Pat Kirwan: Five questions from Steelers camp
Five questions from Steelers camp
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
Aug. 5, 2012
Center Maurkice Pouncey could help fill the leadership gap left by Hines Ward and James Farrior. (Getty Images)
One of the special days on my annual NFL camp tour is the stop it Latrobe, Pa., to visit the Steelers. Every year, I make sure I am in town for the scrimmage at Latrobe High School on the first Friday of August. This year the team honored four retiring Steelers: Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith and Willie Parker. A reported 55,000 fans showed up, which drives home the point that the Steelers are a mighty force because of their close-knit family mentality. Like all teams they have questions this summer. Thanks to Art Rooney, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Brett Keisel, Antonio Brown and Joey Porter for spending time with me to take a look at the 2012 season.
1. What is happening with WR Mike Wallace?
Some Steelers fans are mad at Mike Wallace for holding out, but the people who know this team best believe he will be in camp around mid-August. I agree. Wallace will not win his toe-to-toe battle with the Rooneys for a big contract. Granted, when the Steelers dropped a big deal in the lap of Antonio Brown it looked like Wallace was destined to a restricted tag this season and a potential franchise tag for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. That's one option for the club, but I am more inclined to think they get a long-term deal done with Mike Wallace. A critical receiver injury in camp could turn some leverage back to Wallace but not enough for management to give in to his demands.
2. Can the Steelers run the ball significantly better than last year?
Pittsburgh was 14th in the NFL last year, averaging 119 yards a game on the ground. There was a strong opinion among many of the 55,000 fans at practice that the team needs to run it more. Fans think Todd Haley is spinning the clock back to the glory days of the '70s and '80s to run the ball. Haley was quick to point that getting in the right plays -- run or pass -- and executing them is a bigger concern than percentage of running plays. But mark my words: The Steelers running game will be among the league's top 10. The offensive line is looks better than it has in years. Willie Colon, now the left guard, can pull and lead a 'G' power-run scheme to his right with great results. The other day in practice he pulled and exploded into linebacker Lawrence Timmons, sending Timmons flying. Stanford rookie David Castro is wearing Alan Fanaca's number (No. 66) and has excellent pull skills. Pittsburgh will run effectively anywhere across the line of scrimmage. Finally, don't underestimate rookie LT Mike Adams as a zone-run blocker. In the scrimmage he got up to the second level and drove linebackers into the ground. Last year, Pittsburgh ran 55 percent of the time for 5.0 yards a carry on first down. Those results are sure to improve this year.
3. Who are the team leaders with Hines Ward and James Farrior gone?
In the absence of Ward and Farrior, Tomlin believes the natural leaders will rise to the top. He also pointed out Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark all have gone out for the coin toss in the past and have leadership skills. After watching practice, I'll throw the names Maurkice Pouncey, Lamar Woodley and, of course, Troy Polamalu into the mix. True leaders set the pace their own way and are not always rah-rah types. The Steelers' leadership is healthy and ready to go.
4. Where are the key camp battles?
• The most intriguing position battle is going on at cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. Many have penciled Keenan Lewis in as the starter but he's getting a serious challenge from 2011 third-round pick Cortez Allen. Between the two, they had one start last season but each looks capable of having a great season. I think Allen wins the job, but that doesn't mean the loser is the nickel back. The top player in camp for the slot nickel corner is Curtis Brown, who can explode as a blitzer. There is opinion in Pittsburgh that Brown will beat out the loser of the starting right corner spot for the nickel job.
• The fifth wide receiver spot is wide open, assuming Mike Wallace eventually returns. Antonio Brown, Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery have the first four spots locked up. Tony Clemons, a 2011 seventh-round pick, was singled out as a guy looking good but I could see the Steelers keep a guy like Chris Rainey, a hybrid runner/receiver/returner, instead.
5. Who steps up if the guys on PUP can't go right away?
Key players on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list are Casey Hampton, Jason Worilds, James Harrison, and Rashard Mendenhall. It's clear to me that the Steelers have answers for most of these situations after watching a two-hour practice. Steve McLendon is no longer the 280-pound college free agent from 2009. He is now the 325-pound starting nose tackle working in place of Hampton. McLendon won some terrific battles vs. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and is no downgrade after Hampton. With two OLBs sidelined, the Steelers have opened the door for 2011 fifth-round pick Chris Carter (Fresno State). He needs work and there would be a significant drop-off if he has to start. While Mendenhall heals Isaac Redman is stealing the show and may not surrender the RB role after Mendenhall returns. Redman plays angry and is just the kind of guy Todd Haley will want carrying the ball.
Some great thoughts coming out of camp:
Haley was quick to point that getting in the right plays -- run or pass -- and executing them is a bigger concern than percentage of running plays.
Willie Colon, now the left guard, can pull and lead a 'G' power-run scheme to his right with great results. The other day in practice he pulled and exploded into linebacker Lawrence Timmons, sending Timmons flying.
don't underestimate rookie LT Mike Adams as a zone-run blocker. In the scrimmage he got up to the second level and drove linebackers into the ground.
I think Allen wins the job. (this was just fantastic scouting by the Steelers to grab a kid out of the Citadel)
Steve McLendon is no longer the 280-pound college free agent from 2009. He is now the 325-pound starting nose tackle working in place of Hampton. McLendon won some terrific battles vs. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and is no downgrade after Hampton.
Isaac Redman is stealing the show and may not surrender the RB role after Mendenhall returns. Redman plays angry and is just the kind of guy Todd Haley will want carrying the ball.
Hall of Famer
nice stuff to hear. i am so pumped up for this season well, every season but it does feel like being a kid again and knowing Christmas is right around the bend.
