MONDAY, AUG. 20
It was back in minicamp when David Gilreath may have been mentioned for the first time -- at least publicly. Standing back with three punt returners during a special-teams period, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shouted over to one of the visiting coaches taking in the practice along the sideline.
Tomlin yelled, "Coach, I'm not wasting my time with this one, am I?"
Pitt coach Paul Chryst looked at Gilreath, his former return star at Wisconsin, and said, "I don't think so, coach. Now don't screw it up, Gil."
I spoke with Gilreath later, but didn't feel the need to pass along my mundane interview with him -- until now. Gilreath was definitely a star last night. He caught 4 passes for 78 yards in the second half of the Steelers' preseason win over the Colts. All four of the catches converted third downs that helped the Steelers rally from a 24-17 deficit.
Here's the transcript from last June:
Q: How did you like your old coach out there watching you?
A: Yeah, coach Chryst. That was pretty cool, man.
Q: What did you do at Wisconsin?
A: Returned punts, kicks, played receiver.
Q: Where were you last year?
A: The Colts.
Q: How's this going for you?
A: It's pretty cool. It's my first offseason. Last year I was locked out. It's a good experience so I can just learn and get in here and try to play some ball.
Q: Did the lockout kill you?
A: It didn't kill me. I made the practice squad. It was hard to learn that fast, especially at Indy. There was a lot of information being thrown at you at once. They kind of slowed it down but it was tough.
Q: I might be wrong, but didn't you lead the nation in returning in one category?
A: No, no. I was up there but I don't think I led the nation.
Q: What kind of speed do you have?
A: I can run. I can get going. Um ... I can get going.
Q: Don't you have a 40 time?
A: No. I just don't think anybody can catch me from behind. I'm sure somebody has, but it's tough. I just don't think anybody can catch me.
Sure, it's a bland interview, but this week we both will have something to talk about.
* My personal observations from the game are still in the incubator. Until there, click here to go to our message board to read the halftime and post-game quotes from last night's 26-24 preseason win over the Colts. Also, click here to read Dale Lolley's impressions of the game.
SATURDAY, AUG. 18
So I was standing on the sideline yesterday, just as practice was about to end, and I was talking to my friend Thomas Tull, the world-famous Hollywood movie producer who'd rather be on the sideline at St. Vincent talking to me than in Hollywood talking to any movie star.
I think I'm almost pretty sure about that.
But anyway, Tull, a minority owner of the Steelers, was jabbing me. Yeah, jabbing me. Poking me with a stick. Telling me my web site – SteelCityInsider.net – which he faithfully reads – doesn't have enough content.
He says it like this: "You don't have enough content."
And he says it every time I see him. On the sideline, at a game, in a movie theater with hundreds of his more-famous invitees attending a screening of his latest most world-famous Batman movie, it's always the same: "You don't have enough content."
But this time I poked back. It's been a theme of mine at this camp. My close friends in the media – who are numbering less each camp – laugh and still love me when I poke back. The others, they start to cry and they storm off to their rooms and write something mean about me in their blogs.
So, anyway, I started poking back at my friend Thomas.
"I don't want to have to do this to you," I told him. "I like you. But I've been writing my rear end off at this camp. I couldn't possibly provide any more content. Why do you keep saying that? What do you want me to write?"
He laughed, thus passing the friend test, and then he said, "It's just that when I read your stuff, it's like crack. And I have to have more."
As I rolled around that most delicious compliment, that my work was like crack cocaine, Ben Roethlisberger walked up to us with David DeCastro and Heath Miller in tow.
Practice had ended while I was being poked, and Ben wanted his friend, Mr. Tull, to meet his other friend, the No. 1 draft pick.
So there I was in the middle of a pretty awesome huddle – when I suddenly spotted the fourth-string quarterback leaving the field without any media attention. I had some questions to ask for a story I was working on and this was the last day of media availability at St. Vincent College. So I left the world-famous movie producer, the coolest tight end on the planet, the franchise quarterback, and the starting right guard, to go talk to Jerrod Johnson.
Now you understand my work days a little better. And off we go with some notes of nattering nabobism:
* On audio tape, Jerrod Johnson has traces that sound exactly like Hines Ward.
* Transcribing Ward was always a chore, and only because he was so helpful that he would give you way more than you needed but you had to wade through the entire transcript because he often blundered into a sentence that the rest of the world would make viral and talk about for the next week, even though you knew Ward was just rambling on to help you out.
* But anyway, as I listened to Johnson tell me his story, I began to miss Ward again. I think I wrote the same thing yesterday. And the day before. Yes, he was the master of mixed metaphors ("We've got our hands cut out for us.") and often said nothing for 15 minutes without interruption. But he added gravitas to any story you were working on. I wonder about that lack of gravitas and what it might mean on the field as those icons continue to disappear.
* Johnson lived up to Roethlisberger's hype at the Home Run Derby last night. Although I couldn't find any evidence of it in my one-page Google search, Johnson did indeed look like a former MLB draft pick at the plate yesterday. But he didn't hit any home runs.
* No one hit a home run in the first run-through. Everyone took five whacks and Brandon Hicks came the closest by hitting the roof of a tent in deep center field.
* My favorite, Ryan Lee, batted before I got there, and he didn't hit one over the deep fence at the St. Vincent field, either.
* Mike Tomlin's favorite, Miller, belted a drive that landed short of the fence, and Tomlin declared – with a bit of bias, I believe – that Miller's hit was the best of the first round.
* Ramon Foster and Max Starks had the proper swing and the power to potentially homer, and so did LaMarr Woodley, but the bats were too small in their hands and the balls were probably wet and growing softer and mushier by the minute. Another problem: the batting practice pitchers weren't throwing hard enough, although Kevin Colbert threw harder than the lefty who alternated with him.
* So the tournament went into overtime. Captains Roethlisberger and Brett Keisel were asked by Tomlin to pick three guys each, for offense and defense, and they would get three swings apiece.
* Roethlisberger skipped over Lee, unfortunately, and chose Miller and Johnson. Keisel chose Larry Foote and Ryan Mundy, which caused the hilarious Woodley to blow a gasket. And I understood. I probably would've chosen Woodley and Hicks, and probably Foote over Keisel because Foote did look good in the earlier round.
* Anyway, Keisel went down first, and then Johnson went down. Back to the defense, Mundy went down, and then Miller went down. As Foote strode to the plate to start the last inning for the defense, Tomlin told the captains to tab a couple of alternates for double overtime, and then, SLAM, Foote drove a screaming liner over the left field fence.
* Roethlisberger was last, and I overheard Tomlin tell someone near him, "This is what Ben lives for." I was thinking the same thing, but alas Roethlisberger could send only sinking line drives into left field and the defense took a victory lap.
* With about 20 players on the field and the rest of the team watching from the hill, Tomlin brought out a trophy to present to the defense for "one damn homer." And then he produced a black wooden bat and presented it to Foote for "one damn homer."
* Get some better bats next year, some juiced up balls, and have Colbert throw a little harder and there will be more action in next year's Derby.
* Someone asked me why the Steelers didn't pursue Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps. Well, they already have one small sprinter in Chris Rainey for whom they already have to make specific plans, and Rainey was better at Florida than Demps. And besides, it's not like Demps was one of the sprinters on the U.S.A. 100-meter team. He was a replacement for a relay member in a preliminary heat and did not run in the final, although he was awarded a silver medal for his part.
* With everyone hammering the replacement officials for their mistakes this preseason, how about this one: When Shaun Suisham banged a kickoff off the crossbar last week, and it caromed back into the playing field, the officials did not blow a whistle. Half the players were trotting off the field and half were playing as if they were continuing an Arena League kickoff.
* Early in camp, someone near the top of the Steelers' chain told me to keep an eye on how the Vikings handle Adrian Peterson's return from an ACL tear. The source hoped the Vikings wouldn't rush their "franchise" player back too soon, but worried they would because the coach there did not have the stability that Tomlin enjoys in Pittsburgh.
