Week II: A More Critical Look

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's bouncing back from a week of cockeyed optimism with some real nitty gritty:

* As good as it is to see Troy Polamalu on the field this spring, he's never looked worse physically. He's overweight and appears to be in pain while jogging. Someone said he looks like Joe Greene trying to run, and of course Mean Joe is 65 and has an artificial knee.

* When asked about his state of conditioning, Polamalu didn't bat an eye. He said it's nothing about which to be concerned, that he considers conditioning "a process" and that this is just the normal start of it.

* Tunch Ilkin provided examples of former teammates who preferred to play their way into shape, and Tunch wondered whether Polamalu is just being smart about not peaking too early in the year.

* Troy has said in the past that he's peaked too soon, so I'll assume this is not going to become problematic.

* Toney Clemons? The rookie receiver who looked like a high draft pick the first week of OTAs? Well, this past week he looked like the seventh-rounder that he is. On Thursday, during a hurry-up drill for the offense, Clemons dropped a short pass from Charlie Batch on a curl route. Two plays later, Batch hit Clemons in the head with a short pass over the middle because Clemons didn't turn to look for it.

* This came a series after the first team offense – with Byron Leftwich filling in for Ben Roethlisberger – had its two-minute offense stopped when Ike Taylor deflected a pass over the middle that was intercepted by linebacker Larry Foote.

* And that turnover occurred a series before the third offense, under the direction of Troy Smith, had its drive stopped because – as Mike Tomlin pronounced loudly – "Our quarterback took a damn sack!"

* Emmanuel Sanders put an end to the sloppy offensive showing by hauling in a bomb from Leftwich for a touchdown on the No. 1 offense's No. 2 attempt at the hurry-up drill.

* Sanders had a terrific week. He's showing off his quickness in the return game and pulling in everything thrown his way. He appears healthy and in line for his breakout season.

* But back to the comedy that was the hurry-up drill: At one point, new offensive coordinator Todd Haley couldn't take it any longer and erupted for the first time this spring, this outburst directed at wide receiver Tyler Beiler.

* Haley is known for his temper and he ripped into Beiler's manhood for not looking for a pass over the middle. Beiler responded with a diving touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone two plays later.

* It appears that Beiler will give Clemons the best run at training camp for the No. 5 WR job.

* The tight ends – with the exception this past week of Weslye Saunders – are catching a ton of passes. Just like everything else I praised last week, Saunders's fortunes appear to have taken a reversal.

* I didn't see Saunders on the field Thursday and asked a source about any health issues he might have, and was told – among other unflattering comments – that he's a pain in the rear end for the medical staff because he's always complaining about one minor issue or another.

* But not everyone I commended last week had a poor second week. Curtis Brown, the second-year cornerback, continued to play at a high level, but he was slightly outplayed by the other second-year cornerback, Cortez Allen.

* Brown getting beat for a deep touchdown pass by Sanders may have been the difference in my grading of the two.

* Allen, the Gronkowski stopper, was pushing and bumping with Heath Miller on a 15-yard route to the back corner of the end zone. Miller finally broke free and turned for the back-shoulder fade but Allen broke it up just in time. It was truly a major league duel.

* Allen also stripped Jimmy Young on the sideline of the best pass Jerrod Johnson has thrown to date.

* First-team left CB Keenan Lewis has never worked harder or looked better on the field. Good thing for him, because those kids behind him are coming after William Gay's old job with everything they have.

* OK, back on point with James Harrison, the first player I praised last week. Yes, his back is "light years" better than it was last year, but he missed Week II with knee trouble that was described to me as "minor." Since Jason Worilds is still out with a hand injury, Harrison's replacement was Chris Carter.

* And Carter looked good. He's fit and most obviously he's quick. I was told "he's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but at least he knows it."

* Hey, that's as good of a compliment as one could find during Nitty Gritty Week.

* Nor is the news sounding optimistic about Mike Wallace. A source told me he doesn't see Wallace signing a long-term contract. However, no one really expects Wallace to hurt himself (and lose the ability to become a free agent next year) by sitting out the entire season.

* Chris Rainey, the ultra-quick but ultra-small rookie running back, went down on Wednesday and writhed in pain while holding his knee. You think the worst of a 180-pound player's health in these instances, but Rainey eventually got up, jogged it off, finished practice and came out the next day looking as healthy and quick as ever.

* The most surprising scene of the week: Taylor, while jostling with Sanders, reached out to pluck and low-and-away fastball from Leftwich for an interception.

* The first thought was "Wow, look at Ike's hands." The next thought was, "Hope he still has skin on those palms."

* He may be as pudgy as ever, but running back Jonathan Dwyer still looks good running the ball. He took a short pass on the sideline and put a sick move on one of the young defensive backs to take it all the way to the end zone as the first-teamers on the sideline "oohed" and "aahed."

* Dwyer has some strong competition from John Clay for the "big back" carries. Clay also offers versatility since he's being used with the fullback group, too.

* Clay is receiving plenty of work and appears to be in the team's favor, so I assume that too will change within the next week.

* Nothing's changing about Heath Miller, who seems to be getting younger. No one hustles around the field the way he does.

* With Steve McLendon out all week, Ziggy Hood played nose tackle. Hard to say how well any lineman plays without pads, but give Hood credit for practicing with a weighted vest under his jersey.

* With Harrison cutting back due to age (and wisdom), no one works harder than Hood.

* This could probably change weekly as well, but my prediction for the opening-day offensive line, from left to right, is Max Starks, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert.

* Yes, Gilbert lined up at both tackle spots this week, but the spring is all about coaches tinkering and players extending their positional range.

* Starks, of course, is a longshot guess as the left tackle, but I believe right guard is up in the air as well. I did pick DeCastro to start ahead of Ramon Foster, but Foster looked good in Week II and knows the position and the league. He won't be easily moved early in the season.

* Adrian Robinson, the undrafted rookie outside linebacker from Temple, intrigued me with all of the pressure he put on the backup quarterbacks this week. I'll look into him further for the OTA Week III Update.


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