The Morning After

The Steelers finished camp on a high note, with all the right players making all the right moves.

SATURDAY, AUG. 20

The end of camp occurred so abruptly I never had a chance to say goodbye. And while I was thinking about that (and getting up too early for daughter's soccer camp), I forgot to wrap the Thursday night stomping of the Philadelphia Eagles. So, let's combine the two and run it based on game performance:

FIVE STARS

* BEN ROETHLISBERGER -- My memory blurs sometimes, but I believe this has been his best camp. Few will argue after his performance the other night. He's seeing the field and clearly has developed a greater feel for the game. The 29-year-old is in his prime and ready for his best season yet. Off the field, he's matured. You can see it in his interviews. There's more warmth. He's more real. I asked him if marriage has mellowed him. He said, "No. It's making me crazy." That might be so, as some of us know all too well, but Roethlisberger's certainly matured, whether he realizes it or not.

* TROY POLAMALU – Troy's always tried (hoped) to avoid the media, but nothing like this camp. He even pulled the ol' I'm-on-the-cell phone trick that got him past a mob of reporters outside the cafeteria. I didn't even know Troy had a cell phone, let alone actually used one. But I can't blame him because it's always the same: "How's your foot?" He answered that question on the field Thursday night as he zipped every which way. Troy is back, and as Teddy KGB said as he pointed to Matt Damon in one of my all-time favorite movies: "Pay him. Pay that man his money."

* RASHARD MENDENHALL – The 24-year-old Mendenhall also appears to be on the verge of a career season. Friday night he ran, caught and blocked with extreme effectiveness. (I'm sure everyone saw him pick up the blitz on the first TD pass.) Kind of makes the search for a "third-down back" seem silly. Why take your best back off the field on the most important down? As for his demeanor at camp, Mendenhall handled "silly season" from the media rather well, although I can't say the media was all that interested in Mendenhall's "tweeting" experiences anyway. …

* JAMES HARRISON – … nor did the media want to talk much about Harrison's Men's Journal interview. (Although, I'm kicking myself for not asking about the alleged practice near-fight between Harrison and OC Bruce Arians.) No, this guy's a leader who drew even more respect for calling Roethlisberger about his comments and then throwing himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. He also made Roethlisberger more respected within the team for taking the high road. So, because of the MJ interview, the Steelers have actually become closer. Funny how that works sometimes. As for Harrison's recovery from a pair of offseason back surgeries, he said he's in Month 6 of a 12 to 18-month recovery period. Before Friday's game, Harrison said he's 80 percent recovered and "ahead of the curve." On the field, he put together a 3-play sequence of pressures that preceded Polamalu's interception. It was an optimistic sign.

FOUR STARS

* HINES WARD – He read Roethlisberger's improvisation as if he was joined at the QB's hip. Physically, I never would have thought that dancing would realistically help Ward the way it has. Arians called him "spryer" and Ward gushed about the way he's feeling. The clean-up surgery on his knee also helped. On the field, Ward made the greatest catch of camp the other day – he dove to haul in a bomb – and remains a boon to the coaching staff with the young and impressionable receivers in the room. And Ward's matured, too. I know he really wants to get something off his chest about the last possession of the Super Bowl, but he won't. Smart move.

* LARRY FOOTE – The maturity issue is the segue I needed to get to softball. My favorite part of camp is always the Offense vs. Defense softball game following the final practice. I used to cringe when players such as, for example, Polamalu would participate just after coming back from a hamstring injury. No one ever got hurt, but the competitive nature of these guys makes it inevitable. Well, they didn't play this year. Roethlisberger blamed the cancellation on the rain (field was dry the next day) and the fact the Offense always beats the Defense anyway. I reminded him that the Defense's great liability, Tyrone Carter, wasn't around any longer. "Yeah, but they still have Foote," Roethlisberger said with a laugh. No, Larry, you don't have the best hands for softball, but congratulations on your interception Thursday night. And congratulations on having a quietly great camp and remaining one of the integral parts of team leadership.

* WILLIE COLON – Speaking of great camps and team leadership, Colon has convinced me that he could've played in the playoffs last season. That's what he said at the time, but all they all seem to say that at the end of their injury-reserved seasons. Colon's another key piece in the prime of his career and gives the line two essential building blocks.