* That, in my opinion, is why the Steelers won't rush Rashard Mendenhall back. Yes, they activated him earlier than expected, but, no, I don't expect them to be foolish enough to rush him onto the field before he's ready.
FRIDAY, AUG. 17
The last day of camp is usually punctuated by a softball game pitting the Steelers' offense against the defense, but Mike Tomlin is changing it this year to a Home Run Derby. He posted a signup sheet last night and will "see the viable guys."
I asked Tomlin to name the favorite and he said Heath Miller. I told Tomlin to watch out for Ryan Lee, the undrafted rookie guard who's built like Greg Luzinski and who hit 15 doubles as a freshman in his only season at Furman. Tomlin said, "Yeah, but, if he was that good he would've kept playing."
Tomlin of course laughed before adding: "I mean, we've had some baseball guys out here before: Dennis Dixon and Mewelde Moore. They struck out in softball games."
I can't remember Moore striking out, although he did hit some soft popups. But Dixon? Yeah, he struck out every time up with his furious fast-pitch swing.
But that was softball. This will be baseball, and even though I reported in my Steeler Nation road-trip book that Miller allegedly hit a home run that's still orbiting the planet, that was, what, 12 years ago?
Whereas Lee, in the spring of 2008, had this entry put into the Furman media guide: "For Furman's baseball team in the spring of 2008, batting .280 as a switch hitter with five home runs and 35 RBI in 52 games (48 starts), mostly at first base...hit grand slams against both Presbyterian (10-7 win) and UNC-Asheville...delivered a game winning two-run home run in a 4-2 victory at Charleston Southern."
Also the football team's left tackle, Lee had previously done this in high school: "Broke the Georgia state power clean record in 2006 with a lift of 370 pounds en route to a third place finish in state powerlifting meet."
Apprised of what Tomlin had said, Lee's eyes bugged out as he signed autographs following Thursday's practice. "I really hope rookies get to do this," he said.
And that's a sticking point. Ben Roethlisberger, whom I was hoping would set betting odds for me, said that rookies normally can't play in the softball game and he didn't expect them to be able to hit this evening. So with Lee out, I told Ben I needed to name a new favorite.
"I would be the favorite," he said matter of factly. "But I'm not sure I'm signing up."
Ben said he has some aches and pains to tend to, but said he'd like to do it if he can because, "I love to hit. I have a cage in my backyard. It helps me work on my core." Roethlisberger said that if rookies are allowed, keep an eye out for Jerrod Johnson, whom Ben thought was drafted to play baseball at some point. "But you can see what happened to Dennis Dixon," Roethlisberger said. "He struck out in a softball game."
And none of us there will ever forget it.
* OK, I know you came here for football talk so let's put my favorite camp drill/activity to rest and get to some injury notes: Isaac Redman has an injury, I'm told by a source, with which other players have played in the past. The Steelers want to see how tough he is because the team isn't concerned, particularly after the MRI confirmed their diagnosis of the unnamed injury in the groin area.
* And James Harrison, the team believes, should recover in plenty of time unless Harrison pushes too much with his desire to workout. I haven't seen Harrison in uniform yet, but he looks particularly thick and beastly this summer in his street clothes.
* Will Johnson had a tough first day as the team's lone fullback, particularly when asked to carry the ball so often as the tailback. But yesterday he turned the corner – literally and figuratively. The rookie from WVU was belting linebackers in the hole – once out of the I-formation and the other, most impressively, on a sweep in which he took out Lawrence Timmons to open a lane for Baron Batch to score a touchdown. Johnson is competing with recently transferred tight end Jamie McCoy, and some of you may remember me writing earlier that McCoy was the one TE on the roster with lead-blocking skills. McCoy looked good getting out in front of Chris Rainey on one iso-lead yesterday, but he doesn't have Johnson's speed and receiving skills. Also consider that earlier in the week Tomlin told me that he really likes Johnson's work ethic and coachability.
* Will Allen's not about to go quietly into that good night. A safety who is seemingly on the bubble, with rookie Robert Golden pushing for a job, Allen went up with Antonio Brown in a red-zone drill and pushed him out of bounds to prevent a touchdown. Two plays later, Allen went way up to slap away a Byron Leftwich missile headed for the back of the end zone. The special teams coaches also remain fond of Allen's skills.
* Just say the staff wants to cut one of the millionaire reserve safeties to A.) pay for Mike Wallace and B.) make a spot for Golden. So if Allen stays, does that mean Ryan Mundy goes? "I don't see that," said one personnel man. "Who's going to line those guys up in Denver?"
* Again, with the depth issues at running back, wide receiver and tight end, the Steelers could very well keep five safeties and thus eliminate my concerns in the previous two notes.
* With "Refugees" Batch and Rainey in desperate need of ball-carrying relief, Jonathan Dwyer returned from his shoulder injury and immediately went way up to make a one-handed grab of a screen pass that he turned into a chunk of a gain. Later, in the "backed-up offense" drill, Dwyer took a handoff in his own end zone, made someone miss, and then cut back in the hole to turn a safety into a 10-yard gain. "I see you two-seven!" Tomlin hollered. "Nice cut." Dwyer made a few other choice plays as the "Bell Cow" Thursday, but when asked to describe how Dwyer looked, Tomlin told reporters, "He looked like Jonathan."
* So often I watch the rookies and newcomers and take some of the young vets for granted, but on Tuesday I watched Maurkice Pouncey use his hands like some kind of Ninja warrior to block a man with 65 more pounds – Alameda Ta'amu – in a one-on-one drill. I haven't seen that kind of ferocious hand display since Dermontti Dawson was in his prime.
* "Son, if you can't move your hands any better than that by the time the veterans get here, Dermontti Dawson's going to put you up against the snow fence." – Defensive line coach John Mitchell back in the day when rookies reported before veterans and there was merely a rickety, wooden snow-fence on one side that marked off a wide-open practice field.
* Toney Clemons needs to make a play or two in a preseason game to make this roster. He's just not turning the heads he needs to turn on the practice field to become the No. 5 WR. And, boy, the coaches really want him to turn their heads because he's the guy with the size and speed in the group.
* Marquis Maze refuses to go away. I had written him off in the spring when he was about to field a bouncing kickoff and Tomlin yelled, "Let it go!" and it hit Maze's hand and bounced into the end zone for a touchdown the other way. Maze immediately said, "I should've let it go," to which Tomlin replied, "No sh--!" Then I heard Maze earlier in training camp squabbling with Tomlin over some minor fundamental issue the coach was trying to teach. I assumed then that Maze was a goner, but the coaches still pay him a great deal of attention and afford him all the opportunities as the others. And if Maze returns kicks Sunday night like he did in Philadelphia last week, he's got as good a chance as any in this wide-open derby.
* Golden played high school ball in Fresno for former NFL great Tim McDonald. Golden was a cornerback at Edison High opposite Cliff Harris, a rookie in Philadelphia's camp. Behind them at safety were T.J. McDonald, a highly regarded senior at Southern Cal, and Brandon Leslie, now a safety at the University of Hawaii. I asked Golden where opposing quarterbacks threw. "They never really threw the ball on us," he said. "They always ran the ball. We didn't have a good D-line, but we had a secondary." The team went 10-1-1 but was eliminated in the state semifinals. Coach McDonald now coaches DBs at Fresno State.
* I'll write a feature soon that explains why Tomlin calls Golden, "Little Dawkins."
* Golden has been my camp sleeper from the start, so I'll stick with him to end it, in a close finish over OLB Adrian Robinson, whom one scout blamed for "disrupting practices" with his pass rush skills.
* In the non-rookie Camper of the Year category, I'll choose Cortez Allen over Chris Carter. Both second-year players have taken the next step the coaches still want to see out of Cam Heyward.
* I told Larry Foote that rookie Sean Spence is similar to him, and Foote said, "He's a smart guy. Butts (LB coach Keith Butler) is giving me a hard time, saying he's smarter than me at that age, so I've got to give him credit. The dude knows what he's doing."
* So I reminded Foote how much coordinator Dick LeBeau used to admire Foote's football smarts when he was a pup, and Foote's eyes lit up. "That's what I tell him," Foote said. "Butts is just trying to mess with me. But I admit the boy is smart. The boy is smart."
