MONDAY, AUGUST 19
So this is how it's going to end, with a Guy Whimper.
Yep. Sorry to say that I wasn't able to give St. Vincent College a proper sendoff the morning after camp ended for the Steelers. I had a wedding to attend: One of my favorite nephews just married a beautiful and kind girl and there was no way I was going to miss it.
Of course, it came at the expense of you, the faithful reader, most of whom have followed my reports of this team since the end of last season. I even missed the annual Home Run Derby, which has evolved from the game that's normally the basis of my final Morning After.
But Steelers softball isn't what it used to be. I was invited by Mike Tomlin, who knows what a big baseball fan I am, but I was later warned by others that I was to sit there quietly and not even tweet a word of the proceedings. I think it had to do with the team taking over full reporting rights -- I'm not sure -- but I never really looked into that, nor have I heard the winner.
It ain't what it used to be anyway, back when Troy Polamalu played shortstop for Manager Casey Hampton's defense, when the offense, led by shortstop Ben Roethlisberger and third baseman Hines Ward, was always the favorite in what used to be an enjoyable game.
Instead, since I've indeed gone out with a Whimper this weekend, I may as well update my 53-man roster this morning.
You may remember that I last left off with 47 roster locks, but let's fine-tune 3 of those 47 since last week, when I hadn't picked a winner at either the punter or backup-NT spots. So let's just go with Drew Butler and Loni Fangupo.
One -- Butler -- has age on his side, while the other, Fangupo, I believe will overcome the age deficit against Alameda Ta'amu, even though Ta'amu, in my estimation, played very well the other night.
My only basis for picking these two is they seem to fit with the group much better than do the elder (and loner) Brian Moorman and Ta'amu, who fits well but doesn't have near the gregarious personality of Fangupo, who's said to be outperforming Ta'amu by a significant margin.
Now, the only true change I'm making to the prior 47 is a technical one: Matt Spaeth will have to make the final 53 before being placed on revocable IR, so let's exchange Spaeth for Michael Palmer, even though Spaeth will be placed on IR the following day with Palmer likely the replacement.
So that's my 47, and today I'll make four additions: QB Landry Jones, TE Heath Miller, ILB Marshall McFadden, and OLB Adrian Robinson.
That brings my roster to 51 and leaves only two spots open: One will go to a wide receiver -- Justin Brown or Reggie Dunn -- and the other is the team wild-card.
SPEAKING OF ...
... the roster, I have only eight offensive linemen. Unless they opt to keep D'Anthony Batiste, I don't see them keeping nine, which Tomlin had kept every year before last.
... reserve offensive linemen, the door, in retrospect, was wide open for Nik Embernate, the undrafted priority free agent who in his only practice with the second team showed he was man enough to handle NFL interior players. He'll re-hab and re- boot this season instead.
... Robinson, the second-year linebacker. In my previous MA entry, I had wondered in jest whether he had been taken hostage by James Harrison's old trainer. Well, Adrian tells me he actually has, that he's working with James' old trainer and has added 8 pounds of muscle. "That guy really knows how to work the body," said Robinson.
... Whimper, who's been nicknamed "Abdullah the Butcher" by Tomlin. Whimper does come across as having a nasty playing disposition. Makes me wonder if he's been fighting like "A Boy Named Sue" since childhood.
... nicknames, Tomlin calls Jonathan Dywer "Johnny!" Dwyer said neither I nor anyone else is allowed to call him that, only Tomlin.
GETTING TO THE BOTTOM
I promised someone on our message board that I would get to the bottom of the Steelers' deployment of a horizontal passing offense against the Giants. In Ben Roethlisberger's 8 passes last week against the Giants, the ball traveled past the line of scrimmage an average of five yards. I wasn't able to get OC Todd Haley to comment, so I asked Roethlisberger about it in a mob, and his answer was immediately tweeted by the glommers. But in case you didn't see it, this was Ben's answer:
"That was intentional. That was game plan. We really wanted, against a 4-3 type defense, to work on our screen games, our short, underneath-type passes. Even the (20-yard) one to Antonio (Brown) was more of a conversion route. He wasn't supposed to go that deep. So, more game plan than anything. I still think that that will be a weapon for us, throwing the short ball, but like I said that particular game was more about game-planning."
So, the short stuff will set up the deep stuff?
"That's the hope. And running the ball sets up the play-action. That's the game of football. So many things set up other things. That's why it's a game of chess between coordinators, usually, and then the players have to execute it. Whether it's coverages, blitzes, you have to be prepared to make adjustments on the run and try and fool the other team."
ALAN BAXTER ... FINALLY
On the first day of rookie minicamp -- and I reported this -- I was told by one personnel man to keep an eye on undrafted outside linebacker Alan Baxter out of Northern Illinois, that he's a small but active pass-rusher. So I asked Baxter for his cell number, told him I would call over the summer, but never did.
I apologized to him the first day of training camp, and on the second I commented on his cool Chicago Blackhawks shirt, told him I was born in Des Plaines, Ill., which is fairly close to his hometown of Buffalo Grove. We chatted amicably and I came to the conclusion that he might be the nicest linebacker I've ever met. And he plays with such a great motor that Steelers Radio analyst Tunch Ilkin has proudly called Baxter his personal Camp Phenom since Day One. Someone asked Tunch what he likes about Baxter and Tunch said, "If you watch him, he never stays blocked."
So, on my last day of camp I finally pulled Baxter aside for this quick interview:
Q: Do you still see that loose ball on the one-yard line from last week's game
AB: Oh, I'm trying to look past it. I wish I would've had that one, but I'm sure I'll have another one to maximize on later.
Q: You've become a favorite on our message board since that game. What did the coaches say about how you played?
AB: Some things I did good; some things I did bad. I just need to keep improving and show I can get better from Game 1 to Game 2.
Q: How has camp gone for you?
AB: I think I've done pretty well. I think I learned the defense.
Q: A guy I respect said you don't stay blocked. Have you ever heard that?
AB: Yeah, I heard that in college; I heard that in high school. I like to play with a high motor. If people think the play's over, I don't think the play's over. That's just something I pride myself on. I think it's just a mentality.
Q: Did you expect to fit this 3-4 defense as well as you have?
AB: I always knew that playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 was for my build, that it was my position. I always played with my hand in the dirt at Northern Illinois. So I thought this was the best defense to come into.
Q: So you weren't a Bears fan growing up?
AB: They were second to the Steelers.
Q: Really? What drew you to them?
AB: Their colors, the symbol. I really liked the jersey.
Q: So you're more Greg Lloyd than Richard Dent?
AB: You could say that.
Now, I don't have Baxter making the final 53, and certainly wouldn't be upset if I am wrong. But I just think he can clear waivers and make it back to the practice squad to give the Steelers yet another quality pass-rusher in the pipeline.
LIFE ISN'T FAIR
Aaron Smith brought two of his children down to the sideline next to me to watch practice. It was early in practice and the receivers and quarterbacks were warming up when Aaron told his kids, "Let's come over to where the athletes are." I made a joke about bringing them over to watch the writers in action and Aaron chuckled and said, "I doubt you need an ounce of athleticism to do what you do."
And then Aaron turned to his son and said, "Now, if you play on defense, you can get 6 sacks, intercept a pass and set your offense up for a touchdown, but the crowd won't care. Nobody will care. People only care about the offense, and that's when they cheer, when the offense scores a touchdown. Sad to say it's the truth, son, and, no, it's not fair. But life isn't fair."
* Ta'amu and Fangupo were the only two defensive linemen on the field, but they consisted of 700 pounds worth of third-team nickel. Yet, when Alvester Alexander carried up the middle that loud smacking noise we heard came from safety Shamarko Thomas.
* On the first rep of backers-covering-backs, Tomlin called for Larry Foote to cover Le'Veon Bell, and Bell made a sick move to get deep past Foote for an easy catch and long gain. In scrimmage that day, on the snap before Bell aggravated his knee bruise, he lined up in the slot and drew everyone's attention. He looked like a thin tight end or a thick wide receiver. The pass went to Emmanuel Sanders for a big gain, but trust that Bell is a natural beast in the passing game.
* After Bell and Isaac Redman went down with injuries last week, I ran into the gregarious Joe Madsen at the cafeteria. I asked the rookie center if he could run the ball and he said he carried once in high school for a 1-yard touchdown. "So, yeah, give me the rock," he said. Madsen attended Chardon High outside of Cleveland but grew up a Steelers fan. "My mom loved Franco and I loved Jerome," he said.
* Spaeth was on crutches when he confirmed to me that his foot injury will keep him out 8-10 weeks. "I was talking to Heath about it and I said to him, 'Isn't it better for us to peak later in the year anyway?'"