* MAURKICE POUNCEY – Look at what drafting his twin brother could have solved: Tony Hills would be the swing tackle and rookie Marcus Gilbert would be allowed to breathe a little bit as the fourth OT. Pouncey's having the kind of camp one should coming off a rookie Pro Bowl season. And even though he's the second-youngest player on the 90-man roster (by two days to Jonathan Dwyer), Pouncey is ensconced in team leadership. He brings a noticeable rush of energy to the older guys.

THREE STARS

* TONY HILLS – Great catch by the coaching staff in that Hills might be a better guard. I never saw this one coming. You assume a failed finesse tackle cannot move inside, but Hills looked comfortable Thursday night at right guard. He also gives them mobility in the screen game that they're still trying to get off the ground. The drawback to the move is the lack of experience behind the starting tackles. I guess they could always move Hills to OT in-game, but I'd hate to jerk around a guy who hasn't really deserved to play tackle in three seasons anyway.

* KEENAN LEWIS – Proof that you can rise from the dead. Like Limas Sweed, Lewis was dead man walking before camp. Unlike Sweed, Lewis came to life. He got some breaks with injuries and was forced to play a lot in two preseason games. He ran with DeSean Jackson on the Eagles' first-play bomb that fell incomplete and then Lewis intercepted a pass. He's now favored to knock off Crezdon Butler for that sixth CB spot. Or at least he's forcing the team to think about keeping seven.

* ISAAC REDMAN – In the aforementioned plan, Mendenhall will stay on the field more on third downs. He's that complete of a player. He'll be able to do this because Redman, in his third camp, has also become a complete back. The substitutions can now be planned rotationally since Redman is showing he can handle any down. He's also again spotting at fullback. Haven't watched him lead-block this year, and he needs to improve in that capacity.

* JERRICHO COTCHERY – If nothing else, the import from the New York Jets wins Camp Speaker Award for telling reporters upon his arrival, "That's exactly why I came here – to play for a Super Bowl contender." It appears Cotchery will be a great help, too. He and Ward and Heath Miller will work inside while Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown "take the top off the coverage." Emmanuel Sanders will be the No. 5 man looking in as he recovers from a foot injury.

* ANTONIO BROWN – Topped off his performance as Camper of the Year with another touchdown catch Friday night. Only three stars because he would've gotten five stars had I written a similar column after the Redskins game.

TWO STARS

* SWAYZE WATERS – Cool name and a strong leg. Missed a chip shot and had another FB blocked but for the first time in a long time the Steelers have someone who can consistently kick it out of the end zone. Too bad it's a gimme this season and no one should have to keep two kickers to get it out of the end zone now. Sadly, the Steelers will think this way and will be the only team that can't kick it out of the end zone.

* CHRIS CARTER – Killing whatever X-string tackle that was playing for the Eagles in the fourth quarter, Carter's too small to help as an outside linebacker now, but will get his chance because he HAS to be on the coverage units. Looks like a natural STs demon to me.

* CURTIS BROWN – Rookie corner gives too much cushion in off-coverage, but man coverage appears to be a strength. He showed off his 40-inch vertical at the last open practice. Brown went way up, bobbled the ball on the way down, and dropped it as he crashed to the ground just in front of a brick wall. This cover guy will throw his body around. Help at nickelback is on the way.

SATURDAY, AUG. 13

From the notebook of a sportswriter who understands that even Rex Grossman can beat you when six of your first seven cornerbacks are injured:

* Not to mention both starting safeties.

* But that doesn't excuse the Steelers after getting whipped by the Redskins in the preseason opener – even if the Redskins did leave their starters on the field for two quarters as opposed to the Steelers' one series.

* Ben Roethlisberger picked himself up from where he left off. He dropped back to pass four times Friday and was hit three times. On the only clean play, he overthrew Mike Wallace on what should've been a touchdown and a happy ending for the first-team offense.

* The officiating picked up from where it left off, too. Replays showed the referee looking straight at Roethlisberger as he was hit late on his first throw.

* That throw was completed to Antonio Brown, but Roethlisberger's hand was hurt by the late hit.

