Pittsburgh Steelers: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Training Camp
After two weeks of training camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers hit the field for some real competition on Saturday night against the New York Giants. Though the results didn’t go exactly as Mike Tomlin wanted them to, he acknowledged that the preseason opener was all a part of the growing process.
“We had an opportunity to grow. We learned some things about some people,” Tomlin said in his postgame press conference via Steelers.com. “We’ll just take this as part of the process and move forward as a team.”
For the most part, the Steelers’ performance was exactly what we have been seeing from them in training camp. The players who have performed well in practice played well in the game. Those who struggled showed that they still have room to improve.
The early assessment may sound very straightforward, but that is a positive sign. It means that what the Steelers have focused on at Saint Vincent College has translated to the playing field. Now the coaches have game film that they can use as they hit the practice fields once again in preparation for the second preseason game.
Here is a look at the key items we have learned about the Pittsburgh Steelers so far this training camp.
Le'Veon Bell Is in Top Shape
When a player says he is “in the best shape of his life,” that usually means he is over 30 years old and on the downside of his career.
That is not the case with Le’Veon Bell.
Bell told Mark Kaboly of TribLive Radio that he lost weight this offseason and is down to about 225 pounds. His goal was to add quickness and speed to his game. Apparently, it worked.
Bell has looked terrific during training camp. He is visibly more cut than he was as a rookie and his weight reduction has aided his ability to get to the outside while not hindering his ability to run between the tackles.
In three carries against the Giants, Bell had 18 yards and a long carry of nine yards. He was very impressive in the process, breaking tackles and creating his own yardage.
Bell had a strong finish to the 2013 season but looks even better this year. As long as he continues to develop, he is poised for a huge year.
Martavis Bryant Is a Work in Progress
Martavis Bryant did not have the debut that he hoped for against the New York Giants.
A stat line that includes a muffed punt, a dropped pass and essentially the game-ending fumble meant a forgettable night for the Steelers’ fourth-round draft choice. As awful as his night was, it is all a part of the development process.
Bryant is a raw prospect who at times in training camp has looked like an elite weapon and others when he has looked like camp fodder. His dropped pass going over the middle against the Giants resembled drops that he had in camp practices.
By no means was it a good start for Bryant, but not one that he cannot overcome. John Phillips of Behind the Steel Curtain believes that Bryant will have a much better performance in his home debut:
But even Tomlin knows that this is just one game for the young fourth-round pick from Clemson. Bryant has flashed some of his skills while in Latrobe. I witnessed some of it in person last week in red-zone drills. Games of this nature were made for performances like this. Chalk it up to nerves, or first game jitters.
As a witness to the brilliance that he has displayed during the red-zone drills, I can attest to his potential. He has been nearly unstoppable on deep passes during practice as well. It is only a matter of time before he puts it all together on the field, but we must all be patient.
Besides, not all was bad for Bryant against New York.
He had some near misses, drawing two pass interference penalties and making a clutch reception late in the game before fumbling when trying to pick up extra yardage—though he appeared to be down by contact.
Bryant has a lot to learn, but he has flashed plenty of potential that he has received reps with Ben Roethlisberger. He has had his hiccups in camp, but he has shown that he can be dominant as well. The next step will be to put together a consistent effort during a game, and that could come as early as this week.
Excellent Depth at Inside Linebacker
Prior to the start of training camp, depth at inside linebacker was a concern. It was one of the reasons that the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier in the first round. Yes, they had potential on the roster with Vince Williams and Sean Spence, but the lack of athleticism and the injury history were of great concern.
After two weeks of training camp, not only have the Steelers identified their starting inside linebackers for 2014, but they may have found that they have four capable starters on their depth chart.
Lawrence Timmons is a clear starter, and Shazier has been running with the first-team defense since the start of training camp. Dick LeBeau likes this inside linebacker combination because of the athleticism of the two players.
“I think those two guys are going to give us a lot of speed at a position that doesn’t necessarily feature speed,” LeBeau told Scott Brown of ESPN.com. “We’re going to be fast at inside ‘backer.’”