* Steve McLendon's girl friend, Shanika, was in labor from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. before giving birth to their child Kaden Isaiah, whom Steve has already nicknamed "King."
* In the last one-on-one blocking drills I watched, David DeCastro easily beat Brian Arnfelt three times; Maurkice Pouncey handled McLendon multiple times; Whimper whipped Nick Williams three times; John Malecki beat Ta'amu four times; and Kelvin Beachum blanked Fangupo, 3-0.
* After undrafted rookie guard Chris Hubbard pancaked Williams, Tomlin shouted, "Whoa! Mother Hubbard!" Said D-line coach John Mitchell: "This is your tape, Nick. It's yours." Williams rebounded to win the next two reps. He even put Mother Hubbard on the ground the final time.
* Madsen beat Ta'amu two out of three times. Before the third rep, Malecki, who was standing under center as the faux quarterback, stepped back to shout "Alert, Alert," which is Roethlisberger's best-known line audible.
* Bruce Gradkowski quarterbacked the first team in the final two scrimmages Friday. His most successful play was a screen to LaRod Stephens-Howling that had Pouncey, DeCastro and Ramon Foster out front. No surprise that Stephens-Howling got to the sideline and went the distance for a touchdown against the second defense.
* Beachum was the third tight end in the "Coming Out" scrimmage session, in which the offense starts inside its own 2.
* Better to end with some basic info than with a Whimper, I guess.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 13
Sorting out the running backs?
Hey, that's going to be a piece of peach cobbler compared to the job the Steelers have in sorting through their deep crop of linebackers.
Save for 2009, Larry Foote's been here every year since 2002, and he's never seen such depth.
"Not at linebacker," Foote said. "Normally coming in you could say 'Yeah, that guy's not going to make it. That guy will probably be a victim of cut.' Now it's all up in the air. I told those guys that, and special teams would definitely separate them from the pack."
That's what LB coach Keith Butler meant when he said "It's going to come down to who Danny Smith likes, because the competition's going to be close."
Smith, of course, is the special-teams coach, and he had to like the way Sly Sylvester ran down the field Saturday night to tackle the Giants' punt returner early in the second quarter.
But Sly was the victim of friendly fire when hustling rookie Markus Wheaton sideswiped Sly's leg after the whistle and knocked him to the sideline for a week with a sprained ankle.
On the bright side, it opened the floodgates for a hungry group of reserve inside linebackers, starting with the backup buck Marshall McFadden and his mack sidekick Terence Garvin, a lanky former safety from WVU who signed with the team after the rookie minicamp tryout.
Garvin continued his surprising camp yesterday with impressive plays in both the run and pass games, but during the game Butler had to yank Garvin to provide more help for McFadden, whose adaptation to the buck inside spot -- the signal-calling spot -- will take time.
Butler said he likes to pair his buck with a mack who understands the defenses and can lend a hand, as Timmons does with Foote.
"I had 49 (Garvin) in there earlier and I said, 'Nah, it's not helping Marshall,'" Butler said, "So I got 44 in there."
That would be rookie sixth-round pick Vince Williams, who "plays from the neck up," Butler said.
Williams is also an aspiring buck but at this point Butler feels he must prepare McFadden for the regular season. So the rookie played the mack as McFadden crushed the quarterback on one buck blitz late in the first half.
The intensity picked up in the second half when two salty veterans, Kion Wilson and Brian Rolle, moved inside. Rolle, the mack, blitzed on his first play and delivered a crushing blow to Giants QB Curtis Painter just after he got rid of the ball. Two plays later, Rolle sacked Painter on third down as he blitzed with Wilson, who on the next defensive snap tackled the Giants' running back for a 3-yard loss.
The feeding frenzy continued into the fourth quarter as Williams returned to the lineup and sacked Ryan Nassib to set up the Steelers' only touchdown of the night, a defensive score by Adrian Robinson, who beat fellow outside linebacker Alan Baxter to the loose ball.
Not to be sidetracked by the outside linebackers, who've added another interesting prospect in Baxter to a deep group, but on this night the stars were the inside backers, all of them.
Was a help-wanted ad for ILBs posted in Steelers Digest over the off-season?
"I don't know," Butler said with a laugh. "Our scouting department does a good job. The thing about continuity in an organization is your scouts figure out what you like. Over the years I've stressed I like this, I don't like this. Two things I can't teach linebackers to do: one of them is run, the other is hit. I can't teach them to do that. They get that from their parents. They don't get it from me. If they do that, then they've got a chance to make it. If they don't do that, they don't have a chance. I'm not for the powderpuff football-type guys."
So I sampled the veteran ILBs for their opinions on the best of the bunch. Foote couldn't be more specific than to say that Mike Tomlin had commended the entire group at a meeting on Monday. Timmons didn't want to point out an individual, but when pressed he came up with "Brian Rolle did a good job. He's very hungry. He was all over the place. He was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, blowing up isos."
Timmons balked at the idea of sitting out the rest of the preseason with Foote in order to give the backups the proper platform to perform.
"We still have to get our reps, too, now," Timmons said. "Somebody might take our spot the way they're going."
SPEAKING OF ...
... Butler, here's the transcript of a 15-minute interview with him that included the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. (And try to ignore anything Butler says about McFadden, because that's tomorrow's feature.)
... Rolle, he looks like someone you never want to stop for an interview, as if he's related to James Harrison or someone who hates the media. But I did stop the short, muscle-bound fireplug and asked him why, after being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, and starting 13 games as a rookie, he was let go after the first month of the 2012 season.
"That's something I wish I had an answer to," said the cousin of Myron and Antrell Rolle. "A lot of people ask me the same thing: What happened? If I knew I'd be able to say, but I'm here now and making the best of my situation."
Did he see the ad in the Digest or something?
"Hey, if it was going to be easy they wouldn't have brought anyone else in," Rolle said. "But the Steelers wanted to see how guys like myself and Kion Wilson -- guys who've been around the block a couple times -- see how we react to them bringing in those other guys. Hopefully at the end of the day we do enough to put on film to show that we belong on this team; if not this team another team."
... Wheaton, I told him that in spite of wiping out Sylvester, the rest of his work as a gunner Saturday night brought to mind Hines Ward's rookie season. Wheaton, who was seven years old in 1998, could only say, "Thank you. That was the first time I ever played gunner."
Interviewing the wide-eyed and polite Wheaton is a lesson in fending off "Thank yous" and asking questions with a question mark and not a period. Yes, another journalism lesson for you kids out there.
... Robinson and Baxter, the two OLBs responsible for the Steelers' touchdown Saturday night, Tomlin seemed to want to pit those two in a bit of a competition during another session of backs-on-backers Monday. Those two received the bulk of the outside reps, with Robinson coming away the winner, at least in my mind. I know many of the SCI.net readers were impressed more by Baxter's performance in the game, but I'm willing to bet that he'll clear waivers and makes it back to the practice squad.
Robinson has used his year in the league to get stronger. Looking at his thick legs and massive arms the other day, I couldn't help but wonder whether he's been taken hostage by Harrison's former trainer.
MY LYING EYES
After the game Saturday, I awarded my medals on Twitter. Two players on whom I wanted to follow up this week were NT Alameda Ta'amu (gold) and CB Isaiah Green (bronze). After talking with sources who watched the game tape, and who also knew what they were watching, I may want to switch the medals for those two.
Let's start with Ta'amu. Here's what Tomlin said about him on Monday: "I haven't seen much yet. I expect to see more, obviously. He got on the moving train dealing with his injury, and we want to give him increased steps to move forward."
Not much for a guy I thought was moving so much better than he was last year when he came to camp weighing 372. Ta'amu's now at 348 and he surprised me with how active he was Saturday. So in assuming that Tomlin was just "coaching up" the second -year player, I asked another source who would know whether Ta'amu's active and athletic play was executed within the parameters of his assignments.
"About 50-50," said the source. "He would be great if he were a baseball player."
The source went on to say that the other nose tackle vying to become Steve McLendon's backup, Loni Fangupo, is clearly outplaying Ta'amu, but that Ta'amu will get the longer look because he's four years younger and was one of the team's draft picks a year ago.
I received more positive feedback on Green, but only to a point. The cornerback with the sprinter speed, who was added to the practice squad late last season, seemed to play very well against the Giants.
"He did. He looked great Saturday night," said another source during Monday's practice. "They tested him deep and he didn't get beat. He also made a great play to break up a third-down pass."
Yep. He used perfect technique on that play, didn't he?
"It was beautiful," said the source. "The only question about him is if he can get the other guy on the ground."
But he just did that a few minutes ago. He blew up a run behind the line of scrimmage and it fired Tomlin up.