* Roethlisberger was sacked later when the group of run blockers up front couldn't protect him in the empty set. Again.

* The exceptions up front were Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon. Colon might be having a better camp than anyone not named Brown.

* That said – and signing Colon was the right move – it's still worth noting that the Steelers revamped the right side of their line when that side was clearly superior to the left side in the Super Bowl, and the entire season.

* It's just that the stats from the Super Bowl clearly bear this out.

* Dan Sepulveda's mighty 62-yard punt set the defense up for its first series at the Washington 1-yard line. But the Redskins drove 89 yards behind Grossman and Tim Hightower. Sad, sad words indeed.

* On three consecutive plays, Hightower: 1.) ran around a prone Jason Worilds for a jaunt down the sideline; 2.) ran over Ryan Clark and sent him to the sideline for the night; and 3.) broke Ike Taylor's thumb. It accounted for 35 yards in gains.

* On the next play, both Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu's replacement missed open-field tackles of a fullback.

* It was as good a play as any to provide commentary that Polamalu, at 30, should be the negotiating priority over the 25-year-old Timmons.

* For all that I enjoy about Timmons's run-and-hit skills, it's time for him to start making plays. Looking good while narrowly missing sacks and turnovers isn't enough.

* Of course, the front office needs to see Polamalu play before carrying forward with that plan. Make sure the burst is back.

* Brett Keisel was the first-team defense's best player. He showed that his Pro Bowl selection was no fluke. Casey Hampton and LaMarr Woodley also played well for the first-team defense.

* Cameron Heyward flashed a bit for the second team. He blew up a running play and later pressured the quarterback. I liked the nimbleness he showed on a third play when he sorted through the trash to get down the line and help make a tackle.

* The underappreciated Larry Foote played extremely well for the second team. Smart, heady, tough, humble – the type of athlete Pittsburgh normally embraces more than it has Foote over the years.

* Just to get back to Sepulveda, the Zanesville Times Recorder reported that he punted 4 times for a 46.3 average, and that Jeremy Capinos punted 3 times for a 45-yard average. I read this article because the paper was lamenting the lack of action Friday by hometown boy Aaron Bates – who'd been cut eight days previous. Read all about it in "Aaron Bates' debut will have to wait."

* With cornerbacks dropping like flies, you wonder if Jerricho Cotchery can play a little defense for them.

* The Steelers like their rookie pass coverers, and Keenan Lewis and Donovan Warren played well in Washington, but the team should consider bringing Anthony Madison back. If nothing else he could at least tackle return men who bring the ball out from 8 yards deep in the end zone.

* Obviously, the new kickoff rule is silly. Anything that keeps Brown from touching the ball is silly.

* Brown did make the block of the night on Isaac Redman's touchdown run. But you wonder how many snaps Brown will lose out to Cotchery. And that would be silly, too.

* No worries about Rashard Mendenhall having to carry too much of the load. It became clear on goal-line day – when Redman wasn't used because "we know what we have" – that Redman is looming large in the coaching staff's plans this year.

* Chris Scott got off to a shaky start at right guard.

* Tyler Grisham couldn't get open.

* John Gilmore was better than advertised.

* But Reggie Kelly will be the next Jonathan Hayes.

* David Johnson missed too many blocks.

* The two backup free safeties, Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith and Brent Greenwood, played well. The latter was exceptional on special teams in the fourth quarter.

* But Greenwood wasn't the Steelers' best rookie on the field in the fourth quarter. That was undrafted defensive end Corbin Bryant. Go back and watch No. 71 dominate the line of scrimmage.

THURSDAY, AUG. 11

In the Steelers' last game, the right side of their offensive line was clearly their most effective.

The Steelers carried 12 times to their right for 75 yards. They ran twice up the middle for 0 and five times to the left for 22.

As for pass protection, the Green Bay Packers' one sack came over the Steelers' left side, as did the quarterback hit that caused Ben Roethlisberger's fifth pass of the game to flutter and get picked off and returned for a touchdown.

One would assume the left side of the O-line would get the offseason attention, but that's not how it went down.

