by Emmet Mahon
For years, most NFL training camps conducted training camps at remote locations away from team facilities and players’ homes. This was to encourage team camaraderie, maximize focus and intensity, and allow the team to bond with their loyal fans. From Rancho Cucamonga, CA, to Bemidji, MN, to Carlisle, PA to Amherst, MA, NFL teams would begin their intense preparations for the upcoming seasons in laid-back, friendly environments. Since 1966, the Steelers have trained on the campus of bucolic Saint Vincent College. The college, colloquially referred to as SVC, was known to Steelers' patriarch Art Rooney because his son Art Jr. was an alumnus. Aside from years lost to COVID-19, the Latrobe location has been a mecca for legions of devoted Steeler fans. SVC is one of the few remaining camps conducted in an old school, fan friendly fashion.
Camp begins with the players making their way from the locker room down a long path to the five practice fields. The path is lined with young, and not so young, fans beseeching players to sign all forms of memorabilia. A handful will oblige. Most will politely decline explaining that it is time for them to go to work, and that they will gladly grant their request after practice when their ability is greater. The affection that flows between players and fans is apparent and emblematic of the never-ending love affair of Steelers Nation and their heroes.
Practice itself is often bland and vanilla. Hard contact full speed collusions are uncommon. Splash plays that wow the fans are rare. The former to prevent injuries, the latter to keep game plans from the prying eyes of interlopers dressed in Steelers gear, hoping to glean information that could help their squad during the regular season. Specialized positional drills are spread out and taking in all activity at once is a challenge. Fans must pick where to direct their attention. Most focus on the marquee names. During the afternoon, most eyeballs are fixed upon the franchise quarterback, Kenny Pickett, the defensive stars, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the shiny new toy, first round selection, tackle Broderick Jones.
The following are observations from one of the final days at camp. After Wednesday, August 16, the Steelers will return to the familiarity and security of their UPMC practice facility on Pittsburgh’s South Side. There they will ramp up the intensity and implement the remainder of their playbook. All observations represent an extremely small sample size and should not be used to extrapolate any broad predictions for the coming regular season.
Kenny Pickett’s throwing was extremely limited. During most drills, he was handing the ball off. When called to throw, he was highly accurate. His passes were delivered crisply and with noticeable arm strength. He completed one long sideline pass to Calvin Austin III in stride. In an actual game, however, the play would have resulted in a sack, as multiple defenders got their hands to him. The nagging issue from last season was his release time. Defenders were getting too close to him in the pocket.
Speaking of Austin, he is as fast as advertised and small. He regularly elicited verbal reactions from the fans. The question will be if he can beat defensive backs pressing him at the line. If he can do that with regularity, he will be fun to watch.
George Pickens still struggles to get separation in contested coverage. He has top five WR physical skills. If he is to reach that potential, he needs to better utilize his speed and strength. He had two passes knocked out of his hands by defenders in his hip pocket. The last one occurring on the final play of practice as he ran a short cross towards the defensive sideline. Fitzpatrick knocked the ball away, to the delight of the defensive squad. More than one giving Pickens friendly trash talking after the play. On plays that went to the opposite side of the field, he often gave less than maximum effort. It was reminiscent of another superbly talented wide receiver.
Diontae Johnson is a great teammate. Plays when he was on the sideline, he was always offering praise and encouragement. If a play failed, Johnson was the first player over to console and support that player.
Jaylen Warren has amazing cutback ability. In agility drills, he was able to shift his momentum seamlessly and find the opening.
Heaven help defenders in the open field if Darnell Washington is bearing down on them. Mason Rudolph connected with him on a tight end screen and linebackers and defensive backs made a business and personal safety decision to get out of his way.
Aside from the Washington screen, tight ends were not prominently part of the day’s
Jones might not start the season with the first string. He certainly will have his struggles. He will be a star. There are multiple All Pro selections in his future. His footwork and hand use is elite. Of all the lauded moves of General Manager Omar Khan this off-season, moving up for Jones may go down as the best.
Keep an eye out for seventh round pick, offensive lineman Spencer Anderson. Very athletic. Numbers may push him to the practice squad. Savvy GMs should not let him pass through waivers. The Steelers might not wish to risk exposing him.
Rudolph outperformed Mitch Trubisky. Not significantly, but enough to be noticeable.
From the “I did not see that coming" department, the shock of camp occurred during the pass rushing drill. Chuks Okorafor pancaked T.J. Watt and held him down. All that was missing was referee Charles Robinson administering the three count and Jim Ross screaming “Oh my gawd!”
Quincy Roche realized he is in a battle to make the roster. He played like it. He was constantly in the backfield and disrupting plays.
Nick Herbig followed up his impressive debut against Tampa Bay. The linebacker plays maniacally and will be a nightmare for tackles. If one does not get their hands on him immediately, it’s all over and all he can do is yell “look out” to the quarterback.
Fitzpatrick is from another dimension. With all due respect to industry experts, he should be at the top of every best safety list.
Percy Harvin III outkicked his competition Braden Mann significantly. His punts were higher and travelled yards further.
During the kickoff drill, the Steelers deployed an interesting formation. Anthony McFarland Jr. was the deep return man. Lined up in the up-man positions were newly acquired safety Jalen Elliott and Austin. It had the look of a potential trick play reverse. If this note exposed an actual trick play in the offing, sincerest apologies to the coaching staff.
Two people you always know where they are are Head Coach Mike Tomlin and Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith. Their voices are distinct, booming and frequently in use.
Notes: The Steelers have two pre-season games remaining. The next game is Saturday, August 19 when they host the Buffalo Bills. They conclude pre-season by traveling to meet the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, August 24. All NFL rosters must be set to the maximum 53-player limit by 4:00 PM, Tuesday, August 29. Once players have cleared waivers, teams may add up to sixteen players to their practice squad, ten of whom must not have accrued more than two years service time. Teams may sign players from opposing practice squads, but only to their 53-man active roster.
Emmet Mahon can be contacted at Emmet@draft412.com.