"I saw that. Again, perfect technique to get inside there," the source said. "So, yeah, if Curtis Brown and DVD stay out with their injuries, Green has a chance."
* Counting the 20-yard attempt to Antonio Brown at the front pylon Saturday night, Ben Roethlisberger's passes traveled, on average, only five yards past the line to the intended target. Brown wouldn't say whether that's the plan for the season or whether that was just a result of the team wanting to get the running game going on Saturday. "I'm not the one making the calls," said Brown. "I just execute them."
* New running back Alvester Alexander is clearly an upgrade over Moody McNeal, but that didn't stop his position coach, Kirby Wilson, from chewing Alexander out after Garvin had whipped him in backs-on-backers.
"You don't GET another chance in the ball game," Wilson said in ordering Alexander to the back of the line. "Your man got sacked!"
* As Garvin stepped in for a rep against fullback Will Johnson, Tomlin said, "You're scared of Will from Morgantown." Tomlin loves to mention universities to the men, and that warms the hearts of the college football junkies on the sideline.
* Garvin didn't have any success with his former WVU teammate, but Garvin steamrolled LaRod Stephens-Howling.
* Alvester bounced back to successfully block Baxter off the edge, but at that point the stars of the show were the new tight ends, Nathan Overbay and Michael Palmer.
* Well, "stars" may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I do remember them confounding some of my favorite linebackers before Bob Labriola mentioned that he was impressed a bit by the new tight ends.
* I remember watching Overbay when he was on everyone's prospects list back in 2009. I remember him because
I watched one grainy tape and Overbay wore the red uniform of Eastern Washington, which plays its home games on a red field.
If Overbay wasn't so tall (6-4.6, 259 coming out), I wouldn't have been able to see him at all. So I do remember that he was tall. And that's all.
* But now I see he can block blitzing linebackers in a one-on-one drill. Makes me want to see more.
* You may remember that Justin Cheadle was my No. 1 off-the-radar player to watch at this camp. And you now know that Cheadle went down with a leg injury and was carted off the practice field Monday. Hope that wasn't my fault, Justin.
* Mike Golic Jr. replaced Cheadle at right guard. With undrafted rookie Chris Hubbard out with a minor injury Monday, Guy "Abdullah" Whimper slid over to LG and D'Anthony Batiste was inserted at LT.
* Since taking over as head coach, Tomlin has kept 9 offensive linemen every year but last, when he kept eight. Kelvin Beachum and John Malecki are Nos. 6 and 7 right now, and Whimper's probably No. 8. Hubbard is likely destined for the practice squad. The No. 9 spot is wide open.
* Reggie Dunn and David Gilreath worked as the only two punt returners Monday. Gilreath, who fumbled in Saturday's game, caught everything Monday. But Dunn, who flashed his speed Saturday night on one 19-yard punt return, fumbled a punt Monday.
* Jarvis Jones slipped inside off the edge during Scrimmage II on Monday and ripped the ball from the hands of Stephens- Howling. Assistant LB coach Jerry Olsavsky nearly did a cartwheel to congratulate Jones.
* Wheaton beat rookie CB Terry Hawthorne with a diving, fingertip catch of a Roethlisberger bomb in practice. Great for the spunky Wheaton; not so great for Hawthorne, who's in desperation mode after getting back on the field with a troublesome knee that kept him out of spring practice and most of this camp.
* I'm sure the coaches are willing to give Hawthorne at least one practice to shake the rust.
I write this after watching the tall, fast and physical Hawthorne blitz off the corner during Scrimmage III on Monday to force Bruce Gradkowski to heave the ball away.
WHO WOULD LEAVE HEATH HANGING?
"I see you lurking over there, Jim," Heath Miller said with a wide smile as I walked past him during an interview. Heath realizes that we all want to eavesdrop on his plans for a comeback.
"They tell me I'll know when I'm ready," he said. "But that doesn't tell me very much!"
So, Heath still doesn't know, but the assumption is that he'll open the season on the roster and reach the field in October.
As we were talking through this, someone else walked up and joked about Miller being hounded again by a reporter. This was taking place at the foot of the walkway leading up through the mass of post-practice autograph-seekers.
"No, Jim's just here to walk up the path with me and to keep talking," Miller told the intruder.
But as flattered as I was to be included in Heath's plan, I couldn't help him get past those wanting his autograph because I had to interview someone else.
Heath pretended to be disappointed as he headed up the sidewalk alone. He of course couldn't say no to the autograph seekers and was quickly engulfed. That's when I felt ashamed for letting down the nicest guy on the team.
Too nice, in fact, to actually go through with a pretend interview anyway.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 9
In an abbreviated version of our camp diary, I just wanted to update readers that multiple media outlets report that Plaxico Burress tore his right rotator cuff yesterday in practice and is likely out for the season.
Burress went out on a play we've all seen here in Pittsburgh: He went up between two defenders -- in this case S Damon Cromartie-Smith and just-signed CB Ryan Steed -- but couldn't high-point the ball away from the two camp bodies. He instead fell on his right shoulder and got back up slowly and appeared hurt. He left the field via cart a short time later.
Of course, Burress will also be remembered in Pittsburgh as one of the best deep threats Ben Roethlisberger ever had, but he only had him for one year.
Burress showed signs of life this camp, but was never an enthusiastic practice player and that was also evident at this camp.
Still, Burress was in line to win a roster spot because he showed he could still be a threat in the red zone, and even deep down the field. Burress hauled in a bomb last week from Bruce Gradkowski off a play-action fake that fooled rookie safety Shamarko Thomas. The next day Gradkowski said something that brought to mind Roethlisberger's rookie season:
"When you see big Plax put his hands up going down field, it's nice to just let one loose every now and then," Gradkowski said.
Burress' departure would open the door for rookie sixth-round pick Justin Brown and/or return specialist Reggie Dunn. Also in the running are last season's late call-up David Gilreath and flashy January pick-up Kashif Moore.
Another receiver to keep an eye on is practice-squad player Derek Moye, a 6-5, 210-pounder who's coming off a couple of outstanding practices, particularly as a red-zone target for the backup quarterbacks.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 8
(UPDATE: You know how when you walk to breakfast everyone else seems to have a cell phone pressed to his/her head as if there's a gigantic conference call going on and you're not a part of it? Well, I was able to crash the party line for once and learned the Steelers have no current negotiations for contract extensions underway. The team will wait until the end of camp and use the brief window before the start of the season to take another look at extending Ziggy Hood, Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel. At least those are the only names to which I was privy before the team found out I was listening on the other line. Have a nice day.)
How shall I begin this morning? With Mike Tomlin telling one of his scouts that he's "lost his edge"? Or shall we go with John Mitchell thanking the Steelers' offensive linemen for kicking his group's collective butt?
Let's go with Mitch because I've been keeping an eye on the big Polynesians he's trying to coach into nose tackles, and some of it's funny.
And scary. I'm not so sure I'd be man enough to tell these 350-pounders what Mitchell has been telling them, but Alameda Ta'amu, I'm sure, has been hearing worse.
I tweeted the other day that Ta'amu had been activated off the P.U.P. list, and judging some of the comments you would've thought Charles Manson had been let out of jail.
All I can say about Ta'amu's idiotic episode in which he tried to elude cops at a high speed while careening drunk through the over-populated South Side is that he didn't hurt anyone. How he didn't is a miracle, but he didn't. And he's stopped drinking, and has worked so hard at shifting his belly to his chest that he pulled a muscle running sprints a couple of weeks before camp opened.
I'm hoping people can give him a break.
Of course, Mitch isn't. No, the coach is finally getting a chance to work the player, and he's giving Ta'amu the full Mitch between reps.
Not that Mitch is taking it easy on Loni Fangupo. No, the DL coach has been dogging him since the start of camp. Yesterday Mitchell got so tired of saying the same things to Fangupo that he yanked him out of one-on-one drills and replaced him with Ta'amu. And then Mitch did a vice-versa Dosey Doe by yanking Ta'amu and putting Fangupo back in. "A second chance for 92!" said Tomlin from the other side of the drill. And Fangupo did respond by finally using the proper technique with all of that natural strength.
After the drill ended, when, really, only Al Woods had properly represented the DL by beating Marcus Gilbert two out of three reps, Mitchell looked over at the white shirts and said, "Way to go O. You beat our ass." Mitch, as he neared the sideline, then said to Steelers pro scouting coordinator Brandon Hunt, "Brandon, get your ass ready to play some defense."
Tomlin's practice-time comment was directed at a scout whom I won't name, but I think the content is valuable to all of us who at one time or another must decide whether to seek out stability, or continue to chase a dream or an ideal.
Anyway, Tomlin walked up to the scout and said, "So you're working out of the office now instead of getting out on the road and looking for players who can make us better?" The scout nodded his head. Tomlin continued: "You get to drive home after work and sit in traffic every night." The scout smiled. Tomlin continued: "You've lost your edge, my man."
