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Labriola On

On 'looking good,' young vets, conditioning


Ready or not, here it comes:*

  • Football in shorts is over, yesterday being the conclusion of the Steelers offseason program. Nine days of on-field work during OTAs, and then three more days of the same during minicamp, and I found myself giving the same answer whenever asked the inevitable question, "Who looks good?"
  • Ben Roethlisberger. Accurate and decisive. Still has the arm to stick the ball in small windows. Engaged with his young teammates on offense. Looking every bit the franchise quarterback whose future with his team is secure.
  • Hey, there's nothing wrong with the team's best player having an outstanding offseason.
  • Sometimes fans can become too enamored with the new guys, the draft picks, and, because of the Steelers' history of success here, with the undrafted rookies. That's fun for a while. Watching the new guys. Seeing how they fit in. But the chances of those newbies being the immediate difference for the Steelers, or for any NFL team, are slim because rookies on the whole just do not make significant contributions.
  • Jarvis Jones is more important than Bud Dupree. Shamarko Thomas is more important than Gerod Holliman. And so on and so forth. It's the young veterans who are going to make or break this season for the Steelers.
  • It was the day before minicamp was set to begin, technically an off day for the players. Monday, June 15. It was 90-plus degrees, and the humidity made it feel more like Southeast Asia than Western Pennsylvania. The fields outside the team's practice facility were deserted, with the exception of one player running sprints.
  • William Gay. The only 30-year-old among the 11 starters on defense, Gay's value to this team becomes more apparent with each season he's here.
  • Toward the end of the on-field session of the first day of minicamp, Coach Mike Tomlin put the team through a football-in-shorts version of the two-minute drill. The offense was given 1:51 on the clock and one timeout; the ball was 62-yards away from the goal line, and a touchdown was needed.
  • At one point, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense were moving down the field so smoothly it seemed as though the timeout wasn't going to be necessary. But the defense stiffened a bit, and on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line, a receiver wasn't where Roethlisberger expected him to be and Gay made a diving interception.
  • When the next offensive and defensive groups took the field for the same drill, the defense again came up winners when Senquez Golson and then Doran Grant broke up passes on third and fourth downs, respectively. With the third groups up next, it was another win for the defense when cornerback Kevin Fogg jumped a route and broke up the pass. It should have been an interception, but since it was fourth down, incomplete was good enough to get off the field.
  • In these settings, 11-on-11 is always a good news/bad news scenario, but it was good to see the defense make some plays rather than just have to depend on the offense messing it up. Baby steps.
  • Why didn't the Steelers bring back Ben Tate as more veteran insurance for the time Le'Veon Bell will be suspended? The answer could lie somewhere within a report from Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
  • Remember, Tate had been signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Browns at the start of the 2014 offseason to be the feature back in their zone-scheme running attack. According to Reed's report, Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said the atmosphere became toxic between Tate and rookie running back Terrence West, and Tate was waived in November as a result.
  • "Tate came in early and they paid him [free-agent] money to come here so he felt he was 'the guy' and the other guys were in his way," Montgomery said. "It created friction and this year there's no friction at all. It was bad. They would get into it, you know, in the locker room, just having words, and in the meeting room, and it takes away from what you're doing out on the field. It becomes a distraction. It's a serious thing, it's a hard thing, but then you have to move on like we did and let these young guys grow."
  • Tate wasn't good enough to be worth that kind of aggravation, and the Steelers just went through something similar with LeGarrette Blount.
  • The offseason program is over, which means that next up on the NFL calendar is five weeks worth of worrying. To varying degrees, teams have to worry about how their players are going to be spending this time off before the start of their respective training camps. Some coaches may have to worry about conduct, but there are more whose primary concern falls under the umbrella of conditioning.
  • If a school's-out-for-summer mentality takes hold in some of these guys, if they lose the conditioning edge created during the actual offseason program, soft tissue injuries can result once the volume gets turned up at training camp. This is one message Mike Tomlin was hammering home through the whole nine weeks – that the five weeks before camp begins can make or break a guy's chances for whatever he hopes to achieve in 2015.
  • "I want them to get in the very best physical condition possible. That's all they have control over," said Tomlin after Wednesday's minicamp practice. "They don't have control over the (camp) schedule, or the weather conditions. They don't have control over any of the challenges that are awaiting them in Latrobe. What they do have control over is the level of condition they show up in. That's been the consistent message from us."
  • That's because what the young Steelers defense needs most from this upcoming camp are repetitions. Strings of practices where all of the important parts are able to work together to develop as individuals and as components within the unit. These guys don't have a lot of on-field history together that they can call upon when it starts hitting the fan.
  • At this training camp, it's the minor injuries that could have a major impact.
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