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10 observations from Pittsburgh Steelers training camp

Steelers fans! Great to be back with you. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for the NFL page here at FFSN, but I’m happy to be reporting on the Steelers again, particularly after visiting training camp in Latrobe on Thursday. Here are 10 observations from my visit to what is certainly one of the most idyllic locations for an NFL training camp.

1. Latrobe

For those who have never been, the setting is fantastic. You park amidst the rolling hills that ring the Latrobe area and enter through a maze of nostalgic tents commemorating greats of the Steelers’ past. There’s entertainment for the kids, like a football-toss game and a Steelers-themed bounce house. The path to the practice fields includes an obligatory trek through the memorabilia tent, where my son hit me up for a Steelers’ hat and my daughter for a black-and-gold foam finger. It was worthwhile, though, when considering how important it is to indoctrinate your children as Steelers’ fans.

Upon exiting the tent, you descend a small hill and there it is — the famous row of shrubs across the perfectly manicured practice fields that spell “Saint Vincent.” I had seen images of those shrubs every training camp for decades until finally absorbing them in person last year when I visited Latrobe for the first time. For any diehard fan, it’s a big moment, and one for which you should stop and soak it in.

The whole environment deserves a long look. The fields are encompassed by the beautiful brick buildings of the college with the mountains behind them providing a lush backdrop. The players come down a hill on the opposite side of the fields, where fans line the pathway hoping to get a high five or perhaps an autograph. It feels a bit like you’ve arrived at a western Pennsylvania version of the Field of Dreams. While some teams have constructed state-of-the-art training camps with the most modern equipment and facilities, the Steelers have captured something unique and beautiful at Latrobe. Whatever it may lack in modern technology or convenience, it makes up for with charm, tone and environment.

2. Pre-practice

One of my favorite things to do is to watch the pre-practice, which is the informal warm-up session that takes place before the horn blows to officially get things started. You can really get an idea of the skills upon which certain players or units wish to emphasize during this period, as well as how players conduct themselves in informal settings.

The defensive backs did a drill where they were catching balls off of the Juggs machine (a machine that shoots out footballs the way a pitching machine does with baseballs) while an assistant coach harassed them with a pad to try to break their concentration. I liked how the drill simulated the contact defensive backs must battle through to play the football. It was far better than simply having them stand and make catches in a static environment.

The defensive front walked through their blitzes, rehearsing timing and assignments.

The offensive line worked on pass sets. I paid particular attention to new addition Isaac Seumalo, who was one of many veterans who didn’t practice yesterday. Seumalo worked a lot with Kendrick Green and appeared to be instructing Green on staying square and not lunging or leaning too much in his pass set. Seumalo looked like the alpha of the line with the way he moved from player to player, joking with some, offering advice to others. My sense is he will be a huge addition from both a leadership and performance standpoint.

Finally, the offensive skill players rehearsed a “routes-on-air” period where they went through some of their most common passing concepts, like Mesh and Curl-Flat, and emphasized getting to the proper landmarks on their routes. They moved the ball from the -20 yard line to the opposite end zone, snapping it in 20-yard intervals. It was a well-organized drill that served as an excellent warm up.

3. The eye test

Thursday was a rest day for many of the veterans. Besides Seumalo, other DNPs included Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Patrick Peterson, Diontae Johnson and Allen Robinson. I was disappointed not to get a look at Peterson and Robinson, as I was hoping to glean some insight into how they are being used.

The other disappointing element to Thursday’s practice was that it was not conducted in full pads. With the always-physical Friday NIght Lights practice happening today, Mike Tomlin decided to pull back on the contact. Without pads, it was hard to evaluate the linemen, who mostly worked technique and didn’t engage in much live action. What it did allow, though, was for fans to get a good glimpse of the bodies on the players.

The player who simply looks like the baddest dude out there is Larry Ogunjobi. He is big, thick and carries himself with the confidence of a man who fears no one. If I were ranking the players who participated yesterday based on the guy I’d least want to piss off, Larry O would be my top choice.

