… The very first practice of my very first training camp is the night session at Latrobe High School. The practice was scheduled for 7 pm, and since I have no idea what's going on, I leave my hotel at 5 pm and make the five-mile drive to the stadium. Traffic is already heavy, and the Steelers don't arrive for almost another two hours. I end up parking in a garage and walk a few blocks to Memorial stadium and as I approach the entrance, I see probably 1,000 fans waiting in line, apparently some of them there since 10:30 in the morning. And it's still 98 degrees outside. As a "member of the media" I'm able to stroll right in, so that's what I do. A running track borders the playing field, and a fence encloses both. Fans would end up lining the fence three and four deep with the stands jammed to capacity. The media could go anywhere on the track and at times were literally feet from the players during the session. For a guy who's just a fan, this is very surreal.
… After I call my buddy from the track and explain how weird all this is, I see KDKA's John Shumway set up on the field filming a few lead-ins for the six o'clock news. Seems like a nice guy, but he may be the first example of the camera actually subtracting 15 pounds. Vertical stripes John, vertical stripes.
WTAE's Jon Burton sets up shop feet from Shumway and my first thought was, "This guy looks like he should be playing safety." My next thought was that denim koulots have never been in style, but if you're going to try and pull them off, looking like you can bench press Casey Hampton probably helps.
WPXI's Yolanda Hawkins won the "Hottest Reporter on the Scene" by a landslide … and default.
… With still a lot of time to kill, I look over the Steelers' roster and notice that QB Shane Boyd has been given No. 8. This is basically the kiss of death. His fate couldn't be more certain if the team assigned him No. 458, or 1/3 or some other really ridiculous number.
… Not surprisingly, there are plenty of Roethlisberger, Ward and Polamalu jerseys, but I also spotted a Starks, Hampton, Harrison and Kreider jersey. Yes, these are hardcore fans.
… At 6:25 Dan Rooney Sr. walks by. He signs an autograph for a kid, and then accepts a plaque from the Latrobe mayor recognizing August 2, 2006 as World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers Day.
… Fifteen minutes later, the stands goes nuts and it's because a line of yellow school buses carrying the team – complete with police escort – makes their way to the stadium.
... Chidi Iwuoma was the first player on the field and he looks really, really small. No wonder he's always getting hurt – he's basically a 165 pound human missile on special teams.
… Jeff Reed, Chris Gardocki and Greg Warren walked in. I don't know if these guys are forced to hang out together or if they just enjoy each others company, but its not very often you see one of them without the other two. I envision Joey Porter making them sit in the back of the bus on the ride over just so he can make fun of them.
… Practice finally gets rolling and the QBs warmed up by throwing patterns of varying length to the coaches. Ben looked mobile, Charlie Batch looked solid and Omar Jacobs, wacky delivery aside, looked every bit as good as the two guys in front of him. Granted, it was warm-ups, but still something worth noting.
… Five minutes into practice and I glance over at the wideouts. They're running comeback routes and on the first play Quincy Morgan drops a pass. This would be a recurring theme this evening.
… Morgan just dropped another pass.
… Santonio Holmes, Willie Reid and Cedrick Wilson are at midfield returning punts. Ricardo Colclough is nowhere to be seen, and given his punt-muffing woes, this is probably a good idea. Wilson didn't do much but that's because he's still a little banged up, but both Holmes and Reid fielded punts with players bearing down on them and several times made nifty moves that made you forget about that Randle El guy. We'll see what happens when people start hitting for real.
… Thirty minutes into practice and it's 9-on-7 drills. First play Ben throws incomplete to Hines over the middle. The next play Duce Staley runs off-tackle right, and Nate Washington puts a nice block on Clark Haggans to free Staley up.
Tyrone Carter was the first team free safety and I focus on him third down. The offense runs the same play again, this time with Verron Haynes, who would've been tackled by Ike Taylor near the line of scrimmage. Carter got sucked into the middle and wasn't close to making the tackle.
… The second team is now on the field and the first play Batch throws a hot route to Holmes. Holmes doesn't make the read and ball falls incomplete. John Kuhn runs up the middle a play later and on third down Willie Parker drops a screen pass.
… Next up, the third team. On first down, Humes runs right. I watch safety Anthony Smith on the play and his first step is back before recognizing it's a run. Sean Morey blocks him out of the play. On second down, Heath Miller was split out wide to the right (Miller took a lot of reps out wide. Don't know what this means, but it merits a mention), Holmes to the left. Holmes runs a fly pattern and Jacobs lets it go. Rookie free agent Anthony Madison had great coverage and the ball was a bit underthrown and falls incomplete. Smith had coverage over the top but he was beaten on the play. Madison looked really good all practice. He's basically a bigger version of Chidi and he looks like he can actually contribute in the secondary.
… First team back on the field. On first down it was vintage Big Ben. He scrambled wildly and then calmly threw a seed to Hines Ward along the sideline with Deshea Townsend having great coverage. One of the first things you notice about Ben in person is that he may not be the fastest guy on the field, but he's unbelievably elusive, and that's saying something for someone who stands 6'5". He also looks noticeably thinner – which is a good thing – and that can only help his mobility.
… Back to the second team. Washington runs a fly pattern with Bryant McFadden in coverage and Batch lets it go. Washington, with McFadden in his back pocket, had a chance for a tough catch, but wasn't able to come down with the ball.
… Finally. Quincy Morgan makes a great catch (Ben threw it) over Larry Foote and in front of Polamalu. A play later, Hines makes a catch in the middle of the field, spins, and before he lands, he points at Polamalu (who was in coverage) and laughs – think Nelson Muntz – so loud everybody on the property hears it. Polamalu promptly pulls out his Hines Ward voodoo doll and starts stuffing pins in it. Hines stops laughing.
A play later, Holmes makes a great sideline catch – probably the best catch of the practice. On the play, Parker does a nice job of blocking a blitzing Rian Wallace.
… While the 9-on-7's were going on, the fat guys were working one-on-one drills at the other end of the field. I saw Brett Keisel beat Alan Faneca on one play, and Chris Hoke beat Chukky Okobi a few plays later. I also saw Willie Colon and Clark Haggans battle to a draw, but nobody lost a helmet or got kissed, so that was kinda disappointing.
And then it was go time. That's right, the end of practice goal line drill. The offense gets the ball on the five-yard line and has four plays to get it in. You can read the details here, but let me just say that I was standing right feet from the action and there was a whole bunch of hitting going on. And Verron Haynes can verify it. He was doing some yapping leading up to the goal line drill, but on fourth-and-one, somebody – nobody seems to know who it was – laid the wood to Haynes and the hit sounded like a shotgun.
After practice, I was hanging around waiting for the players to leave the field and I heard Casey Hampton come up to Haynes and ask, "Are you still smiling?" Of course Haynes had an answer, but the Hampburglar wasn't buying it. And given the defense's performance, I wouldn't have either.