The Morning After (Finale)

Jim Wexell talks about the stories behind the scenes in this training camp blog. Today, it's a bonus session, and the 2014 finale, of SCI's most valuable camp blog.

MONDAY, AUG. 18

I think it might've been my first prediction of the 2014 draft season: The Steelers needed a playmaker on both sides of the ball and should draft a cornerback and wide receiver in the first two rounds.

Not that I'm going back for this particular proclamation because I don't know if I tweeted it, put it with my family vacation pictures on Facebook, answered a question on the message board about it, or wrote a long, dull essay about it.

But I do know that Ike Taylor said the same thing on his radio show in April. He predicted the Steelers would draft a cornerback in the first round and WR Martavis Bryant in the second. So I'll just use his prediction.

And Taylor's was close, if you judge by specific names, but of course he wasn't close when it came to the actual predicted position in the predicted round.

"Right, right," said Taylor when reminded about his prediction.

But he remembered mine, too.

"If we had been paying attention," he said. "This team hasn't drafted a corner first since Chad Scott."

And every time I begin rummaging through my mind what that really means about the Steelers and their defense -- how they could've built such a powerhouse by drafting only one forgettable cornerback in the first round since 1997 -- I think of how Steelers.com editor Bob Labriola argued for the organization's tactic with this question:

"Who played cornerback for the '85 Bears?"

The fact that I quickly answered "Mike Richardson and Les Frazier" did not diminish his point. And that is if you get enough pressure on the quarterback, it doesn't matter if your corners are Mike Richardson and Les Frazier or Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen.

Will this Steelers team get enough pressure on the quarterback?

Well, they still have Vic So'oto, don't they?

Yes, the journeyman free agent they signed last January is playing well in preseason games. But so is Ryan Shazier. So is Stephon Tuitt. So is Cameron Heyward. So is Jason Worilds. So is Jarvis Jones.

That's a start.

And the fact that coordinator Dick LeBeau has them all mixed up sometimes in practice -- with Jones on the inside and Shazier on the outside, for example -- tells me the wizard has some interesting schemes in the mix.

But I still worry. I remember when LeBeau had Rod Woodson, who could scare any quarterback into looking at only one half of the field while a band of revelers up front could mix it all up and take their bad intentions right to the quarterback.

Should they have, or more importantly at this point, should they in the future draft a blue-chip cornerback?

"You go from the front to the back," Taylor said upon further review. "So you draft high in the front and you work your way to the back. Just pay attention to all of our first and second D-linemen and linebackers. We've won Super Bowls like that, and they won Super Bowls in the '70s like that. When you start drafting from the back to the front it makes no sense. When you draft from the front to the back, you get steals in the third and fourth round. If people start paying attention to how they do it and why they've been successful, that's why. They draft from the front to the back."

But Troy Polamalu was a pretty good first-round pick, wasn't he?

"When you've got a guy like that, sometimes you've gotta go get him," Ike said. "Troy damn near plays linebacker anyway."

With that speed, Troy was kind of like Shazier, right?

"I don't think it's the speed," Ike said. "It's just what the man has to offer. Everybody in the NFL fast, but it's about what he all-around has to offer, and he offers a lot when he's on the field: covering tight ends, making plays, what he did tonight. Look at it how you build a house: from the foundation up, not from the top down. It's been working for years. Look at the Seattle defense. If you want to talk about Troy, you have to talk about Little Man, too, Earl Thomas. That's their Troy. Everybody else, from the corners outside, they're third and fourth round. Richard Sherman was a fifth-rounder."

And so the Steelers march on with a front seven that's increasingly more exciting to watch as rookies such as Shazier and Tuitt begin to play faster as they gain confidence in what they're doing. But it's a scary proposition.

Ike Taylor will be remembered fondly as a pillar of a team that won two Super Bowls and three AFC championships, but he's 34 now. He can't be counted on to shut down the Sammy Watkins of the world anymore. And to further the worry, he's the best the Steelers have. Cortez Allen is serviceable, and William Gay played very well the other night. But there are no mid-round "steals" in the pipeline, and that has to be a concern.

DEFENSIVE ROY?

Kendrell Bell was the last Steelers defender to win Rookie of the Year, and he was the last rookie to start on opening day for the defense. He stepped into the mack inside linebacker position, the position Lawrence Timmons calls "the roamer" as opposed to the buck ILB, who must deal with offensive linemen at the point of attack.

So, it's a playmaking position that Shazier has stepped into, and that's why I plunked a few sawbucks down on him -- at a paltry 6-1 odds -- to win the award Bell won back in 2001.