Broderick Jones, the rookie number one pick, is also massive. But he’s surprisingly light on his feet. Jones moves nimbly and carries his 310 pounds with, if not outright grace, then something resembling ease. At one point he and Chuks Okorafor were messing around tossing a football and Jones caught three in a row with one hand. Plain and simple — the kid is an athlete.

Alex Highsmith looks slimmer than he did last season. The way he’s moving reflects that. He’s bending the edge easier on his pass rush and appears quicker off the ball. That could be great news for the Steelers pass rush duo at outside linebacker.

The newest Steeler, linebacker Kwon Alexander, is listed as 6’1-227 but he looks smaller. He looks like a safety, to be honest. Fortunately, he appears to move like one, too. I’m not sure how many reps Alexander will see in the run game. But on coverage downs, I’d expect him to be on the field a good amount.

Keeanu Benton is another good-looking dude without pads. He’s 6’4-310, but like Jones, carries the weight well and has soft feet. Benton worked primarily with the second group on the day, but it doesn’t seem like it will take long for him to earn reps with the starters.

Joey Porter Jr. is LONG. He has extremely long arms, and he uses them well in coverage. More on JPJ in a moment.

Finally, given all the hype about his size, I was eager to get a good glimpse at Darnell Washington up close. Washington (#80 in the photo below) does not disappoint. He has a massive frame and a wingspan like a condor. Washington made Pat Freiermuth look small and made Connor Heyward look like a child. He doesn’t have anything on Zach Gentry, however, who is massive in his own right. Given the size of Gentry (81) and Washington, and the fact Freiermuth is 6’5-255, the Steelers tight end room might be the biggest in the history of the league.

4. Skill Work

Once the players broke into their individual groups, it was interesting to see what each position group was focusing on. These drills tend to vary from day to day, with the emphasis shifting depending on what schemes are being implemented into the broader game-plan. Thursday, the position groups focused on the following:

Quarterbacks — Timing. Whether it was getting the snap right on jet sweeps or the ball out quickly on short routes, the emphasis for the quarterbacks was making sure everything happened on time.

Running Backs — The blaster machine. That’s the machine with all of the arms that provide resistance as backs churn their legs and run through it. The backs got a lot of work on the blaster, while a coach tried to strip them of the ball as they exited.

Wide Receivers — Hands drills. The points of emphasis were on catching balls thrown right at the mid-section; and on tracking balls thrown over the shoulder. George Pickens caught every ball flawlessly, while Dez Fitzpatrick was good in these drills too.

Offensive Line/Tight Ends — Cutoff blocks on the outside zone play. The linemen were all out in space working on climbing to the second level and gaining leverage on linebackers. Jones looks like a natural with his movements, while Mason Cole and Okorafor move easily as well. Kevin Dotson, as you might imagine, struggled a bit in this area, as did James Daniels.

Defensive Line — Sled work. Lots of striking and shedding. The sled was taking a beating.

Inside linebackers — Scrape-and-shed drill. They worked on attacking the line of scrimmage by getting over top of blocks and then on block destruction once they reached the point of attack. Mark Robinson looked fabulous coming downhill. Going forward is not a problem for him. It’s not allowing that aggressiveness to get himself out of position that will be the challenge.

Outside linebackers — Hand-fighting. Lots of work in this group at getting the hands of an offensive lineman off of them in order to shed and rush the passer. They looked like they were being coached by Mr. Miyagi from across the field.

Secondary — man-coverage work. Lots of reps on man-positioning, fighting for jump balls in one-on-one situations and the proper way to break up passes. No doubt the Steelers will continue their heavy use of Cover-1 schemes in 2023.

Punters and Kickers — They punted and kicked. A lot. By themselves. On the remote third field. Sad.

5. Seven Shots

Everyone loves the famous Seven Shots drill, which pits the offense against the defense in a goal-line scenario. The ball is placed on the 2-yard-line and the offense runs seven plays from there, attempting to score each time. First unit to record four “wins” claims the drill.

