* I mentioned earlier this week that I spent last Wednesday and Thursday in Latrobe, pretending to be a real live member of the media. I arrived in time for Wednesday morning's practice and was greeted to an hour and a half of special teams work. As best I could tell, the session basically consisted of special teams coach Bob Ligashesky running around like a maniac barking orders as the players, almost robotically, went through the motions. Dale Lolley informed me that this was the routine several mornings a week. Blocked extra points aside, the drudgery seems to be working. And now that Ligashesky has ratcheted it up a notch following the miscue in the Packers game, this unit should be the best in football by the end of August or so. Which given Max Starks' play, makes me think the Steelers should either name Ligashesky the offensive line coach too, or start devoting entire morning practices to pass-blocking drills.
* Daniel Sepulveda is much dreamier in person than he appears on television. And that's before he even puts foot to ball. I know some subset of fans (and the media) still don't like the idea of drafting a punter, and I'm probably beating my head against a wall by bringing this up, but, hell, here goes: If the argument is that punters are fungible, and the Steelers should've taken a running back instead, I'd point out that there wasn't a helluva lot to choose from after the first day of the draft. In fact, of the 15 backs drafted Sepulveda, only two have averaged better than four yards per carry during the first weeks of preseason. Hardly much of a sample size to draw a conclusion, but unless there's an injury, none of those guys will be getting many carries this season.
Sepulveda, on the other hand, was brought in to start, and so far, he's been much better than Chris Gardocki. And even if Sepulveda's 42.5-yard net average is only slightly better than Gardocki's, his directional kicking and hang time have more than made up the difference. FanHouse's J.J. Cooper gets right to the point:
...the Steelers have been trying to get by with Chris Gardocki's 4.0 second punts for years, which puts a lot of pressure on the coverage team. After that, Chidi Iwuoma, Clint Kriewaldt and the rest of the Steelers special teamers must feel like life just got easy--Sepulveda smashed five punts with hang times of 3.9 (which rolled out of bounds after going 50 yards), 4.7, 4.6 and 4.7 and an amazing 5.1 while showing the ability to punt it directionally. If your punter smashes a 4.7-second hanger, the coverage team is standing around waiting for the returner to catch the ball. If you top five seconds guys are fighting to see who gets to make the tackle.So yes, it's way too early to pass final judgments on late-round running backs, but Sepulveda's production is already easily quantifiable because he's a starter. And not only that, he's better -- much better through two preseason games -- than the guy he replaced. And I say that after not only from watching him on television, but also because I spent about 30 minutes staring him down during practice.
He also has put five punts inside the 20 in two games--Gardocki put 11 inside the 20 all of last season. If Sepulveda can keep booming punts like this, a fourth-round pick is a small price to pay for a guy who looks like he'll immediately be one of the better punters in the league.
Sepulveda routinely bombed balls 60-65 yards, high enough that I noticed my neck was sore from craning it skyward. Watching ROBO-PUNTER carry punts 60 yards in the air is something everybody should see in person. The sound of the ball coming off his foot is loud. And I was 50 feet away. Oh, and that "Aussie roll" thing? During 11 v. 11 drills, I saw Sepulveda hit five punts from around midfield, and all five either bounced straight up, or backwards ... inside the 10-15.
Jim Wexell's "How Does Pittsburgh Beat Baltimore?" column echoes a question most fans have been asking all off-season. My favorite suggestion takes the team's biggest weakness -- the offensive line -- out of the equation altogether: Punt on every down and wait for McNair to make a mistake. Yes, it's a joke, but after last year's shellacking, I'm not willing to summarily dismiss it as completely insane. That would be not making an in-game adjustment as the Ravens rack up nine sacks in 60 minutes of lopsided football.
However Pittsburgh decides to game-plan Baltimore, I'm guessing by seasons' end, most people will be of the opinion that Sepulveda was a steal in the fourth round.
