Sunday July 31st was the first day of practice in pads at St. Vincent College in Latrobe for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Head Coach Mike Tomlin made it a long one, saying afterwards "well you know tomorrow is an off day, nothing wrong with getting a little work in."
For the Steelers who were healthy enough or allowed to take part (per CBA rules) in the two-and-a-half hour affair, they did indeed get some work in. And a few guys made good first impressions, with 7th round draft pick RB Baron Batch stealing the show in that capacity.
Batch was a featured blocker in pass protection in a drill termed 'Backs on 'Backers,' where pass rushing linebackers get a 5-yard running head start as they come towards a dummy QB, needing to pass through a backfield RB or TE. On three straight reps against 2nd year LB Jason Worilds, Batch got the better of the action and absorbed the collisions in a way that had onlooking teammates and coaches highly enthused. At one point Tomlin said, "Take that with you Jason," followed by an "I like that Batch."
Batch did so well that Tomlin had him go head to head with former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and again Batch took the lick and kept the QB clean. Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians ran onto the field of play and put his arm around Batch as they came off. Afterwards an elated Batch said, "It's definitely surreal. I've been watching [Harrison] play since I was in high school. I was just trying to remember my technique and do the best I could."
Tomlin, never one to praise young guys too much too soon, evaluated Baron Batch's day with a simple "He's a rookie." In all Tomlin said during the drill, "Some licks were passed, but in some instances we weren't violent enough." The head coach seemed in particular to feel his team's linebackers didn't deliver enough in the collision department, with a number of defensive players electing to use guile and slip-moves.
Other observations from Day 4 of camp:
QB Ben Roethlisberger wore Max Starks' jersey #78. Ben said "we were the last two of our draft class, and Max's locker was next to mine for seven, eight years now. So I saw it and grabbed it in honor of Max. [The jersey's] a little big. I'm not going to hold out the possibility that he might not come back, who knows."
Sitting out practice (in addition to the new free agent signees) were T Marcus Gilbert (hamstring), Keenan Lewis (heat-related), Emmanuel Sanders (foot), Limas Sweed (hamstring), and Crezdon Butler left practice after quad tightness. None of the injuries seem terribly serious at this point. Sweed looked fine running on a side field before practice.
Antonio Brown looks to be the team's no-brainer kick returner at this point, with four rookies taking reps beside him: Curtis Brown, Terrence McCrae, Armand Robinson, and Adam Mims.
The Steelers staring offensive line left to right was: Kyle Jolly, Keith Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, and Chris Scott. LG Chris Kemoeatu remains out with a knee injury, while current starting tackles Jonathan Scott and Willie Colon can't practice until Thursday. Doug Legursky is also out until then, at which point he will compete with Foster for the starting spot.
In the team's first hurry-up drill in pads of the year, the first team offense was given new life by Tomlin after Antonio Brown dropped a 4th-down pass in the slot. With the added downs, the team did produce a TD against first team defenders. On the drive, WR Tyler Grisham had a 14-yard catch to the 2-yard line followed by a lob pass to Heath Miller in the endzone. Arnaz Battle also contributed with catches in the sequence.
Undrafted TE Weslye Saunders looks good. He did have one drop in team drills, but bounced back with a 30-yard sideline catch from Byron Leftwich later in the afternoon. Saunders is a 6'5, 270lb South Carolina grad and looked extremely solid in pass protection in the 'Backers drill. By unofficial count, he went 4-1 on his chances with only Lawrence Timmons giving him major problems. With the departure of Matt Spaeth, Saunders could well make the roster with a good camp.
The day's free agent news included CB William Gay and RB Mewelde Moore re-signing with the Steelers, while WR Plaxico Burress decided to head back to New York with the Jets. The Gay signing is likely bad news for CB Crezdon Butler in terms of nickel-back play and will make it tough for Butler to make a roster if everyone stays healthy (given the addition of two rookie CBs). Chatting with a number of players at the cafeteria, nobody seemed too concerned that Burress had chosen Rex Ryan over the Steelers.
Tune in tomorrow starting at 9am at sportstalk.triblive.com to hear all of my Steelers interviews from the day, and to catch the debut of my co-host Guy Junker from 10am-Noon.