Inside the Ropes: Justin Hunter surprises in Steelers receiver corps
Much has been made about the talent the Steelers have stockpiled at wide receiver. One name that often gets buried in that hierarchy is Justin Hunter.
The free agent signee, though, was one of the stars of the first practice of the Steelers’ 2017 training camp.
With Martavis Bryant yet ineligible for practice, Hunter — not holdover Cobi Hamilton, not respected veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, not prized rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster — was chosen to run opposite All Pro Antonio Brown as the other first-team outside receiver.
Hunter immediately made the most of his opportunity, catching the first touchdown of the “Seven Shots” on the practice-opening 2-point conversion drill’s second snap. Moments later, Hunter was Ben Roethlisberger’s target on the first play of the regular 11-on-11 drills, showing his length (6-foot-4) and speed (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash) in taking a quick pass and turning it upfield for a “first down.”
Hunter made at least three other catches during team drills in practice, beating Ross Cockrell on each.
• Because of heavy rain in the area, the Steelers moved their Friday practice from Chuck Noll Field at St. Vincent to the artificial turf field of Greater Latrobe High School. The practice start time also was pushed back an hour to 3:55 p.m.
The practice remained open to the public. The $10 million Latrobe complex opened about 3½ years ago, and the Steelers since have at times moved camp practices there during inclement weather. Rain began falling at about 1 p.m. and quickly picked up in intensity.
Tomlin called Friday’s practice “really awesome … and I mean that sincerely.”
“Throughout the course of this journey we are going to face some adversity, we are going to have to be light on our feet and make adjustments, and I thought the guys did a heck of a job with dealing with the circumstances — time change, location change. And we went out, and we had a very productive practice … We got normal work done regardless of circumstance, and that was pleasing.”
The forecast is for showers much of the day Saturday, so it’s likely practice could be moved.
“We’re appreciative of it, the relationship (with Latrobe),” Tomlin said. “We’re just appreciative of this environment.”
• The offense won “Seven Shots” with touchdowns on five of the snaps. Hunter, Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers, Scott Orndoff and Hamilton scored. Vince Williams and Sean Davis had pass breakups for the defense. Landy Jones was 3 for 3, Roethlisberger 2 for 4.
• Smith-Schuster, however, suffered a slightly sprained ankle when Davis broke up a potential “touchdown” in the corner of the end zone on the third snap. There were some anxious moments while Smith-Schuster was out, but the second-round pick returned about 20 minutes later.
“I’m fine, just a sprained ankle,” Smith-Schuster said afterward.
• Was that kicker Chris Boswell working as the second-team slot receiver? No, it was Ayers, who was wearing Boswell’s No. 9 jersey.
“I left my jersey (back at St. Vincent), so I had to use his,” Ayers said.
• Artie Burns was on Brown throughout practice, and as expected it was a matchup to watch. Although Brown had some catches, it reasonably could be stated that part of Hunter’s big day was Roethlisberger looking his way after seeing Brown well covered.
• One of the times Brown beat Burns, with a nice over-the-shoulder catch down the right sideline, safety Mike Mitchell protested that Brown was out of bounds. Mitchell pleaded with some onlookers to concur.
• Mitchell at one point blew two-handed kisses at fans sitting in the front of the bleachers who’d yelled out, “We love you, Mike!”
• Orndoff, a Pitt alum, had a nice one-handed catch early on in team drills.
• Other than perhaps Hunter, there were no surprises among the “starters” in the first-team offense and defense. With James Harrison as expected in his typical full gray sweatsuit working on his own, rookie T.J. Watt ran as the first-team right outside linebacker, just as he did during minicamp and organized team activities over the summer (Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats were the second-team outside linebackers). With Le’Veon Bell yet to report to camp, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Knile Davis and rookie James Conner got first-team running back reps.
• The practice did not feature full pads and was non-tackling. Brown, though, went down at one point when contact was made between he, Davis and Ryan Shazier on a pass over the middle. He was fine.
• Brown and Roethlisberger, who have connected more than any other receiver/quarterback over a four-season span in NFL history, displayed some of the chemistry they share when the pair had a chat of more than 2 minutes following the play. Brown and Roethlisberger were discussing routes, signals, strategy and how each should react to certain defensive plays.