TUESDAY, AUG. 14
On Saturday we learned the Steelers are looking at Max Starks, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert as their opening-day starting offensive line, if all goes according to the health plan.
No surprises there – unless you watched Ryan Lee play left guard in the second half of the preseason opener.
It has been repeatedly brought to my attention since then that Lee played an exceptional second half, and once I put my eyes on No. 69 I had to concur.
So I asked Steelers OL coach Sean Kugler about him, and Koogs was a bit surprised that I brought up the undrafted rookie from Furman.
The coach chuckled a little bit and said, "He's a tough kid. He's raw. He's physical. He plays to the whistle, so that's something that we like. He's got a ways to go, but he's got the right attitude when it comes to that."
Sounds – and on tape looks – like practice squad material to me. So I waited on Cafeteria Hill to have a chat with the big man, and figured the badass-looking dude walking past in the Furman t-shirt and Furman shorts was my guy. And when I called out his name, that surly face immediately changed to a smile and his gracious Southern charm came to the fore.
Q: You played at Furman, so that makes you a Palladin?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: A Purple Palladin?
A: We are purple, but we're just Palladins.
Q: You had a good game the other night, didn't you?
A: Yeah, I played solid. Still got some technique things to clean up and everything, but I just tried to go out there and take care of the things I can take care of and play hard and finish and let everything else take care of itself.
Q: I've got to tell you, you're the only rookie here who looks badder than DeCastro.
A: (laughs) Well, thank you.
Q: Except, you're more outgoing.
A: I am outgoing.
Q: What are your other sports and/or hobbies?
A: I played a year of college baseball at Furman. I ended up coming to Furman because they agreed to let me play both. I was unsure which sport I wanted to play, so I came to Furman to play both. It was just too tough academically trying to split time between football and baseball my freshman year, and I ended up choosing football, which now looks like the right way to go. I still love baseball. A couple of my best friends from high school played in college, so when I'm home we'll throw around and hit some.
Q: First base or catcher?
A: First base.
Q: Always a cleanup hitter?
A: Always. So, really, one of my first loves was baseball. I'm a huge Braves fan being from Atlanta, so I still follow them quite a bit.
Q: You look more like an MMA guy.
A: (laughs) I follow MMA and I've had some friends joke around and tell me I should try to get into that when I'm done with football, so I don't know. We'll see. But I enjoy following that. I respect what those guys do and everything. It's definitely fun to watch. It's definitely a lot bigger than boxing is right now, and it's a lot more entertaining.
Q: Are you a fighter?
A: I can take care of things when I have to. But I don't go looking for problems.
Q: I suppose not many people come to you looking to start problems.
OK, so it won't win me a Pulitzer, but hopefully we all know Ryan "Buddy" Lee a little bit this morning, because I think he's going to stick around for a while.
* "Buddy" Lee isn't his nickname – yet. I remembered that from former linebacker Clint Kriewaldt. When Clint told me once that the rest of the guys call him "Buddy Lee," I told Kriewaldt that name is probably for the whitest white guy on the team. The Nordic-looking Kriewaldt said, "But it's better than my first nickname here." And I asked him what was.
"White guy," he said.
* OK, so I got the racial talk out of the way. Can we even joke about that stuff in today's blogs? Ah, why not? We're all just trying to get along here.
* Also got my fighting talk out of the way. So many vicious fights this camp. I wrote about them yesterday in my column for Steelers Digest. Now that it's out of mind, let's hope it stays out of sight for the final week of camp.
* The Steelers finally brought in an offensive skill player, if tight ends even count as such. Actually, Justin Peelle has played some fullback and has racked up over 1,000 receiving yards, so, yes, we'll call him a skill player.
The Steelers added the 33-year-old Peelle last night after waiving the injured David Johnson. The 6-4, 251-pound Peelle has played 10 years in the league alongside notable tight ends Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Vernon Davis. Peelle can now add Heath Miller to that impressive list of teammates.
Peelle was an All-Pac-10 tight end for QB Joey Harrington at Oregon and was drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 draft by San Diego. Peelle left for Miami in 2006 as an unrestricted free agent and was released after the 2008 training camp. Signed by Atlanta, Peelle played three seasons with the Falcons before a knee injury caused his release in the 2011 training camp. He went home to play in San Francisco last year and now can boast of 68 career starts with 123 catches for 1,0003 yards and 12 touchdowns.
* The offense still needs a wide receiver and a running back. Mike Wallace will certainly fill the big hole at WR and it appears that Tyler Beiler has moved back in front of the rest of the gang in camp if the Steelers opt not to keep athletic draft pick Toney Clemons on the 53-man roster.
Beiler made an impressive catch of a back-shoulder bullet from Jerrod Johnson to ignite what looked to be the winning drive in Philadelphia. The 30-yard catch led to a Daniel Hrapmann field goal and a 23-21 lead with 1:57 left. The Eagles, of course, kicked a long field goal with 12 seconds left to win it.
Beiler returned to camp and was heavily utilized over the weekend. It's becoming clear why he made the Jacksonville practice squad last season.
* Beiler is from Ronks, Pa., just east of Lancaster and in the thick of Amish country. I asked Justin if he's Amish and he said his grandmother quit the church some time ago.
* As for the running backs, I watch what's left of this once-proud unit – and I'm inspired.
On Sunday, with Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer injured and out, the small band of warriors – led by unquestioned leader Kirby Wilson – moved from ball-handling drills to "Big Bertha" to the sled and then got "watered down and gassed up" in anticipation of scrimmage time.
They were down to four backs for two backfield spots on Sunday, and then John Clay went down with what could be a serious groin injury. They finished the week with only three, including 178-pound Chris Rainey. Of course, Redman and Dwyer are out with minor injuries, so the numbers problem will alleviate somewhat, but the group remains an inspiration, particularly with Wilson working his way through his own rehabilitation.
* Mike Tomlin likes to watch the RBs, too, so during individual drills he walked with the Little Band That Could over to Bertha, the massive punching bag/tackling dummy.
"It's time to harden your bodies up for NFL duty," Wilson said.
"Load the gunpowder!" Tomlin said.
And the drill was underway.
Rainey, who was knocked silly in his first dance with Bertha, has improved significantly with the beast and drew Wilson's positive reinforcement. But one of the other backs – who shall remain nameless – wasn't so lucky.
"Next time hit it with your purse!" Wilson hollered.
* Speaking of tight ends and fullbacks, David Paulson drew praise from one of the personnel men for his work on special teams against the Eagles. My hunch is the seventh-rounder will be around for a while, even if it means putting in a year or so on the practice squad.
* Because of the depleted offensive ranks, look for many of the defensive players on the bubble – such as Al Woods, Corbin Bryant, Brandon Johnson, Adrian Robinson, Terrence Frederick and Robert Golden – to take advantage and make the 53-man roster instead of merely the practice squad.
* Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, or "Ike", the rookie defensive lineman from Southern Connecticut State, is an athletic and rangy type who is a developmental prospect. He's another candidate for the practice squad.
* Don't get too down on Kelvin Beachum. While his preseason debut wasn't the Hank Fraley-like performance the Steelers expected, he was playing left tackle. It's more difficult than the interior positions that the Steelers feel are in Beachum's future. He's expected to become the team's next Trai Essex, in that he'll be able to play five positions in time. Right now, he's much better at guard but still getting plenty of work at the hot corner.
* During a special teams segment the other day, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau walked over to the crowd to say hello to a baby.
"The youngest member of Steeler Nation," LeBeau said.
Even though we're not allowed to interview coaches or players during practice, I slipped in a question about the preseason opener, and LeBeau said, "The game was too long."
That's to be expected from a coordinator whose unit allowed 0 points in the first half.
I also asked LeBeau why he's been under the radar this camp.
"I like it that way," he said with a smile.
* Will Johnson's receiving skills are much better than his lead-blocking or running skills, but Ryan Clark had him smothered on a nifty wheel route Johnson ran out of the backfield Sunday. Even though Ben Roethlisberger looked away, Clark stuck with Johnson and Ben had to scramble and eventually throw the ball away.
