With Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders on the sidelines, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown took the majority of the first-team reps in team drills Sunday. Wallace was expected to be out there, but the absence of Ward and Sanders has allowed Brown to sneak in and take advantage of some quality action with Ben Roethlisberger.
"It's been good, man," said Brown after an extended practice. "Little rusty. I'm running with the first group and getting a lot of good looks with Ben, but we're not quite on one beat with him. It's a little frustrating, but my fundamentals and my route running are really good. I just gotta get back to my fundamentals of catching the ball and being precise."
Helping him with his fundamentals is Ward, who has been coaching up the young guns while he works his way off the PUP list.
"You see all the potential," Ward said of his young charges. "It's just a matter of every day getting better (and) staying humble. What happened last year was last year. We want to do bigger and better thing."
While Brown and Sanders are looking to build off their impressive rookie seasons and become more involved in the offense, the player who should make the most difference in 2011 is Mike Wallace. He's looking to take the next step from being one of the league's better receivers to being its best. He famously proclaimed that he's eying the 2,000-yard mark, a milestone that hasn't yet been reached by a receiver.
"He sets his goals high," Ward said. "I always say set your goals high. If you fall short of your goals, you still made out pretty good. For me, I want him to do well. I'm trying to teach him as much as I know, because he's gonna help us get back to where I want to go – which is the Super Bowl."
Wallace probably won't record a 2,000-yard season, but an improvement over his 1,257 yards last season would certainly be appreciated by a Pittsburgh team looking to take its passing offense to the next level.
Wallace is a part of that, and so is Ward, who will continue working as a de facto receivers coach until he's healthy enough to resume practicing himself.
"Me being out there with all these young guys – I just want to make sure everybody's on the same page. If all of us are out on the field and we're all on the same page, we're gonna be a hard crew to stop."
BATCH IMPRESSES: I did a quick hit at the end of yesterday's notebook on running back Baron Batch, who was one of the more notable positive stories during the lockout period. I thought he had a chance to make the team with his performance so far, but he took about three steps forward in his practice today.
Batch was the star of the popular backs-on-‘backers drills, showing off the pass-blocking skills he learned from his time in Texas Tech's pass-happy attack. After an early misstep on his first attempt, he absolutely stonewalled undrafted rookie Mario Harvey. Before long, coach Mike Tomlin was putting Batch in every other rep, with each rep taking on a new level of difficulty.
A big stop of second-year backer Jason Worilds excited Tomlin, who exclaimed "I like that, Batch!" The coach had one more trick up his sleeve though, calling out James Harrison to take on the young seventh-rounder.
Batch dove right into the challenge, holding up Harrison at the point of attack. Silverback eventually drove the rookie back, showing off his signature bullrush, but Batch left the field with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' arm around him in celebration.
That performance, coupled with the great vision and patience he displayed as a runner in team drills, leads me to believe that he'll wiggle his way into the running back picture when the team finalizes its opening-day roster.
MORE FROM BACKS-ON-‘BACKERS: While Batch was the star of the drill, several other players managed to impress the crowd. Offensively, tight end David Johnson performed very well, showing off the skills that will make him stick around another year as the team's hybrid TE/FB. Another tight end, Weslye Saunders also did well, showing good technique and footwork in the blocking drill.
Undrafted rookie John Clay, who is a load of a running back at 6'1" and 248 lbs, also held his own early on, but was eventually shown up by Stevenson Sylvester, who was a force for the defensive side of the ball throughout the drills.
While Clay might fall prey to the numbers game before camp ends, the performance was an important one for Saunders, who has his eye on the open tight end spot now that free agent Daniel Graham left Saint Vincent without a contract (he eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans).
INJURY REPORT: Marcus Gilbert and Limas Sweed were held out with hamstring injuries. Emmanuel Sanders was still sidelined with a foot issue. Keenan Lewis didn't practice due to heat-related illness and fellow corner Crezdon Butler ended practice early with tightness in his quad.
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED
1. Batch's path to NFL touches is a little trickier now that the team reached an agreement with RB Mewelde Moore. I personally don't understand the move, unless the team feels Isaac Redman isn't performing up to snuff. Moore is great as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but after what I just watched the team might be better off with Batch as a protector next to Ben.
2. The team also re-signed cornerback William Gay to a new deal, ensuring that arguments over his talent level will continue to divide Steeler Nation for another season.
3. While the Steelers certainly showed off their fetish for veteran talent with today's moves, the one move they haven't made yet worries me. This team needs Chris Hoke. Steve McLendon must apparently be their man, because undrafted rookie Anthony Gray doesn't look ready for NFL action yet.
4. While trying to get a better look at Gray, I got a chance to watch first-rounder Cameron Heyward in defensive line drills. He's not as strong as Ziggy Hood – who treated a blocking sled like a ragdoll in a later drill – but he's quicker, especially when moving laterally.
5. The "Young Money Family" has yet to give out any new nicknames.