2012 Steelers Training Camp Observations: Part Two
by Ivan Cole (RickVa) on Aug 6, 2012
Injuries. Willie Colon and Isaac Redman sat this one out with ankle injuries. What I found interesting about this is that a lot of people insisted that Colon was present on the field. I asked two different groups of people on two separate occasions if they had spotted Colon. Each time they swore that they did. My guess is that there are some similarities in body type and hair style with Colon and tackle Chris Scott. There is even a relative similarity with uniform numbers; 74 vs 71. Brett Keisel and Manny Sanders who both sat out Friday's practice returned to action.
Todd Haley. I was watching one of the other position groups when the roar of the crowd pulled my attention to the quarterbacks. A big fan favorite on Friday night was a competition where the four quarterbacks attempt to drop footballs into a barrel on the sidelines. They were at it again on Saturday. Byron Leftwich started off strong this time, but all four quarterbacks had their moments. The reactions when they succeeded, saluting and playing to the crowd were hilarious. There was a fifth player in the competition, Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley. Haley did alright, but as they say; those who can't do, coach.
What has stood out about Haley over the two days is how physically active he is with his coaching. On Friday night when the tight ends were practicing pass patterns Haley would drop into coverage to give the players a picture. He didn't do this once or twice but consistently throughout the drill, as he also did with this passing contest. He's definitely involved, and from the body language he seems comfortable with the players. But that wouldn't make for good headlines, would it.
Antonio Brown. When he's not busy working, and Brown continues to work as hard as anyone, he has terrific chemistry with the crowd. During warm ups he gets the crowd into a competition. He points to different sections to determine which group cheers the loudest. When he made a decision he throws a football into the winning section. Everybody likes Antonio.
One of the few areas where there is sustained competition among top players is between the wide receivers and defensive backs. The headliners are Antonio vs Ike Taylor. Each player won their share of rounds, but what stood out was a pass to the corner of the end zone. Taylor had great position and it seemed that he would either knock the ball away or intercept it. Well, this being Ike, maybe not. Somehow the pass got through, Brown made a great catch. Ike went ballistic. He ranted, he snatched off his chin strap, he interrupted the rant to congratulate Antonio, and then continued to rant. Seems most folks really like Ike too.
On the other side Manny Sanders and Keenan Lewis were going at it. With all the talk about Brown and Wallace it is easy to overlook Sanders. Lewis did well, but Sanders was better, and in my view gave away nothing to Brown. In the undercard Jerricho Cotchery abuses a bunch of people and once again turns Will Allen into burned toast. Extremely impressive for the second day in a row was David Gilreath. It's still early but I would say that this guy can play in this league, whether it is with Pittsburgh remains to be seen.
The running backs continued to impress. All of them scored in one drill or another. But the most impressive from my perspective was Chris Rainey who demonstrated that he could be just as lethal in the relative close quarters of the red zone as he is in the more open spaces. Clay scored on goal line by leaping over the line breaking the plane into the end zone.
I've become a fan of the kicker Daniel Hrapmann. I haven't seen enough to speak to his accuracy, but no question he has the stronger leg. He was doing kickoffs today and was consistently making it into the end zone.
With Willie Colon being out the starting line up for the offensive line was (left to right) Adams, Foster, Pouncey, De Castro and Gilbert. It appears that Adams has earned his way to the first group, at least until Starks returns.
He hadn't shown much previously, but toward the end of practice cornerback Curtis Brown had a nice interception that would have been certainly a touchdown in a game situation. Safety Robert Golden also had a quality interception during a seven on seven drill. At the opposite end of the spectrum Tony Clemons did have a drop on a pass from Byron Leftwich during the short yardage segment.
While there were some interesting individual and position group battles the most interesting aspect of this practice were the eleven on elevens. The reports that I had heard up to this point would seem to indicate offensive dominance. If so then a sense of balance has been restored. The defense won the short yardage and goal line drills. The offense did better in when there was more room such as red zone passing.
Perhaps the most impressive offensive play was a pass play where Ben dropped back, bought time by scrambling right and then hit Manny Sanders crossing to the left in the end zone covered by Ike Taylor. This seemed slightly uncharacteristic given the fact that the quarterbacks have been more prone to throwing the ball away if the player was not open initially.
Emotion and pride were evident with the defense. During the goal line drill in particular the leadership of three players stood out from my vantage point; Larry Foote, Ryan Clark and, in particular, Ike Taylor. And while many were happy when the offense did well in the drill (especially Clay's touchdown) the Nation's passion for defense was clear as chants of "Defense!" rang out from the crowd.
Finally, a word or two about process. I believe the value of reports of this type is that while the facts are important, context is important as well. For example, one of the things I noticed with eleven on eleven over two days is that only three of the four quarterbacks play. On Friday Ben was the odd may out. Saturday it was Jerrod Johnson, who only played because Ben was pulled for a minor injury. If you attended only one of those practices you might be inclined to come to an inappropriate conclusion concerning what was going on.
Many of the top line players haven't done much, and I believe that is pretty much by design. They need a certain amount of reps for timing and conditioning purposes, but they don't have much to prove unless they are in a position battle. Consequently, players such as Polamalu and Woodley have been essentially invisible over the past two days. Although I saw some promising things and had some concerns over these two days I have enough sense to know I don't have enough information to draw any final conclusions. And it frankly amazes me that there are those who are writing people in, or out after witnessing a practice, or even worse, on hearsay from someone else. And we're not privy to half of the practices. Can we at least wait until they've had an opportunity under game conditions before making final judgments?