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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wednesday news, notes

The Steelers actually had some live tackling today in practice as head coach Mike Tomlin changed things up a little bit from previous years.

It gave the coaching staff another extended look at rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, and Bell continued to shine as a runner, showing off quickness and more shiftiness than any 240-pound running back should truly have.

It will be shocking if he is not the starter by the opening game.

@ Add rookie defensive end Nick Williams to the list of walking wounded. He now has a knee injury that will be evaluated.

He was joined on the sidelines by Cortez Allen (knee), who is close to a return, and DeMarcus Van Dyke (hamstring). Head coach Mike Tomlin admitted Van Dyke's injury could be significant, which is bad news for him, but good news for Curtis Brown.

@ It was interesting today to hear linebacker LaMarr Woodley talk about not getting an opportunity to rush the passer as much in 2012. Part of the reason for that was that so many teams used a quick passing game against the Steelers that the opportunities just weren't there.

But that's always happened to the Steelers. The key is stopping the run better than they did in 2012.

If an opponent gets nothing running the ball on first down and then picks up five yards on a second-down pass, the opportunity to rush the passer is far better than giving up four yards on first down, a five-yard pass and facing third-and-one.

@ It probably won't surprise too many, but Mike Adams ate Ziggy Hood's lunch in one-on-ones today.

Cam Heyward looks highly motivated this season, and it won't be a surprise to see him supplant Hood in the starting lineup.

@ On the other side of the line, Marcus Gilbert is a concern. It seems to take him a play or two in individual drills before he gets going. Doing that in a game will be an opening drive killer.

@ Where will the Steelers make up for Heath Miller's production? How about fullback Will Johnson.

Johnson is big and fast and a matchup problem for any team that has to defend him. He's too fast for most linebackers and too big for most defensive backs.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday news, practice notes

It's not often that things live up to the hype, but Monday's first day of practice in pads for the Steelers certainly did.

Just in case you were wondering if the team was ready to start hitting, running back Baron Batch and linebacker Marshall McFadden alleviated any concerns by nearly coming to blows early on in the backs on backers drill.

As the two squared up after several seconds of pushing and shoving, running backs coach Kirby Wilson jumped in, pulling Batch away, yelling, "Kick his ass on tape."

McFadden, however, was one of the more impressive players in the drill, showing plenty of explosiveness from his inside linebacker position. I felt Stevenson Sylvester flashed as well, showing that the battle for depth at the inside linebacker position might be a good one.

Rookies Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell were paired four times, splitting the matchups.

Bell had a tough go of the drill early - then again, he did get 10 reps, well more than anyone else. He was matched first against LaMarr Woodley, then Lawrence Timmons, before finally getting a break against Chris Carter, whom he battled to a stalemate.

Offensively, demure running back Curtis McNeal (5-7, 191 pounds) showed a good use of leverage. After one rep against Adrian Robinson, head coach Mike Tomlin remarked, "He's a mean little sawed off dude."

@ Bell also got some work with the first team in the final team portion of practice, splitting time with Isaac Redman.

He showed some power in an earlier team portion, blasting safety Robert Golden to the ground to finish off a sweep.

@ Jones had an up-and-down day. Three times he failed to get off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball - once in backs on backers, two more times in one-on-one rushing drills.

But he did make a nice play blitzing on Ben Roethlisberger, leaping to tip a pass into the air. Roethlisberger grabbed the ball out of the air, but was unable to advance.

@ Rookie Markus Wheaton joined the ranks of the punt returners today.

@ Tough day in the one-on-ones for rookie center Joe Madsen. He was rag dolled to the ground by massive Hebron Fangupo, causing Tomlin to holler, "Have a little dignity, Joe."

At least Tomlin knows his name.

@ Cortez Allen (knee), DeMarcus Van Dyke (hamstring) and Terry Hawthorne (knee) were all held out of practice Monday. All three corners could be back at practice by Wednesday - though I have my doubts about that with Van Dyke, who was visibly hurting when he walked.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Second day of practice blues

I know I complained about it last year, but I really am not liking this new collective bargaining agreement with the way it limits practices.

