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Labriola On

Labriola on this camp coming to an end

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

  • Training camp is over. Officially, there are to be a few days of practice still to be held "in the beautiful Laurel Highlands," as the Chamber of Commerce commercials refer to this area, but following tonight's preseason game vs. Detroit at Heinz Field the Steelers will be able to count the remaining days of dormitory living on one hand. The point being that this particular phase of the process has run its course.
  • On the heels of last year's five-preseason-game marathon that included a stay spanning 29 calendar days at Saint Vincent College, this summer has been seemingly without any "dog days."
  • Now, "dog days" can refer to the hottest and sultriest days of the summer, and there have been a representative number of those during this camp. But another definition of "dog days" has to do with a period of lethargy, a period when you just come to hate everyone and everything, and that malaise ends up infecting every part of every day.
  • There didn't seem to be any of that during this camp. There didn't look to be any going through the motions. Practices were lively, physical, competitive. Players seemed to be enjoying their work, with Exhibit A being the daily singing of "Happy Birthday" to 33-year-old Le'Veon Bell during team-stretch. So it would seem the Steelers were successful in the team-building element of going away to training camp. But what of the rest?
  • It was a typical training camp in one negative way. There was the usual element of frustration generated by some who are expected to be big parts of the 2016 team missing time because of injuries. At the top of that list are Ladarius Green and Artie Burns, and those are a couple of significant names to be at the top of a list like that. Hence the frustration.
  • Green remains on PUP, and exacerbating his situation is that he has been able to establish absolutely no rapport with Ben Roethlisberger. That's because Green couldn't take part in any of the on-field sessions during the offseason program, and at this point it doesn't seem likely he'll be taking the field for practice before the Steelers pack up and head back to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. And if there is some idea of a target date for Green's return, the Steelers aren't talking about it.
  • Without Green, the depth chart at tight end is without a No. 1., which hasn't been the case since the day before the 2005 NFL Draft. Certainly, it's a situation that's bound to chafe any NFL starting quarterback, but what the actual impact could end up being on this offense is up for discussion.
  • There are options to be found within other units to compensate. If the opposing defense sees Ben Roethlisberger in the huddle and he's joined by Le'Veon Bell and Roosevelt Nix, along with Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, and Sammie Coates, does that indicate a run or a pass, for example?
  • If the defense gets caught with too many big people on the field, Roethlisberger has five potential eligibles – and based on what I've seen up here daily, Nix is a very reliable option on everything from circle-routes to rub-routes to screens. Go small on defense, and Bell behind that offensive line and a lead blocker can create a whole other set of problems.
  • Burns being sidelined is made worse by the loss of Senquez Golson. Cornerback was a position the Steelers had identified as needing improvement, and they went about trying to accomplish that by spending some premium draft picks on the position the last couple of years. Golson cost them a No. 2 pick in 2015, but if he could have approached his college productivity – 16 interceptions in 33 starts for Ole Miss – he would have been a bargain. With a second serious injury already, Golson hasn't had a chance to get his career off the ground.
  • Burns is this year's No. 1, and his chances of having a role on defense for the Sept. 12 opener at FedEx Field lessen every day he's watching instead of participating.
  • But for all the excitement surrounding the high-profile newcomers every year, it's typically the returning veterans/stars who have the greatest impact on whether and how much improvement there will be from the previous season. In this area, the Steelers leave here in good shape.
  • Roethlisberger has been masterful, a difference-maker in every aspect of the position. All of the other stars showed up in top condition and have worked diligently. From last year's draft class, Anthony Chickillo and L.T. Walton now look like guys capable of contributing to the cause at outside linebacker and defensive end, respectively. From the 2014 draft class, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt are improving as splash-playmakers. Stephon Tuitt looks better, has had some moments during the consistently competitive practices.
  • Something of a myopic view develops during the training camp period, because the only football being watched is football confined to the limits of one team's 90-man roster. There is no perspective with which to form an opinion capable of going beyond being a guess. One theme that developed during this camp was how physical it was. Lots of hitting. Live tackling every day. The national media coming through here all noted the Steelers did more hitting in practice than any of the other teams they had visited.
  • Coach Mike Tomlin believes embracing the physical elements of the sport can become a winning edge for this team, and so that was part of the practice routine. The Steelers want to play tackle football, so they practice tackle football. And by practicing tackle football every time the pads went on, players learn that every time they put their pads on they're going to be expected to play tackle football.
  • Of course, tonight marks the preseason opener, and many of the thoughts expressed here could end up sounding stupid before the end of the weekend. One way or the other, though, training camp is all but over. The remaining work will have to get done elsewhere.
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