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4 takeaways from last year’s Steelers training camp to remember for 2023

In just six days, the Steelers’ least noteworthy period of the calendar will be over.

Throughout the next week or so, NFL teams around the country will begin packing their bags for the onset of 2023 training camps. For Pittsburgh, the date circled on the calendar to arrive in Latrobe, Pennsylvania is July 26.

When the team takes the field at Saint Vincent College in its yellow and white jerseys, the season ahead becomes that much more palpable. For one, the Steelers will engage in some type of football activity for the first time since June 15, which was 41 days prior. Moreover, fans of the black and yellow will have the opportunity to watch the team in person for the first time since the 2022 season ended on Jan. 8.

Last year, considerable buzz emerged surrounding training camp, especially with then-rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett having a chance to establish himself in the team’s pecking order. This season, team acquisitions — from Patrick Peterson to Allen Robinson to Broderick Jones and many more — will have the chance to leave an early positive impression on Pittsburgh faithful over the course of late July and early August.

It can be easy to forget aspects of training camps of yesteryear, with details becoming trivial as an entire preseason and season unfolds. But, rewinding to the team’s 2022 practices in Latrobe with a retrospective lens is actually quite revealing. Here are four specific themes about the Steelers’ 2022 training camp that should be front and center for 2023.

Young stars shining can forecast future success

The talk of the town in Latrobe last year was indubitably a highly touted Steelers draft pick — but likely not the one that was anticipated.

Receiver George Pickens captivated Steelers fans in attendance as well as on social media with his dazzling displays during training camp. Pickens seemingly put on a show each session, eliciting awe-struck responses from even reporters. The Georgia product’s one-handed grabs and defiance of physics even culminated in Diontae Johnson calling Pickens a “freak.”

Pickens certainly lived up to the expectations he generated in the portions before the preseason. In his first pro season, Pickens amassed 52 catches for 801 yards and four touchdowns, with many sensing his burgeoning talent.

However, Pickens wasn’t the only noteworthy newcomer to stand out in Latrobe and subsequently shine during 2022. The same can be said of UDFA running back Jaylen Warren, who drew praise from the get go and ultimately solidified his status as Najee Harris’ twitched-up backup.

Even sixth-round pick Connor Heyward gained notoriety during camp, leveraging his receiving skills and positional versatility in August. Of course, Heyward gradually increased his offensive reps last season, with Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada recognizing his skill as both a pass-catcher and blocker.

Just because a youthful player has an outstanding performance or two during training camp doesn’t mean that they’re in line for an All-Pro season — more on that later. But, it’s certainly fair to recognize young talent and extrapolate those positive results coming to an NFL field in the weeks ahead.

Be cognizant of injuries

An innate part of any football practice is, unfortunately, injuries. No team will go through nearly three weeks of training camp with zero wounds; the good news, though, is that not all prove to be significant. For instance, defensive tackle Cam Heyward injured his ankle on the final day of 2022’s camp, even getting carted to the team’s locker room, but wound up not missing any regular-season action.

Yet, certain injuries can legitimately deter players’ seasons, even if they don’t appear serious. Pittsburgh saw that first-hand last year in multiple cases.

Running back Najee Harris was stepped on on Aug. 1, and the incident was called “Not a big deal.” However, Harris ultimately was sidelined for much of the rest of camp and hardly played in the preseason. In fact, Harris had to wear a steel plate in his shoe until the middle of October, an implement which deterred his production in the early part of the year.

Likewise, receiver Calvin Austin III suffered a foot injury on Aug. 12. Indications were that Austin had been progressing from the setback, even ditching a walking boot, but the rookie was placed on Injured Reserve and did not step onto the field in either the preseason or regular season.

To reiterate, not every medical concern should elicit alarm from Steelers fans. At the same time, it’s not a bad idea to monitor injuries — which may appear ordinary but can be detrimental down the line.

Team and player tendencies can be revealed

With players strapping up pads more than a month before the onset of the actual season, it can be difficult to accurate gauge what parts, if any, of training camp will translate to the campaign ahead. Looking back on the Steelers’ 2022 training camp, it turns out that some tea leaves were capable of being read.

For one, the team’s offense was incredibly futile during the “Seven shots” portion of camp, with Pittsburgh’s defense prevailing in the majority of battles. That notion of offensive woes extended well into the season.

Additionally, no team will reveal its complete hand in terms of designs or unique concepts it has under its sleeve so early in the calendar. But, that doesn’t mean that certain long-standing principles may not be shared.

For instance, the Steelers implemented a three-safety set during training camp, featuring Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee. Once Kazee returned from IR in Week Nine, the team did not shy away from having all three on the field at the same time.

Player performance in camp can be volatile in a transitory state, but what pundits notice can be consistent with later themes, too. Robert Spillane’s struggles in coverage weren’t exactly noticed for the first time last August, but they reared their ugly heads then — as well as in the regular season.

Take everything with a grain of salt

I can’t emphasize it enough: it is far too easy to overreact to what happens during any team’s scrimmages. That only becomes magnified when a team hasn’t played an actual game in more than six months.

Watching Pickens pluck a ball with one hand will only get fans’ imaginations revved up about his Super Bowl 58 game-winning catch. Reading about Keeanu Benton’s standout play as a rookie nose tackle might evoke comparisons to the “next Mean Joe Greene.”

On the other hand, if Alex Highsmith bests Jones on a rather consistent basis, it doesn’t mean that the Georgia product is a bust or doomed to start early in his rookie year.

At the root of training camp is the principle of ebbs and flows, especially for younger players. Not everything will look 100% smooth and fluid for athletes of all ages, and that’s completely fine. In fact, that’s the goal of camp and the preseason: to experiment, to identify top combinations and to iron out wrinkles before September.

So, as the Steelers’ 2023 training camp unfolds in just over a week, continue to remain patient, pump the brakes and tell yourself that, at the end of the day, “It’s just what happened in Latrobe.”

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