By Chris Adamski
LATROBE — Speed is arguably the skill associated with football that is easiest to quantify. A player’s time in the 40-yard dash is black-and-white.
So it’s not surprising that, in the early days of training camp, the new speedy, shifty running back gets all the hype. Last year, it was Baron Batch. This season, Batch was all but forgotten with rookie Chris Rainey zooming up and down the sidelines at St. Vincent College.
It would seem unlikely — though not impossible — that both Batch and Rainey would make this season’s 53-man roster. And with Rainey and his University of Florida pedigree and 4.2-speed all the rage, Batch has been viewed by some as a longshot.
The first training camp practice in shoulder pads perhaps told a different story.
Not only was Batch, who has a 30-pound advantage, much better in blocking drills and backers-on-backs, he also still managed to flash his speed and elusiveness.
Perhaps even more telling, he’ll always be the type of player the coaches like because of his intelligence and his propensity to give maximum effort on every play.
During sweeps and swing passes out of the backfield run during practice on Saturday, Batch ran hard to the corner every time. The workout was the first for Batch in pads in almost a full calendar year. He sustained a torn ACL last training camp before he even was able to appear in a preseason game.
“I liked the fact that there was no hesitation in his play,” coach Mike Tomlin said about Batch after Saturday’s practice. “For a guy that’s coming off a knee injury, I thought he moved with authority and trust in the knee, not only in competition periods but in individual work.”
Contrast that with the only words Tomlin had about Rainey early Saturday evening. For those who have pegged Rainey as a third-down back because of his pass-catching ability, know this: Tomlin wouldn’t even let Rainey partake in a blitz-blocking drill.
“I’m not going to pull my boat with a Ferrari, you know what I mean?” Tomlin said. “I took him out of the drill. If he can’t cut in that drill, I’m not putting him in that drill. And obviously I don’t want him cutting LaMarr Woodley and others.”
Banning “cut blocks” in practice is a perfectly reasonable position to take, and no one should expect a player who is generously listed at 5-9, 180 pounds to have a proficiency in impeding defensive ends and outside linebackers. Rainey is, after all, listed as weighing anywhere from 20-70 pounds less than every other back on the team.
But watching Rainey in the sled drill, for example, you see just how much smaller he is. John Clay, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman push the sled about three yards; with Rainey, it barely budges.
There is plenty to like about Chris Rainey, and he has the makings of a player who can make an impact in the NFL. Just don’t pencil him in as the Steelers’ third-down back or a primary backup — at least not just yet.
NOTES — As will surely be the case until further notice, Trai Essex (left tackle) and Ramon Foster (right guard) ran with the first-team offensive line at the start of practice Saturday. But as has been the case each of the three days of workouts, rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams were rotated in, at times, at right guard and left tackle, respectively. … Jonathan Dwyer again ran with the second team at running back. … Nose tackle Casey Hampton (on PUP list as he recovers from a torn ACL) has been running and working out on his own at St. Vincent. He declared his goal of being ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 9, and sounded confident that was achievable. … Another player who tore an ACL late last season, running back Rashard Mendenhall, looked limber in running on his own in the back of the end zone during practice. The true test, though, for Mendenhall is his lateral movement and ability to cut. … Keenan Lewis, by all indications, is the runaway leader in the race to start at left cornerback. He has ran almost exclusively with the first team and has not made any glaring errors. Second-year players Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown are purportedly also in the running.