That said, I can't help but remember that Bell had no idea what he was doing. So instead of thinking, he just hit people. And he was a joy to watch. Nobody knew what Bell didn't know until word crept out later from the veterans.

Does Shazier know what he's doing?

"I feel like it's still a difficult defense," Shazier said after his impressive performance Saturday night. "There are a lot of complicated things. But I have a lot of great guys around me teaching me, helping me learn this defense, and just learning from Coach LeBeau himself. I feel that Ohio State helped me just learning the playbook in general, because they asked me to learn so much, but I feel that all the guys around me are helping me learn this playbook."

Did Shazier ever feel like he was in over his head, schematically, Saturday night?

"No, because I've been dreaming about this all my life," he said. "I re-enact the game almost every night before I go to sleep. Not the Bills. Not versus anybody. I just re-enact us playing against somebody, an unnamed team."

I have little evidence that Bell ever did anything like that. And Shazier is a football junkie. He loves watching film. I have to believe that if he doesn't understand it now, he soon will. That may take him a step back, but only to position himself to move two steps forward.

LINEBACKER LIST-O-MANIA

We've focused intently on the loaded linebacker position this camp, so it's becoming a recurring theme that after every game I'm asked to comment on which of them will make the team. So I'll just show my math right here.

Locks: Timmons, Shazier, Worilds, J. Jones, Terence Garvin, Arthur Moats, Vince Williams, Sean Spence.

Number of LBs Mike Tomlin has kept on average: 8.7.

Ninth spot between: Chris Carter, So'oto, Howard Jones.

Two practice squad spots between: Jordan Zumwalt, Dan Molls, So'oto, H. Jones. Will update following Eagles game on Thursday.

RESEARCH TAKES TIME

If you're wondering why today's Morning After isn't up and waiting for you as you pour your first cup of coffee today, blame my addiction to research. Today, these are the topics:

1.) In 10 series this preseason, the Landry Jones-led offense has advanced the ball 112 yards, 87 of which came on two plays: a 47-yard pass interference penalty and a 40-yard pass to running back Dri Archer. Under Jones, the Steelers have converted only 2 of 9 third downs, both via penalty. Jones has completed 13 of 26 passes for 127 yards with an interception, two fumbles, and three sacks. His passer rating is 48.1.

2.) The last time Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers on an opening drive for a touchdown in a preseason game: Aug. 27, 2011. Antonio Brown returned the opening kickoff 51 yards and Roethlisberger threw a pair of 17-yard passes to David Johnson before Rashard Mendenhall ran one yard for the score.

3.) With Howard Jones-mania underway, I was asked to name the last D-2 undrafted rookie to make the opening-day roster. I went with Isaac Redman before remembering that he didn't make the team until his second try. This one will take time. Begin at 8:30 a.m. ... OK, at 9:22 a.m. I can report the answer is Nate Washington, whom the Steelers signed out of Division 2 Tiffin University in 2005. That really shouldn't have taken me that long. Regardless, I'm already behind. Have a great day.

FRIDAY, AUG. 15

OK, as the great Casey Hampton said after a goal-line drill in which he was blown up in his only career rep at fullback, "That ----'s a wrap."

I have no overriding message from camp, just that the work's done and it's time to move my bag of electronics over to the South Side. Perhaps some pearls of wisdom, or even just partial sparks of it, will be spit out accidentally from this last set of practice notes:

* I kept my eyes focused primarily on the defensive side of the St. Vincent training complex because I half expected the Bills' offense to react with vigor to the previous day's triumphs by the Steelers' defensive backs. I did see and do realize that Sammy Watkins is too much for any single Steelers defender to handle, but that on the first day the Steelers, combined with the inefficiency of E.J. Manuel, were able to contain Watkins.

Well, that retribution never comes off tonight. I did see Robert Woods exact a bit of revenge when he caught a deep ball, but Thursday evening was similar to Wednesday afternoon in that the Bills didn't throw to Watkins very often. You watch him run by Cortez Allen, again, in one-on-one drills, and you watch him make Ike Taylor look old with immense and easy separation out of his breaks, but you watch Manuel either intentionally spread it out to other receivers or just mis-read what Watkins is doing -- and that's assuming he's going to throw a catchable pass.

* What I'm trying to say is that I'm more worried about the cornerback situation than I was coming into camp. Taylor will rely on guile, and Allen will rely on his size and cushion, but there isn't a blue-chipper back in the secondary, just depth and schemes.