The Steelers held their second session on Sunday and it might as well have been an OTA since the players still aren't in pads. No pass rush drills. No backs on backers. No tight ends on backers or inside running drills.

It's kind of like running in place.

That all changes Monday when the pads go on for the first time. That will be when some guys will begin the process of moving themselves away from the pack.

You can work on technique until you're blue in the face, but until the guys do it with pads on, it means nothing. Can some of these young guys get it done when they actually have to worry about blocking the guy across from them?

Certainly, the practices are only one piece of the puzzle. The preseason games will also be important.

But Monday is a big day. As head coach Mike Tomlin said today, it's like the first day of school.

@ As I stated, it's only been a couple of days of non-padded football, but Isaac Redman looks very good at running back.

Redman looks like he's in great shape and is displaying quick feet.

It's no given that he's going to give up the starting role to second-round pick Le'Veon Bell.

@ Cortez Allen sat out practice today with some knee soreness, but it's not considered a big deal.

What is a big deal is DeMarcus Van Dyke leaving today with a hamstring injury. Van Dyke is one of a handful of guys fighting for a roster spot at a crowded cornerback position.

You can't make the club in the training tub.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rains mar first practice

Storms rolled through Latrobe midway through the Steelers' afternoon practice, forcing the team inside to wait until they passed.

The team then picked up where it left off after moving to Saint Vincent College's turf field.

Isaac Redman is working as the No. 1 running back, ahead of Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Le'Veon Bell, who was behind Baron Batch.

Head coach Mike Tomlin chewed Bell out a little bit - albeit playfully - when the team broke into a special teams session.

"Get where you need to be Bell," Tomlin hollered. "You don't know where you're supposed to be, do you Bell?"

It's the old axiom. If the coach isn't yelling at you, he doesn't care. And Tomlin and the Steelers definitely care about Bell's progress.

Redman, however, looked good carrying the ball - albeit in shorts - showing off some quickness and his trademark spin moves today.

@ Emmanuel Sanders had a solid day, first getting behind Cortez Allen on a double move to make a long catch, then beating William Gay deep on another play to haul in a long bomb from Ben Roethlisberger.

With the rainy, wet conditions, though, the offensive players were definitely at an advantage.

Plaxico Burress took advantage as well, beating DeMarcus Van Dyke on a double move for a long gainer.

@ The interception of the day belonged to Ryan Clark, who nabbed a Landry Jones pass that hit Ike Taylor in the hands - surprise, surprise - only to be batted into the air.

@ There were no surprises on the first-team offensive line, but the second unit included, from left to right, Joe Long, John Malecki, Kelvin Beachum, Justin Cheadle and Guy Whimper.

Those backup spots on the offensive line are going to be a critical battle.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Reporting day news, notes (Will be updated)

Spoke with Sean Spence. He feels he will be ready to play by midseason this year. He'll open training camp on the PUP and go from there according to head coach Mike Tomlin.

Heath Miller, who is walking around without a knee brace, will also open on the PUP. But he looks closer to a guy who intends on playing from the get-go than he does somebody who will be out the first six weeks.

Tight end David Johnson will also open on the PUP as he continues to recover from his knee injury suffered last year, while Alameda Ta'amu arrived with a hamstring issue that has landed him on the PUP as well.

On the good news front, offensive tackle Mike Adams passed the run test Friday and is ready to go. Adams has been given full clearance to play after being the victim of a stabbing in front of his home about six weeks ago.

Fellow offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert struggled through the run test today, but was able to finish. He was taken from the field on a cart following the completion of the run test, however.

Defensive back Nigel Malone also struggled to complete the test but made it through.

Tomlin said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still experiencing a little discomfort in his knee following offseason surgery, but it's nothing major.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Training camp battles to watch

With training camp set to start at the end of the week, here are a few of the battles that will be contested over the next few weeks:

Nickle corner: William Gay was re-signed and is the frontrunner, but third-year pro Curtis Brown can't be overlooked. Gay has played the position in the past and contrary to some fans' beliefs, has played well as the third corner. But Brown has more upside. Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke and rookie Terry Hawthorne could be in the mix as well since the Steelers intend to move starter Cortez Allen back into the slot on passing downs. Regardless of who wins the No. 3 job, the Steelers have a great deal of depth.

