Tuesday Morning Blitz

Think you've got Steelers-on-the-brain? Along the side roads that surround our North Jersey home are any number of caution-yellow children-at-play signs. Emblazoned across their center is the flat-black silhouette of a sprinting child, at play, I presume. Of late, that black-on-gold image has had me awash in thoughts of Antwaan Randle El weaving through defenders, as our Jeep Liberty all but steers itself through the neighborhood. Oh, the kids are fine, by the way. So far.

And so are your Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now is the time for unfettered optimism; heck, if Cincinnati Bengals fans can talk playoffs, Super Bowl even, why can't we, eh? This team is not just the favorite to win the division, but has to be considered among the AFC elite, if not NFL elite. Seriously though, you've got to love the banter coming out of yet-to-win-the-big-one Bill Cowher. All this talk about winning the tough (?) AFC North, and challenging veterans, and not worrying about hurt feelings, et al. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year The Chin walks the walk himself.

I like Bill, really. I appreciate what he's done here; but the fact remains that in three days he opens his twelfth training camp as the Steelers boss with a very talented, very capable team. What he does the next six weeks will go a long way towards making them as dominant and resilient as they can be. As he likes to say, there's a fine line between good and great, and that applies to him as well.

So with three long, painful, and child-dodging days left to go, let's look at Camp Cowher 2003…

Three to watch

If you're making the pilgrimage to St. Vincent's this week, you'll want to watch these cats, most definitely:

:: Casey Hampton -- Just how big is the big guy? How well does he move? Is he wilting towards the end of the session? Just how in-shape Hampton enters this camp will speak volumes to how seriously he takes his expanded role in Tim Lewis' nickel. Casey's transition from dominant two-down defender to dominant every-down defender is crucial to the Steelers defensive success. While he's been a force against the run thus far, he'll need to round out his game this season, no pun intended.

:: Tommy Maddox -- Tommy looked quite dapper last Wednesday night accepting his ESPY award for best comeback athlete. Maddox has worked his tail off making his way back to big-time football, and he certainly deserves the honors and accolades he's received to date. Still, I'd much rather see him clutching the Lombardi Award post-game at Reliant Stadium on February 1st. How hard he's worked to get there this offseason, how focused he's been despite his contract woes; that should be readily apparent this summer.

:: Chris Hope -- Anyone tired of me pimping this guy? If he's sulking or brooding over his move to free safety, I guarantee I'll be the first off the bandwagon. How sure is his footwork? How aggressive and confident are his reads? Is there a drop-off when he steps in there for Brent Alexander? How tight are the corners playing with him in centerfield? Is he making plays on the ball? Hey, watch Troy Polamalu all you want -- he's sure to entertain with his abundant athletic ability, and all-out playing style. Pairing he and Hope together, though, would give the Steelers the fastest, most-physical set of safeties they've had under Cowher.

This week's camp schedule

Friday, July 25th -- Veterans, rookies report (Closed)
Saturday, July 26th -- Morning Run Test (Closed)
Sunday, July 27th -- Afternoon Practice (First open session)
Monday, July 28th -- Morning Practice (Closed); Afternoon Practice
Tuesday, July 29th -- Morning Lift (Closed); Afternoon Practice

The Good

The Steelers enter camp, for the most part, healthy. Only center Jeff Hartings and punter Josh Miller will miss Saturday's run test, and only Miller, who "has a knee" as Cowher likes to say, will miss time. Hartings is being held out for precautionary reasons.

The Bad

Rookies Polamalu, Alonzo Jackson, and Brian St. Pierre remain unsigned. Polamalu, the team's first-round selection, is expected to start at strong safety regardless of what you may hear about Mike Logan. Jackson has a lot of work ahead of him transitioning to a stand-up, in-space defender. The Saint will rarely dress this year, but faces stiff competition from a determined Tim Levcik as the team's third QB. None of them can afford a holdout.

The Ugly

If this team has worked hard since mini-camp, then the opening of two-a-days will be just another workout. If they've been lackadaisical, then injuries are sure to follow. For a veteran team looking to set the tone early for the rest of camp, as well as the season opener, getting bit by the injury bug would be most unfortunate.

The Outlook

The sides are talking with regard to Polamalu, and the other contracts are sure to roll in over the next few days. If June's minicamp was any indication, this team's psyche is somewhere between the respect-craving squad of 2001 and the over-confident bunch from last summer. While injuries are unavoidable, it's unlikely that any of the key players have taken this offseason lightly. This should be a good one.

Random thoughts

:: Chris Kern, the 5-11, 196-pound undrafted free agent corner from Mount Union College, was released by the Detroit Lions yesterday. Kern dislocated his shoulder breaking up a pass in June, and was likely to miss the beginning of the season. Despite his impressive speed (4.41) and aggressive play, the corner-starved Lions moved on. I would hope the Steelers look into this kid's injury, and make a move. Even with the one bad wing, he's got to be better than Hank Poteat.

:: Speaking of Hank, watch him, too. He, and rookie Ivan Taylor. That should be an interesting contrast of talent and no-talent, Poteat being the latter, of course.

:: Despite the Patriots incredulous linebacking depth deemed so impressive by one Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com's top five rankings by position failed to include New England at all. The number one set of linebackers? Need you ask? Please, Dale Lolley knows what he's doing. Supposedly, someone at ESPN.com does, too.

Let this one marinate …

I am so amped my teeth hurt. It'll take a complete implosion by this team in Detroit on August 9th to cast any doubt in my mind. And another on the 16th against Philadelphia. And again versus Dallas. Truth is, it's been a long time since a Steelers team this talented has had their act this together. Not convinced? Cool. I'll save you a seat until September 7th; if whipping the Baltimore Ravens on opening day don't do it, nothing will.

Donny Drummond

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