* A few plays later, Golden made a diving interception off a Ben scramble-and-throw to Antonio Brown. It was the best pick of camp thus far.
* Keenan Lewis is playing in pain but refuses to let Cortez Allen take the No. 1 LCB position away from him, even for a day. I asked Lewis about Allen and Curtis Brown, and then I asked him about Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig. The ultra-focused Lewis waved me off.
"Why do you keep bringing up all these other guys? I'm just going to play."
He must've thought Pipp and Gehrig were rookie cornerbacks way down the depth chart.
* The photographers always know, and one of them told me that during games Todd Haley, the new offensive coordinator who's kept his temper in check, is a ticking time bomb. The photographer says Haley's emotions during the game were rumbling under the surface, and I say this about that: I don't care. Sometimes players need to be chewed out.
* The Hokey Pokey might be gone, but it's been replaced by Trai Essex's twister dance. Chris Hoke of course would lead stretch before landmark practices with his dance. So if you hear "Tornado Warning" from some of the players during stretch, they're calling for Essex to get up and do his dance to fire them up.
* I have no idea when punter Jeremy Kapinos is coming back from his "back spasms." He's not saying a word, per Tomlin's instructions.
Undrafted rookie Drew Butler has performed well in Kapinos's absence, with gross and net averages the other night of 49.7 and 44.3 yards. The son of former Bears kicker Kevin Butler said that his No. 9 has nothing to do with family friend Jim McMahon. "It's just the number they gave me," Butler said of the Steelers.
* Speaking of numbers, the Steelers weren't trying to make a point or send a message to Sean Spence by giving him James Farrior's old No. 51. It was one of the few that were available for linebackers, and Spence snatched it up right away. He wanted it, and after being told he can always change later, Spence said, "No way. I'm keeping it."
* Spence reminds me of Larry Foote in that he's both tough and cool at the same time. Understanding the team's recent history and showing his respect for Farrior is pretty cool in itself.
* The Steelers tried to give David DeCastro No. 61, and he was OK with it the first time he showed up on the South Side. But when he made his return trip he told them he'd rather have No. 66. DeCastro must've done his homework, too.
* Anyone still want a new placekicker? I realize Shaun Suisham will probably always have his "haters" around town, but the guy had a fine preseason opener. He kicked 46 and 31-yard field goals in two tries, and put all three kickoffs deep into the end zone, one even hit the crossbar. Suisham has the third-highest all-time team field-goal percentage at 80.4.
* Don't write CB Curtis Brown off just yet. He came back from a poor performance in Philly to make a spectacular interception of a Byron Leftwich fastball at practice the other day. It was topped later by Ike Taylor's diving interception of a pass to Brown in the end zone, but that pick began a series of fights that I'm still trying to forget.
FRIDAY, AUG. 10
Well, David Johnson went down with a "severe knee injury" last night. It's a loss at two positions, tight end and fullback. His replacement last night was Will Johnson, who was a tight end at West Virginia University and a fullback so far at training camp this season. He has speed, hands and the want-to to make it as a blocker. We'll find out more in the coming week, I'm sure.
Here's an interview I did with Will back at OTAs in May. It's time we all get to know him a little bit better.
Q: How did you become a fullback candidate?
A: I played a little bit of it in college; not the traditional but more as an H-back, motion back. So it's really nothing new. When I worked out at my pro day I did some things from the backfield.
Q: Didn't you catch Mike Tomlin's eye then?
A: Right. He told me he'd bring me in the next day. I was in a more fortunate situation than other guys. With free agency open I was able to sign immediately. I guess I put on a good show.
Q: You sat out a year. What did you do?
A: No tryouts. I did some Arena-type tryout camp things. I was looking into going to Europe to play some ball. I didn't want to go into Arena ball because it doesn't suit a player of my skills. I did that and I worked and I trained.
Q: How did you add the weight?
A: Just a long, grueling process. It's just something you have to commit to. That's what I did. I hit the weight room, hit it hard. I was also working so I dedicated my evenings to training and it paid off.
Q: Were you exhausted?
A: I was. I worked at a shipping warehouse. I looked at it as if I was getting another workout, because I was sweating. I was running up and down. I did some things outdoors in landscaping. I was always shoveling or something. I looked at it as working out.
Q: Would it have been easy to give up on the dream?
A: I thought about that, but it's hard to believe someone who says you can't do something, something you've been doing since you were little. It's hard for someone to take that away, especially when you know you're as good as some of the guys in the league that I've trained with. I knew I could compete at a high level, so I just wanted to give it one real chance. I knew if I could get the chance I could impress someone.
Q: So the WVU pro day was your coming out party?
A: I just used that as a benchmark. I was also invited to a Super Regional combine in Detroit. I was looking to get a benchmark on my 40 and my bench for that Super Regional at the end of that month.
Q: What did Tomlin like about you?
A: It's a tremendous honor. I couldn't tell you.
Q: How much weight did you put on?
A: I went from 238 (playing weight at WVU) to 248 and my 40 time came down a lot. I changed my diet up, continued to work out as hard as I was.
Q: Still far to go?
A: Yep. I'm just a needle in a haystack out here.
Q: What's your philosophy?
A: Come out here and work hard. That's really all I can do.
Also, don't forget to read Dale Lolley's notebook from Philly here on our message board.
THURSDAY, AUG. 9
I'm not looking to publish another chapter in my training camp book this morning, but I do want to provide a little insight into the mind of "Mr. Personality," a.k.a. first-round pick David DeCastro.
Maurkice Pouncey joked last week that his rookie linemate didn't learn how to have fun at Stanford, that "he went to that smart school, so it was probably school, school, school and then football. He probably didn't learn how to have a good time in college." Pouncey added, "he didn't take bowling," as apparently Pouncey had at Florida.
DeCastro was then asked by a TV reporter if it was true that "you concentrated on football at school."
"Uh, yeah, I kind of did," DeCastro said as he stared down the reporter without a hint of a smile. "That's kind of why I went there."
The media trembles at the thought of interviewing DeCastro, not because he might bite a microphone, but because he might not say anything at all. But I appreciate anyone who's different, particularly a guy who's all business all the time. So I made it a point to help out a buddy who showed up at St. Vincent College to do a story on DeCastro. I -- know it all -- stood by my friend and threw my own questions into the interview.
Of course, those questions didn't help. I couldn't get much from the rookie, as you'll see in the transcript from the interview below. In fact, some of my interjected questions (edited here for the sake of brevity) were longer than necessary and did not inspire much in the way of responses.
Last spring I mentioned that DeCastro looks at reporters during an interview as if he's thinking, "I'm not getting bigger, faster or stronger right now, so how much longer are you going to waste my time?" During this interview, as my questions became longer and more pointless, I suspected DeCastro was thinking, "I'm not only bigger, faster and stronger than you, I'm also a helluva lot smarter, so would you please spit out your question?"
Hey, I still love it. He's another interesting personality to throw into the Steelers mix. So without further blabbering, away we go:
Q: How are you picking things up? Or is football just football?
A: I'm enjoying it. Like you said, football is just football. It is what it is.
Q: Are things progressing? Are you catching on?
A: Yeah, I'm catching on. I've got a long way to go. Just trying to get better every day. Just trying to develop and make sure I'm going in the right direction.
Q: I see you turn the corner with that No. 66 jersey and that same size and frame as Alan Faneca. Have you heard anyone else comparing you to him?
A: Not really. I haven't really heard them. Obviously he's a guy I watched growing up.
Q: It wasn't easy for him as a rookie. He didn't blow people up as expected and he heard the whispers that he was struggling in camp. How hard is it for a rookie?
A: Yeah, you're definitely just trying to get a feel for things and figure stuff out. NFL technique's huge. It's one of those things you've got to learn as you go. In college you get away with a lot of just pure athleticism, being able to beat guys because you're more athletic and bigger than them. In the NFL everyone's the same size or even more athletic, so you've got to be on point with your technique or else you're going to get beat.