* Not saying the Steelers should've drafted Darqueze Dennard. Not that high. He's still a 4.5+ guy, after all.

* So that's the bad news. The good news is that the Steelers' passing game showed last night that it just might be capable of matching points. Ben Roethlisberger was on fire in the red-zone drill, and he found that throwing to Martavis Bryant is a lot easier than throwing into a stationary garbage can. Bryant continues his excellent week of work after struggling in the preseason opener.

* I looked up once and Antonio Brown was running free with the ball through the Buffalo secondary.

* And I looked up again, thought it was Brown zig-zagging between defenders down the sideline with the ball, but when he got up I saw it was LeGarrette Blount.

* Good news, man. Good news.

* Backers were covering backs last night and Jason Worilds just smothered H-back Evan Rodriguez on a long wheel route down the sideline before raising his arm and deflecting the pass. I don't know how well Worilds will rush the passer this year, but he's looking beastly in the 260-pound range and will be effective in the run game. And if he can run consistently with fullbacks and tight ends like that, he's going to help this defense immensely.

* Oh, there's Terence Garvin running with Rodriguez, too. I love the way Sean Spence played in the preseason opener, but I cannot, will not, rule out Garvin from starting at the mack if Ryan Shazier's not ready to go.

* Shazier scrimmaged last night. I didn't watch him closely enough to make any other comment. Sorry. I realize now that I should have.

* Rob Blanchflower made an impressive twisting catch of a Landry Jones pass over Stevenson Sylvester of Buffalo.

* My guess is that Blanchflower has moved ahead of Eric Waters in the race for a spot, roster or practice squad. Just like Brice McCain has moved past Shaquille Richardson and Isaiah Green for the fifth CB spot.

* Darrius Heyward-Bey is making a strong bid to be the sixth WR. You feel that way for the hard-working speedster when he comes down with the ball, like he did this evening.

* Nick Williams isn't doing anything that will make him go away anytime soon. I only say that because a.) the defensive coaches liked his preseason opener, and b.) I just spotted him 10 yards down the other sideline tackling a running back.

* Gotta keep your head on a swivel with all of this simultaneous action going on at different fields.

* It's like watching two games on TV with a sure-handed remote control specialist.

* Just this note to throw in there: Dan Molls won the team's home run derby the other night with a monster 400-foot shot. It was his last at-bat against Mike Mitchell in the championship final.

* Landry Jones just picked a low snap off his shoes and came up firing a 25-yard out to C.J. Goodwin. Good play by both, a second straight for Goodwin, Mel Blount's guy from Cal Pa.

* Another note interrupting the flow here: The Steelers just signed Luke Ingram to replace long-snapper Greg Warren. Ingram was signed by the Steelers after the 2013 draft out of Hawaii but was waived on Aug. 1 that same year. His brother Jake was an NFL long-snapper in 25 games.

* How will the Steelers handle Warren's roster spot? Will the Steelers keep two long-snappers on their opening-day 53-man roster? Or will they release Warren and cross their fingers they can get him back when he's healthy? I'm sure they're not looking past Saturday's preseason game yet, so that intel is TBD by all parties.

* Whoa, what's that? I was just awakened out of a long-snapper note by a little scrum in the corner that seems to be escalating. On a gorgeous evening in cool climes, the emotions are flat, but it seems the Bills are trying to muster up a show of team unity by running en masse across the field to encircle the dying mini-fray.

* Coaches aren't even shouting at anyone as the Bills slowly retreat amid scattered pairs of friends from each team pretending to fight.

* Nick Williams just tweaked his left knee. This is not what he needed just as he was gathering a little steam from taking last year off with a serious knee problem.

* Justin Brown, maybe I've been too, well, cynical of other reporters' hype about you. You're starting to impress me with that twisting catch you just made. Nice body control for a man that size.

* I think one must always have to temper any media hype about Penn State and Pitt kids, just because some reporters remain true to their school.

* Stinkin' homers.

* OK, now here's some life. The Bills' Jerry Hughes, the blue-chip pass-rusher out of TCU, is raging like a lunatic at Kelvin Beachum as Hughes walks off the field. Most of his words can't be quoted here, and he's also yelling that he had the damn sack so don't talk to me, or something. I think Kelvin's smiling.

* Uh oh, LeGarrette Blount is walking over to talk to Hughes.

* Um, yeah. LeGarrette the Peacemaker.

* Todd Haley just called him back. Phew.

