Camp tour: New England
Just a few short hours after my journey to Foxboro, I was back in the car and rolling toward Latrobe, PA, summer home of the Steelers. I trucked through the night, fueled by rest-stop coffee and a heavy dose of Metallica, Guns N' Roses and The Neurotic Outsiders in my CD-player.
I rolled onto the Saint Vincent campus in the early morning, watching the fog and haze rolling up off the playing field and took in the beauty of the scenery. The sun was already threatening to blow this scene apart, so with the heat of Foxboro in mind, I began to seek out a water vendor.
Thursday, August 4th – Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA
The players began to hit the field about one-half hour before the scheduled 3pm start time to the roar of the crowd assembled throughout the facility. The loudest cheers were, of course, reserved for second-year QB Ben Roethlisberger, veteran tailback Jerome Bettis and Coach Bill Cowher.
All day, I had heard of the glory of the "backs on backers" drill. Writers and broadcasters attending the day's activities anxiously awaited that drill, which forces running backs to take on blitzing linebackers. Unlike most other drills you witness at a camp, the name for this one actually made sense.
So as to best evaluate the action, Coach Cowher put himself in harm's way as the QB during the drill. Last year, Joey Porter knocked him to the ground, making the proposition of a repeat performance something that sent local cameraman sprinting to the drill. "Look out for Joey! Watch out for Joey" echoed as the groups assembled.
The two standouts in the drill on defense were Porter and linebacker James Harrison. Porter was energized throughout the workout, talking up the action and getting a good back-and-forth with Bettis. Cowher pointed out the tendency for linebackers to come in high while getting back into form, but openly praised Harrison's technique in the post-practice interview session. "Harrison gets leverage on everybody he plays against. He stays low." Harrison played both the inside and outside linebacker positions during this drill, showing a combination of speed and power.
One scary moment, and the short-term cause of frenzy on the sidelines, was the sight of a limping Ben Roethlisberger. It (the injury) occurred early in the practice, but the game Roethlisberger stayed on the field. Speculation filled the sidelines as to the root of the injury. Roethlisberger answered the question directly after practice. Reporter: "Ben, What's wrong with your leg?" Answer: "Nothing." Pause ... "Jerome (Bettis) ran me over. It's a charley horse. It'll bruise and there's a bit of pain, but I'm fine."
So, to the obvious next question … how did Ben look? Frankly, there isn't a throw he can't make. He threw to the sidelines with pinpoint accuracy, squeezing balls into receivers Lee Mays, Cedrick Wilson and rookie Fred Gibson. He saved his biggest tosses for Antwaan Randle El, who is taking up the No. 1 receiver role while Hines Ward continues to hold out of camp. Roethlisberger connected with Randle El on several big throws downfield over the outstretched arms of defenders.
One other player that made impressions in these drills was receiver Walter Young. He's a 6-foot-4 receiver out of Illinois who was drafted in 2003 by the Carolina Panthers. He's a big body that can go up and get it and may find himself in the mix to fill the red zone role vacated by Plaxico Burress.
Rookie tight end Heath Miller is looking to become an immediate impact player. He was outstanding in receiving drills, catching anything thrown his way, but struggled against the cagey veteran Porter in the backs on backers drill.
Roethlisberger also addressed the other big topic at camp, receiver Hines Ward's continued absence. "I think it's almost a blessing in disguise. I'm able to get on the same page and gel with the rest of the guys."
In 7-on-7 drills, Troy Polamalu made all the proper reads and jumped on pass routes, but his self-admitted troubles with finishing the catch continued. He dropped several balls after making tremendous adjustments in coverage.
Backup quarterbacks Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch and Brian St. Pierre were inconsistent in their throws, alternating tight, accurate darts with passes low to the ground or behind their intended targets. They'll battle to secure their roles beginning with Monday's preseason game against Philadelphia.
Jerome Bettis played with great enthusiasm on this day, offering words of support and encouragement to the other backs on the roster. He looked ready to begin another full campaign at the age of 33, bouncing plays to the outside and demonstrating midseason form on his footwork.
Willie Parker, Verron Haynes and Noah Herron alternated the other reps in the backfield, with Parker also taking turns with the return team. Parker said after practice, "Whatever it takes to get on." He was impressive in all aspects of this practice (save getting run over by Harrison in the drill) and saw his stock rise tremendously when it was later revealed that Duce Staley needed surgery and will miss a month.
Former Steelers lineman and local Fox Sports radio host Craig Wolfley likes what he's seen out of Parker and thinks he'll make an impact this year. "He's the type of player that fat linemen love. He can bust loose off the initial block, take it to the house and meet you back at the bench."
Obviously, the top question as I left this practice remains whether Jerome Bettis can repeat his spectacular 04 season if Duce Staley's issues persist. Cowher said after Thursday's workout that he expected Staley to be ready by the weekend, but that clearly changed in a 48-hour period. Haynes, Parker and Herron will combine to take virtually all reps in the forthcoming preseason schedule to keep The Bus ready for the regular season opener against Tennessee.
Ben Roethlisberger appears ready to take another step in his development, and raise the level of the passing attack. He'll have multiple weapons at his disposal with the additions of Wilson, Gibson and Miller. The preseason will provide ample opportunity to assess the pecking order behind Ward and Randle El.
One thing is certain. Cowher will continue to rely heavily on the strength of the running game and his defense to carry the day.
I was told as I left the practice field that the on-field temperature registered a ridiculous 115 degrees. More water all around.
I began the long trek back from Latrobe to Albany, finally passing out at a rest stop due to lack of sleep and countless hours of the sun beating down on me. When I was awakened by the laughter of children outside the car, either mocking me or just feeling the joy of being a child awake in the middle of the night, I couldn't help but laugh myself. I was overly tired, sun-burnt and stiff from the long drive, but football is such a compelling, driving force.
Next up: Albany, NY with the Jets and Giants