Q: But you were considered a technician in college and were already considered a polished guard. How much more do you have to learn about technique? Why is it such a transition?
A: It's college though. It's a whole different level here.
Q: Can you give an example that might make the reader understand this difference? Why are NFL defenses such a challenge for rookies?
A: People are bigger, stronger and faster than you. In college it's the opposite. You were the big fish. Now it's an even playing field.
Q: Any linemen who've helped you along?
A: The whole group. They're a great group. I'm just lucky to be in a group of veteran guys who know how to play football and be a pro.
Q: Is there a defensive guy who stands out to you?
A: They're all good. There's a reason why they're all here. They're all really good, really talented.
Q: How do you like Pittsburgh?
A: I haven't gotten to know the city too well but I'm sure I'll like it.
So, there you have it. And you can see why this never turned into a story here. He's a tough nut to crack, but I'll certainly try again. I'm sure there's more to learn from a guy who has much more to say than he's letting on.
TUESDAY, AUG. 7
Today marks Day 14 of Mike Wallace's holdout, a holdout that has seemed to parallel Hines Ward's 15-day holdout in 2005.
Ward ended his holdout on Aug. 15, the day of the preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Will we see something similar from Wallace when the Steelers open their preseason against the Eagles on Thursday? And can the Steelers afford to pay Wallace in the 5-year, $50-55 million range?
Our resident cap expert Ian Whetstone says yes.
According to Whetstone, the Steelers merely need cheap youngsters such as Alameda Ta'amu, Chris Rainey, Kelvin Beachum, Baron Batch and Robert Golden to make the roster, and veterans such as Will Allen, Brandon Johnson, Derrick Williams, Chris Scott, and one of the veteran long-snappers to be released.
This is obviously possible and would save the Steelers $1.415 million. That and Wallace's already-reserved $2.742 million would give the Steelers almost $4.2 million for Wallace's first-season cap hit.
Now all Wallace needs is a push, like the push Ward got from teammate Jerome Bettis and then-coach Bill Cowher, who phoned Ward the day before the preseason opener to get the ball rolling.
* You don't appreciate training camp as a reporter until you have to travel to the South Side for an indoor practice on a Sunday afternoon.
Without much of a story idea, all I wanted was to learn the on-tape particulars of the goal-line drill on Saturday. But the Squirrel Hill Tunnel was closed Sunday and I sat in traffic until time was up and I was forced to turn around and head back home.
So I'll just give you all I know: I asked Brett Keisel right after the drill ended and he said, "I didn't see anything either. But I think Steve (McLendon) did well."
McLendon did make a key tackle. Larry Foote was active as well and received congratulations after a couple of plays.
All I really saw was a morass of bodies, and fullbacks who looked like all the other converted tight ends I've ever watched in that they were way too high going through the line and then didn't hit anyone.
* Just because Bruce Arians didn't call his converted tight ends "fullbacks" out of silly pride does not mean anything has changed this year in that regard. Find a real fullback, please.
* Speaking of Bettis facilitating the conversation between Cowher and Ward, I noticed that Wallace turned 26 on Aug. 1. So the next day I asked Antonio Brown if he had called his teammate to wish him a happy birthday. Brown said that he had not, but began to do so through me and a handful of national reporters who also had their tape recorders out.
"Make sure you send my guy a happy birthday," Brown started, but I told him that he should call Wallace and tell him to get to camp, and then wish him a happy birthday himself.
"Yeah, I should do that today," Brown said sarcastically as he eyeballed me through a new pair of big sunglasses without a hint of a smile. "I'll call him when I get back to my room."
The hat, the glasses, the attitude – that's not the Antonio I used to know. Just hope the money hasn't changed his work ethic too.
* Cameron Heyward may have defeated Beachum on three consecutive snaps during one-on-one drills late last week, but it certainly wasn't indicative of how either is playing this camp.
Beachum – even though he needs to add weight – has impressed the coaching staff. And a redshirt might not be possible. Some in the organization feel that if he plays in the preseason the way he has played during team scrimmages in Latrobe, Beachum will be snapped up as quickly as Hank Fraley was in 2000 when Cowher kept veteran Tom Myslinski instead of the undrafted rookie.
Fraley went on to play in the league for 10 years. Myslinski played in six games that season and retired. Beachum's competition for a roster spot appears to be veteran Trai Essex.
As for Heyward, the team isn't seeing that big step they like to see in their second-year players. Chris Carter and Cortez Allen have taken such steps. They've clearly worked on their bodies and the results are showing on the field. Of course, it's still early for Heyward.
* Mike Adams' showing against Heyward may have to do with both Adams's rise to first team and Heyward's bland reviews. Trent Cole and the Philadelphia pass-rushers might just tell us more about both players on Thursday.
* Watching Art Rooney II shake the hands of the recently retired Steelers at midfield at Latrobe Stadium last Friday night made me think back to the commissioner and how he embarrassed himself and the league with those choreographed handshakes and hugs with the draft picks last April.
After watching Rooney greet Willie Parker, Marvel Smith, Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, I simply jotted down in my notebook, "The sweet, simple strains of sanity."
* At the other end of the spectrum was Porter, whose voice sounded as strained in talking to the media as a latter-day Babe Ruth. And of course Porter was the most emotional of the four. Here's a snippet:
"It wasn't a day went by that I didn't think about what my guys over here was doing. I stayed on the phone with Potsie, Casey, Troy, those guys, asked them how they did, what's going on, what are you doing this week. These are the guys I grew up with. I've been with them for eight years. And then to leave and play against them, that was tough. So when I watched Hines do his retirement and say he refused to put on another jersey, I get it. I mean I get it. That's hard to do. Luckily, mine happened earlier in my career so I had to muscle through it. But had it been a situation where I played 10, 11 years here, I couldn't have left either."
Peezy said that on the ride from the airport, his wife told him that she wanted to move back to Pittsburgh, and that now he's hoping to get a coaching job from Tomlin. The comparison, with all of that emotion, would be Kevin Greene, but Greene, after the emotion, has something instructive to say to the pass-rushers he's coaching. Does Peezy? And will that sore throat go away?
* You could tell how long the retiree has been away from the organization by how much time he spent with the media Friday night. There was Porter, who stuck around for questioning after the questions, and then there was Aaron Smith, who didn't make his way over to the interview area at all.
* In backs on backers that night, Tomlin called out Lawrence Timmons to go up against … David Paulson? It's clear that Paulson needs a year in the weight room to become an NFL blocker, so was this necessary? Well, Timmons ran Paulson over easily, but the rookie did bring Timmons down with him by grabbing Timmons's jersey. Two reps later, Sly Sylvester did the same to Paulson, who showed guts by sticking his helmet into both linebackers' chests before being steamrolled.
* David Johnson stood up both Timmons and Sylvester and was praised afterward by Tomlin as "the star of the show." It was D.J.'s redemption for his poor performance earlier in the week against LaMarr Woodley.
* On one play Friday night, Chris Rainey disappeared into a pile before his "Rainman" towel was thrown high into the air. It floated gracefully down onto the mass of bodies that had devoured its owner.
* I never saw a football player square up and punch someone flush in the face(mask) the way Willie Colon did to Heyward at Latrobe Stadium. I knew Colon was struggling with a sore ankle at the time, but when he missed practice the next day I wondered whether it was the ankle or a broken hand. Tomlin said it was the ankle.
* Early in Saturday's practice, the quarterbacks were throwing high, arcing passes into the corner of the end zone. Instead of receivers fielding these "fade" passes there were garbage cans. I hadn't seen that since Kevin Gilbride was here. Byron Leftwich, by the way, was the runaway winner.
* I wonder if Tomlin's fear of Keenan Lewis going into a mental funk is enough to keep Lewis as the starting cornerback.
* The implication is that Tomlin might prefer to avoid confrontation than put the better player out there. But my inference is not personal. I would wonder that about any coach facing such a difficult human decision.
* That said, I am in awe of Tomlin's day-to-day enthusiasm for his team and its individuals in this heat and humidity. I don't know how he can bring his A game to every practice every day. Then again, maybe I'm just old and tired.
