You would think that after two preseason games and three weeks of training camp practices, that the energy might be a bit down heading into the final five practices of camp, but not so on Sunday. Even if the players had any ideas about taking it easy, Mike Tomlin made it clear from the moment he stepped foot on the field that he did not. More on that later.
First, your daily stock report….
1. WR Tyler Murphy
Yep, that’s right, wide receiver Tyler Murphy is adjusting well to his knew (almost) full-time role with the team, making several impressive catches during the team periods today. His route-running is still very raw, but he showed the ability to adjust for passes thrown behind him even in traffic, a trait that drew consistent praise from Tomlin. After one nice snag in front of Ryan Shazier, Tomlin turned to us media standing behind him and said, “You guys get that? He’s starting to show wideout traits now!” Murphy isn’t a big guy, but he knows how to maximize his frame at times and has nice body control. His hands are still a work in progress, and he’s a roster long-shot, but always nice to show off versatility to other teams who may need help on cutdown day.
2. WR Markus Wheaton
Nice day all around for the wideouts, but Wheaton really made some impressive catches today. He showed off great hands and concentration to extend for a deep throw from Ben Roethlisberger, hanging on to the ball despite going head over heels. He made a nice grab in traffic and then quickly turned and got upfield for yards after the catch. Tomlin was impressed, yelling, “I like that one-one! Quick to the tuck, gotta have that!”.
3. RB DeAngelo Williams
What stands out about Williams is his vision, he’s always searching for the cutback lane if it’s there. He may not have the explosiveness or the burst he used to, but he’s crafty and plenty physical. I’ve been more encouraged every day by his all-around game, including his receiving talents and his pass protection. He’s gonna be a great pairing with Le’Veon Bell this season.
1. All the backup offensive tackles
A lot of offensive linemen struggled today, thanks in large part to the fact that many of them were manning new positions on the offense. Alex will have the full breakdown for you, but I saw Mitchell Van Dyk get several reps at left tackle, while Alejandro Villanueva lined up at right tackle. Both seemed to do ok in the run game, but really struggled in their kick steps working from their new position.
2. QB Tajh Boyd
Boyd got a few reps at quarterback today, but he didn’t make the most of them. Threw a couple passes that definitely could have been more accurate, including one that was almost intercepted by one defensive back (might have been Gerod Holliman). He’s received so few reps lately that his struggles are understandable, and it is definitely a little strange that he’s been given almost no chance to make it here. Still, have to take advantage of opportunities, and Boyd just hasn’t done that enough.
3. DT Daniel McCullers
McCullers returned to practice on a limited basis today, and was immediately in the doghouse, as he jumped offside during the defensive line positional “get-off” drills to start the day. Keith Butler had no time or patience for that, yelling, “Take a lap! That’s offsides, can’t have dumb penalties!” McCullers slowly trotted around the field before returning to the next drill with the team while receiving plenty of verbal encouragement from teammates and coaches.
Straight from my notes, in no particular order here…
-Tomlin was in rare form today, from the beginning of practice until the very end. He’s always energetic, setting the tone from the moment he stepped on the field with an, “Alright, let’s go! What’s up Hey?!”, yelling toward Cameron Heyward. He greeted several other players like this right after.
–Anthony Chickillo is soaking up as much knowledge from Joey Porter as he can, as the two talked during almost the entire walk-through period at the beginning of practice. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but Porter was clearly demonstrating technique to the rookie for quite awhile.
-During the stretching/warmup period of practice, Doran Grant was throwing 20-30 yard passes to Alden Darby, who was trying to make circus catches behind his back or by reaching back between his legs. He successfully completed only one behind the back catch, but it was enough to send the charismatic safety into a dramatic celebration.
Just from listening to the interactions between the players, it is clear that Darby is well-liked, even by the veterans. He works hard, is smart and dedicated to his craft, and conducts himself like a professional so far. If he doesn’t make the 53-man roster, he’s gonna be a very tough cut for the coaching staff.
–Ross Ventrone and Vince Williams ran pretty hard today off to the side. Hopefully see both players return to practice soon.
–Ramon Foster is always the vocal leader of the team stretches, yelling out specific greetings to almost every player on the field.
“Sup J.J.!” (to Jarvis Jones). “Sup Mo!” (to Arthur Moats). “Sup Ian, sup Kru!” (to Ian Wild and Joe Kruger).
Each greeting is completely random and they tend to come rapid fire. Every one in awhile one player gets a specific cheer or chant involving their name, led by the vocal Foster.
“Everybody yell TUUU-IIITTT!”, Foster chants, followed by the entire team yelling, “TUUU-IIITTT!” Just fun stuff to lighten the mood and build team chemistry and morale, led by one of the classiest members of the organization.
-A female fan yelled, “I love you, James Harrison!” during the stretch period. William Gay, who was putting on his shoulder pads on the far sideline, immediately yelled back, “Why don’t you get him a ring then?!!” Absolutely classic.
-No Jordan Zumwalt, Vince Williams, or Lawrence Timmons today in practice, so Ian Wild worked with the inside linebackers. He played the position in college and in the CFL, so cerebrally the move should be a smooth one. He and the other inside linebackers went through tackling drills on the sled with Coach Jerry Olsavsky, working on getting low, leading with the shoulder, and driving through their target. Olsavsky spent plenty of one-on-one time with Wild, making sure he was clear on technique and form moving forward.
-After working on their get-off timing and first step, the defensive line graduated to learning how to read and attack different blocking schemes by offensive linemen. John Mitchell walked them through this process slowly and emphatically, spending extra time on it with the younger players.