* I've already written my story for the next day. I really don't want any news to happen right now at this late hour. Thank you, Todd, for your foresight.

THURSDAY, AUG. 14

So it's the end of camp and it really doesn't look like the Steelers will be chasing Brett Keisel, unless there's an injury.

My feeling at the start of the summer was the team would first watch its young defensive linemen this camp, and the word is they've been been impressive.

"It's so competitive right now," said one source, who was asked initially about Nick Williams. Last year's seventh-round pick spent his rookie year on Injured Reserve but was surprisingly active in the 13 snaps he took in his first preseason game last Saturday.

"He did play well. I like him," the source said after watching the tape. "He just needs experience. He needs to play."

The last word was dragged out for emphasis before I asked for the source's favorite sleeper among the defensive linemen.

"Seventy-one," he said of rookie free agent Josh Mauro. "That kid's got a chance."

Mauro played 24 snaps Saturday and made a better impression than his roster competition, Brian Arnfelt, did in 26. Mauro made 2 tackles and also hit the quarterback after pressuring him into an incompletion. Mauro also appeared earlier than Arnfelt. The rookie entered with the second-team defense at RDE in the second quarter and played in the sub-packages, while Arnfelt rotated at LDE with Cam Thomas and Ethan Hemer, the undrafted rookie from Wisconsin.

Mauro, you may remember from our draft coverage, is the overachiever from Stanford who didn't start until his fifth season, but who looked like a Steelers-type lineman in the Cardinal's 3-4.

A serious young man who normally walks alone through campus, Mauro agreed with me at the combine that he would be a fit for the Steelers.

"They're a 3-4 defense that's trying to beat people up and get after the quarterback," Mauro said back in February. "As a player who's played in that you dream of playing in a defense like that in the NFL. The Steelers were a team I watched growing up. Even today they're doing the same thing they've been doing, and that's getting after people up front and trying to drive the line of scrimmage into the backfield and get after offenses."

Mauro felt one key to his success at Stanford was that he simply wrote down his goals.

"I heard two percent of the people wrote down their goals of getting what they wanted to accomplish and they ended up making more money than 98 percent of the graduates from Stanford," Mauro said. "Whenever I write down a goal and I see it and I can read it and I tell myself over and over again that I can do it, it's going to get done through hard work and preparation and execution."

Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers average keeping 6.6 defensive linemen on the opening-day roster. They kept six last year and seven the previous two years. So after Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Thomas, Stephon Tuitt and rookie NT Daniel McCullers, there's a spot for Mauro. A potential seventh could go to Keisel, but that will depend on numbers at other positions.

O-LINEMAN'S TAKE

Armed with that information from the film room, I wanted to hear from an intelligent player representative, and Kelvin Beachum obliged.

"Between Cam and Tuitt, Big Steve, and Cam Thomas, I think we have an array of defensive linemen who can really do some damage," said the left tackle. "We're excited to see what the season has for them, especially my boy Cam. Me and Cam are real close and I'm real excited to see him this season. I go against him every day and fight every day. I'm excited to see what he has in store this season."

Beachum said Heyward has improved over his breakout 2013 season.

"He's learning the game more," Beachum said. "I think the best thing for both of us has been game experience. You begin to grow, you begin to learn some things about yourself, what you can and can't do. He's learning what he CAN do and he's doing a great job at it."

What about the depth?

"I don't know their names. That's bad on me," Beachum said. "But 71, 79 (Hemer), Arnfelt, Big Dan."

What does Tomlin call McCullers?

"Big Dan," Beachum said. "We call him 'The Walking Mammoth.' That's not his nickname but that's what we call him in the offensive line. He's made some of us look pretty bad at times."

THE PUNCH LINE

My interview with Beachum was gently interrupted by the smiling face of Tunch Ilkin, the former Pro Bowl tackle and current broadcaster. Ilkin took Beachum under his wing last year, so I asked Beachum if that mentorship has continued.

"Yeah," Beachum said. "We always stay in communication. We're always working together. He's already coaching me up, 'Hey, throw your hands up faster,' and 'Aim small, miss small.'"

Aim small, miss small?

"He noticed earlier in training camp that my hands were very high and kind of wide, so he said 'Aim small, miss small.' He got it from the movie "The Patriot." Mel Gibson was talking to his sons about shooting their rifles: "Aim small, miss small," meaning aim at a very small point and any miss should still work. Sometimes my hands get inside; sometimes they get a little wide. But they're getting where I need to be at."