* As much as Sepulveda looks like an athlete, Jeff Reed, looks like a shaggy, chubby homeless person. He's likeable enough, but man, physically ... he's a mess. And as the senior member of the "specialty" players (kickers, punters, long snappers), Reed's the Chief Wiggum of the bunch. Which, as best as I could tell, is akin to the village idiot. And I mean that in the most endearing way possible -- he's a cross between Spanky from "The Little Rascals" and Tommy Callahan -- a little on the short side, long on the buffoonery, and then there's that wig, which pretty much confirms the notion that he's nuts. Oh, and he's a really good kicker, too. Can't forget that.
Okay, I've devoted as much time to special teams as a typical Ligashesky practice, so lets move on...
* Coattailing off Dale Lolley's Tuesday practice reports, I'd thought I'd add my two cents. During last Wednesday's afternoon practice, I was standing near John Mitchell and the defensive linemen. It was full on 11 v. 11 drills and Mitchell was all over his guys. Through the Saints and Packers games, the defense looks like it's in mid-season form, and this practice basically reinforced what I'd seen on television. After Marvel Smith jumped offsides to start one play -- a play in which the running back barely made it back to the line of scrimmage, Mitchell yelled to his troops: "I don't care if [the o-line] jumps offside every play -- you should never be off!" The implication, I think, was that the d-line didn't need to cheat to beat the o-line. And after watching this drill, I'm a believer.
A play later, Shaun Nua was held, which prompted Mitchell to scream: "Don't let him hold your ass!" I got the sense that Mitchell wasn't so much concerned with the offensive getting away with one; his point was that holding shouldn't be enough to keep his guys from doing their jobs. Nua seemed to understand the point, and shirked to the sidelines less than thrilled with his effort.
To casual fans, this type of stuff doesn't mean much, but to the hardcore nerds, you can ever get enough. I was at the Washington, D.C. stop on the Pro Football Prospectus book tour Tuesday night (get your copy here!), and someone asked about the benefits of attending training camp. For most of us, our interaction with the Steelers involves huddling around the television on weekends, and for years, that's all I knew. But unlike television, or even attending a game at Heinz Field, training camp offers you a glimpse behind the curtain. You can hear the coaches coach, the players talk smack, and the media guys gossip. It humanizes the whole thing which, I think, is good. Tuesday night I retold the story of watching Sepulveda boom 60-yard punts, the way he carried himself, and how he interacted with his teammates -- something you'd never know by just watching the team 17 times a year. Same goes for Mitchell coachin' 'em up. And hell, if I learned something in the process -- even accidentally -- all the better.
* While eating lunch in between practices, Dick LeBeau sauntered past, looking more like a 39-year-old than a 69-year-old. I commented to Wex and Dale that my wife absolutely loves Dick LeBeau and Wex reminded me that "everybody does." Fair point. Anyway, I'm not sure why I'm telling you this other than to segue into Ed Bouchette's column in Thursday's Post-Gazette on the defenses improving on their paltry sack totals from last season. The paragraph that caught my attention concerned LeBeau being able to implement more of his ideas now that that meddlesome Bill Cowher is out of the picture:
"I never heard it, but that's the rumor," said Foote of Cowher holding LeBeau back. "With Cowher knowing that defense inside and out, you know he had some say-so as a head coach. Eventually when Tomlin starts learning it I'm quite sure he's going to call some plays too. That's just natural. "But Dick LeBeau's going to show his stuff."The most glaring example of Cowher mucking things up was during the 2004 get together with the Washington Redskins at Heinz Field. The 'Skins were an awful team, and although their defense kept them in most games, their offense virtually guaranteed them a loss every week.
Although I can't find a link, I remember reading at the time that Washington's only score of the afternoon -- a two-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Ramsey to Chris Cooley -- was strictly Cowher's fault. On a first-and-10 from the Steelers' one, the Redskins ran the ball twice, and were twice stuffed. After an incomplete pass and a Washington timeout, Cowher overruled LeBeau and a two-yard pass later the score is 13-7 Pittsburgh.
Let me just say that I welcome more of LeBeau "showing his stuff."