With no pads yesterday, the run game was impossible. So the offense threw the ball on seven straight plays. How did they fare? Not well. The defense won 6-1. Highlights included Montravious Adams batting down a throw by Kenny Pickett on the opening play; Pickett throwing a dart for a would-be score to Freiermuth that ‘Muth uncharacteristically dropped; Pickett scrambling out of the pocket against the blitz to find Pickens at the back of the end zone for the offense’s lone score; and corner Chris Wilcox diving to break up a Mitch Trubisky throw intended for Calvin Austin.

It really wasn’t a fair fight without the threat of a run game. The offense shifted and motioned on every play to try to get the defense out of position. But the defense smothered the receivers at the line and closed the windows into which the quarterbacks had to throw. The defense certainly played with more passion and was the more excited unit as the drill progressed.

6. Pickens vs. Porter

The Pickens vs. Porter matchup has gotten a lot of attention so far in camp, and it did not disappoint. The two went after each other all afternoon like a roster spot was in the balance. That’s exactly the spirited competition you want between two young players. They are certainly pushing each other, and inevitably making each other better.

Pickens produced another highlight reel catch when he dove to snare a corner route from Pickett at the front pylon with Porter draped all over him. Porter’s coverage drew a flag from the officials, who deemed him too handsy. The catch was even more impressive considering Pickett threw it well before Pickens came out of his break, and Pickens had only a split second to find the ball and react to it.

Porter earned some redemption later on with great coverage on Pickens on a 9-route (a straight Go). Pickett threw a perfect ball over Porter’s outside shoulder. At the last second, though, Porter threw up his hand and deflected it, sending it high into the air. Pickens continued to track the ball and snared it out of the air with one hand, drawing a huge roar from the crowd. But the refs ruled him out of bounds, and Porter celebrated.

Every rep those two took against each other was a must-see event. They both look like veterans, and the fact they commanded so much attention hints at the types of players they are likely to become.

7. Pickett’s day

Kenny Pickett looks much faster in his reads and progressions than he did a year ago. That’s a beautiful thing. If Pickett can evolve from a coverage recognition standpoint and can feel more comfortable with where the ball is going, he could be great.

The most encouraging thing in watching him was how much command he has over his unit. There is no question who the #1 quarterback is. Trubisky and Mason Rudolph felt like after-thoughts. This time last year when I attended camp, those two were taking the majority of the reps while Pickett threw to a bunch of guys destined for the waiver wire. Now, it’s Kenny’s offense. Pickett made some mistakes, one of which I’ll talk about momentarily, but he was quick, decisive, threw some great deep balls and seemed fully in command. That comfort level will allow the offense to evolve at a much faster pace than it did last season, when the mandate from Mike Tomlin was for that unit to protect the football and not give games away. This year, my sense is the offense will be tasked with winning on their own accord.

8. The quotable Coach Tomlin

Mike Tomlin is my favorite NFL coach. Not just because he’s the coach of the Steelers, but because of the passion and purpose with which he coaches, and the unique and completely genuine way he communicates to his players.

I was close enough on a few occasions to catch some of what he was saying. Here are a few of my favorite Tomlin quotes from Thursday:

To unheralded linebacker David Perales during a special teams’ drill: “I’m so interested in your ability to play in space. This is big business for you. Keep working.” The fact Tomlin took time in the middle of a rapidly-paced drill to offer words of encouragement to Perales, who has little chance of making the team, was poignant.

To Pickens as the team was stretching just before practice began: “No mental errors today. Be perfect in your approach.” No one doubts Pickens has the physical gifts to be a star in the league. But Tomlin was challenging Pickens to be more than simply a physical presence. Clearly, he recognizes the mental element as the next hurdle Pickens must clear in his development.

To the officials during the special teams’ drill in which Tomlin spoke with Perales: “If you even think you see it, call it. Now’s the time for them to learn.” Amen to that.