SHORT QUOTE OF THE DAY
I was standing outside the cafeteria waiting for one of the golf carts to bring another batch of unsuspecting interviewees up the hill, and standing five feet from me was Sean Spence, the rehabbing linebacker who was waiting for a cart to take him back to the dorm -- or more likely the training room. But I turned to him and, channeling my inner Max Mercy, said, "Sean, one of these days you're going to make me a great story." Spence only said this:
RAMBLING QUOTE OF DAY
I cleaned it up a bit for publication in the David Paulson piece yesterday, but this was the actual quote from tight ends coach James Daniel when I asked him how the Steelers managed to snag Paulson in the seventh round last year:
"When we pick a guy in the seventh round that means we probably had him rated higher, and somebody else didn't pick him, and we got him wherever we got him we got him where we got him at."
SPEAKING OF ...
... Fangupo, readers here at SCI.net got to know him last spring when he talked about, among other things, how his mother warned Loni she would "skin you alive if you have a tattoo. I will cut it off with a burnt knife." Well, Loni (pronounced LOAN-ee), told me another story about growing up in Tonga, when I asked him how he developed his massive calf muscles.
"That goes back to my pop," Fangupo said. "He made me build a hut on my own, way out on the other side of a field that was plowed and felt like sand. I was 14, and it took forever, probably three months. I had to fold the leaves for the roof and everything. But I tore down 12 coconut trees and had to drag them across the field. I think that's why my calves got so big. And it taught me a great lesson. Like my dad said, 'Hard work will hold up the four corners of your house.' And that hut is still standing."
And the, oh, 40-inch calves help you power up centers and guards?
"It's good and bad," he said. "It's good for strength, but I cramp up one time every year. It usually happens during training camp, and it's a big one. So the training staff has been working with me to prevent that."
Early in camp, Fangupo used his "hump move" to take rookie center Joe Madsen for a ride. "Reggie White," Fangupo said with a smile. But I continued and asked him why his Reggie White-like hump move didn't work on John Malecki.
"I couldn't do it with him. I can't do anything with him," Fangupo said. "He's not that aggressive. He just sits back there and swats my hands away. He's frustrating to go against."
Malecki, by the way, remains undefeated in one-on-one drills and has become a lock to make the team as a back-up center/guard.
... Ta'amu and the battle for the back-up NT spot, it's going to be difficult to cut either one of the second-year players. Ta'amu is younger and probably in better shape. Fangupo is 28 but stronger. Ta'amu used to be as sunny and cheerful as Fangupo, but my guess is the serious side has come out in Ta'amu since he quit drinking alcohol. You know -- and here goes my soapbox rant -- when people get into trouble, and that trouble started with alcohol, they are wasting their time in seeking solutions with anger management, or counseling, or by getting married, or any of that stuff. Just quit drinking. Yes, it will change your personality. Yes, it will make you the party pooper. Yes, it will make you sour and negative ... for awhile. It takes time to find new friends, or even a new spouse, but it's necessary in the long run.
UNLESS YOU'RE MOODY
Yes, maybe the just-cut Curtis "Moody" McNeal, that "mean little sawed-off sucker," as Tomlin called him after one tough block, might want to relax a bit with a wet concoction or three this weekend.
* With four injured cornerbacks missing practice Wednesday, and three new cornerbacks who barely know the playbook, rookie safety Shamarko Thomas was the second-team nickel corner. And I wouldn't presume myself smart enough to know if he handled his assignments properly or not. Nothing obvious stood out either way.
* I was told that Thomas, during an interview last week, repeatedly referred to Coach Dick LeBeau as "Coach Lambeau."
* Not that I want to be the stick in the mud about Jarvis Jones, but, wow, reporters here sure want him to call him a superstar at the slightest provocation. Jones ended yesterday's practice by sliding into the flat to knock away a J.P. Wilson pass, and, on the next and final snap, dropping into zone coverage and doing nothing more than getting hit in the shoulder by a Wilson pass that didn't appear to be intended for anyone but the first-round pick.
Remember in the spring when we reported here -- with corroboration from Larry Foote -- that Jones is surprisingly deft in coverage? Well, there's nothing new going on. The young outside linebacker does so many little things that will help the Steelers win, and that has come as a surprise to me. But, he's been blocked rather easily to this point. He's good, but don't expect to see L.T. in the opener.
* A scout told me Mike Adams has indeed made progress in the way he uses his hands to pass block. I'm sure Adams will struggle at times this season, and fans will curse him and call him a bum from time to time. But from this layman's perspective, Adams has the look of a classic cornerstone to this offensive line for the next 10-12 years, with several Pro Bowls sprinkled in.
* Please don't take the fact that I've ignored Antonio Brown to mean he's not doing anything up here. He's been the Antonio Brown we've all enjoyed watching the last few seasons. Yesterday Brown bolted past Ike Taylor to catch a perfectly thrown bomb from Roethlisberger. Brown makes so many big plays that it's becoming easy to take him for granted.
* But I will say this about Brown: He's still irascible. He came back to the huddle with OC Todd Haley yelling at him to learn something the right way. Brown kept walking past Haley as Markus Wheaton and Emmanuel Sanders buried their heads with Haley over one of the playsheets. Haley turned and yelled again at Brown, "Fine. Don't learn how to do this!" Brown was standing next to Tomlin, who said something in Brown's ear. A couple of seconds later, Brown was in that huddle with Haley and the others.
* Undrafted rookie WR J.D. Woods -- who took a backseat at WVU to Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin -- broke through the other day with a pair of touchdown catches from the backup quarterbacks during red-zone drills. Woods is one of the kickoff return men working with Danny Smith, and has a beautiful running stride that makes me want to see more of him.
* Just-signed TE John Rabe may not be able to push the sled but he can catch a little bit. And one time he found himself with the ball all alone in the middle of the field after the safeties had come up hard for the fake handoff. Rabe looked around and seemed surprised. So he just started running, Forrest, and was eventually caught from behind at the 10-yard line by Damon Cromartie-Smith.
* Undrafted rookie DE Cordian Hagans seemed to have made a breakthrough of sorts with his practice performance on Sunday. Mitchell even agreed, saying "the light went on" for Hagans. But he was cut yesterday. Makes me not want to comment on the apparent improvement being made by undrafted rookie OG Chris Hubbard. So I'll just leave it at that.
* Before ending practice with the pair of passes that were broken up by Jones, QB Wilson -- another favorite of reporters up here -- was intercepted by Cromartie-Smith and, on one forgettable rep, faked a jump pass, rolled right, and dropped the ball. Landry Jones, you're back in play.
* Isaac Redman is showing that he, too, can run these zone plays. He put his foot in the ground and cut up for a couple of big gains yesterday.
MONDAY, AUGUST 5
Sometimes the shortest quotes are the best.
I was reminded of this last night at dinner when I became embroiled in a food fight with Craig Wolfley.
Not the throwing kind, the talking kind. I had disagreed with Wolf about the ribs that he found so satisfying, and the argument was underway.
"The meat was so tough," I told him. "There was so much fat that I couldn't chew it. It was like chewing rubber."
Wolf paused before coming back with this irrefutable retort:
It reminded me of an earlier conversation that day with Chris Hoke, who seems to be the perfect guy to learn the coaching craft and get in line to succeed John Mitchell one day.
We were talking about Cameron Heyward, who's in great shape and is jumping into lines, helping Hoke drag sleds around, and generally acting like an undrafted rookie in desperation mode. Only Heyward can play. So I asked Hoke if and when Heyward would get the opportunity to battle Ziggy Hood for the left defensive end spot.
"I don't know if that's going to happen," Hoke said. "Of course it's up to Coach Mitch, and Keis and Zig are playing good ball, too, but I can see all three of them getting the same amount of snaps this season."
He was suggesting that Mitchell may set up a rotation this season, but I told Hoke that Mitch says that every year and it never comes to pass.
Hoke just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Cam's ready."
It wasn't "So," but it was nearly as brilliant.
OK, let's get back to our ongoing investigation of the tip that undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn will return the first kickoff and punt of the preseason, a contract stipulation used to get him to sign with the Steelers after the draft.
In seeking confirmation, I asked Dunn, who said basically, "I don't know. Maybe my agent does."
OK, we know this so far. But yesterday I sought out special teams coach Danny Smith, who earlier in practice had used Dunn first, J.D. Woods second and Markus Wheaton third in the kickoff return period.
I asked Smith if Dunn's contract mandates that he be the first returner used Saturday night at Heinz Field in the preseason opener against the New York Giants.
"Nooooooo," Smith said. "You know the Steelers don't operate that way."
