Inside the Steelers: Harrison's return brings bump in intensity
The Steelers' first practice after Sunday's 14-3 loss to the Vikings in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game was noticeably more intense than some of the more recent ones.
There might have been a reason for that.
“I know when you get 92 back in the uniform that changes the climate a little bit,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think it did today.”
Veteran linebacker James Harrison participated in practice for the first time this training camp and quickly made his presence known.
During the opening team period of practice, Harrison bull-rushed 6-foot-9, 330-pound-plus left tackle Alejandro Villanueva into backup quarterback Landry Jones.
Harrison took all his snaps at second-team right outside linebacker, and the majority of his rushes were of the bull-rush variety.
• Notables who returned to practice were receiver Markus Wheaton and safety Mike Mitchell (both did not participate in team drills) along with receiver Martavis Bryant, linebacker Jarvis Jones, running back Josh Harris, cornerback Cortez Allen, guard Ramon Foster and tight end Heath Miller.
• Bryant returned to practice for the first time in more than a week and quickly showed what he provides to the offense. During 11-on-11, Bryant streaked down the right sideline and was double-teamed by Allen and safety Will Allen. Bryant was able to out-jump both defensive backs on an underthrown pass by Jones for 45-yard touchdown reception.
• Harris also returned to practice for the first time in a week because of a sore shoulder and broke off the best run of the day during the first team period. Harris ran over right guard, made a cut in the hole, and raced 45 yards untouched into the end zone. Tomlin made only the second-teamers go live during the initial team drill.
• With Wheaton still being held out of team drills, Darrius Heyward-Bey took the majority of the first-team reps in the slot. At one point, Tomlin commended Heyward-Bey for making a catch in traffic with his hands and not his body.
• Cam Thomas, who is getting an extended look at nose tackle with Dan McCullers (hamstring) out the past couple practices, continued to impress. During offensive line/defensive line drills, Thomas pushed rookie center B.J. Finney at least 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
• The Steelers might not have found the end zone Sunday when they got around the goal line, but they didn't have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback either. Roethlisberger was 3 for 3 during the “Seven Shots” drill, where the ball is placed at the 2-yard line. Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes to Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Miller. The only time the first team failed was when Brown threw a pass off an end-around.
• During the pass-under-pressure period in which all third-down plays were scripted, Roethlisberger converted 5 of 6 into first downs.
• Tight end Jesse James, who had a dropped touchdown along with a drop that resulted in an interception in Sunday's game, dropped a pass early in practice. The crowd at St. Vincent let out a collective groan.
OUTSIDE THE ROPES
Getting to know ... Markus Wheaton
Wide receiver Markus Wheaton goes with the flow. He doesn't possess any pregame rituals or superstitions. He doesn't need music to pump him up before games. He relies strictly on preparation. “With all the work that goes into the game, I feel the superstitious stuff is kind of silly,” he said. “Like me wearing my headphones today and not tomorrow isn't going to make a difference in how I perform.” Wheaton stepped up last season with 53 catches in 11 starts after only six receptions in 2013.
How do you spend your spare time during training camp?
“I watch film. We talk about football. My life is football. I don't think there's enough football. There are always ways to get better.”
What was your favorite subject in college?
“If it wasn't math, I wasn't interested. When I was a kid, I was good at it and I enjoyed it.”
What is your dream destination?
“Home. I always look forward to spending time with my family. There's nothing like home. I don't know, but I love it in Phoenix.”
The Steelers and AFC North rival Baltimore are 25-1 shots to win the 50th Super Bowl, while Cincinnati's odds are 30-1 and Cleveland is at 100-1, according to MyTopSportsbooks.com.
“The NFL intrigues the country unlike anything else in sports,” MyTopSportsbooks.com spokesman Geoff Johnson said. “Fans are always looking for that next possible betting angle to keep them ahead of the trends.”
The Steelers are the fourth choice to win the AFC championship. Defending champion New England is favored to win the conference despite quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension. The Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson are favorites in the NFC.