The speed of Shazier is why Williams is out of the starting lineup. Rather than sulk, he worked hard and is one of my stars of training camp.
Williams is playing with a chip on his shoulder and looking to prove that he deserves playing time. Thoughout camp, he has been hitting harder than any other linebacker and has set an aggressive tone for the defense as a whole. It was no surprise that he ranked third on the team with five tackles against New York.
But the real story of training camp is Sean Spence. He has made a full recovery from a devastating injury that he suffered as a rookie and looked very comfortable in a starting role on Saturday.
Bleacher Report’s Andrea Hangst wrote that Spence did enough to enter a legitimate competition for a starting job:
But after Spence's performance Saturday night, it looks like a very real battle could be brewing between himself and Shazier for the starting job. And the longer Shazier is shelved, the better the odds get for Spence.
Things will get interesting if Shazier is out of the lineup much longer. Though the odds are against it, Spence may play his way into a starting spot. If nothing else, he is showing the coaches that he wants to be a part of the linebacker rotation.
As good as these four linebackers are, it is impossible not to mention Terence Garvin as well.
He may not have starting potential, but Garvin has had an excellent training camp. He used the offseason to bulk up and it shows. He is just as physical as ever, but packs more punch when he hits, and it doesn’t appear as though he has lost any speed.
With five players deserving playing time, the Steelers coaches have themselves quite a problem as they prepare for the season, but it is a very good problem to have.
Quarterback Depth Is Shaky
There is no player more important to the success of the Steelers than Roethlisberger. If they lose him for any extended period, they are in some trouble. However, are they worse off now with Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones as the backups than they were with Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich?
That is too hard to say, but the early returns from Gradkowski and Jones are not good.
Gradkowski has struggled with accuracy throughout his career with a completion percentage of just 52.9. That trend has held true in training camp where he has been off target in nearly every practice.
Though he completed 66.7 percent of his passes against the Giants, Gradkowski only had an average of 5.5 yards per attempt and missed an open Matt Spaeth for what would have been a touchdown. Despite his lack of touch on the evening, he can move around the pocket with ease and has some confidence in his abilities to step in if needed.
When the Steelers spent a fourth-round pick on Jones last year, the goal was for him to be a long-term backup—if not more. After a poor rookie season, he showed signs of improvement in practice and even had a significant number of reps with the second-team offense.
However, his old habits appeared as well.
Jones runs at any sign of pressure and rarely tries to throw the ball into tight spaces. His internal clock was awful during camp and that is not a good sign when he has to play behind a porous second-team offensive line.
Against New York, he completed 11 of 21 passes for 74 yards, and was never able to get into a rhythm. However, he was the victim of multiple dropped passes. That did still not stop him from receiving a poor reaction from those watching him.
I completely forgot about Pittsburgh's version of Brandon Weeden....Landry Jones.— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) August 9, 2014
Landry Jones is just terrible.— Chris Dokish (@ChrisDokish) August 10, 2014
RT @THEandmeister: Watch Landry Jones on an empty stomach. >>No need. Can't be worse than I projected him pre-draft.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) August 10, 2014
Very harsh criticism, but warranted for the most part. Jones does not have the look of a backup and barely appears to be a third stringer.
Pittsburgh’s coaches have a lot of work to do with the backup quarterbacks to get ready for the season.
Undrafted Free Agents Push for Roster Spots
It is one thing when unheralded players perform well in training camp, but it is another when they replicate this performance during a game.
That is exactly what four players did on Saturday.
Defensive end Josh Mauro was a priority undrafted free agent for the Steelers, and he has done nothing but impress over the past two weeks. He already surpassed Brian Arnfelt on the depth chart as he got work with the second-team defense against the Giants.
He had two tackles and one quarterback hit, but more importantly, appeared to play his assignments well. Even though the 282-pound end is undersized, Mauro is incredibly strong, and it showed when he collapsed the inside of the pocket against New York.
Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain had high praise for the rookie:
Mauro performed well against the non-taxi squaders, having participated in much of the second half and the edge-setter in the Steelers' base defense and goal line down the stretch. The Steelers allowed back-up quarterback Curtis Painter to slice through them for what would eventually be the game-winning touchdown drive, but Mauro showed why there was so much excitement from this publication as well as others regarding him.
Besides Mauro, rookie linebacker Howard Jones took advantage of all of his opportunities. Specifically, Jones recovered two fumbles, returning one for a touchdown. Few things will get coaches to take notice like creating turnovers, especially multiple turnovers in one game.
For his effort, Jones was named the Steelers Digest Player of the Week (h/t Bob Labriola of Steelers.com).
Jones is very raw at this point of his career, but he has been an athletic and disruptive force in practices. He has succeeded against Mike Adams in pass-rushing drills and now has showcased his talent in a game situation.
Big Plays Still a Big Concern for the Defense
It was an all too familiar sight for the Steelers’ defense on Saturday when Rashad Jennings ran right up the gut for a 73-yard touchdown.
In just one play, the defense failed at two of its three primary goals: stopping the run and preventing the big play.
Many will dismiss it to the lack of a defensive scheme, starters sitting out or the popular “it’s just a preseason game.” In most training camp preseason circumstances, those are expected excuses, but their not acceptable for a defense that was gashed on the ground last season.
Tomlin put it best in his postgame press conference, via Steelers.com:
We are going to have runs that breakout every now and there. We’ve got to get it on the ground in the secondary. Sometimes those things break free, they have to be 8, 10, 12 yard runs not 78-yard runs. It was a gap integrity issue in the core. That is less of a concern. I am more concerned about when those things do occur we do a good job of trying to minimize the explosion play and make it an 8, 10, 12 yard gain not a 78-yard play.
It was just an ugly play from start to finish.
Cam Heyward was wiped out of the play by a block. Lawrence Timmons was blatantly held, but the safeties failed at their job as the last line of defense. It was very similar to Terrelle Pryor’s long run last season in Pittsburgh's loss at Oakland.
Sure, the play may have been stopped if Timmons wasn’t held, but he was and the officials did not call it. The Steelers have to live with that, and it does not excuse other Steeler defenders for allowing yet another big play.
As Dejan Kovacevic of DKonPittsburghSports.com (subscription required) mentioned, another big play against the defense negated much of the good that we otherwise saw. Big plays against the defense cannot remain a problem for the Steelers to succeed this season.
Ryan Shazier Not the Only Rookie Who Will Contribute
Ryan Shazier has received most of the hype this offseason before Stephon Tuitt and Dri Archer started getting noticed during training camp. While the former sat out of the first preseason game, the latter two lived up to the hype in their NFL debut.
Regarding Archer, Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote:
Archer showed his world-class speed—a hand-timed 4.18 in the 40 at the NFL Combine — the first time he touched the ball. After runs of nine and eight yards by Bell to start the Steelers' first drive, Archer caught a screen pass from Roethlisberger and bolted upfield before being dragged down at the Giants 14.
On the play, Archer did not even appear touch his top speed—at least from the speed that I’ve witnessed in practice. If he turns it up one more gear, he probably hits the edge and scores.
For months, people have been wondering how Todd Haley will use Archer, and we finally got a taste of it. He demonstrated that he is extremely dangerous in space and can turn a short pass into a huge gain. Besides his reception, he also ran behind the reserve offensive line and picked up nine yards on two carries.
Besides Archer, Stephon Tuitt is making a strong push not only to be a role player, but to be a starter in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns. LeBeau had already expected him to play a significant role after two weeks of camp.
“I think Ryan’s going to start, and I could see Tuitt playing an awful lot of snaps,” LeBeau told Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com.
Tuitt has dominated at times during training camp with his sizes and strength, making plenty of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Though he only had one tackle and drew one flag against New York, he appeared to do everything else well, via Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, who wrote, "I'm not privy to the assignments, but it appeared that defensive end Stephon Tuitt maintained his gap integrity throughout his four series of work.”
The Steelers expected big things from their 2014 draft class, and so far, they are delivering.
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