No, after curiously wearing Flozell Adams's Michigan State jerseys to the game, and after Mike Tomlin raved about Adams after the game, the Steelers re-signed Willie Colon to play right tackle. They're also in the midst of promoting Chris Scott over Ramon Foster at right guard.

Strange?

Not according to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"I think it's a big step up," Arians said of re-signing Colon. "Flo played really good but he never played as well as Willie."

Colon, of course, missed all of last season with a torn Achilles' tendon. He rehabbed and stayed in shape and last January was telling reporters he could've played in the playoffs had he not been on injured reserve.

And now he's back, and, according to those who grade the practice tape, he's playing as well as anyone at camp. Arians isn't surprised.

"No, because I've watched him work so hard," Arians said. "He's probably as light – or, his body fat is so far down than what it used to be. He looks fantastic.

"You know, that injury used to be devastating. Guys are starting to come back from it better. I thought he could've played for us in the playoffs last year he was in such good shape. That's one of the problems with that IR stuff, but he's been champing at the bit for so long it really hasn't surprised me."

The Steelers made another surprising move in the offseason, and it also appears to be paying off.

The Steelers signed undrafted free agent Weslye Saunders after he was kicked off his college team, and Saunders is giving every indication that he belongs.

Before the draft we went over the big tight end's transgressions at South Carolina and will just summarize them here: decided to turn pro, missed meetings, got suspended, came back to college, contacted an agent, suspended again, came back again, allegedly lied to coach Steve Spurrier, kicked off team for good.

According to a source with the Steelers, those problems caused Saunders's draft grades to fall from second round to undraftable. But it was more than value that led the Steelers to sign Saunders after the draft. Saunders had met with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin before the draft and apparently said all the right things. The team then investigated Saunders's background and decided "he was just a knucklehead, not a criminal," according to one source.

And so far, so good. Saunders has impressed everyone at camp with his size, athletic ability, and conditioning. In fact, anyone but a head coach would choose Saunders and his one month of experience over a worn-out vet like John Gilmore. But it's the head coach who makes the call.

Could Saunders handle the offense if he has to play?

"This year?" asked Arians. "In a role kind of like the one Antonio (Brown) had last year. He could be a fill-in guy. But to play with the entire playbook and game plan, it's yet to be seen. He mentally can do it, but there's so much information and he didn't have OTAs."

Does Arians like Saunders's tools?

"I do. He's got a nice skill-set. He's a more than willing blocker, but he's dropping way too many balls for as good as his hands are."

Has Arians seen any knuckleheaded-ness thus far from Saunders?

"No. He's been in tune," Arians said. "We've made it very clear to him that this is the Pittsburgh Steelers and we don't put up with knuckleheads."

And his response?

"Yes, sir."

TUESDAY, AUG. 9

"It looks like the light's coming on for 54," Tunch Ilkin said to me as the two of us watched a drill at yesterday's practice.

Tunch, of course, is the former Steelers Pro Bowler turned radio analyst.

Me, of course, is the writer hell-bent on asking all the smart people what they thought.

And 54 is rookie outside linebacker Chris Carter, and he was having his best day of practice yet.

In this drill, Carter and the OLBs went up against the tight ends who were trying to keep the OLBs inside as a running back ran wide. Carter was having none of it against heretofore stud blocking H-back Jamie McCoy.

Carter beat McCoy three straight times, while the OLB on the depth chart ahead of him, Jason Worilds, was getting beat by the starting H-back, David Johnson, three straight times.

This naturally set up a showdown between Carter and Johnson, and Carter refused to stay blocked as he got to the running back on both reps.

"All right 54!" bellowed Mike Tomlin as they trotted off the field upon the drill's conclusion.

"This is his best practice yet," said Ilkin.

But it wasn't over. In one-on-one drills later, Tomlin set Carter up against fellow rookie Marcus Gilbert. The big tackle was practicing for the first time this camp, and in his very first one-on-one rep Carter pancaked him.

Tomlin said "Again" and Carter beat Gilbert again. In fact, he beat him four consecutive times until Gilbert used his 5-inch height advantage and 82-pound weight advantage to beat Carter handily on rep five.

But Carter had already made his point.

"Yeah, I had a pretty good day today," said the rookie with a slight and humble chuckle.

Did the light come on?