Smith said he and Tomlin had not yet sat down to decide who in fact would return the first kicks, and that it might turn out to be Dunn, particularly if LaRod Stephens-Howling continues to miss practice with whatever injury had caused him to miss practice Sunday.
It sounded so un-Steelers-like to me when I first heard the factoid, but it came from such a good source that I can't let it go. I still wouldn't be surprised if Tomlin instructs Smith to use the little guy with the 4.2 speed first, and never tells him why.
1. Isaiah Green has speed and soft hands, and received plenty of reps Sunday because four other cornerbacks (Nos. 2, 4, 5, 7) were out, but Green squandered a floating-duck opportunity because his ball awareness was lacking.
2. Marshall McFadden works as the No. 2 mack backer but it was Stevenson Sylvester filling in for Lawrence Timmons on Saturday, and undrafted (and May-signed) rookie Terence Garvin filling in for Timmons on Sunday. McFadden, though, filled in for Larry Foote and called signals as the buck backer on Sunday. That in itself is another positive sign for McFadden.
3. Vince Williams, the rookie sixth-rounder out of Florida State, jumped from fourth-team to second-team buck backer on Sunday. He's supposed to be a run-stopper only but in the backers-on-backs drill earlier that day he covered fullback Will Johnson down the field and broke up a touchdown pass.
4. Will Johnson continues to be one of the team's stars this camp as a pass-catcher, but couldn't find any room in two scrimmage carries as a tailback.
5. Jonathan Dwyer, in backers-on-backs, made a spectacular one-handed catch over Williams in the corner of the end zone. Not sure if he needed that play to do it, but Dwyer is a lock to make this team. Baron Batch needs to cover kicks like he's the second coming of Chidi Iwuoma to make it as the sixth RB.
6. Le'Veon Bell had never missed a practice, all the way back to midget ball, he said last spring, because of an injury. Well, he's missed two practices after being "dinged" on the knee Friday night. I didn't see the hit, but don't suppose it's serious, considering Tomlin's excitement about the running backs receiving all of this work against live tackling. That's what turns up the tempo and that's the only way the backs, according to the coach, can learn to run the zone plays. And Bell is the one true zone runner of the bunch.
7. Kion Wilson shot a gap during one scrimmage period and brought down Dwyer in the backfield. Wilson must've done it the proper way, because Jerry Olsavsky enthusiastically patted him on the helmet. Wilson's a beast. I just hadn't noticed any love from the coaches until then.
8. Ben Roethlisberger was red-hot again Sunday. He completed all four of his passes against the first defense in one scrimmage, and in the "backed up" period he hit Jerricho Cotchery with a 10-yard sideline pass before scrambling through the middle of the field and to the sideline to show off the mobility he's always had. He didn't even have a wrap on the troublesome right knee, and practiced till the end when he threw 3 touchdown passes during red-zone work. David Paulson, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders scored the touchdowns as Ben completed all 6 of his passes.
Backup left tackle Kelvin Beachum was overwhelmed physically in the one-on-one session by Heyward, who bull-rushed the smaller Beachum backwards way too easily. Brett Keisel did the same on the next rep and Beachum wound up tripping over the guard with whom he was working in tandem. Beachum got up limping but was OK.
On the other side of the line, Ziggy Hood whipped Guy Whimper handily and gloated a bit. This caused Whimper to curse Hood as the two stared each other down. "Abdullah," as Whimper has been nicknamed, rebounded to hold his ground on the next rep, after which the two did a lot of talking and appeared as if they would go at it. I have pretty good feeling who would win, and it isn't "Abdullah."
During rookie minicamp I was told to keep an eye on undrafted rookie Cordian Hagans, the defensive end out of Louisiana-Lafayette. But up until this point, Hagans had only caught my eye when Nik Embernate tried to block him and blew out his knee. But Hagans moved up to second-team RDE with Keisel out, and played well. Active and angry.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 3
On Thursday my 13-year-old daughter visited camp, and like the rest of the fans she stood on the sideline next to the main practice field. She also – and probably like the rest – wanted to know why she couldn't walk over to the other field and watch the defense and Troy Polamalu work through their individual drills.
The public's not allowed over there, so the defense works daily in its solitude while Ben Roethlisberger, the flashy receivers, new rookie runner Le'Veon Bell, the young-and-emerging offensive line, and the punt returners work in front of the fans. All of that high-powered offensive work really does placate those in attendance.
Polamalu, meanwhile, is part of that quiet and hard-working defense, and he just might be the quietest of them all. But his veteran savvy is allowing him to be even quieter than normal.
I don't know if Polamalu is pitching a shutout here with the media, but he's practically been a ghost since the first couple of days required him to give a brief interview or two just to say hello. Beyond that, his status and experience allow him to skip the cafeteria – our favorite waiting place – and Troy routinely takes the carts out the back end of the practice field where the media's not allowed. He sometimes will begin signing autographs for fans, and cunningly outlasts the media who eventually must eat and sleep.
Polamalu has honed his media-ducking craft for 11 years now, and this year he seems to have it down perfectly.
And with good reason: He's in eye-popping shape.
Troy has told me in the past that he doesn't like to begin working out too early in the calendar year. He said he did it once, very early in his career, and found himself physically exhausted by mid-season. And last year, after he had let his weight go in the spring, he said his body's natural inclination to shed weight over the summer would get him into shape by the start of the season.
That plan didn't materialize, though, as he struggled through another injury-plagued season.
But this year Troy apparently has realized his mortality. The 32-year-old began working out with Marv Marinovich early, and Troy also enlisted the services of a physical therapist to work solely on the issues in his low calf/Achilles/heel area that have dogged him through two seasons now. We know this because on the first day of OTAs, Troy stood on the practice field and answered every single one of our questions.
And then – poof – he was gone.
All quiet since.
If you've ever heard the philosophers talk about how the act of donating money anonymously will provide one with an uncommon inner strength, but only if one keeps the donation truly anonymous, you might have some insight into what Polamalu seems to be doing at this camp. He's in the shape of his life, feeling good, looking good, but he certainly doesn't want to crow about it. And conversely he doesn't want to lie to us. So, he avoids us.
But he couldn't avoid the glare of the "Friday Night Lights," as the player in Polamalu emerged last night.
While he has refused to throw his body around like a young Robert Golden in an attempt to impress a coaching staff that Troy doesn't need to impress in this new live tackling world, Polamalu appeared out of nowhere at the goal line to break up the last pass attempt by Roethlisberger in the two-minute drill.
I can't say that it was the classic Polamalu burst, because I don't think I've ever actually witnessed the classic Polamalu burst, at least live. That's what has made him such a headache for quarterbacks: They don't see him coming.
Polamalu didn't intercept this pass. He should have. And he probably would've gone 100 with it. But then he would've had to answer questions about his skill, his shape, his bid for Comeback Player of the Year.
There'll be none of that here. Too much is at stake this season for the great Troy Polamalu.
SPEAKING OF ...
... the punt-return show, it fizzled last night after Emmanuel Sanders dropped his fourth ball. He was shooting for holding seven balls at a time, said he had a strategy of tucking one ball under his shirt. I asked him if that was against the rules and he said "What are the rules?"
Right. There are no rules. So at least I was excited. But after the drop, Maurkice Pouncey came over to play for the crowd and catch one or two punts, but he unknowingly cut off Antonio Brown, who was quietly psyched to break Santana Moss' record of 7 balls in hand off the JUGS gun. Moss, of course, played for the Steelers' new special-teams coach Danny Smith at Washington.
... Golden, the backup free safety once again made his presence felt in the all-tackling run scrimmage. The converted cornerback, known as "Little Dawk" to Mike Tomlin, came up to blast Curtis "Moody" McNeal in a helmet-to-helmet shot that was no doubt heard across campus. Golden later broke up Bruce Gradkowski's pass to TE Peter Tuitupou during the second-team two-minute drill.
Golden isn't shy by any means. He has great confidence that he'll be able to play in this league as a free safety. And the fact he wasn't drafted last year rolled off his back easily because of his quiet and un-resentful confidence and optimism. When I talk to him, I get the feeling he has the perfect mentality for Tomlin, and for this league.
... the all-tackling run scrimmage, I admire Tomlin's guts on this one. And "guts" was my second choice to define his courage here.
GM Kevin Colbert told Steelers.com radio that he's been with three teams – Don Shula's Dolphins, the Detroit Lions, Bill Cowher's Steelers – and he's never seen live tackling in scrimmage, only in goal-line drills.
So when I watch this meat-grinder unfold before me, I worry about injuries, and I wonder whether Tomlin is keeping it out-of-mind, out-of-sight, or whether he worries about injuries himself. Surely he'll never admit to having that worry, but if the Steelers survive this new practice tactic they'll certainly rank as one of the most physical teams in a league that's last CBA is making it a less physical one.
