LATROBE, Pa. – It's over, this 2014 training camp. The parking lots on campus are empty, the stands at Chuck Noll Field deserted, the fields a little worse for the wear and tear of three weeks worth of walk-throughs and padded practices.
Take a look at photos of the Pittsburgh Steelers practicing with the Buffalo Bills on the 15th day of Training Camp.
All of the physical signs of the Steelers' presence here is all but gone, and in a couple of weeks the end of August will be upon us and with that the Saint Vincent College students all will have returned with the idea being to utilize the curriculum to prepare for their futures.
For the football-team-in-waiting that had taken up residence in Rooney Hall for the previous 21 days, what they learned on campus is going to impact their immediate future, known in the NFL as the 17-week regular season.
Coach Mike Tomlin is an outcome-oriented guy, and so he'll tell you he judges a particular training camp by what follows it. In other words, the 2008 training camp was the best of his tenure, while the 2012 and 2013 versions are tied for the worst. The story of where the 2014 edition falls will begin to be told on Sept. 7 upon a visit from the Cleveland Browns.
There still is a fortnight worth of practices and preseason games to navigate, but here are some of the events/people who made an impression during the Steelers just-concluded training camp:
Camp started with the disappointment of Mike Mitchell being on the physically unable to perform list as the result of a groin injury, and it included the disappointment of an extended period of inactivity for Ryan Shazier because of a bruised knee, at times derided as a boo-boo by Tomlin.
It's not that either Mitchell or Shazier is a disappointment, because actually the opposite is the case. The disappointment came from the anticipation of what the skills of these players were going to add to the defense and then not having the instant gratification of seeing it all come together. But for the final practice – Thursday's joint session with the Buffalo Bills – both were on the field with the starters. Whether their respective absences impacted their individual development or the overall development of the defense cannot be stated unequivocally at this point, but what is not in dispute is what they will have to contribute for the unit to be a part of a contending team.
While Mitchell and Shazier finished camp practicing with the starters, Jarvis Jones' groin injury prevented him from joining them. Jones recorded a sack in 12 plays against the Giants, but then he didn't practice again and isn't expected to play against the Bills. And Jones is going to be every bit as critical to this defense as Mitchell and Shazier.
ABSOLUTELY NO HEALTH ISSUES
The Sean Spence story veered away from tear-jerker status when he completed a two-year rehabilitation from a severe knee injury with a perfect participation record for the 15 practices here. And Spence did more than just show up. He performed well, well enough to be the guy the Steelers turned to as a starting inside linebacker during Shazier's absence. And the job Spence did alongside Lawrence Timmons showed he is going to be a valuable part of this team this year.
O-LINE CONSTRUCTION CONTINUES
Mike Munchak's hiring as offensive line coach has been hailed as the most significant addition of the Steelers' offseason, and what happened at camp did nothing to refute that contention. There is a confidence and resolve surrounding this unit that seemed to be absent in the recent past. In terms of individual growth, the most noteworthy development has been that of Mike Adams.
A second-round pick in the same 2012 draft that brought Kelvin Beachum in the seventh round, Adams was flirting with bust status on the flight home from London last September after giving up 2.5 sacks to Jared Allen. Adams seemed to repair his psyche somewhat during the last couple of months of the 2013 season, and if he eventually becomes what the Steelers drafted him to be, the 2014 preseason opener may be seen as turning point.
In that game against the New York Giants, Adams played 51 snaps (78 percent of the offensive plays), which was the most of anyone on the team. And during those snaps, Adams started to show the consistency in fundamentals and technique required to be an effective pass-blocker as an offensive tackle.
Elsewhere on the offensive line, rookie Wesley Johnson continues to line up at multiple positions, including center, and this versatility will make him more valuable and the unit better. Cody Wallace has a nasty streak, and that's not a bad thing at all. Chris Hubbard, who spent last season on the practice squad, is the starting left guard whenever Ramon Foster isn't. And even though the members of this unit likely couldn't successfully market a swimsuit calendar, there is noticeable lack of sloppiness associated with their size.
There are NFL running backs who are overly protective of their number of carries, and this can lead to jealousy and bickering among teammates. Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount said all of the right things about their support of whatever division of labor Mike Tomlin decides upon, but it's easy to be magnanimous in early August. But Bell and Blount seem to be friends in addition to being teammates, and their personal bond was displayed dramatically during backs-on-backers at Friday Night Lights.
After Vince Williams put Bell on his back and a scuffle ensued, Blount – not dressed for practice – jumped into the pile to come to Bell's aid. Getting into a fight without a football helmet against a guy wearing one shows some love. Blount brings an edginess to his job, or in other words don't expect him to be hugging any Ravens linebackers on the field during postgame festivities, a la Ryan Clark and Ed Reed.
As for the fight for roster spots at running back, Tauren Poole and Miguel Maysonet took turns looking like the best of what's behind Bell, Blount, Will Johnson and Dri Archer. The issue is how many, and that will be impacted by whether Johnson is counted among the tight ends and/or Archer among the wide receivers.
The wide receivers were a group drawing attention when camp opened, mainly because the unit was having to replace two of its top three players from last season. Based on what was on display during camp practices, Markus Wheaton is going to be able to replace Emmanuel Sanders this season, and Lance Moore is different from Jerricho Cotchery but still able to get that job done. Oh, and Antonio Brown has gone from being a sixth-round draft pick to a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the NFL. As for the rest of the depth chart here, so far Martavis Bryant has flashed some special abilities, and Justin Brown looks to have learned some lessons as to what it takes to be a professional. Those were the top five as camp ended, and no one knows if there will be a sixth.
There was a lot of this going on between defensive line coach John Mitchell and No. 2 pick Stephon Tuitt. There was a time when the Steelers could allow rookie defensive linemen some time to develop while the actual playing was handled by the likes of Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton and Kimo von Oelhoffen and Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel. Those guys weren't around Saint Vincent College, and the development of Tuitt and Daniel McCullers has to be microwaved as a result. Tuitt showed pretty steady improvement, and the Bills had trouble moving McCullers even with double-team blocks.
REALITY OF THE PROFESSION
Training camp is over, but the preseason/evaluation stage is far from it. Rookies and newcomers who have made positive impressions at camp must find it within themselves to continue to produce and improve, or they will get a knock on their door come Aug. 30 with a request to turn in their playbooks. Just because they will have a locker at Heinz Field tomorrow night doesn't mean they're guaranteed one on Sept. 7.