"I just keep working," he said. "The coaches keep grinding me and I'm a guy who's always willing to work. If they keep giving me the tools, I'm going to keep using them."

The tools?

"Well, the thing about the NFL is it's all about technique, and if you don't have the right technique you're not going to win a lot of battles. If you do, you're going to be very successful in a lot of situations. Speed helps, but that's not always the No. 1 deciding factor. I have the speed, it's just the ability of being able to use my speed and my strength at the same time in the right places, and that's what they've been teaching me."

They're also teaching him to cover kicks. It's what he'll need to do to make the team. Watch for him Friday night on the first-team punt and kickoff coverage units.

* Time to take a look at how some of the key roster battles are shaping up:

Quarterback – If you're hearing that Charlie Batch will unseat Dennis Dixon, that's not the popular opinion among the personnel set. In fact, it would be a huge upset.

Running back – Jonathan Dwyer upset the staff by reporting out of shape, but he's been shedding weight with the help of the strength coach and he ran over a linebacker on his way into the end zone during the goal-line drill. He's also been returning kickoffs. Dwyer has the tools, so rookie Baron Batch may have to make the roster at the expense of Mewelde Moore, if Tomlin is so inclined. Big name rookie free agent John Clay hasn't created much buzz at all.

Wide receiver – Tyler Grisham is leading Limas Sweed and Arnaz Battle in the race for the No. 5 spot. Sweed's status depends solely on how he performs under the lights. No one's emerged yet from the pack of young free agents.

Tight end – Free-agent acquisition John Gilmore has been a disappointment and may not make the team. Jamie McCoy is the group's best lead-blocking fullback, but the Steelers won't keep a backup fullback/H-back behind Johnson, their best overall blocking tight end. Undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders reported in outstanding shape and has impressed with his natural skills, but he's very raw, probably too raw to unseat Gilmore.

Offensive line – Sixth-round pick Keith Williams could be the consensus surprise of camp so far. But he's a step slow off the ball and that's probably due to an understandable lack of understanding.

Defensive line – First-round pick Cameron Heyward will make the roster no matter how well he plays, so he wasn't the focus of my interest. The guy to watch, I'm told, is undrafted end Corbin Bryant, who might be able to play inside, too, in a pinch and that would be his ticket. NT Anthony Gray is destined for the practice squad.

Linebacker – No real questions here. Mortty Ivy has played well but remains a longshot to force Tomlin into keeping an extra man at the position again.

Secondary – Like Sweed, Keenan Lewis has proven he can practice at this level; now he has to do it in games. The personnel men really like draft picks Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, even though both have been sidelined of late. Others, such as Donovan Warren and Niles Brinkley, have been given spotlight opportunities, but haven't shown the speed required for a roster spot.

SATURDAY AUG. 6

2:30 p.m.: Larry Foote and the veteran linebackers sat out the grinding backs-on-backers drill last night. These were his observations.

1:30 p.m.: Because I love the picture so much, I'll use this as my blog for now as I formulate another MA entry. I was impressed with the linebackers last night, so I talked to the exciting second-year man from Utah this morning, Sly Sylvester. Here's the Q&A on the message board.

Also this morning, Heath Miller told us he'd been down to the filming of "Dark Knight Rises" but couldn't say much more about it other than "they took some sideline shots." I'm sure more will be twitted about the topic throughout the day.

Also, I'm expecting goal-line work at practice today. That's always fun.

Very wet up here. Probably practice on the turf field again.

FRIDAY, AUG. 5

If you're waking up to learn the Steelers were the lone vote against CBA ratification, welcome to my world. I apparently missed that in my shoddy reporting of the Steelers and their recent howls against the NFL. And I have to say that I didn't care then and I don't care now. It's time to shut up and play ball ...

... Yes, I'm giving in to the wishes of the readers of this column and breaking the thoughts into separate paragraphs. But if anyone remembers the old dot.dot.dot style of Dick Young in the old Sporting News, you'll understand why I tried to keep his style alive for so long ...