IKE TAYLOR SEZ
Veteran cornerback Ike Taylor can be a savant when he wants to be. Like back in 2009 when I asked him what he thought of the new rookie receiver, Mike Wallace, and Taylor said that Wallace is the fastest receiver he's ever covered.
But Ike has to be in the right mood, and I think he was the other day when I asked him what he's seeing in this year's team. This was his response:
"Just the young guys, especially in the secondary, willing to learn, wanting to get better. Veteran guys also wanting to get better and doing the same thing. The team overall and in general. This is like a different kind of spirit. When you go 8-8 ain't nobody safe. Everybody has a different demeanor. Everybody hungry. Nobody taking nothing for granted. So that's a good thing."
Doesn't this seem like a better team than last year's?
"Me and J-Co were talking, like overall we've got a good mix, but we've got some good young guys who have the potential – potential, that's a key word – to be as great as they want to be. But we've got a good mix."
Any young guys on offense you like?
"Look at Bell. You see what Bell been doing. He the real deal. I think so. I like him in practice. For him, it's being consistent and staying humble. He do that, there ain't no telling. We've already got Red, Dwyer. We know what them boys can do. But he has the size of both of them, got feet like Jerome, and he got power like Red and Dwyer. Every time he runs, and somebody gets some kind of contact on him, he's still falling forward. With his agility, that's a good mix."
Is Markus Wheaton showing you anything?
"Yeah yeah. He smooth. He real smooth. Very deceptive, very smooth (pause) very smooth. Good route runner. You can tell he did all four years in college."
I really should look into this, because I can't help but wonder why Oregon State couldn't use Wheaton as a kick returner more often during his four years there.
During scrimmage last night, Wheaton took a short pass over the middle and made several subtle-yet-decisive cuts across the field for a sizable gain. On the next snap, Wheaton ran a reverse and it was nothing like the straight-line reverses Wallace has shown us so often. No, Wheaton cut up so subtly that it didn't look like he was cutting at all until you realized he had advanced up the field.
On top of his running skills, Wheaton has good enough hands to catch the kick – punt or kickoff – and clearly has the toughness required of the job.
Yeah, if I were a real journalist I'd make a call and find out why Markus Wheaton has so little experience as a return man. Instead I'll just let him get his chance this preseason and see whether Oregon State knew what it was doing or not.
* Every reporter up here – busy bees or the aforementioned lazy type – has watched Bell work his way up the ladder and make a case for the starting job on opening day. Well, the rookie took another step last night with his performance in the backs-on-backers drill.
Not that Bell rocked anybody, or stood up Lawrence Timmons or anything that obvious. But Bell made the decision-makers happy with his improved technique and hand usage as a pass-protector. Bell's doing what the coaches want him to do, and the pay off should be the starting job.
* Also worth mentioning in this space is Vince Williams' running partner at fourth-team inside linebacker, Terence Garvin, the lanky undrafted rookie mack backer from WVU. Last night, Garvin twice bested the beast, Isaac Redman, in backs-on-backers, prompting Tomlin to encourage Garvin with "Varsity player today. Varsity player."
* I must also mention here that no one receives more encouragement from his teammates during one-on-one drills than Joe Long. And he deserves credit for the solid job he's doing as a second-team tackle. But people are genuinely rooting for Joe because he's such a good dude.
Tomlin had another good line a few snaps later, after Larry Foote beat Bell in the same blitz pick-up drill.
"Your problem is you went to Michigan State," Tomlin said to Bell. "Foote doesn't like you."
Bell got up to best the Michigan-educated Foote on the next rep.
Dinner was held following the workout, and of course I indulged in the main course, but with a record-tying two desserts. I mean, that's a lot of work standing on the sideline and jotting down notes. But anyway, as I waddled my way to the door, it opened suddenly. Standing there at my service with a smile on his face, and a wrap on his knee, was the great Heath Miller.
After I thanked him – an injured superstar holding the door open for a waddling sportswriter with a gob of cheesecake still on his chin -- Heath smiled and said, "Hey, I'm not doing much else around here."
THURSDAY, AUGUST 1
More of a practice report today, I'll start with the end of practice, when Bruce Gradkowski dropped back and heaved a picture-perfect strike some 50 yards downfield to a wide-open Plaxico Burress for a touchdown.
It was the best pass I've seen from Gradkowski and it offered hope to an area of depth that had been a concern of mine coming out of the spring.
I had also been concerned about Burress, because he looked about shot in the spring.
But I've liked what I've seen so far from Burress this camp, so I wondered if his running past cornerback Isaiah Green and safety Shamarko Thomas on that play was a sign that Burress' summer work was paying off. I asked Mike Tomlin for his thoughts in the final media question following practice.
"I don't know yet," Tomlin said. "Obviously it was play-action, and it could've been what the defense didn't do opposed to what (Burress) did. I'll let the tape tell that story."
Sigh. Look at the tape. Well, coaches can't really make immediate judgments about their players in front of so many live microphones. It's about right.
But Tomlin turned back to me, after all of the machines were turned off and the media mob was in the act of dispersing, and asked "You OK, Jim?"
I told him I was just curious for his thoughts on Burress' legs, and Tomlin said this:
"Shamarko bought it. He was in the backfield. I would've got behind him. So, really, to answer your question about Plax I would have to look at the tape."
And he will. But it was a good sign, not only from Plax but from Gradkowski as well.
PUNT RETURN SHOW
Danny Smith added some one-ball juggling for the return men at the top of Wednesday's practice. Justin Brown, again, proved adept, as did Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton. On the other hand, Reggie Dunn and particularly Antonio Brown didn't do so well at throwing up a ball, catching the punt, and then catching the ball they had thrown up.
But then came the feature presentation, and Sanders set the new record by catching a sixth ball while holding five others.
Sanders deftly settled under the towering JUGS "punt" and then slipped the fifth ball between his legs while holding the other four in his left arm. He crouched low with all of the balls in possession and caught the sixth ball before falling to the ground with each ball intact.
The crowd, which began the session applauding the act of catching a mere second ball, went wild upon Sanders' sixth catch.
Willie Parker said he hated this monstrous, wicked, hanging hag of a bag when he trained here, but all of the camp-coach's players are doing well with it this year, even 5-foot-7 rookie Curtis "Moody" McNeal.
"Don't run under it, Moody," Tomlin joked as the coaches began swinging the monstrosity back and forth.
And to his credit, McNeal didn't try to run past Bertha, as LaRod Stephens-Howling had. No, McNeal met Bertha head-on, as if he was Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Le'Veon Bell or Will Johnson. And "Moody" lived to smack Bertha another day.
TEs ON OLBs
In this drill, the tight end and OLB do battle in close quarters as the running back takes a wide pitch and cuts either way off the block. Two sets of matchups were noteworthy:
* Undrafted rookie OLB Alan Baxter, who's making life miserable for RT Mike Golic during scrimmages and one-on-ones, was far too quick for just-signed TE John Rabe. In fact, it might lead to overzealousness about Baxter from the media today, but the kid from Northern Illinois – about whom I'd reported the Steelers liked last May – is showing strength and quickness. But let's move him up in matchup class.
* Jarvis Jones was controlled three times by Jamie McCoy, the 3-year practice-squadder. But fans shouldn't be dismayed about the first-round pick, or any such subsequent reports about him. Jones is taking the learning process slowly, step-by-step, taking in all of what the coaches are saying and attempting to assimilate it immediately on the practice field. Anyone who's read "The Talent Code" understands that slow, deliberate and mistake-filled practice pays off in a big way in the end. To quote the book: "Try again; fail again; fail better."
1. Ryan Clark came up quickly to stuff the hole but was trucked by Bell. Clark held on to make the tackle and got up laughing in admiration.
2. On the next play, Bell gained a few yards through a narrow hole and then cut back across the field for a huge gain. Is he first-team yet?
3. Brian Arnfelt, the undrafted rookie DE from Northwestern, extended his arms off the snap as if he were Aaron Smith or something and stood Mike Adams straight up and drove him back. The man next to Arnfelt, Adrian Robinson, was free to blow into the backfield and take down the back for a 5-yard loss.
4. Wheaton made a great catch to end the day. He curled in, went up for a high pass from Landry Jones, took a vicious hit from William Gay, and held on as he crashed to the ground.
SPEAKING OF ...
... Adams, aside from the aforementioned play, the big right tackle is looking great. In one-on-one drills, he drove LaMarr Woodley into the ground twice on Monday and yesterday pancaked Ziggy Hood.
... Dunn, I asked him about the nugget of info I had received the other day, that his contract stipulated he'll return the first punt and kickoff of the preseason.