Running back: Will a true starter emerge? Jonathan Dwyer opened the offseason getting the No. 1 carries, but Isaac Redman had pretty much surpassed him by the end. The Steelers want rookie Le'Veon Bell to win the spot but he's going to have to do just that, win it. He won't be handed the position by default.

Third wide receiver: This should be interesting. We know that Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be the starters. But who will be No. 3 in the pecking order, Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery or rookie Markus Wheaton? It will likely depend on the down and distance, but Cotchery will likely get the majority of snaps as the No. 3 until Wheaton gets his feet under him. The Steelers should take a look at veteran Donald Jones, released by New England last week, as well.

Right outside linebacker: It's Jason Worilds job to lose. Rookie Jarvis Jones might see some time as a situational pass rusher, but Worilds will get every opportunity to run with it - at least until the bye week.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bad but understandable sentiment by Pouncey twins

Pretty much everyone in the U.S. has made up their mind about the guilt of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in regards to the murder charges levied against him.

The story has been plastered on the news and sports pages of every newspaper in America in the past few weeks.

But the story took a different twist over the weekend when twin brothers Mike and Maurkice Pouncey were photographed at a birthday party wearing hats that read, "Free Hernandez."

Was it a bad choice from the Pouncey twins? Yes. But it's not all that hard to believe that they support their former Florida teammate and - at least in the case of Mike Pouncey - roommate.

Heck, even Tim Tebow has been drug into this whole thing for being in a nightclub with Hernandez in college when the troubled tight end started a fight.

There's a bond formed among teammates. Heck, coaches try to foster that bond.

At all levels of sports, coaches want their players to back each other, for better or worse. In college, that means the players all room together. They study together, eat together and pretty much spend the majority of their time together.

Is it any surprise that some of the former teammates of Hernandez wouldn't believe that he was capable of killing someone as the story floated by police has been purported?

You see it all the time with family members of convicted killers who refuse to believe that their loved ones could do something so horrible. They don't want to believe that it's possible their loved one is a killer because - at least in the recesses of the mind - it makes them appear faulty for caring about someone so flawed.

So it's not a surprise that the Pouncey brothers believe that Gonzalez didn't kill anyone, even though they have both reportedly viewed his darker side at times.

But believing in Hernandez privately and making those views known publicly are two different things. In a time when everyone and their brother - no pun intended - are trying to distance themselves from Hernandez, the Pounceys went the other way.

The public outcry is understandable. But it's highly doubtful that Mike and Maurkice Pouncey are the only former teammates of Hernandez to feel that way.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Steelers release training camp schedule

The Steelers today released their schedule for their 2013 training camp. Remember, all open practices are weather permitting. Given how much rain we've gotten already in July, this could be an interesting camp.

The first official practice open to the public will be Saturday, July 27.

(All practices at 3 p.m. unless noted otherwise; all times subject to change.)
Friday, July 26 – Players report; campus closed
Saturday, July 27 – (Helmets and shorts)
Sunday, July 28 – (Helmets and shorts)
Monday, July 29
Tuesday, July 30 – Players off; campus closed
Wednesday, July 31
Thursday, Aug. 1
Friday, Aug 2 – Night practice at Latrobe Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 3
Sunday, Aug. 4
Monday, Aug. 5
Tuesday, Aug. 6 – Players off; campus closed
Wednesday, Aug. 7
Thursday, Aug. 8
Friday, Aug. 9 – Campus closed
Saturday, Aug. 10 – Preseason opener vs. N.Y. Giants at Heinz Field
Sunday, Aug. 11 – Players off; campus closed
Monday, Aug. 12
Tuesday, Aug. 13 – Players off; campus closed
Wednesday, Aug. 14 – Evening practice at SVC, 5:30 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 15
Friday, Aug. 16
Saturday, Aug. 17
Sunday, Aug. 18 – Break camp; campus closed

