On a gorgeous night for football in Latrobe, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again took the field for a full-pads practice, only this time it was under the lights at the local high school field and in front of a packed house that filled the ample space in the stands.
It was more of a laid-back practice than the afternoon sessions have been, as the players even took the first 15 minutes to sign autographs for fans in what has become a tradition during the “Friday Night Lights” practice.
Much to fans’ dismay, James Harrison did not suit up for a fifth straight practice, while Will Allen, Cortez Allen, Heath Miller, Ross Ventrone, and Gerod Holliman all sat out as well. While the period was definitely less enthusiastic and slower-paced than the sessions preceding it this week, there were still several noteworthy takeaways gleaned from the night’s activities.
Your Saturday morning stock report…
1. OT Kelvin Beachum
It’s time to give the veterans some love for top-notch camp performances, and what better place to start than the reliable Beachum. The starting left tackle has quickly become one of the more valuable players on the roster for Pittsburgh, and seemingly every practice he proves why. Only on rare occasions has he not dominated Jarvis Jones, as Beachum expertly anchors with sound technique against edge rushers. He’s looked great in one-on-ones as well, preparing for what should be his best season yet in a contract year.
2. WR Antonio Brown
I kid you not, every day, without fail, Antonio Brown makes at least 3-4 plays that get the crowd on their feet and applause filling the air. He’s such a special talent that too often I’m at fault for taking his skills for granted in this space. No more. In coverage drills Antwon Blake worked diligently to stick with Brown, but it just didn’t matter. Blake’s best efforts, which were admirable, were simply no match for the shifty Steelers receiver, who won consistently at every level of the field. Absolute clinic by Brown all week.
3. DE Cameron Heyward
What a force Heyward has become on the interior for Pittsburgh. He bullied Ramon Foster four yards into the backfield to blow up a running play during 11-on-11, a matchup Heyward has been winning all week. He’s simply too powerful and explosive for most linemen to handle one-on-one, as Heyward consistently proves he’s worth every penny Pittsburgh paid him in his recent extension. Fantastic week of practice for him.
1. WR Eli Rogers
After a fast start to camp, the past few practices have raised more questions about Rogers’ hands, as he has struggled with some bad drops. Last night in 7v7, Rogers dropped an easy pass in the flat despite the fact that he was wide open and Ben Roethlisberger’s throw was on-target. Every rep matters for these young guys, so Rogers needs to right the ship to stay on top of a promising group of receivers trying to make the cut.
2. WR Devin Gardner
The long, athletic receiver looked tired on Friday night, failing to gain much separation or exhibit suddenness in his route movements. Gardner is too upright in his patterns, failing to get maximum explosion or separation against man coverage. The result is a lot of contested catches, which Gardner does have the radius for, but that isn’t always a sustainable style of play. His releases off the line of scrimmage are too slow as well, failing to attack off-man coverage with the aggressiveness required to get a defensive back on his heels. I like Gardner’s physicality against press corners, but the incessant hand-fighting often slows down his route as well. This is all to be expected with a guy who is playing a position relatively foreign to him, but Gardner has his work cut out for him to make the strides necessary to grab a roster spot in the remaining weeks of camp.
3. OLB Jarvis Jones
It isn’t that Jones has been bad, he just doesn’t look improved at all from last year. Obviously it is very early, and the linebacker has plenty of time to change that perception, but right now I’ve been unimpressed. He works hard on the field, but too often gets tied up on blocks and takes forever to shed and flow to the football. Jones is also stiff in space on the perimeter, and can struggle to turn and stay with ball carriers working toward the boundary. Getting shut out in backs-on-backers by a rookie in Jesse James won’t help his stock any either.
1. QB Landry Jones
I’m not gonna go crazy here, but I will say I believe Jones had his best practice as a Steeler on Friday. He’s definitely going through reads much quicker this year at camp, hitting his first option with good timing and a swift delivery. There were duds last night for sure, but you can tell he’s becoming more comfortable in the offense. Throwing down the field is still a rarity, but Jones did rip one pass to the near sideline with good timing and velocity to hit one of his receivers on an out-route. Slivers of light in a dark tunnel.
2. G Collin Rahrig
He’s got some length and athletic limitations, but there is no questioning how strong Rahrig’s anchor is. I was impressed by some of his work in one-on-ones, holding off more powerful pass rushers with good technique. First time Rahrig has really caught my eye.