* The retirements of Smith and Ward closed the door on the Tom Donahoe era. These are all Kevin Colbert's players right now. But what about the coaches? Well, only 11 remain from the Cowher era, and a few of them are on the bubble. Suffice to say this is Tomlin's team, and I wouldn't bet against Tomlin's team winning it all this year.
* OK, Mr. Personnel Man, what are you seeing?
"If you're asking me about sleepers, my favorite is Adrian Robinson. That kid has some quickness."
Does he get off blocks? Does he have any counter moves?
"No. No," the source said. "But those are things that can be coached. All I can tell you right now is that he's disrupted quite a few practices."
* During the competition period on Saturday, between the receivers and the defensive backs, David Gilreath made several cuts before coming back to catch a short pass in front of Cortez Allen. Volunteer assistant Dwight Smith hollered across the line to the WRs coach, "Hey Scottie, what part of the route tree was that?" And then Carnell Lake chimed in with, "All I know is you've got one hell of an offensive line." Of course, the quarterbacks weren't facing any rush.
* The contenders for the No. 5 WR spot came alive soon thereafter. In succession, Toney Clemons beat Will Allen off the line for an easy touchdown; Derrick Williams made a difficult catch over Myron Rolle; Tyler Beiler made a tough catch against Walter McFadden; Marquis Maze beat Terrence Frederick inside for a touchdown (and was scolded for being a short guy running an inside route in the red zone); and finally Gilreath went way up and made a one-handed touchdown catch over Josh Victorian. Safety Robert Golden stopped the streak by breaking up a high pass to 6-foot-4 Paul Cox.
* Later in practice, Clemons dropped an easy pass that would've converted a third-and-short. The coaching staff replaced him immediately and with extreme prejudice.
* After writing so much about rookie linebacker Sean Spence last spring, I've pretty much ignored him this training camp. So I focused on him the other day and found that his diagnostic skills remain impeccable. On one play, the quarterback dropped back to pass but slipped a handoff to John Clay on a draw. There was Spence, who read draw the whole way, while I most certainly would've retreated into coverage. The kid doesn't play like a rookie at all.
* Tomlin doesn't want any part of Ben Roethlisberger's injury parade, and he doesn't seem shy about saying that with his press-conference comments, demeanor and body language. I am beginning to understand why he played Roethlisberger down the stretch on that bad ankle last year. If the medical staff says Roethlisberger can play (even barely), he plays. Cowher developed the same attitude about Roethlisberger before he retired.
* I wrote earlier that Mark Bruener, a team scout, might be the second best tight end in camp. But I forgot about Keisel. The Steelers' defensive end could've been what Mike Vrabel had become in the red zone, but Keisel kind of got lost in the coaching shuffle before outgrowing such a move. Darn shame.
* Walking past morning practice on Saturday, I spotted Rolle and Troy Polamalu in conversation off to the side. Wouldn't you love to know what a Rhodes Scholar and a Benedictine monk/warrior were talking about?
"It's a lot of fun talking to Troy, about several different topics," said Rolle. "He'll bring up a topic: ‘Myron, what do you think about existentialism?' ‘Myron, what do you think about universal truth vs. relative truth?' And we get into it a little bit, certainly before or after practice, not during practice. But, yeah, he's got a wonderful mind. He's brilliant, and I love talking to him because he always gives me his true, strong opinion. It's not jaded one way or the other, nor does he bend it because I may feel a certain way. And I appreciate that."
Does Rolle actually have answers to such questions?
"I don't think I have all the answers," he said. "But it's fun to hear his perspective and it's fun to balance different ideas off of each other. And I think we both grow and our ideologies both develop by doing that."
The two met a few years ago at Chris Hope's wedding.
"Then we reconnected here obviously when I signed," Rolle said. "He started asking me about the Rhodes Scholarship and what are some of the things I studied, and I got into some of these more metaphysical type issues that I dealt with, and then the conversations took off after that."
THURSDAY, AUG. 2
Today will be the last scheduled day for Lawrence Timmons to play the buck linebacker position, the strongside inside linebacker spot in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme.
I recall last season wondering who would eventually replace James Farrior at that position, a position Farrior said took him years to master. I wondered who the Steelers had in the pipeline for the spot and why Timmons was instead being used outside as his second position aside from his mack inside backer spot.
Timmons seemed like a logical candidate to groom as the future defensive signal-caller, and Timmons told me at the time that he hadn't played it but that he could learn it in a single offseason.
This didn't quite jibe with what Farrior had been telling me over the years, so yesterday I set about to learn what Timmons thought of the position that veteran Larry Foote is expected to play this season.
Here's the chronology of my interviews that started with Timmons and Foote before lunch and ended with coach Keith Butler upon the completion of the second of the three practices with the new configuration.
Q: How did the buck go?
LT: It went well. It's a start. I just started playing it.
Q: How complicated is it?
LT: It's kind of similar to the mack. It's just making calls, that's all. That's not too hard. I should do fine.
OK, sounds good. So I moved on to Foote.
Q: Is the buck complicated?
LF: It took me a couple years.
Q: Timmons said he'll have no problem picking it up.
LF: I don't know about that one. Practice is a lot easier, but during the game you've got to be even faster. You don't have time to think in the game as far as making the right check and reading the linemen when they come out in different, funky formations. These teams come out with tackle eligible, tackle over, overload, switches. It can get difficult, especially in the heat of the game. Calls don't always come in on time all the time so you've got 10 guys screaming for the call. There can be a lot of arguments based on what's the call. They always blame the buck backer but the buck's waiting on the sideline.
Q: I'm sure being the signal-caller is great for your status, but wouldn't you rather enjoy the game over at the mack?
LF: Yeah. It's a lot less stressful, but during a game you've got to help each other out. The mack has to help the buck by reiterating the call, especially at Heinz Field. It's real loud. When you're at home, you need the other people echoing the call. On the road they don't make that much noise when their offense is out. But at home you've got to do some talking.
OK, so off to practice they went. And it apparently didn't go so well for Timmons. Here's Butler, the linebackers coach.
Q: Timmons said the buck isn't that difficult to learn.
KB: He found out today it isn't easy, because it's not easy, especially in a game when everything's flying.
Q: Farrior said all the way up until the end that he hadn't quite learned everything about the position.
KB: You have to appreciate that in Potsie, because you never completely master anything. I'm still learning the position, too. Keeping your mind open like that is what keeps you up for new challenges.
* On my way back from dinner, past the gaggle of reporters waiting for Ben Roethlisberger to emerge from the cafeteria to further discuss his admission that he has a slight tear in his rotator cuff, I found myself in the company of a couple of personnel men. Neither had ever heard anything about the injury, and both feel Roethlisberger is having a great camp. That's when one of them turned sharply to me and said, "Why do you guys write this stuff?" I shrugged, went back to my room, and wrote a paragraph on it just to show my readers I'm there and aware. I guess that's why.
* I've been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan lately, particularly his newer stuff, more specifically Time Out of Mind. It's the world-weary Dylan who's seen it all and is too beaten up to lie or care about who's lying about him. In "Not Dark Yet" he sings "I've been down on the bottom of a whirlpool of lies/I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes." I'm sure we've all been there. Todd Haley is there now. After a humiliating experience in Kansas City, with Internet pages full of scathing criticism about not only his coaching ability but his character, he's just putting his head down and doing what he does best: coaching football. He's not looking for approval, from the media least of all. But he's also not in hiding. He's extremely approachable, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. Since he walked over and talked to a couple of us on the sideline during a special-teams session yesterday, I won't quote him but I will relay how happy he is to be in Pittsburgh while this "whirlpool of lies" swirls above him. And I can't help but root for the guy.