Beachum, by the way, played only 14 snaps Saturday, while his backup, Mike Adams, played 51. So it's obvious that Beachum is the Steelers' No. 1 left tackle. Just don't tell him that.

"We haven't even got to the season yet," he said. "I still have a long ways to go."

QUICK-HITTERS

* Tomlin's leadership seems to only come under question by outsiders. But they should try to find someone in this organization who isn't 100 percent loyal to the coach. From top to bottom, lowest player to highest bean-counter, there's an almost slavish devotion to Tomlin. I made a crack not too long ago to the guy who oversees the operation of Heinz Field, that the new scoreboard in the opposite end zone might keep the coach off the field. The guy immediately hollered over to Tomlin and tattled on me -- right in front of me. Tomlin got a chuckle out of it, but making him laugh wasn't the man's intention. That's just one example of how seemingly the entire organization is behind Tomlin in a way many were never behind Bill Cowher.

* What do Rashad Jennings' 73-yard touchdown run and Cortez Allen's lack of a contract extension have in common? Well, maybe it's what Sammy Watkins showed in yesterday's practice when he ran a straight bee-line right past the Steelers' left cornerback. Allen lacks beep-beep speed and appears to be nothing more than a solid zone corner. That's like having a first baseman who hits 15 home runs. You can find them fairly easily, and cheaply.

* Mike Mitchell took a poor angle on Jennings' run, but yesterday was in the right spot to make a perfect one-on-one form tackle of C.J. Spiller after the Bills' runner had cut back into the open field. Had Mitchell not made the tackle, Spiller would've gone the distance.

* This was written by ESPN's Buffalo Bills reporter Mike Rodak after yesterday's practice: "The intensity in that first period set the tone for what was by far the Bills' most physical practice of training camp. (E.J.) Manuel and the Bills' offense seemed rattled for the rest of the day." Yes, the Bills seemed surprised by the intensity, and that has since been supported by Steelers players -- off the record, of course -- who seemed surprised by the Bills' hesitancy. It was apparent from the onset when the groups broke into backs-on-backers and the Steelers' linebackers had their way with the Bills' running backs. That was the group I watched. Of course, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds overmatched the Bills, but so did the younger backups, Dan Molls and Howard Jones in particular.

* The Bills' coach on the scene cut the drill short with some explanation that only sounded like "No mas" to me. So I turned my attention the other way where the Steelers' backs were taking on the Bills' backers, and I saw LeGarrette Blount stop Stevenson Sylvester in his tracks. One player agreed that Blount has improved his blocking since the first day of live hitting when Ryan Shazier made Blount look bad. But another player felt it had more to do with the Steelers being acclimated to the intensity of live hitting.

* One downer yesterday was the injury to Greg Warren, the team's 10th-year long snapper. I went to breakfast early this morning to learn any news, but was told that only Joey Porter had been in, and that he left to go golfing. But if Tomlin tells us at his 11:35 press conference that Warren has to miss any length of time, the Steelers will need to use their open roster spot immediately for a veteran long-snapper. While back-up Bryce Davis is playing another position more than any long-snapper in memory, the word is that Davis isn't ready to snap in games that matter.

* Porter was up and out the door on a day most were sleeping in, due to the late 5:30 p.m. practice time today. Also up and about was Sean Spence. And if anyone wonders if his knee is bothering him and he's just not telling anyone, I saw Spence walking to the cafeteria. Anyone who's covered the team the last 10 to 15 years knows that NO ONE walks to the cafeteria except media. Cowher brought in golf carts years ago to save the players' legs, but there was Spence walking. And just as I wondered whether he was up too early for a cart, someone drove one up to Spence, but he waved it off. The man's knee must be feeling just fine.

* Brad Wing looks like Justin Bieber and sounds like Forrest Gump. But if he can consistently hang that thing in the air, no one will care about either.

* As I wrote earlier on the message board, the coaches liked what they saw from Mike Adams and Landry Jones in the preseason opener. Just putting that out there to balance my criticisms of those two.

* I'm not sure that's a correction, but this is: Derek Moye is eligible for the practice squad. You may see otherwise from journalists up here who were told early in camp by Kevin Colbert that Moye was ineligible.

* Rob Blanchflower gets better with each practice, both as a blocker and a pass-catcher.

* And he's getting tougher. On Tuesday, the rookie tight end took a helmet-to-helmet blast from safety Jordan Dangerfield, who knocked Blanchflower down and out of bounds. Blanchflower got up with the ball while ignoring Dangerfield's stream of smack talk and quietly jogged back to the huddle and flipped the ball to a coach.

