By Bob Labriola – Steelers Digest
LATROBE, Pa. – The low humidity. The soft breeze. The 10,000 fans who attended. The reception given to the quarterback. The quarterback's genuine appreciation for that reception. The tempo of the afternoon practice. The hitting without any gratuitous violence.
As first days go, it was as close to perfect as the Steelers had a right to expect.
There might not be a whole lot to deduce from a single day at a training camp, especially when it's really the first day of a season due to last into January, but that shouldn't take away from the fact it was a good day for a team trying hard to put an uncomfortable offseason in its rearview mirror.
"I was pleased with the day," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Our goals were simple: we focused in the morning on teaching and our level of expectation from a coaching standpoint; the afternoon was more competition oriented. We pitted mano-a-mano, if you will. We saw some guys who really got a nice start from that standpoint."
Coaches are loathe to go overboard with praise so early in the process, and Tomlin certainly falls into that mind-set, but there were some interesting things to be seen by the fans with a discerning eye.
For example, Ziggy Hood had a very nice afternoon, especially in the one-on-one pass rush drills pitting one defensive player against an offensive lineman. Hood made Maurkice Pouncey look like the rookie he is on three straight repetitions, and Hood generally looked like a different player than the one who was the team's No. 1 pick in 2009.
The two rookie outside linebackers – Thaddeus Gibson and Jason Worilds – rode the roller coaster during their first workout in full pads. Gibson, for one, flashed some quick moves to get himself around the linemen trying to block him, but there also were some snaps where he was engulfed. Worilds held his position in some of the one-on-one blocking drills matching linebackers and tight ends, but he also was put on his back by Heath Miller. Antonio Brown's best play of the afternoon was a block he made on a slip screen to Brandon London, and Emmanuel Sanders made a nice catch along the sideline on a pass from Byron Leftwich during the morning practice.
"(Pouncey) is a rookie. He lost some battles, as did Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown," said Tomlin. "It's really fun to watch those guys learn what the NFL is all about. Those guys are competitors and that's why they're here. They will quickly adjust, move forward and compete, I'm sure."
The veteran Steelers are a hyper-competitive bunch and have been for years, and there was some of that on display as well. During the second of two 11-on-11 periods in the afternoon session, Rashard Mendenhall caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger and was met by James Harrison. It was a big hit, but there was nothing unseemly about it and both players reacted to it as just a part of the session.
"James is a pro and he has good practice etiquette. If you watch it, you'll see he backed off," said Tomlin. "Certainly, those guys have mutual respect. These guys know why we're here. We are here to lay a foundation for our football team. It's going to require hard work, and it's also going to require practice etiquette. Veteran players, such as those guys, display it. Ryan Clark was in a situation where he could have taken a shot at (Antwaan Randle El), and he showed that he's a pro. That's how you educate young men and get better. It's conducive to this kind of environment, and I'm looking forward to it continuing."
There was a lot of media attention paid to this particular afternoon workout, because it marked the occasion of Roethlisberger's first practice in front of fans since being suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Roethlisberger received a raucous ovation when he came out of the locker room for the walk to the practice field, and he stopped to exchange some high-fives with fans along the way. During the practice, he didn't throw an incomplete pass, and then afterward he spent 30 minutes signing autographs for fans, even going so far as to sign his cleats and give them away.
"It did (feel normal), surprisingly enough," said Roethlisberger. "Once we started walking down the stairs and seeing the fans, hearing them cheer and giving them high-fives, and then when I got down onto the field I kind of got lost in just being here at camp and being at Saint Vincent."
INJURY UPDATE: According to Tomlin, there was nothing serious to report, but Casey Hampton (hamstring) sat out the afternoon session, and rookie Jonathan Dwyer (hamstring) wasn't able to complete the second workout. Tomlin said Hampton is day-to-day, and that he would have an update on Dwyer on Sunday.