* I remember watching Willie Parker in his first training camp and I remember writing that if I were a high school coach visiting camp at the time, I'd look at Parker and Jerome Bettis and easily choose Parker as my starting back because his speed was undeniable as Bettis merely used the camp to work his way into shape. I remember thinking a high-school coach has no time to consider reputation or even age in his players, that he'd spot the better talent and get on with it, that he wouldn't overthink the situation. I thought about that again yesterday while I was watching Mike Adams and David DeCastro. If a coach came along who knew nothing about the history of either player, he'd look at Adams's length and feet and say "that's the guy I'm putting with the first team." There's certainly some inconsistency with Adams, but in the eye of this amateur talent evaluator, and without taking any perceptions about work ethic into account, Adams looks like the better prospect right now.
* OL coach Sean Kugler is saying that Ramon Foster is having a great camp, and I'm told Kugler's not the kind of guy who wouldn't say it if it weren't true. So I'm not expecting DeCastro to be given the right guard spot before the opener.
* Yet, even after reading the above two notes, do not be disappointed in the Steelers' first-round pick. DeCastro is still a bit light and prone to being overpowered since his technique has yet to be refined. That does not mean he's any kind of a bust. Just give him a minute or two to rise to this next level. I remember watching how Kraig Urbik was mashed in one-on-one drills and thinking how unathletic he looked. There's no comparison between the two players. DeCastro's far superior at the same point in their careers, and yet Urbik went on to become a starter in the league.
* Speaking of light, I noticed how fit Maurkice Pouncey is and asked him if he wanted to add more weight. He said no. He weighs 285 and that's his fighting weight. "It's been that the last two years," he said. "I don't see a reason to stop now."
* I quoted Antonio Brown as being ecstatic about the change at offensive coordinator. Brown made it clear he prefers Haley to Bruce Arians. So in the spirit of being fair, here's an exchange between Pouncey and the same group of national reporters.
Q: Is there a difference in approach and attitude with the new coordinator?
MP: Everybody's learning and everybody's buying in.
Q: Is the offense difficult?
MP: Not at all. We're pros. Nah, man. Probably high school was a lot more difficult.
Q: Has Haley raised his voice yet?
MP: Not yet. He almost did today in walk-throughs, but it went good.
Q: How is his personality?
MP: He's a coach, man. He's got to be out there and lead. He can't be the nicest guy out there.
Q: Was B.A. nice?
MP: B.A. was a cool dude, man. I liked B.A.
* And now to the stuff for which you've been waiting, anonymous answers from those who watch tape to the question: What are you seeing?
"I know he's been here and this isn't going to be much of a surprise, but I really like what I see in Marcus Gilbert. He's more balanced, patient, confident. He's not jumping at the first thing he sees, which is what most rookies do and what he did last year. I also love Willie Colon at guard. He looks good, really, really good. DeCastro and Adams look OK. They just need some time. As for sleepers, I like No. 30 (Robert Golden). He's showing some really good range and he breaks on the ball like a cornerback. He played that in college, and he's playing safety now, so I'm looking forward to seeing if he'll come up and play the run."
TUESDAY, JULY 31
I'll start today with an update on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who appears fit, relaxed and far more decisive than he was with the offense in the spring. All seems well in the land of The Franchise. But I wanted to open with Roethlisberger today because of a story that Post-Gazette photographer Pete Diana shared with me.
Pete was shooting some of the guys signing autographs after practice and he watched Roethlisberger signing for a teenager who was severely handicapped. The boy began crying tears of joy after Roethlisberger signed a ball for him, and then the boy's uncle began to cry. Ben asked them why they were crying and they told how much it meant to the boy to meet his hero, and how difficult it had been to get his wheelchair down to the front row around the practice field. Roethlisberger then called for a golf cart to take the boy back to the car in the parking lot and rode along with him. Roethlisberger then gave the boy one of his shoes and signed it. Diana told me there wasn't a dry eye in the place, including the security men working with Ben. Diana said he had never seen anything so emotional during a player-fan interaction after practice, and that I should write about it. I agreed.
* Craig Wolfley, who will once again write up his sideline observations for us here after games, told me the other day that he was sore from just watching practice. "You know you're getting old when you've got to train your standing-around muscles," Wolf said. "That's the very definition of age."
* Mike Tomlin knows how much I enjoy the softball game between the defense and the offense on the last day of camp, and we both lamented the decline of the game's competitive spirit. Tomlin thinks it's because the defense is so bad, but I think it has to do with the aging of players such as Troy Polamalu and Roethlisberger, who used to play shortstop for their respective units but are playing it smart anymore by skipping the game because of minor injuries. So Tomlin's trying to set up a Home Run Derby with baseballs this year. I overheard him trying to recruit Heath Miller, surely one of the top power-hitters on the club.
* Jon Dwyer used to be the guy looking away and daydreaming during on-field meetings of the running backs. Whenever I saw this I would wonder if Dwyer had skipped his ADHD medicine that day, and figured this was the reason a talented player such as him would fall to the sixth round of the draft. But I'm seeing a completely different Dwyer this camp. He's not only paying attention during RB meets, he's giving direction to the younger players. After Sunday's practice, in which he impressively carried the load in place of a dinged-up Isaac Redman, Dwyer was a sharp interview subject. He looked me in the eye, was totally focused, and provided sharp insights. I'd say that in his third year Dwyer has grown into a man.
* I asked Dwyer if he had ever heard the term "Bell Cow." "Yep," he said. "That's what they called me at Georgia Tech." That's what he looked like the other day.
* Kevin Colbert said that any contract talk with Rashard Mendenhall would have to wait until after they see him run following his rehab for a torn ACL. Colbert also said that he expects that a fair judgment can only be made in-season, which of course would be too late to extend Mendenhall's contract. So there's a good chance they could lose their 2008 first-round pick in free agency next March.
* Tomlin agrees completely with Colbert. The coach said far too many runners change their gait and are never the same following an ACL reconstruction. That's why Tomlin's been so pleased with Baron Batch. "There was no hesitation in his play," Tomlin said after Sunday's practice. "(For) a guy that's coming off a knee injury, I thought he moved with authority and trust with the knee, not only in competition periods but in individual work. … He's a sharp young guy. He's coming back nicely."
* Mendenhall doesn't even use a knee brace while working with the training staff on the side. He says he'll be ready to run in the opener, but I don't see the Steelers rushing things, even with the contract situation.
* I met with Brett Keisel's "Da Beard" crew over at Dino's a couple of nights ago. I drank a few O'Doul's, talked X's and O's with Coach McGuire, talked White Sox and rock-n-roll with his buddy Will, and then left. On my way out the door, coaches Mitchell, Wilson and Montgomery all gave me a cheerful greeting. I looked at the fourth man at their table and Mitch introduced me to Dwight Smith. "Weren't you the Super Bowl MVP?" I asked the former Tampa Bay Buc. "He should've been!" they all seemed to shout at the same time. Smith scored two touchdowns on interceptions in Super Bowl 37 but free safety Dexter Jackson won the award for his two interceptions.
* Jackson, of course, stiffed the Steelers in free agency a few months later (possibly because the award sent his asking price up) and the Steelers had to settle for drafting Troy Polamalu.
* Smith is in camp working once again with his former position coach Tomlin as a volunteer assistant.
* Speaking of Polamalu, I talked to him for the first time Sunday morning as he was on his way to a walk-through. I had extended my normal jog from 2.5 miles to 4 and was dying as the sun beat down. I was jogging/slogging the last tenth of the mile, just coming up the short driveway from the road, when I stopped at my finish line and slumped badly, drenched in sweat. "Did you just jog down to the road and back?" Polamalu cracked. Yeah, even nice guys bust balls every now and then.
* During the backs-on-backers blocking drill, Adrian Robinson refused to give up against Weslye Saunders as coach Jerry Olsavsky urged Robinson on with "Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop." Robinson didn't stop, and eventually and accidently punched his coach in the face.
* Saunders got trucked by Stevenson Sylvester in the drill and returned the favor the next day to OLB Brandon Johnson.
* Johnson, the former Bengal, is too skinny and long and easily blocked, but he's shown a knack for getting down the field in kickoff coverage.
* I understand that David DeCastro and Mike Adams are the future, but vets like Willie Colon, Trai Essex and Ramon Foster are playing so hard that it won't be easy to ignore them for long. I'm sure Max Starks will practice with similar tenacity once he clears the PUP list.