* While Blount has shown improvement as a blocker, he still drops too many passes. On Monday he made a routine catch for which Tomlin showed way too much enthusiasm. It made me think Tomlin was trying everything he could to get Blount to relax those hands.

* Speaking of which, Ike Taylor dropped an interception Tuesday, and against the Bills on Wednesday let one go right through his hands and right into the hands of Kevin Elliott, who scored a touchdown even though he was thoroughly beaten by Taylor.

* The Bills scored one other touchdown thanks to Sammy Watkins. His presence caused over-aggressive safety Shamarko Thomas to rush up and help William Gay with Watkins. But Thomas let the tight end, Scott Chandler, come open down the field for an easy score.

* Since the game in New York, Steelers fans will be happy to know that rookie receiver Martavis Bryant is not only hauling in red-zone touchdown passes as a matter of habit, he's been pulled off punt-return duties.

* I would be hard-pressed to find someone working harder than veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. And he routinely runs by cornerbacks attempting man coverage. But while I wouldn't say Heyward-Bey is dropping passes, I can say he's not coming down with those that are contested.

* Little man Dri Archer caught a couple of touchdowns in the red-zone drill to complement Bryant's tall-man theatrics on corner fades. But the red-zone offense still lacks consistency. With five wides in a 7-on-7 drill, Ben Roethlisberger still had to run up the middle, something rarely seen in 7-on-7s since Kordell Stewart left the team.

* I sat in the new Bill Nunn "Super Scout" Bench on top of the hill overlooking the field, and got very comfortable very quickly. I may watch the entire camp finale from there tonight.

TUESDAY, AUG. 12

Let's get back today to the fundamentals that made The Morning After the highest performing training-camp blog in SCI.net's esteemed history: the people.

Here's a roll call of some of the key people in the Steelers' preseason opener on Saturday:

DRI ARCHER -- According to their pre-game scouting report, the Steelers felt No. 20 for the Giants, Prince Amukamara, was their speed, but the Steelers still would've liked Archer to have pushed his own 4.16 speed around Amukamara instead of cutting back and getting tackled after a 46-yard gain. It turns out the Steelers are working with Archer to break his habit of cutting back, which is said to populate his college tape.

I asked Archer if he regretted attempting to cut back instead of running to the sideline and then into the end zone against Amukamara.

"No," Archer said. "It was just one of those plays. Everything happens for a reason, so I'm not going to regret anything that happened on that play."

OK. I guess choosing Archer to bat lead-off today just happened for a reason, too.

DANIEL MCCULLERS -- The 6-7, 352-pound rookie entered late in the third quarter to play nose tackle on the third-team line. He was in on 22 snaps, or 14 more than second-teamer Loni Fangupo. And McCullers looked like he belonged.

"I'm just asked to hold up the linemen and make the linebackers get the plays," he said. "I felt I did a pretty good job doing that."

The word on McCullers, as I've reported here, is that he can be the greatest to ever play the game, or he could end up in another line of work, that it's completely up to him. I asked him if he has heard that.

"I hear that if I really work on my fundamentals and technique I can be a great player," he said. "I've never heard I couldn't play. I'm just going to take that in and keep working because I know I can be a great player once I get my technique and keys down."

Someone else asked McCullers how he likes his position coach, John Mitchell.

"Mitch, he's hard on you all the time," McCullers said. "You need that in a coach to be on you and make sure you do everything right, because he wants you to be perfect. Yeah, I need a coach to be on me. I'm glad I got him."

Is he harder in meetings or on the field?

"Everywhere," McCullers said. "It doesn't matter, on the field, off the field, when you walk into an elevator. He's always going to be on you. It's an honor to work with him because he's a great coach."

McCullers said that some of Mitchell's comments have been harsh, and that "it did take a little bit to get used to," but that "I say 'yes, sir' and keep moving on and getting better."

As for nose tackle, or more precisely the zero technique, McCullers played it in junior college and then when he first arrived at Tennessee, before the Vols changed to a 4-3.

"I love it," McCullers said of the nose, "because you can just play there and kill the center, take up blocks, free the linebackers. You can't be moved. I can't be moved if I stay low."

HEATH MILLER -- Strange that on the third-and-3 incompletion from the Giants' 7-yard line, the best red-zone threat on the team stayed in to block. Turns out that Heath, and the rest of the unit, expected a run.

"Well, it was kind of a run-pass option," was all Miller would confirm.

One source said that if the Steelers were going to pass, they would've had another receiver in for Lance Moore. Presumably that player would've been Justin Brown.