9. The Two-Minute Drill

Practice ended with a two-minute drill featuring the offense against the defense. The first offense stumbled, losing five yards on a false start penalty (not sure on whom, I was writing in my notebook as it occurred), and then, after a couple of first downs, turning the ball over on Pickett’s worst play of the day.

On 1st-and-10 from midfield, with 1:07 on the clock, Pickett took a shotgun snap and dropped to pass. The offense ran a four-verticals concept, and the defense came with a blitz. Gunner Olszewski flashed wide open up the left slot, but Pickett had his eyes on the rush and dipped out of the pocket. Moving to his right, he tried to hit Cody White on a comeback as White broke off his vertical and worked towards the sideline. But Pickett didn’t get enough on the throw, and Porter undercut the route to make a diving interception. That sent the defense into a frenzy as Pickett left the field shaking his head.

Ideally, you’d like to see Pickett hang in the pocket there and hit Olszewski up the seam. It would have been a big play, maybe even a touchdown. Perhaps he’s instructed in these non-padded situations to get out of the pocket to avoid injury. But this was the one play where he looked like 2022 Kenny Pickett, eager to flee and late to recognize a receiver coming open down the field. It’s one play, and nothing I’d label an issue considering how good he looked the rest of the day. But it was an unfortunate ending to an otherwise stellar practice.

The second unit ended their two-minute drive with a touchdown, as Trubisky hit Washington up the seam on a throw from 25 yards out that looked just like the one Pickett should have made to Olszewski. Washington is 6’7, and Olszewsky is 5’11, so that may have had something to do with why one QB saw his receiver and the other didn’t. Regardless, the crowd let out a roar when Washington scored, and Tomlin summarily sounded the whistle to end the practice.

10. Odds and Ends

  • Anthony McFarland looks really quick in space. I keep thinking there has to be a role for him in this offense. I’m just not sure from whom he takes touches.
  • Austin is even quicker than McFarland. He ran a whip route in one-on-ones, where the receiver breaks inside only to pivot and work back out, that nearly broke his defender’s ankles. Austin is uncoverable in one-on-one drills, and he looks good in seven-on-seven sessions involving all the skills. But he gets lost when it’s 11-on-11. He’s just so small, especially when you consider how massive Pittsburgh’s receivers and tight ends are. The Steelers will have to have a plan to get him the ball. Otherwise, I don’t know how Pickett is going to find him.
  • Speaking of, on one snap, the Steelers stacked Austin behind Gentry in a tightly compressed formation. They then motioned Washington from the other side of the formation and set him next to Gentry. Austin disappeared. I’m not sure what route combination they ended up running, but I remember thinking, “Why not just flip Austin the ball here and let those two behemoths clear the way for him?”
  • Cornerback Madre Harper had a good day. He broke up a few passes and flew around the field. He’s another long shot to make the team, but his effort certainly stood out.
  • Jerseys in the crowd: Of the current Steelers, Pickett’s was the most common, followed by Watt, Najee Harris, Pickens and Freiermuth. The most common alumni jerseys were Polamalu, Roethlisberger, Lambert, Bettis and Ward, with a sprinkling of classics like Lipps, Stallworth, Greene and Lloyd. One guy had on a Devin Bush jersey, and another sported a Jordan Berry model. I applauded them both for having the courage to wear them.
  • The quote of the day from the stands went like this. Grandson: “Pop Pop, did you ever play football?” Pop Pop: “Yes, but God didn’t bless me with great size or ability like Joe Greene, so I had to use my brain for a living.”
  • Player of the Day: Joey Porter Jr. – Pickens was great, and he probably got the better of their one-on-one matchup. But Porter was all over the field all day. He certainly competes with the same fire in the belly his father demonstrated. If Thursday was any indication, the Chase Claypool trade that inevitably brought Porter to Pittsburgh could wind up rivaling the deal that landed Jerome Bettis as the best in franchise history.

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