-Seven shots period, plenty of chatter from the coaching staff. Keith Butler warns his linebacker not to get too deep in their drops and be mindful of defending the goal line. “Watch your depth, watch your depth!”, he yells. The advice pays off, as Sean Spence breaks up a curl route pass to Matt Spaeth on the goal line moments later.
-Wild had another strong day, lining up in the slot against Dri Archer at one point during seven shots. “Press ‘em,” Olsavsky yelled. “Know where your help is!” Wild alertly listened to his coach’s urgings, shading Archer to force an inside release, before blanketing the running back all the way across the goal line.
-There was a miscommunication between Will Allen, Brandon Boykin, and Jordan Dangerfield in coverage during seven shots, but the offense couldn’t take advantage of it. I’m a little peeved I didn’t catch the route combinations by the receivers, but I saw the trio yelling at each pre-snap and Allen almost pulled Dangerfield into his alignment. All three huddled up after the play, but defensive backs coach Carnell Lake jogged in and quickly cleared things up for them.
-Lake was all over it today, especially during wide receiver vs. defensive back coverage drills on the goal line. With Jordan Sullen matched up against Kenzel Doe, who was lined up outside the numbers, Lake yelled pre-snap, “He’s coming inside 4-2, he’s coming inside!”. Sure enough, Doe jab stepped to the outside to get Sullen to false step, then quickly re-directed inside on a slant route that he caught easily for the touchdown.
“Come on!”, Lake yelled. “Pay attention to the split 4-2!”
Lake was referencing the wide split that Doe had outside the numbers, basically eliminating any out-breaking patterns from the route tree. Because of that split, his only options were a fade route, which would have meant working through Sullen’s jam at the line of scrimmage (plus Doe is 5’7), or running an in-breaking route. Lake alertly notified the big cornerback of this right away, but Sullen still failed to make the play.
–Doran Grant nearly picked off an out-route throw to Wheaton near the front pylon in this same drill, mirroring the veteran receiver’s movements before jumping the pass. Grant’s consistently shown strong route-recognition in coverage, an encouraging sign for a young corner.
-Boykin had one of the best coverage plays of the day, mirroring Shakim Phillips on a post-corner route to break up the pass in the back of the end zone. A longer developing route, but not an easy pattern to cover man-to-man, especially when the quarterback has no pressure and can make a perfect throw. Boykin showed physicality at the route stem to keep Phillips from getting breaking outside cleanly, then stuck with him hip-to-hip to knock the pass away at the back pylon.
–Darrius Heyward-Bey made a great catch over Boykin down the sideline, actually high-pointing the ball for maybe the first time all camp. He beat Will Allen badly on a nine-route minutes later, but of course dropped the perfect pass when he tried to basket catch it.
–Niko Davis is really slow off the ball. My lone significant observation from watching a minute or two of linemen drills.
-Didn’t watch much of the one-on-ones between backs and linebackers, but I did see Le’Veon Bell fall down in his route, resulting in an easy interception for Shazier, which the linebacker gleefully returned up the sideline. Archer raced over jokingly to make the “tackle”, but as he did Shazier slipped, both feet going straight out from under him as the linebacker landed on his butt. The graceful move earned plenty of heckling comments from his teammates.
-Bell showed outstanding second level vision on one run during team period, juking to the outside as William Gay approached the hole from off coverage, before redirecting back inside and bursting down the field. Gay fell for the fake and jumped outside to protect the edge, but couldn’t change directions fast enough to keep the smooth back from accelerating to rip off a big gain. Tomlin was thrilled, yelling, “I see you two-six! I see you two-six!”.
-Nobody was happier to be out on the field today then Bruce Gradkowski, who was activated off the P.U.P. list this morning and was in full pads for the afternoon session. During run period all the quarterback had to do was hand the ball off, but any run that went past five yard had Gradkowski running around like a mad man, chest-bumping teammates and high-fiving coaches. The veteran quarterback even ran up to Maurkice Pouncey and banged helmets with him, before doing the same to the rest of the offensive line.
Gradkowski provided perhaps the funniest moment of the day as well, when his hard count drew Shayon Green offsides during team period. The quarterback pointed both fingers at Green and yelled, “GOT ‘EM!!”, right before the snap. Hilarious.
-Green got yelled at during special teams punt block drills when he failed to finish the drill. “Scoop that Shayon!” Olsavsky chirped. “Come on, scoop and score!”
–Danny Smith quotes of the day:
“Come off the damn ball! I don’t even care about the rest right now, just get off the damn ball!”
“You aren’t even ready Chic (to Chickillo)! You aren’t even ready! That ain’t s**t!”
-Tomlin quotes of the day:
“Way to hunt Tuitt!”
“Like that Ian! Like that 3-8, I see you!”
“Way to close (on the flat route) Bud, way to re-direct! Way to close 4-8!”
–Bud Dupree earned Tomlin’s wrath later in practice however, as the outside linebacker jumped offsides during a 3rd down drill for the offense. The head coach stormed into the middle of the defensive huddle, yelling, “Don’t give them a free first down! That’s stupid!” Tomlin sent Dupree for a lap around the field as punishment for his lack of focus.
-Heyward-Bey dropped another pass right off his chest during the 3rd down drill, despite the fact that he was wide open and would have easily picked up the first down. Drink.
-Assistant coach Rock Cartwright has been doing a great job during special teams period all throughout camp, consistently addressing players who need to pick it up. Today the recipient of his instruction was Jesse James, as the rookie tight end was simply going through the motions during a special teams kick return drill.
“Jesse, I’m looking for more outta you. Gotta hustle, every rep man. Come on now, let’s go!”