"I don't know," Dunn said.
Isn't it in your contract?
"I don't know."
I hear that's why you signed here.
"I don't know. I'm just trying to work hard and when I get my opportunity I want to make my opportunity count, whether I'm the first guy or the last guy to try to do this."
You don't know? Or you don't want to talk about it?
"I don't know. My agent might know. I was a free agent. Obviously the team told me I would get a shot to do it, but I don't remember if I was told I'd be the first guy to be able to do it. I know I'm going to get a shot. And when I get my chance I'm going to try to make it count."
Dunn was identifiable by the "Compton" baseball hat he wore. That's his hometown, although I only read the word from afar. Perhaps he was instead paying tribute to the Pirates' winning pitcher from the previous night, "Cumpton."
* NT Loni Fangupo is drawing raves for his strength and attitude, and of course the Sequoia trees he has for calves, but the coaches want to see more in terms of conditioning.
* OT Joe Long had a strong one-on-one session in beating Jason Worilds on back-to-back reps. Tomlin called for a third rep and Worilds' spin move helped the starting OLB re-gain his dignity.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 31
The best tweet I've read recently came from my editor at Steelers Digest, Bob Labriola, and it went like this:
"Marshall McFadden is somebody to watch. Looks like James Harrison, hits like Harrison, nasty like Harrison."
Oh, no, I'm not incredulous. I'm jealous. I'm jealous that I didn't tap out the first praises of McFadden after he blew up running back Baron Batch in their first rep of the backs-on-backers drill at Monday's practice.
McFadden is the inside linebacker who led the Steelers in preseason tackles last season, and I have him ranked No. 2 on my pre-camp sleepers list. And when he lowered the boom on Batch – who two years ago grabbed the attention of the coaching staff as a seventh-round rookie in this very drill – the sound of the collision was every bit as frightening as the beast itself, because McFadden stood glaring at Batch – just as Harrison might – while Batch scrambled back up and foolishly sought out a fight.
The fight, of course, never came off. And after the backs and backers rotated through, McFadden and Batch came to the proverbial plate once again. This time Batch lunged at McFadden, who gave him the "dead leg" and easily slipped past Batch to belt an imaginary quarterback.
McFadden is currently the second-team mack linebacker behind Lawrence Timmons. With his quietly violent performance on the big media stage Monday, he's no longer a camp nobody. And with Labriola's pronouncement, McFadden might even be on a pedestal of sorts.
SPEAKING OF ...
... Twitter, I'm learning that the big insult for the kids is "you're old – hahahahaha." Hey, go for it, kids, but I truly am proud of the years I'm putting behind me because of what I've seen. I thought of this when I approached Bill Nunn the other day.
Nunn, of course, basically scouted the team that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He's 87 years old and was 22 when Jackie Robinson came up with the Dodgers. Robinson was close with Nunn's Pittsburgh Courier and, having just watched Legendary Pictures' outstanding "42", I asked Nunn about Robinson.
"Of course I came along to the Courier a little later, but after he retired we did this column called ‘Jackie Robinson Says,'" said Nunn. "Now, he was a smart guy and so he didn't really say all that much, but he was also competitive, and that led him to become angry every once in a while. So one time he got mad about something or another and we sat down to do this column, and he told me – "
"Hello, Mr. Nunn. My name's so-and-so and these are my three boys. Say hi to Mr. Nunn. He scouted Mel Blount and L.C. and Dwight White and ..."
And so my time with the legend was up, as I looked at the large group of Steelers-related dignitaries standing around waiting for their time with Nunn.
I hope to get him back to finishing that story someday soon. Or any story from him.
... my pre-camp sleepers list, if you view it as a stock market you could say Nos. 2 and 3 – McFadden and John Malecki – have moved past my No. 1, Justin Cheadle. Malecki has really looked solid, confident, comfortable not only during scrimmages but also in the first full-contact one-on-one session between the O and D lines. Malecki's also been used as a reserve center and Cheadle hasn't.
... Cheadle, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted, 285-pound rookie following the 2012 draft, and current Steelers OL coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was his position coach with the Chiefs until cutting Cheadle in late August. But Bicknell liked him, liked his mobility and intelligence, just not his size. But a year later, Cheadle's listed at 6-3, 305 by the Steelers. He appears to be their No. 4 guard behind Malecki right now, and still very impressive on the move.
… a flood of notes (which I really hadn't brought up until his point), I have them in my notepad, crying out to be published. But my keyboard/cursor is giving me the same problems it gave me yesterday morning, so I'm going to post what I have and clean this thing up. Be back ASAP. (OK, I'm back)
* There's a quote in Mike Prisuta's latest column from Dick LeBeau, in which LeBeau says of Jarvis Jones, "I've already seen some of the things I've seen on tape as college player."
It reminded me that in reporting Jones' highlights from the first full-contact practice, I'd left out the best one, the play in which he displayed his signature rush move in college.
Those who've watched any of Jones' college tape have seen him slide left down the line to the open middle, then cut right and burst to the quarterback. He did that Monday and would've easily had a sack of Bruce Gradkowski, but belting the QB is frowned upon in this establishment.
* With the outside zone plays working well, Ben Roethlisberger faked a handoff right to Le'Veon Bell, as the line slid right. Roethlisberger rolled back to his left and would've been crushed by the blindside rusher on the loose but Maurkice Pouncey peeled back, afforded the protection, and Roethlisberger completed a pass for a chunk gain. Nice sync so early in the process.
* Danny Smith's punt-catching drill might be the best crowd-pleaser of them all. On Monday, both Justin Brown and Emmanuel Sanders caught five "punts" out of the JUGS gun before dropping a sixth (while holding the other five balls). The key to catching the sixth – which no one has yet – is to keep four balls in one arm and hold the fifth in the right hand as the sixth comes hurtling down. Once the return man moves his legs to get under the sixth ball, he can put that fifth ball in his right hand between his legs. I expected Sanders and Antonio Brown to do well, but Justin Brown has been the surprise. And the crowd loves the drama.
* Speaking of the return game – and breaking a little news while I'm at it – Reggie Dunn, in a later special-teams period, set the middle of the field on fire while taking a pair of kicks back to the end zone. It might've been the best speed I've ever witnessed here by a return man. I mentioned that Dunn might not help at all as a receiver, but that he only needs a chance in the return game this preseason. I found out later that Dunn's guaranteed to return the first punt and first kickoff of the preseason, that it's in his contract and that's why he signed it. I'll look for confirmation today.
* One of the standouts – particularly for his size – during the backs-on-backers drills was USC mighty mite RB Curtis McNeil. The 5-7, 191-pound undrafted rookie is nicknamed "Moody," as in "Yeah, Moody's a mean little sawed-off sucker," from Mike Tomlin, or "Why is Moody up there again?" from everyone.
It's because that whenever someone hesitates to step to the plate for backs-on-backers, McNeal immediately steps up to take the rep – exactly what you want to see from a rookie.
But why the nickname "Moody"?
"Because he's, well, moody," said a source. "Have you ever talked to him?"
I admitted that I only talked to McNeal one time. I asked him for his cell number to do a summer interview, and he said this:
"Yup. That's Moody," said the source. "And if you would've asked him the next day he would've said ‘Yes.'"
I had never been turned down for an interview by an undrafted rookie during spring ball, but I strangely respected him for it. So, I gotta say, Go Moody!
* I've explained Jarvis Jones' strong hands, coverage skills and plus instincts in Monday's report, but I still can't get over the lack of sound he makes during backs-on-backers contact. It has me a tad concerned, but I like everything else about him.
* David Paulson was the one rookie for whom I felt sorry during last year's backs-on-backers drill at Latrobe Memorial Stadium. Lawrence Timmons just abused the poor kid. Well, Paulson got trucked again Monday by Jason Worilds. And it was the same kind of thing: loud collision with Paulson rubbing cleat marks from his belly upon standing back up. But Paulson came back the next rep and stoned Brian Rolle. It again showed that Paulson is a determined and perseverant one.
* After Adrian Robinson easily ran past Matt Spaeth, Tomlin moved Spaeth up to the line to block LaMarr Woodley for the next rep. And Woodley promptly ran past Spaeth.
* Plaxico Burress is showing that he has more life in his legs than he did this past spring. He had explained to me how hard he had worked this summer, and it's showing with his sharp cuts on these fields. But late Monday he forgot to get his feet off the ground for a high pass from Roethlisberger. It kind of reminded me of a girls basketball game, because girls need to constantly be reminded to jump. Burress was probably just tired.
* In line one-on-ones, Marcus Gilbert went 2-0-1 against Jones while Mike Adams rode Woodley into the ground on back-to-back reps.