Was it a red-zone failure?

"Well, we need to be better in the red zone," said Miller. "In a normal week we'll put more work and detail into the red zone but that's certainly a trend that we don't want to start is not finishing off our drives."

LAWRENCE TIMMONS -- The "Law Dawg" was trying to be humble when initially asked whether he was held on the Giants' 73-yard touchdown run. "It was a tough play for me," Timmons said. "It happened pretty fast. But I don't know, it's heresay, either/or. Could've gone either way."

One reporter was incredulous. Mike Prisuta told Timmons there's a picture somewhere of the Giants' lineman wrapping his arm around Timmons and obliterating the name on the back of Timmons' uniform.

At that, the Law Dawg perked up.

"I mean, he's an O-lineman. What do you expect? All right," Timmons said with a laugh. "That was one bad thing in the game, but other than that we hung in there together as a first team and got a couple three and outs."

MATT SPAETH -- One coach said he was most pleased by the offensive line's performance on the opening drive, and he stopped to make sure I included the tight ends with his comment. The tight end who shows up on film is Spaeth

"That's what we wanted to do. We wanted to come out running the ball," Spaeth said. "That's what we want our identity to be and that was our first opportunity to show that. You don't get real fancy in the first preseason game and you don't game plan, so you want to be able to go out and show who we want to be."

Spaeth started only two games last season, and before that his previous start for the Steelers was in Super Bowl 45. He left for two years but re-signed, only to have a foot injury cost him most of last season. His blocking has been sorely missed.

"That's my role," Spaeth said. "I understand that and I embrace that and I feel like I've become a better blocker in past years."

Why? How?

"I understand the game better. It's important to me. I think that's the biggest thing," he said. "I know that's my role and that's why I have a spot on this team, or hope to have a spot on this team, and I embrace it and I want to be the best at it."

Spaeth came out of the University of Minnesota as the Mackey Award winner and school record-holder for tight ends with 109 catches for 1,291 yards.

"I really wasn't that much of a receiver in college," he said. "I mean, we were a running team. We ran the ball well, so they had a lot of good play-action stuff. I made some big plays off of that I guess. But I've always been trying to be a blocking tight end."

That's a rather unceremonious aspiration, isn't it?

"Yeah, but you know what? I'm on the team. I'm contributing. I'm helping. That's all I want."

HOWARD JONES -- Not only did this undrafted rookie pick up two fumbles in his first preseason appearance, he returned one 28 yards for the Steelers' only touchdown.

His reaction?

"I think everyone else knew I did, but I don't think I know I did yet," he said with a laugh. "It felt pretty good though."

On Sunday, Jones spoke to his parents back home in Woodbridge, Va.

"I don't think they knew, either," Jones said. "They didn't talk about it. It felt pretty good though."

Appearing bookish with his eyeglasses in the media glare on Monday, the 6-4, 238-pounder, who goes by the name "HoJo," said he acquired the handle not from nickname meister Mike Tomlin, but from a reporter covering the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl last January in Los Angeles.

"I guess it stuck," he said with an easy smile.

Against the Giants, HoJo played 25 snaps on defense and 14 on special teams.

He didn't play any special teams at Shepherd University, but realizes that's his ticket to making the roster here. So his fumble recovery of a muffed punt and his tackle on the opening kickoff certainly complemented the fourth-quarter touchdown.

"Special teams is definitely different," he said. "But I'm definitely capable of doing it and willing to do it, so it's not that big of a deal."

Later that afternoon, as a bit of a postscript here, Jones seemed to practice with much greater confidence. In fact, he was the star of the one-on-one drills with the offensive linemen, beating Kelvin Beachum, Guy Whimper and Wesley Johnson.

After getting around Whimper, Jones took a classic hack at the football, and the thud echoed across the field. But Jones could not get the ball out of QB Chris Elkins' hands.

Of course, QBs won't always be iron-fisted offensive linemen, either.

SEAN SPENCE -- And I've saved the best for last.

We all know Spence's story by now. Well, he punctuated his one year and 49-week rehabilitation with a scintillating performance against the Giants. He made 3 run-stuffing, pad-popping tackles in his 17 defensive snaps as the starting mack linebacker, and on Monday called his gruesome knee injury from 2012 a blessing in disguise.

"No doubt about it," he said. "It helped a lot. It was like I had two redshirt years. Sat behind Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons and watched those guys a lot, especially picking Foote's brain because he's been in the system so long. Then when I got time to play, some things were slow to me because I've seen it already so many times."