3. LB Ryan Shazier
It is starting to click for Shazier. Playing in traffic will likely always present issues for the young linebacker, but Shazier’s quick feet and alert hand usage help him sift through trash to the ball. Those traits were on display Friday night, as Shazier dusted Roosevelt Nix twice for sacks in one-on-ones. As technique and good habits develop, Shazier’s athleticism will be more and more valuable moving forward.
I missed the first couple of reps watching receiving drills, but I heard tale of an epic clash between Le’Veon Bell and Bud Dupree to kick things off. Bell and Will Johnson didn’t participate in any of the 15+ reps that I watched of the session, but the backs still held their own in much more convincing fashion than they did during Wednesday’s practice. Here’s some highlights.
1. Cameron Stingily, still struggling with overextending, gets beaten easily by Terence Garvin as the power back’s weight shifts out over his knees.
2. Shazier gets Roosevelt Nix twice thanks to some nifty maneuvering, once stutter-stepping by him, then shoulder-dipping under the fullback’s punch to win the edge on rep #2.
3. James anchors well against the bull-rushing Jarvis Jones, holding off the big linebacker during the tight end’s best rep of camp.
4. Josh Harris drops the eye level and lunges at Vince Williams, as the linebacker alertly slips by him.
5. Anthony Chickillo’s first step is too overwhelming for Harris, who can’t seal the edge.
6. Nix buries Sean Spence. The linebacker’s bull rush knocked Nix back at first, but the fullback showed major fight by re-setting and pancaking Spence with a powerful upper body.
7. Stingily does a much better job of sitting back in his stance and keeping his weight distributed to hold off a linebacker, may have been Jordan Zumwalt.
8. Nix and Dupree tumble to the ground in a competitive battle, with no clear winner.
9. Dupree attempts to spin on Cameron Clear, but the big tight end stays with him fairly well.
10. Howard Jones beats Nix to the edge with an excellent rip-and-dip to the quarterback.
11. Nix tosses someone, can’t see who. Powerful upper half for the Kent State product, no doubt about that.
12. Lawrence Timmons eventually overpowers Harris, but the rush took too long to develop, so no real winner. Harris did a really nice job of holding the big linebacker off with strong hips and much better knee bend.
13. Chickillo counters inside cleanly against Nix, nice move.
14. Nix does a better job, sticking with Chickillo despite active feet by the outside linebacker. He’s clearly improved since Wednesday.
-If I knew nothing about Steelers football, and just showed up to training camp one day, I’d guess Matt Spaeth would be one of the first guys out of town after roster cuts. His routes are so stiff and upright, he has the athletic ceiling of a hamster, and his hands are nothing special. Spaeth’s lower half looked like he skipped leg day, but man has he created a nice, long career for himself with tons of hard work, great technique, and leadership in the locker room. His value comes in his blocking and playing assignment-sound football at all times, things that are tougher to find then you’d think in today’s NFL.
–B.W. Webb has impressed me since the pads have come on. Not a big guy, but loves to play physical against receivers coming off the line of scrimmage. On Wednesday Webb ran Darrius Heyward-Bey off the field, while yesterday he showed a great punch against Markus Wheaton in coverage drills.
–William Gay is so smart and instinctive. Can click-and-close in a hurry, as he exhibited Friday night with a top-notch pass breakup.
-Dupree and Chickillo both had strong team sessions again today. Dupree showed progress at coming off the edge controlled, finding the ball, and attacking down the line of scrimmage, while Chickillo continues to look explosive, albeit mostly against third-teamers.
–Antwon Blake plays the pocket really well, and always tries to disrupt the catch point. His size limits him contesting high balls, but Blake’s hands are always active. He does struggle to play with his back to the quarterback at times though, failing to get his head around and locate the ball.
-Dupree showed a nasty spin move in one-on-ones, absolutely dismantling Kelvin Palmer.
–B.J. Finney showed good smarts and hand usage when blocking the massive Daniel McCullers, placing his outside hand on McCullers’ right shoulder to wall off the pocket, and putting his right hand on McCullers’ inside hip to slow his leg drive. When you’re length-challenged like Finney is, it is tough to win that matchup, but he did well. Finney also anchored impressively several other times last night.
–L.T. Walton has to put his hands to better use as a pass rusher. Tries to bull rush everyone and that just isn’t gonna work at this level. Swim, rip, club, spin, etc. Gotta improve the pass-rushing repertoire going forward.