UNITY TWP., Pa — The Pittsburgh Steelers training camp started on Thursday with plenty of fireworks and fanfare abounds on the campus of Saint Vincent. It was a shorter practice but we still got a glimpse of some fascinating things that are going to be pertinent for the future. What did we learn from the Steelers training camp on Thursday?
Kenny Pickett’s Arm Flashes
Kenny Pickett had a few great plays on Thursday that were exciting, but the biggest of which came on the first team session. On a play action play, Pickett rolled slightly to the right and stopped in the pocket behind Chuks Okorafor and James Daniels. He whipped the ball across the field to the far sideline and find Diontae Johnson open 25 yards downfield on a corner route. That was his best throw of the day.
The second throw that stood out was during the 7-on-7 period. Pickett ripped a honey hole shot in Cover 2 to Anthony McFarland over the head of the trailing defender. They were just two throws but Pickett stood out in a good way from that angle. He had a fluttering ball that was too far inside for Calvin Austin III, too. So this day was not without peril, but Pickett did well for himself early.
Elijah Riley Impresses
The one guy that had a great spring and started off training camp strong was Elijah Riley in the slot. Riley picked off Mason Rudolph in the first team period. That was the first splash training camp. Later, he would work in with the first team on punt return and coverage, showcasing his valuable area there, too. The backup safety spots are up for grabs. Count me in as a believer that Riley probably wins one of them.
Riley is smart, disciplined, and versatile as a player. He can play in the slot, free safety, and in the dimebacker area. Riley simply checks the box for most things this team values.
Joey Porter Jr. Starts Strong
I still find Joey Porter Jr. to be a fascinating player. His length and athleticism are elite. That was on display today. He went toe-to-toe with Calvin Austin III a few times. On one play, Porter used his length to stun Austin off the line then ran step for step with him down the sideline to force an incompletion. That was an impressive display of his strengths and proved he has a long speed. As a little blurb here, this was not Austin’s best day. He had a few drops that really took him down.
But throughout the day, Porter battled guys like Austin and Miles Boykin. He didn’t lose the entire day from my measurement. Certainly, on his targets, Porter was airtight and played at a high level. Porter Jr. did not really have his transitions tested today, as most of the routes he faced were vertical-based routes. But rookies need to start somewhere and he did on the right foot.
There was a new formation that flashed itself up today and that was the pistol formation. The Steelers went into pistol about five times today with multiple plays working off that. At one point, they ran a play-action counter with a screen to the backside, but it could have been a screen front side to the running back. That was neat. On other plays, they simply went to their bootleg series and pushed the ball down the field. I didn’t chart the average depth of target, but my bet is that it would be somewhere near 10 today on those plays.
The formation makes sense to be implemented here into the offense. Pickett has lots of mobility they can use in creative ways, they just have to get him rolling and working further down the field. It seems that might be the start of something for this team in regard to productive play-action series.
Duke Dawson First Team?
In the slot cornerback battle, the first guy to get a crack at it was Patrick Peterson, with Porter Jr. and Levi Wallace working outside. So, color me surprised when for the rest of practice, it was not Peterson nor Chandon Sullivan, but Duke Dawson running with the first team. It had some up-and-down results today, but Dawson was a member of the practice squad and has experience playing there with the Patriots.
I don’t think this is going to continue but it is a notable trend for the first day. Dawson has good fluidity and long speed. His experience in the slot is plentiful and he has proven to be able to play a versatile role in New England. He needs a strong camp to stick with the Steelers.
Nick Herbig Stars
This was a really great day for Nick Herbig. He would have registered at least two sacks with his rip-and-dip move, the patented move that has gotten him places at Wisconsin. I thought he did a great job of reducing his surface area and showing off some high-level bend. He’s only 230 pounds, so he better be showing off those traits.
He did this all on separate ocassions against Le’Raven Clark. My favorite of his second sack is that he knocked down the 36-inch arms of Clark and was able to use his natural leverage to bend around the edge. That’s some textbook hand usage that Denzel Martin worked on with him on the first day of Steelers training camp and in the spring. If he can brush up on that technique, he could be a highly effective sub-package edge rusher.