* But the highlight of one-on-ones may have been NT Loni Fangupo. I swear this guy's calves are thicker than my chest, and I also wonder if he realizes just how strong he is. After whipping undrafted rookie center Joe Madsen on the first rep, Fangupo bent Madsen over his hip and nearly flipped the 310-pounder with one arm. The cry of "Have a little dignity, Joe," went up before Madsen did a better job with Fangupo on the third rep.
* On the final line reps, Guy Whimper stopped Jones, Mike Farrell flashed some nifty footwork in stopping Cam Heyward, and centers Kelvin Beachum and Malecki handled Al Woods.
* The main note that stood out to me in the third and final team scrimmage was how Ramon Foster easily and quickly pulled to his right to lead Bell through a gaping hole in their signature power play.
THE BELL COW
It might just be a matter of minutes before Bell is named the starting running back, or they could make him wait until opening week after undergoing the thorough humility process.
Isaac Redman is clearly the man of the group, the unquestioned leader, the guy Kirby Wilson uses to show the group how anything's done. But Bell is the unquestioned playmaker.
As for Jonathan Dwyer, who gained 20 pounds from the first day of OTAs until the last this past spring, I don't believe the staff is going to fall for this most recent weight loss. It's become a pattern: report in decent shape, draw raves, and let yourself go. The team may be tired of the entire act.
I was going to use Malecki in this spot, but since I've already written about him at length this morning I'm going with undrafted rookie outside linebacker Alan Baxter. He's short but strong, and apparently fast because twice I noticed him bringing heat off the edge during scrimmages.
In drills, Baxter beat Bell in his first backs-on-backers rep, and then won his second and final rep, this one against Moody.
Baxter plays opposite Worilds on the third-team defense in team scrimmages and twice beat his man off the edge. Not that he's worth a headline at this point, but Baxter's worth keeping an eye on as a potential practice-squad player.
MONDAY, JULY 29
In the thousands of stories that seem to come out daily about the Steelers here in Latrobe, you've probably noticed that nothing has changed since the spring. It's been two days of football in shorts and two days of the same players playing the same positions at the same spots in the depth chart. But to refresh your memories about the newcomers, here's a specific look at the rookie class:
* Jarvis Jones – Playing third-team ROLB but he receives some first-team reps when the Steelers use their mixer, walk-around alignment that's normally used on third downs. Jones often comes from the inside in this alignment, just as the guy to whom the Steelers compared him before the draft, Chad Brown, did as a rookie.
* Le'Veon Bell – No defined role as of yet, and at this position the rotation just doesn't correlate with any particular "string." But when you see this beast catch a screen pass in the middle of the field, with David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey clearing out space downfield, you get a little excited. And when you get excited, trust that the coaches are, too.
* Markus Wheaton – Again, receivers rotate in and out so often and with so many different packages that it's not worthwhile to tag second- or third-team labels. Wheaton isn't one of the top three, but, as with Bell, his playmaking ability becomes more obvious with each passing day. I want to compare Wheaton to Louis Lipps, with his sharp cutting ability, but Wheaton seems a bit more physical.
* Shamarko Thomas – Still the third-team strong safety, but because he's an ideal kick-coverage head-hunter, his stock will rise quickly because he's just about a lock to be active on game days.
* Landry Jones – It appears that his arm is stronger than it was this past spring, but I'm not going to ask again if it was sore. He seemed to take offense with me the last time, even though he had to back up a step or two in order to raise his fully taped (mummified) right arm to shake my hand after one spring practice. Probably a lock as the third-teamer ahead of strong-armed but erratic John Parker Wilson.
* Terry Hawthorne – Has a lot of catching up to do after missing most of the spring with a knee injury. When the coaches want to sprinkle in some reps for him at cornerback, they throw him out there with the third defense, but that's probably as high as he can ascend this year. Will have to make the active roster as a gunner.
* Justin Brown – Just another receiver way down the depth chart but he showed he could catch punts during a little drill new assistant Danny Smith has instituted. The return man catches a "punt" out of a JUGS gun and holds the ball as another "punt" comes hurtling down. He holds that ball, too, as the drill continues until the return man drops one. Brown held four before dropping a fifth, which I thought he was going to catch because of his deftness and confidence.
* Vince Williams – Still the fourth-team buck linebacker, but the important word there is "buck." When Williams enters the field, he's usually playing with several first-teamers who've rotated back through. Williams' calls are clearly audible as the Steelers are force-feeding him the most difficult position, mentally, on their defense. He's still overrunning plays, but sins of aggression by late-round rookies are often viewed as a good thing.
* Nick Williams – The seventh-round pick is clearly being groomed slowly as the third-team RDE. He wasn't receiving any positive reviews in the spring, so I really haven't watched him much this camp. He's an Adonis, body-wise, who's struggling at a position where rookies always struggle.
* Nik Embernate – I'm only going to mention a few of the undrafted guys right now. Embernate was the highest-paid free agent and has been toiling at third-team RG every practice since joining the team. But, an indication of what the coaches have in mind for him might be gleaned from the just-released depth chart that actually lists Embernate as the second-team RG.
* Brian Arnfelt – He's taken every rep since OTA No. 1 as the second-team LDE. In fact, aside from top pick Jones receiving a sprinkling of first-team reps, and undrafted guard Chris Hubbard receiving similar treatment with the second team, Arnfelt is the only rookie playing with the second team. I'll have more on off-day Tuesday, but the depth chart shows Al Woods listed as the second-team LDE and Loni Fangupo as the second-team NT, with Arnfelt on the third team. Arnfelt can chase the ball. Whether he can hold his ground physically will be determined when the pads come on, starting today.
* Reggie Dunn – The short but speedy wide receiver has dropped a few easy passes, yet was another punt returner who just about caught that fifth punt. With four balls in hand, Dunn tried to put one between his legs as No. 5 hurtled toward him. The strategy didn't work, but he showed deftness nonetheless. We already know he has 4.2+ speed.
SPEAKING OF ...
... the aforementioned depth chart, here's the link from Burt Lauten's twitter account.
... Jones, he's added five pounds to get up to 250. I asked him if he felt he needed the extra weight to improve his chances in the run game.
"The run game?" he said slowly and thoughtfully. "No, I just wanted to be in the best shape possible. The run game's all about leverage. I'll be ready for it."
And I'll be watching.
Jones, by the way, was wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt Sunday that had an image of the reggae star in his famed dreadlocks, which pretty much matched Jones' dreads. Jones is just one of six new players (Wheaton, Thomas, Hawthorne, Williams and Will Gay) with long, flowing dreads, making it the team's most favored hairstyle. Jones said he's been growing his hair that way since his senior year in high school, when he tired of all the work needed to maintain his long braids.
Anyway, Jones said Marley and Tupac have always been his favorite musicians. I don't know much about Tupac, but Jones strikes me as a laid-back, easygoing Marley type.
... Fangupo, I asked one of the personnel men if he ever saw another second-year player with graying hair. He laughed and agreed that 28-year-old second-year players are a rarity. In fact, Fangupo was being recruited by USC only a year after Troy Polamalu left.
Sylvester, of course, is entering his fourth season with the Steelers.
But back to Fangupo, the personnel man said the coaching staff likes both he and Alameda Ta'amu, the nose tackles, and that Woods is working as the No. 2 NT only because he needs game-day versatility. He also pointed out that DL coach John Mitchell wants to keep both Fangupo and Ta'amu hungry and scratching and clawing for a job.
I can't help but have fun with Heath Miller whenever I see another reporter – or in his case a mob of reporters – trying to get "the real scoop" on when Miller will be completely rehabilitated from his ACL injury.
Heath, you got a minute?
Hey, seriously, when will you be ready? You can tell me.
(Exasperated look) "I don't …"
Just kidding, Heath. I couldn't help it.
(Laughs) "I wish people could understand that I really don't know. Am I supposed to read the future? I'm just doing what the training staff tells me to do, and when I'm ready I'm ready."
For whatever this update's worth, Miller looked fine jogging with Ta'amu and Sean Spence on Sunday with one of the trainers. The guy who looks bad just walking around campus is fellow PUP-ster David Johnson, who looked pained while playing in the spring and may have slowed his ACL recovery because of it.
Somebody asked me on Twitter "Who looks good?" and instead of my usual smart-ass reply of "Buy a subscription to SteelCityInsider.net and find out," I figured I'd better have someone in mind.
Both are much more confident this season, and Paulson really needed a bolt of confidence. He has it now, and Ben Roethlisberger sought him out for a big gain in traffic over the middle on Sunday.
Johnson has looked great catching the ball as a fullback out of the backfield since the first day of spring drills. And after he catches it, he turns that full load up the field and gets the freight train moving in a hurry.