Monday, July 08, 2013

Supplemental Draft coming

The NFL will hold its Supplmental Draft of Thursday, with six players throwing their names into the fray.
None are considered as high-profile as Josh Gordon, who was selected by Cleveland in the second round last year, or even Terrelle Pryor, who was taken by Oakland in Round 3 two years ago.
The way the Supplemental Draft works is this: If you put in a claim on a player in a particular round, you forfeit that pick in the following year's draft. The trick of it is this, that player must still fit into this year's rookie salary pool.
The Steelers haven't gone to the Supplemental Draft for help for a number of reasons - most notably because if a guy is available in the Supplemental Draft, there's usually an issue with him, off-field or in the classroom.
Here's a look at the players who have made themselves available.
James Boyd, DE, UNLV: A 6-5, 250-pound defensive end, Boyd was a four-start recruit in high school after throwing for 4,200 yards with 44 touchdowns. That's right, he was a QB. He originally signed with USC before heading to West Los Angeles Community College. In his first, and only, season at defensive end, he had 2.5 sacks last year. He's raw and inexperienced, but his size/speed ratio could tempt someone to use a late pick on him.
Nate Holloway, DT, UNLV: A 6-3, 365-pound nose tackle, Boyd's UNLV teammate sat out the 2012 season due to academic issues. Insert your fat-drunk-stupid joke here. But seriously, he had 3.5 tackles for a loss in 2011, and given that  he hasn't played in two seasons, it's unlikely he gets a look.
Toby Jackson, DE, Central Florida: The 6-5, 267-pound Jackson also sat out the 2012 season with academic issues. He played just one season at Central Florida after starting his college career at Navarro College, a JUCO. Alabama and Georgia were reportedly interested in him coming out of JUCO, so he might have some talent. But he's pretty much an unknown.
Damond Smith, DB, South Alabama: Smith is an intriguing player who reportedly ran a 4.4 40 at his small-school pro day. Green Bay tried to sign him as an undrafted rookie following the draft, but it was ruled that he had to enter the Supplemental Draft. At 6-0, 185 pounds, Smith has good size, but he also transferred from Western Michigan to South Alabama following a fight with a teammate. Then, he was suspended later by South Alabama for a violation of team rules.
DeWayne Peace, WR, Houston: Here's a guy who might interest some teams. The 5-11, 190-pound Peace was Houston's leading receiver in 2012 with 54 receptions for 603 yards and two scores. But he was ruled academically ineligible in June and entered the Supplemental Draft. A team looking for slot receiver help might be tempted to give Peace a chance. That's all I'm saying.
O.J. Ross, WR, Purdue: Ross, 5-10, 188, missed Purdue's 2011 bowl game due to academics and was then thrown off the team in February for a violation of team rules. But he did catch 100 passes for 959 yards and six scores in three seasons for the Boilermakers. He was also used as a kick returner as a freshman and sophomore. I like Peace better as a player, however.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Three weeks and counting

Three weeks out from the opening of Steelers training camp and no news is really good news with this team.

While Aaron Hernandez news is all over - and yes, the Pouncey brothers were in a club with him in Florida when he got in a bar fight, but so was Tim Tebow - you see what kind of bad - in this case horrible - news can rock a team.

Those are the kind of distractions a team doesn't need.

The Steelers right now are resting, relaxing and getting ready to head to camp to wash away the stench of last year's 8-8 campaign.

@ Saw NFL official Gene Steratore last night at a youth baseball game. He was in a walking boot after having Achilles' tendon surgery.

Steratore, one of the best in the NFL, hopes to be ready to go once the NFL starts playing games. I wouldn't bet against him.

Monday, July 01, 2013

If it's July ...

If it's July, that can only mean one thing, training camp is around the corner.

The Pirates are playing outstanding baseball right now and hold the best record in baseball. The Penguins were one of the best, if not disappointing, teams in the NHL.

But, despite coming off an 8-8 season, it's still the Steelers that rule the region.

It will be interesting, however, to see how much fanfare continues to surround the Pirates if they continue to play as well as they have once training camp begins.

My first year covering the Steelers - 1993 - coincided with the Pirates starting their 20-year losing streak. There hasn't been a lot to cheer about other than the Steelers opening camp once late July rolls around.

But Pittsburgh is a great sports city and there's room for plenty of excitement surrounding both teams.