Thursday, June 14, 2012

Steelers Pass The Test As Minicamp Ends

I guess minicamp is a little like mid-terms: you're tested, in a manner of speaking, on how well you'll stack up against your competition and then you're let out early.

That was the scene Thursday at the final day of minicamp as Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their final mandatory minicamp practice of the 2012 off-season. To add to the above analogy, they also have some time off now, over a month, before finals: Training Camp and roster cut-downs.

But one thing is certain about the past few days of minicamp, the Steelers as a whole passed one major test: Staying Injury Free 101.

Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said that, "All Steelers rookies attended Mike Tomlin's Camp at Brashear today." Not only did they all attend, but they all stayed upright. Many impressed as well. Sean Spence is wowing, Chris Rainey is a blur and Kelvin Beachum is proving himself. Our previous blog post even had the article link that Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider wrote on him.

The drafted rookies aren't the only ones impressing. Adrian Robinson is a defensive end out of Temple university who went undrafted this year, but has caught the attention of Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler. Robinson will look to make the transition to standing up as an outside linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 system, which is always a tough adjustment for the "tweeners" (think Alonzo Jackson), ones who are physically between a defensive end and an outside linebacker. So, for Robinson to make the 53 man roster he would have to outplay Chris Carter on special teams and show that he has more long-term upside than Carter as an outside linebacker. Butler has said, though, that Carter is coming along well, so it'll be tough for my namesake regardless.

Brandon Hicks is another linebacker to garner some attention through OTAs and minicamp. Hicks played both inside and outside at Florida and went undrafted in 2011. He was in the Buffalo Bills Training Camp last year. He'll get mainly inside work with the Steelers, but he is a long shot to make the roster with Spence causing Butler and the other coaches to salivate. Although Butler praised Hicks, he still has to know that the practice squad is his ultimate destination this season. Robinson, therefore, is likely the one with the best shot of the two of earning a roster spot because of his playing the outside spot. He, though, would have to push Mortty Ivy and Carter in Training Camp.

Another undrafted rookie who has been impressing is Terry Carter. On Twitter, Mark Kaboly said about him, "Keep an eye on #Steelers rookie CB Terry Carter. Coaching staff really high on him." According to Neal Coolong, also on Twitter at @NealCoolong, of the website Behind the Steel Curtain, Terry Carter is 5'11" 190 pound cornerback out of Louisiana Tech.

As with any and all of the undrafted rookies, the coaching staff speaking highly of them, unsolicited appraisals no less, says a lot. Not to say that any of them actually even make the initial 53-man roster or practice squad. But I said "initial" for a reason. Things happen throughout the course of a season, be it injuries or players claimed off of waivers, the Steelers will need reliable players they can call to fill spots and even put onto the 53.

It wasn't just rookies impressing and staying injury free. Veterans made their voices heard as well, so to speak. Curtis Brown, James Harrison, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Weslye Saunders, Ramon Foster and a few others did miss a few practices here and there, but no knew injuries occurred and everyone should be near 100% by the time Camp rolls around next month.

There were others who fell into that category as well. Emmanuel Sanders is one of them. He's of particular concern since he had feet and knee problems the last two seasons, and did miss part of minicamp due to some minor knee issues (swelling?). He did, though, say he feels he is "100%" after having surgery on both feet last offseason.

"I definitely feel like I have something to prove. I haven't finished an entire seasons yet....I want to go for a thousand yards, everything that big-time receivers do I want to do that," Sanders said.

Good news from the Steelers best route-running and best blocking wide receiver on the roster. As was said in a recent If It Ain't Steel blog post, he has the requisite tools to be a No. 1 receiver.

Others of interest injury-wise were Rashard Mendenhall and Casey Hampton. Mendenhall continues to rehab from his knee surgery and is going to be on the Active PUP list to start Camp. All signs point to him starting the season on the Reserve PUP list also. He seems confidant he'll be ready week No. 7 rather than 12, but time will tell and he's not one I'd want to see rushed. Hampton on the other hand says he'll be ready by opening day.

"I’m planning on coming back for the season," Hampton said Wednesday. "That’s what I’m looking at. That’s realistic for me. I don’t know about anybody else."

When they report to Camp in late July, the Steelers will have the same PUP list options with Big Snack. What does he think of those options?

"Nah, I can’t see that happening," he said. "I feel like I’m ready to go."

Hampton isn't the only one who has shown optimism. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert back in February said, "The one edge Casey will have on anybody is that he's been through this twice. He knows what to expect. He knows how to do this. He knows how much work he has to do and he knows how he feels."

If Hampton isn't ready, though, the Steelers will confidently go with backup Steve McLendon.

Two other players coming off of injury are also claiming and looking to be willing, ready and able to participate. Brett Keisel, who suffered a groin injury in January's AFC Wild Card game, took his normal reps and should also be ready for Camp, and Maurkice Pouncey says he feels "awesome."

The ankle Pouncey sprained in the AFC Championship Game against the Jets in 2010 never really healed during that offseason, leading to a painful and sub-standard year for Pouncey that ended with him missing the playoff loss to the Broncos this year completely.

“I came back and it wasn’t healthy,” Pouncey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I played through it. At the end of the season last year it got too weak and I needed the surgery.”

Having surgery didn’t keep Pouncey from taking part in the offseason sessions with the team, though. In fact, the Steelers feel the operation didn't just repair the problem, but that it will also make Pouncey less likely to sprain it going forward as well.

Mission accomplished. Class dismissed.

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TIDBITS:  Former Bengals linebacker Brandon Johnson signed with the Steelers.

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Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson makes triumphant return  http://t.co/Ve97IyPb 

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Mike Prisuta: It was Funny Hat Day on the South Side, started in '07 by Hines Ward, not that anyone was on the field for very long http://t.co/dqB7mjRI

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In a lighter moment, Mark Kaboly reported that Byron Leftwich threw 71 yards Thursday to beat Troy Smith. He said he could throw 80 yards in his younger days. Leftwich then said about the throwing contest, "Had no choice. Tomlin Don Kinged it. He signed me up for the fight and I didn't know i was up for the fight."