan has met me for practices before, but not Homer or Andy. I asked Andy when the last time he had been to training camp was, and he told me this was the first. Homer said he hadn’t been to camp for a very long time. He didn’t say how long that time was, but the bleachers upon which we were sitting and the fields in front of us were not part of the experience the last time he went. He also said that Loren Toews was showing everybody up his last time at camp. A bit of Googling reveals that his last time at Steelers camp must have been in about 1973.

It was a gorgeous day, and we had great seats, or as great as narrow aluminum bleacher seats which you are sharing with many, many people can be. But we were in the shade, the breeze was blowing a good bit of the time, and the humidity was low enough that not only could you see the surrounding hills, you could see the trees on them. That’s a good day in August in western PA.

In fact, it was so great altogether that at one point Homer called over to Ivan and me as we were intently watching the action on the field and said, sweeping his arm in a careful arc to avoid taking out the people behind him, “Just look around for a minute and appreciate how remarkable this is!” So we did, because when Homer speaks we all listen.

We had gotten to camp in really good time, like almost two hours before practice started, because when there are five of you it takes a lot of bleacher space if you want to sit together, which we did. If you’re wondering who the fifth person was, it was my niece Laura, who is new to Pittsburgh (she moved here in late June) and also pretty new to football period. I figured I might as well start breaking her in right away.

While we were waiting for practice we had a rather wide-ranging discussion, but the part of interest for this site was Ivan, Andy and Homer talking about Chuck Noll’s insistence that his players bear in mind that football was not forever, and they needed a plan for their “life after football.” Considering that the salaries in those days were something on the order of one tenth what they are now, this was doubly important.

Okay, I looked it up. The average salary in the NFL in 1980 (which I don’t believe included quarterbacks) was $78,657.  The average salary last season was $860,000. So I was pretty close.

The long-awaited moment finally arrived as a number of players in sky-blue jerseys began to take the field. (They brought their friends in white jerseys, as well, and a couple of guys in red ones, which will come up later.) They stayed on the far fields while the Steelers began to trickle onto the near one.

Pretty soon the punters began their competition, Greg Warren snapping to Jordan Berry and Matt Dooley, the try-out, to Will Monday. And boy were they booming them. A nearby spectator muttered something about how they wouldn’t look like that when it was snowing. But he did not manage to suppress our high spirits.

The consensus among us, which was not changed by subsequent events, is that Jordan Berry’s job is not in danger. But young Mr. Monday looked good as well, and over dinner we speculated as to whether the Steelers might be able to get something for him by trading him, as they did with Brad Wing last season. However, since I have no idea about Monday’s contract status or whether the Steelers have any control over him, it was just that, speculation. But we did feel the young ‘un has a decent chance to punt someplace. In fact, if something should happen to Jordan Berry, it could be in Pittsburgh. Let us hope for better luck this season, since there is no Hall of Fame booby trap game this season. (Not for anyone, actually. Shaun Suisham may end up being the final victim to the travesty that is the Canton field…)

There was more of the usual pre-practice messing about on the field, and Maurkice Pouncey hit the crossbar on his first attempt. He had no competition, however, and soon tired of the exercise, as Ben was nowhere in evidence. In fact, Ben had been given the day off, apparently, because he never put in an appearance. (I later discovered on Steelers Live that he was given a day off for “personal reasons.”) If I was Mike Tomlin I would definitely have wanted him anywhere but at Saint Vincent, at least until I got a good look at what the joint practices were going to be like.

Danny Smith and his faithful assistant, Jerry Olavsky, who just loves special teams drills, came out, and they ran a punting drill. The tempo definitely picked up as the guys were lining up and the Lions came over to join them. There is a coach on the Lion’s staff who gives Danny Smith a run for his money in the yelling department, so that definitely added to the festive air. These punt drills were semi-live. I guess that’s the only way I can explain them. There was a real punt, and a real returner waiting to catch the ball, but sometimes the coaches sent the rest of the punt unit and sometimes they didn’t. I have a feeling it had to do with how likely the punt was to be returnable, but I couldn’t say. I did notice Montell Garner, who is having a great camp and seeing time on the first team defense, beat everybody else to the returner. He wasn’t going anywhere. But there weren’t very many cases where they sent the teams in full bore.

The 11-on-11s began, and since Ben wasn’t playing Landry Jones took the lion’s share, if you will pardon the use of the phrase, of the first team reps during the day. Bob Labriola made the comment after practice that Landry is getting much more comfortable with AB, but whether AB feels more comfortable is another story. After several risky passes to various receivers somebody yelled “You’re going to get somebody killed!” This refrain had already been making the rounds among Homer, Andy and Ivan.