... James Harrison came up from behind me in the cafeteria, put his hands over my eyes, and said "Boo!" I turned around and he asked if I was scared. "No, I thought you were a media guy (pause) but then again, the media guys are getting pretty tough around here." I was alluding to the recent Ryan Clark skirmish with a local radio guy. Harrison smiled a crooked smile at me and said, "Any time you feel like taking your shot, come on along." ... It was all good. I hope ...

... Cornerbacks are the most difficult position for me to judge, but the Steelers are happy with the additions they've made there. I found this out while lamenting the fact that Anthony Madison had not been re-signed. "We've got some good-looking kids here who'll do a better job in coverage," someone told me ...

... I doubt Donovan Warren is one of them. He received several reps as the first-team nickelback, with Bryant McFadden and Keenan Lewis out injured yesterday. Every time I looked up he was getting beat ... But, like I said, that's not my field of expertise ...

... On the other hand, running backs are easy to spot. I liked Willie Parker the first day I watched him, and Isaac Redman was another. Throw Baron Batch right in there with them. I'm confident that you'll be confident in him from his first preseason game. He has the skills, and the polish ...

... Another rookie who has stood out the last few days was WR Armand Robinson. He doesn't seem to have one outstanding asset, but a collection of size, speed, toughness and hands. He looks like he belongs ...

... Of course, TE Weslye Saunders wouldn't surprise anyone with a strong preseason. The big man with those long arms showed up in great shape. I was expecting more doughy fat on the big guy but was pleasantly surprised ...

... One of the writers told me that on the first day Mike Tomlin introduced undrafted rookie nose tackle Anthony Gray to the team and had him say a few things about himself. "I bench 525 and I squat over 800 pounds." The team let out a collective "oohhhh." ...

... Gray, a favorite at this site since late March, looked surprisingly quick in one-on-one drills. Later I asked Casey Hampton what he thought about him. "The fireplug?" Hampton asked. I nodded. "I like him. He looks like he'll be all right," Hampton said. "I'll take him under my wing. He reminds me of myself, only shorter." ...

... Limas Sweed made the sweetest in-and-out move to beat Warren deep, but wasn't thrown to. I didn't watch much more of him, but heard he'd made some bad drops. I saw him for the first time up close this camp as he was walking off the field holding what might've been a bruised rib while grimacing in pain. I was just saying hi with my usual, "How you doin'?" and he grimaced and said, "Fine, thanks" as he walked away in obvious pain ...

... Some writers believe Sweed will be the No. 5 guy, and some are starting to wonder of Robinson can make a move on that job. But don't forget about Tyler Grisham. This kid has the softest pair of mitts on the team. He made two big plays yesterday. On the first he caught a 20-yard pass and took a serious lick from one of the DBs and held onto the ball. The team's collective reaction told me they were impressed. Later, Grisham beat the free safety deep and made a diving catch of a bomb off the arm of Byron Leftwich. I'm starting to worry that if Grisham's cut a third time, another team that's desperate at the position will give him the big break he needs ...

... Speaking of Leftwich, Tomlin put him back to return a kickoff as the kickoff team was getting some work. As Leftwich hauled the boot in and began running up the middle, I wondered out loud "Is Tomlin an idiot?" But as Leftwich began high-stepping it through the trash, my question changed to "Or is he a genius?" ...

... Tonight should be a joyous return to Latrobe Memorial Stadium for rookie receiver Terrence McCrae, who scored his first prep touchdown there, a 60-plus yarder for Connellsville. McCrae looked good in the bits I've seen ...

... Harrison, by the way, was practicing his long-snapping after practice yesterday ...

... On my way to dinner – and I head there immediately after post-practice interviews – I saw new tight end John Gilmore engulfed by autograph-seekers at the top of the stairs. I asked him if the pandemonium reminded him of Tampa. "Not exactly," he said with a big smile ...

... And, on my way back from dinner, as the autograph hounds began thinning out, there was a round of applause for a rookie who stayed late to satisfy everyone. I asked one of the applauders if he knew the rookie's name. "Yeah, that's Abraham, number 45." But number 45 is Jamie McCoy ...

... The free agents rejoined the team for the stretch, and right after the stretch they lined up offensively to run snaps against air, just to limber up. It's the prep work you see before games if you arrive early enough. On the second snap, Colon jumped early and the entire team moaned. Welcome back, Willie ...


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