Pittsburgh, PA —
After a day away from practice on Sunday, the Steelers returned on Monday and Tuesday with renewed effort. The coaching staff has been bringing people in and out for workouts while they try to prepare free agents and rookies for the 2011 season. Every year, training camp is somewhat of a barometer of things to come in the season. Likewise, every year has a few surprises. Today and tomorrow will most-likely give head coach Mike Tomlin and the remainder of the coaching staff a better idea of who they will put on the field against the Washington Redskins Friday night. Undoubtedly, one of the more rigorous days will be tomorrow as preparations and decisions are made based on performance.
Receiver Hines Ward was released from the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list Monday morning. Ward tore ligaments in his left thumb last season (week two), but played with a splint the remainder of the season. Although Ward was unable to practice early in training camp, he was active on the field with guidance for young receivers like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and those new to Steelers uniforms. During a red zone passing drill Monday afternoon, Ward caught a pass on a slant play over the middle for a touchdown from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It is unclear whether Ward will be used Friday in the Steelers’ preseason opener, but Ward admitted he believed that waiting to play may be the smartest way to make sure he is 100 percent for the opening game of the regular season against Baltimore on September 11.
Coach Tomlin said of Ward, “It’s great to have him back out here…he’s a leader for us, of course.”
Leadership from veterans isn’t a new thing for the Steelers. In fact, every year at training camp, veterans have taken opportunities to advise, demonstrate and prep younger players. Defensive lineman Ziggy Hood took extra time with rookie Cameron Heyward after Monday’s practices ended. Hood demonstrated moves and then had Heyward simulate blocking and pass rushing. They went at it for nearly 20 minutes. When asked about it, Hood said he had been able to get in offseason workouts, but because of the NFL lockout, players were unable to have organized workouts with coaches. This has made it difficult for new players on the roster as they are learning the playbook as quickly as possible, and veteran experience certainly has paid off through mentoring. Hood was mentored by Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel when he became the Steelers’ top draft pick in 2009. Last season, Hood came in for injured defensive linemen and handled the pressure well, stepping up to make himself a known prescence on the field. Hood said, “If I can help, I’m going to help. Nobody had to say anything to me. If I see (a player) need some extra work…I’m going to give him the help he wants.” Heyward appreciated the time Hood took with him.
While receivers Hines Ward and Emmanual Sanders were hindered by injuries, sophomore receiver Antonio Brown has been getting more repititions in with the first team. Brown said it was an good opportunity to be able to work with the Steelers’ top quarterback (Roethlisberger), but admits that he still has a way to go in order to feel fully prepared. When asked about Ward’s return Monday, Brown said, “He is a vet, a smart guy. You can learn the little things from him.” It is still unclear whether Brown will make the third-receiver roster spot, but considering Sanders’ foot injury, Brown has improved his in-camp experiences.
Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert was interviewed by Tim Benz of 105 ‘the X’ Tuesday and said that Arnaz Battle, mainly a special teams player last season, has been more involved during this year’s camp, but that the team is still looking for outside receivers. Battle obviously hasn’t gotten that news because he has shown up and consistently proven that he would love a roster spot. On Sunday, former Jets receiver Jericho Cotchery was invited to camp, but left Tuesday without a contract. Whether or not this shows that the Steelers are concerned about Sanders’ readiness is up in the air. Ward said, “Looking at our wide receiving corps…great talent, we have no experience.” Meanwhile receiver Tyler Grisham has also stepped up his game. Although Grisham isn’t the tallest receiver the Steelers have to choose from, Roethlisberger has shown that he finds him an appealing target. Grisham spent most of 2009 and all of 2010 on the Steelers’ practice squad and came to camp with experience that many newer players don’t have; an understanding of how the Steelers’ offense runs. Grisham has shown maturity and has caught nearly every pass thrown to him. Many believe this is his year to take a roster spot. Wes Lyons has been brilliant one moment and shown a lack of experience at others. The Steelers could use his height (6’8″), but he hasn’t been able to have a break-out practice that made him stand out just yet. The Steelers have also been using a new scheme where tight end Heath Miller has been placed in the offensive backfield, and he’s shown not only great hands, but a continued ability to rise to the occassion and find an open spot where Roethlisberger can hit him for yardage.
Roethisberger admits that having the veterans lead the younger players with such a strange off-season is a blessing in disguise. “It is unusual circumstance we are in,” he said. “We have veteran guys who have been here and done that before. The offseason was almost beneficial to the guys. It’s something where we can step up and be ready to go.”
Expect more of the same from practices leading up to Friday’s game. There is no doubt that the coaching staff will be targeting younger players in drills to find out how far they are willing to go when it comes to competing for roster positions. Tomlin said that although there have been up and down moments in camp, he sees the opportunity for building a good, solid team.
RB – While Jonathan Dwyer continues to struggle, Baron Batch came out of the gates running (literally). He has cooled off a bit this week, but still has made an impression; enough that veteran Rashard Mendenhall praised the new rusher this week publicly.
LB – Chris Carter has had an on-again, off-again training camp and has shown that he has some maturing to do. Stevenson Slyvester looks strong, healthy and could be the next linebacker to join the famed Steelers defense’s linebacker history-makers. Mortty Ivy is much faster than expected and has made some surprising moves of late.
WR – Although Mike Wallace suffered a groin injury Monday, he isn’t expected to sit out long. Limas Sweed has shown that injuries still plague him and has been inconsistent in his play.
OL – Chris Scott may have been out of action during the 2010 season (his rookie year – foot injury), coaches have been testing him at the right guard position with the first team. Ramon Foster would normally be in that position but suffered what he calls a ‘minor concussion’ and has been pulled out of rotation for the time being after Tomlin said he didn’t believe that there was such a thing as a mild concussion. Tomlin has been great about making sure that players have not practiced with injury during camp. Keith Williams has shown that he can be very physical on the offensive line, and his play has stood out for most of camp. Williams has shared left guard reps with Doug Legursky.
CB – While Keenan Lewis is still learning the ropes, he has the talent to be a strong player, but needs mental preparedness. Curtis Brown remains on the sidelines; Cortez Allen and Bryant McFadden remain very limited.
Tight End Eugene Bright and Chris Kemoeatu remain on the PUP list. Center Maurkice Pouncey returned to practice.
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