* Point being, this offensive line hasn't had this much talent since Super Bowl 40. And it's exciting to see what a physical group of ass-kickers will look like around a franchise QB who's in his physical prime, and, whether he wants to admit it or not, is at his best off play-action fakes.
* Al Woods has prepared well for what figures to be his last true chance to become a pro defensive lineman. He approached Keisel last spring and asked for tips before leaving for his home in Louisiana. Keisel told Woods he's got to lose weight for starters, so Woods lost 15 pounds before training camp.
* Why did Woods go to Keisel? "I look at him as a guy that I want to be just like, a guy who gives it up on every play, so I made up my mind during offseason that that's what I want to do and that's what I want to be. When everything was over I went home and I just ran and worked out, ran and worked out." It's early, but Woods appears to be winning the battle with Corbin Bryant for the fourth DE spot.
* What if Mike Wallace asks belatedly to accept the Steelers' 5/50M offer? How would they pay for it? Well, I'm not Ian Whetstone, but my first instinct is to look for salaries to slash. And I really can't find any. I doubt they would cut Larry Foote with such inexperience behind him at ILB. And I doubt they would cut Casey Hampton, even though his backups at NT are killing people. I just can't see the Steelers unceremoniously dumping a pillar of their success this past decade. I'll just have to ask Whetstone for an easier solution.
* Speaking of Hampton, he was asked in which Olympic event he would want to participate? "Probably the 10-yard dash," he said.
* I believe Antonio Brown is a superstar with or without Wallace, and that Emmanuel Sanders will develop into a championship-type slot receiver. But this passing game definitely misses Wallace. Speed over the top makes everyone on defense nervous.
* What makes the Steelers' brass nervous is what Wallace would do to the locker room if and when he returns. Nobody wants to be around a sulker who feels he's been wronged by the boss. While I've always found Wallace to be a great guy, he's also emotional. He loves a lot and expects a lot of love in return. Hopefully his youthful naiveté doesn't get the better of him and he can rediscover his joy.
FRIDAY, JULY 27
For whatever reason, the powers-that-be here in Benedict Hall at St. Vincent College are rationing coffee. So, the first Morning After of the 2012 season will be caffeine-free.
And that can't be a good thing.
But we're off anyway, and starting with a trivia question: Who holds the Super Bowl single-game record for highest gross punting average?
If you said Jeremy Kapinos you're playing closer attention than I am.
I talked with Kapinos on reporting day after the mob had deluged him with questions about his alma mater, Penn State. The mob finally left him alone to talk about football and I asked about his competition with Drew Butler, an undrafted rookie who won the Ray Guy Award as college football's top punter in 2009. Kapinos told me Butler is not the first, nor the second, Ray Guy winner he's gone up against.
One was Daniel Sepulveda of course. The former Steelers punter won it twice. In 2009, Kapinos beat out 2007 Ray Guy winner Durant Brooks for a job in Green Bay. That's two-for-two. Will Kapinos hold off Butler this summer?
"The competition started back in OTAs and minicamps," said Kapinos. "You guys were there. You saw it."
Kapinos left that statement to stand for itself, because it was obvious that Kapinos was the better punter last spring.
"I love being a Steeler," Kapinos added. "I've played for a few teams and this is the best place. I'm just going to go out and hit my ball. If I continue on what I did in OTAs and minicamp I'll be all right."
Even though he came out of Penn State, Kapinos has really come from out of nowhere. He's the guy you expect to lose the job because his history is of merely being someone's late-season pickup off the street. But, when the records are examined, Kapinos is certainly worthy of a place on a contending team.
Kapinos's post-season averages (47.4 gross/38.8 net) are better than his regular-season averages (43.0/36.5), and there's the record 51.0 gross in Super Bowl 45. That has to mean something to a coach who fancies his team to be a championship contender this season.
And Kapinos has also punted in cold weather his entire career, another plus with the Steelers.
So why would anyone think the Steelers need a rookie punter?
"Hey, it's funny," Kapinos said. "A lot of guys have played a lot longer in the NFL than me. I've been floating around for five years now and I've punted in the postseason for three straight years and hold the Super Bowl record. It's been a star-crossed career. I'll just keep kicking the ball. We have a good group here, good coaches. It'll be fun."
So we may have answered Camp Question #8 even before camp has really begun. In fact, I may have learned a couple of other answers in these first few days by just talking to people instead of waiting to see the first full contact practice since … last year's bye week?
Anyway, there's Camp Question #10: Will Jerrod Johnson unseat one of the veteran QBs?
I asked Tomlin about Johnson the other night. Tomlin did remember that Texas-Texas A&M Thanksgiving Night duel a few years ago between Johnson and Colt McCoy, and Tomlin felt the same way I did about Johnson's potential at the time. Tomlin also loves Johnson's size, poise, character, his upbringing as a coach's son, and his work ethic.
Tomlin explained that Johnson probably returned from shoulder surgery too soon as a college senior, but explained that Johnson's stock declined not because a lack of arm strength but because he had changed his throwing motion upon his return.
Johnson is still having a difficult time finding the proper release point. It's Johnson's daily battle, and in the first practice those inconsistent release points remained troublesome.
I also asked Tomlin if he was concerned about Troy Polamalu's showing last spring when the 31-year-old superstar was overweight and ran as stiffly as someone who had just undergone knee-replacement surgery. Tomlin noted that my concern has merit, but said that he's not concerned because he thought Polamalu was in even worse condition the previous spring before showing up for the start of the season with his typical Polamalu quickness.
Polamalu has knocked off some of the weight, but certainly wasn't trying to fly around the field yesterday in the first non-contact workout this camp. He was one of the last players to leave the field before the harsh thunderstorms rolled in. Last I saw he was running sprints by himself.
So, if Tomlin's not concerned, and Polamalu's not concerned, I don't see any reason for me to lose any sleep over it – particularly since I'm CAFFEINE FREE.
OK, on to some bullet points:
* Keenan Lewis, who boldly predicted a Pro Bowl last spring, was resolute in keeping his mouth shut on reporting day. After saying "I'm just coming to camp" to answer the first four questions put to him, I said, "Keenan, you just drove up in a Smart car. You can't keep answering that way." Keenan's reply? "That's my camp car. I'm just coming to camp."
* Larry Foote was asked if his pal James Farrior was feeling bad about not being in camp. "Uh, right now I think he'd rather be on his honeymoon," Foote said. "He's in Dubai, him and his new wife, and he's just having a good ol' time right now and enjoying being retired." But, Foote added, "When September comes around I think he'll rather be in Pittsburgh."
* Running back Jonathan Dwyer on losing 24 pounds and checking in at 236: "When you weighed what I weighed, how can you not feel better? You feel better about yourself and you mentally and physically don't feel heavy and you can go hard every rep you're out there."
* Volunteer DL coach Brentson Buckner to his young troops: "You ain't got to impress me. I don't make any decisions around here. We're just working on technique." And from those watching closely, Cameron Heyward is showing improved and impressive handwork.
* Oliver Gibson was also working with the linemen as a volunteer coach. Rumor has it that Chidi Iwuoma and Tyrone Carter are also here in similar capacities, but I've yet to see either.
* Butler, the aforementioned rookie punter, did bang the ball much better yesterday than I had remembered him doing last spring.
* Buck LB candidate Stevenson Sylvester missed most of the spring with an injury, but looked active and more importantly decisive and vocal as the backup behind Larry Foote at the first practice. Sly's camp should be an interesting one.
* The Polamalu boys, Paisios and Ephram, showed up to watch yesterday's practice, but really didn't watch too much of it. The toddlers were darting around and showing off their impressive quick-twitch to mom, who had her hands full keeping them nearby. I was talking to Brett Keisel and pointed to the boys and said that I couldn't wait to watch them play high school ball for nearby Pine-Richland. "Yeah," Keisel said, "But they'll probably end up going to school in L.A." Keisel paused and said, "But I'd probably go there to watch them." So would I.
* Hey, I think I hear a janitor. Maybe he knows where they're hiding the coffee around here. Gotta run.