Jones got a lot of reps today, and as we discussed what we saw over a quick post-practice dinner, Andy, who has watched the Redskins a lot, commented that Landry reminded him of RGIII’s play last season in an unfortunate sense—if his first read isn’t there he doesn’t know where to go next. We could almost see him thinking. Unfortunately Bruce Gradkowski didn’t look better, as he was telegraphing every single throw before he made it. As Andy later said, the best players play in the future. Bruce and Landry are playing in the present, or even the past.

Andy honestly thinks Dustin Vaughan has a good shot at the No. 3 position. But in some ways the discussion is rather a moot one. If, God forbid, something happens to Ben this season, the games are going to be pretty scary, I fear.

But we can hope for the best. Bob Labriola said that Landry Jones had more preseason snaps last season, between the extra game and the large workload he got in the other four, than perhaps any other quarterback ever in the NFL. There is no reason to assume he won’t get an equally large workload this year. Personally, I would not play Ben in a single preseason snap (or AB or Bell either), but they didn’t ask me. At any rate, it seems certain Landry will get a lot more practice.

Over on the far field what looked like a full scrimmage was taking place. The Lion’s quarterback for this was not Matthew Stafford but the very veteran Dan Orlovsky, who the Lions drafted in 2005 but who has spent a few years elsewhere. I noticed he was wearing red, a courtesy the Steelers didn’t give their quarterbacks. I’m sorry to say that from what we could see the Lions’ offense was dominating the Steelers’ D. Fortunately you could say pretty much the same about the Steelers’ offense.

I’m not going to get very specific with what we saw today. Because the Lions don’t do them, there were no Seven Shots or goalline drills, which is a pity. The 11 on 11s and 7 on 7s we could see were the Steelers offense vs. the Lions defense. Pretty much what you would expect was the case. No one can defend AB, so he’s going to have a catch if the throw was catchable. It was heartening that with the first-team O line the Steelers ran the ball pretty effectively, with most of the backs. However, Andy commented that he felt the second-team O line didn’t look good.

Interestingly, Marcus Gilbert had the day off, so Ryan Harris played right tackle, and looked ok doing it. Tunch and Wolf had some comments after practice about a few of the linemen, and said that Alejandro Villanueva looked really good at times going up against Ziggy Ansah, which is quite impressive. The only catch is, once he started tiring he was getting pushed back. So perhaps the trick is to use Villanueva in games until he shows obvious signs of tiring and then slot in Ryan Harris. (My suggestion, not theirs.) Or perhaps Alejandro could just build up his strength sufficiently so he can dominate for a whole game.

Tunch’s other observation was about 2016 draft pick Jerald Hawkins. Although they were quick to say he’s by no means a finished product, they saw some really encouraging signs and good play from him at various places in the line. So while the second line may not look like much as a unit, there is hope within the ranks, apparently.

Apparently there was some concern about the tenor we would see at practice. No, not my sort of tenor, but how the players would conduct themselves. This was a potential concern, considering that the Cowboys—Rams joint practices were cut short because of fighting. However, given that Tomlin and Jim Caldwell are friends, and both are pretty low-key guys, it seemed unlikely there would be trouble. However, there were four referees at practice, and about an hour and a half in two mounted policemen (or policepersons—I couldn’t see well enough to determine the gender of either the horses or their riders) showed up on the sidelines and observed the remainder of practice. I don’t know if someone called them or whether they just decided to pay a visit, but whichever it was, the practice was conducted with great civility from start to finish. In fact, there was less angst than I’ve seen at some all-Steelers practices.

Some final observations:

Ivan suggested that some wealthy Steelers fan(s) donate a truckload of incense to the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities, because if Ben stays healthy this team will be fine. If he doesn’t, who knows?

Andy and Ivan agreed that people are learning the hard way that we didn’t appreciate what we had when we had the likes of Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch as our back-ups. My feeling is, there aren’t enough really good quarterbacks for each team to have one as it is. Why is it that Steeler Nation feels entitled to have Ben plus someone who would be a starter on some other team behind him? It just isn’t possible. That said, it would be nice to feel the backup could come in and win a few games for you, or at least give you the chance to win them. I’m looking forward to seeing what we see in the preseason games.

The general agreement was also that the wide receiver group looks really excellent. I realize it is a tendency for fans to overvalue their own and assume other teams, all of whom are cutting guys they would like to keep, are scanning the waiver wire for Steelers guys. But honestly, given that Pittsburgh has turned into a wide receiver factory in the past six years, I would think there are way worse things some receiver-needy teams could do. There are at least a couple promising receivers who are going to be cut, because the numbers just don’t allow them to be kept. One of those might be Isaac Blakeney, a 6-6 kid from Duke who looks almost like a tight end.

Overall they also commented at the amount of height in the receivers room. After years of Ben pining for a tall receiver, he has four guys at the moment who are over six feet tall, including Sammie Coates, who looks spectacular.

to be continued 




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