Steelers knock Bills back in joint practice

LATROBE, Pa. -- After an hour bus ride to St. Vincent College, the Buffalo Bills got hit by a truck early in Wednesday's joint practice with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Convening on a single practice field for simultaneous 11-on-11 sessions, the Buffalo Bills' offense was knocked around early in a spirited series of reps that featured live tackling.

EJ Manuel's first pass was caught by Robert Woods, but the ball was stripped and recovered by Steelers defensive backs, who were flying around early in the practice. On the next play, C.J. Spiller fought back, butting helmets with linebacker Jason Worilds after a run up the middle.

Then came Manuel's next pass, over the middle to Sammy Watkins. In a rare moment for the rookie, he pulled up as he anticipated contact from a safety, with the ball careening off his hands.

Later, with the second-team offense on the field, fullback Evan Rodriguez got into a large scuffle with several Steelers after a play. That was quickly followed by a Steelers defender delivering a hard hit on fullback Frank Summers after a catch in the flat.

The intensity in that first period set the tone for what was by far the Bills' most physical practice of training camp. Manuel and the Bills' offense seemed rattled for the rest of the day.

Some of Manuel's throws came in early to receivers, and about a half-dozen others were overthrown or underthrown. On his passes that were accurate, Manuel didn't always get help from his receivers.

On his next target after his early fumble, Woods tried to catch a Manuel pass on a short pattern with one hand. It didn't work. Two plays later, Mike Williams couldn't corral a well-thrown pass over the middle. Since that period of practice didn't feature live tacking, Steelers defensive backs heckled Williams for the drop, reminding him that they "weren't going to hit" him.

The chirping from the Steelers secondary continued throughout the practice, with some Bills receivers butting heads with safety Mike Mitchell and others. At one point, Woods dove forward but couldn't catch an underthrown Manuel pass and was serenaded by the Steelers' defensive backs as he returned to the opposite sideline.

Manuel had particular trouble connecting with Woods. We counted six targets to Woods from Manuel, all incomplete except for his fumble on the first play. A few passes were underthrown or overthrown, and Woods was dragged down by a Steelers defender (no penalty flag) on another.

The Bills offense punched back later in practice when Manuel connected with tight end Scott Chandler down the middle of the field for a big gain. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 76, who was vocal throughout practice, particularly chided his defense for allowing that play.

Chandler's catch was one of the few offensive highlights from a practice that should serve as a wake-up call for the Bills. In some ways, this was part of the plan for the Bills: Enter hostile territory and if you get pushed around, push back.

The Bills will have their chance to respond Thursday evening when the teams meet again.