Chris Hoke's signature dance move signified the official end of a prolonged labor dispute, beginning the 2011 league year and allowing 15 members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, all of whom were under new contracts, to join their teammates at practice for the first time this season.
"They were calling for it; they were excited for me to come out and do that," said Hoke, who performed the dance amidst a cadre of Steelers cheering him on during team stretches thirty minutes into a practice that was already delayed by an hour-and-a-half.
That delay was to allow time for the league to officially ratify the new collective bargaining agreement, which would allow that group of 15 Steelers, which included the veteran Hoke as well as key starters like Ike Taylor and Willie Colon, to put their pads on after a week of watching from the sidelines at Saint Vincent College.
"We couldn't put our pads on," Hoke said. "We were just waiting for the word that everything had been done, everything had been sealed and signed. So we just had to hold off and sit over by ourselves in the corner and couldn't be part of the team until we got clearance."
Hoke's "Hokey Pokey" kicked off an impressive practice, highlighted by the team's TE vs. LB drills.
ROOKIE'S UPS AND DOWNS: Fifth-round rookie linebacker Chris Carter was the focus of the team's one-on-one drills between the linebackers and tight ends, a fifteen-minute session run with input from Mike Tomlin.
Carter struggled early against veteran tight end John Gilmore, who was signed earlier in the week to compete for the backup spot behind starter Heath Miller, before being pulled aside by fellow backers James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, who both gave the rookie some teaching points to learn from.
That instruction must have worked, as Carter came out hot in his next rep, dispatching Gilmore with a burst of power that fired up his two tutors. It also piqued the interest of coach Tomlin, who kept Carter in the drill for more action.
After abusing undrafted TE/H-Back Vaughn Charlton, who struggled throughout the drill, Carter found himself matched up against another undrafted rookie, TE/FB Jamie McCoy. McCoy was in the midst of a strong session, and pushed the linebacker around on a number of reps.
"At some point, you're gonna get tired of 45 kicking your ass!" exclaimed Tomlin after a particularly savage win by McCoy.
After a short break, the fifth-round linebacker jumped back into the fray, warming up with another strong set against Charlton and Gilmore, before Tomlin called for 45 to challenge him again. This time around, Carter got the last laugh, throwing McCoy backward and igniting the rest of the linebackers, who claimed victory in the overall group matchup.
One thing is for sure: Carter has the makings of a great linebacker and will continue the team's tradition of turning late-round gems into star-caliber backers. He's got a surprising amount of lower body strength and the quickness to blow by people. The only thing that's lacking is his technique, which he should improve in a hurry under the tutelage of those vets.
SWEED STRUGGLES: Much-maligned receiver Limas Sweed had a so-so performance in Thursday's practices, bottoming out during the team's 7-on-7 drills. The fourth-year wideout dropped an easy one over the middle halfway through the session and had a later sideline attempt broken up by William Gay. He was a little better in full team drills, catching a nice comeback from Dennis Dixon during the second such session.
Another member of the receiving corps, Antonio Brown, continues to capitalize on the extra reps given to him after the injuries to Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown notched two impressive catches with the first-team offense in the second team drill and highlighted the team's 7-on-7 with a leaping grab in double coverage.
His strong performance thus far in training camp may not translate to a designed increase in his role when the games matter, per se, but it is endearing him to his quarterback, who could look his way more often during live action.
Mewelde Moore had a rude welcome back on his first day of practice, getting plastered by an unblocked Stevenson Sylvester in the final team drill of the afternoon. Moore and Jonathan Dwyer were otherwise invisible as far as running backs go. Rookie Baron Batch had yet another strong practice, showing off his blocking skills during team drills by stonewalling Donovan Warren's corner-blitz and showing off his vision as a runner with some good plays during a run-heavy team session at the end of practice.
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED:
>1. NFL officials will be in Latrobe for a few days to guide the team through any new rule changes. The Steelers made use of their presence during the warm-up period, running a short set of drills geared at avoiding false start penalties.
2. Hine Ward's DUI did little to damage his image at camp. Ward played to the crowd early on in practice, doing some mock dance moves in reference to his stint on Dancing with the Stars. When he wasn't dancing, the veteran was often seen instructing Mike Wallace on the finer points of his route running.
3. Dennis Dixon was unimpressive in his first day. Once again he was looking to run early and often. He can usually pull it off with his speed, but it's also the reason he's suffered numerous injuries in his short career.
4. Willie Colon may be the strongest member of the offensive line. He manhandled a blocking sled earlier in practice. Sixth-rounder Keith Williams also has an impressive amount of strength in him.
5. Weirdest news of the day? The fact that Dorian Brooks, who served on the practice squad last season, simply left the team since yesterday. He was swiftly replaced by Pitt lineman John Malecki, who was wearing Brooks' 77 on Thursday.