On the 73-yard touchdown run up the middle, Spence was aligned on the far left edge as a pass-rusher. He took the same position in the Steelers' goal-line defense.

"It felt good coming off the edge once again," he said. "The feeling's unreal."

Spence has proven he can run downhill in the front seven. But how was his speed in coverage? How is his long speed?

"I think it's pretty good," he said. "I feel I can get better with everything, not just running downhill, but footwork, hand usage, technique."

Spence spent two years with team trainers, who are as thrilled as he is with the recovery. Do they even check on him anymore?

"Just to make sure I'm OK," he said. "They'll ask me how I'm doing, how I'm feeling."

His answer is now on tape, no doubt preserved in Steelers lore.

SATURDAY, AUG. 9

Ever been on a team in which the best player is named captain? And that captain's only leadership skill is to say, "C'mon, let's go!" whenever things aren't going well?

We've all been there. Poor leadership.

So, we talk to our kids about leadership. Real leadership. And then we worry that once we've roused them out of their shell they might become too bossy. So you try to find the fine line, and our most important comment might be, "Just be yourself."

But the team might need more.

It's a fine line, this leadership thing. I thought Mike Tomlin had a good definition the other day when someone asked him if Ben Roethlisberger has become more of a leader this camp.

"Much like myself, Ben is going to be what this team needs him to be," Tomlin said. "I think we both embrace that responsibility and it means different things for different teams. I think that he is being what this team needs him to be."

He is in shape and doesn't miss practices and has strengthened his arm. So physically, he's exactly what they need.

And whether Ben's in the film room more often is something only he can answer, but I presume he's completely up to speed on what the coaching staff needs from him.

As for what the team needs, 10 years ago they needed him to be himself and not worry about sticking his nose into veteran business. But today, he needs to chew out young wide receivers and/or give them pats on the back, or work with any and everyone on nuance, or show by example what is smart post-practice/night-time behavior and what is not.

He needs to be exactly what they want him to be.

So as a follow-up, Tomlin was asked whether the team has responded to Roethlisberger's leadership this off-season.

"The proof is in the pudding," Tomlin said of the eventual won-loss record. "I'll let you know."

LET'S DUITT

In catching up on the Stephon Tuitt story, reporters are just now raving about what had been evident to Tomlin early in camp.

I had reported more than a week ago that Tomlin was raving privately about Tuitt, and when Tomlin read the story he lamented the fact that Tuitt had also read it and that Tomlin would now have to lean on him in order to keep his feet on the ground. Only Tomlin didn't put it quite so nicely.

Well, Tuitt has played very well since sliding into the No. 1 unit due to injury. DL coach John Mitchell will still tell you that his star pupil isn't ready to start. And Tomlin will say the same thing, just to keep Tuitt's feet on the ground and head out of the clouds.

Aaron Smith, the original No. 91 strong-side end, was in camp the other day. I asked him whether he thought Tuitt was ready to star.

"He looks good," said Smith, "but he's got a ways to go. I started my first game of my second year and I wasn't ready. I probably wasn't comfortable until Year 3, so when he's ready I expect him to do well. Until then he'll make some plays that will impress everyone, but you won't know if he's really doing his job or not."

How will we know when he's ready?

"When Mitch says he's ready."

That will never happen.

"Yeah, he'll give him credit when he earns it," Smith said.

What do you think of him wearing your number?

"As long as he works hard and is a nice guy, it's fine. And from everything I've heard he does work hard and is humble. I think he'll do the number proud."

Remember that much the same was being said of Cameron Heyward during his rookie camp, and in the first preseason game he made a handful of plays that stood out, but then he didn't start a game until early in his third season.

I doubt it will take Tuitt that long to join the first team. After all, he doesn't have the greatest DE in team history AND a No. 1 draft pick in front of him. But don't be surprised if it takes a bit of time for Mitchell to give a thumbs-up to a head coach and front office that's in nearly as big of a can't-wait mode as the fans.

BULLET POINTS

* The day Tomlin expressed his dissatisfaction with my story on Tuitt, I was wearing my Allman Brothers tie-dye from one of those Beacon Theater shows. It was the one day I stepped out of my typically bland polo collection to, as one colleague put it, "let my freak flag fly."

Well, it rained that day. Poured. And I was determined not to run for cover, since there was no lightning, and since I wanted to prove to the coach that he could not drive me away, no matter how angry he was.

So I stood there in my tie-dye and let the downpour soak me. When the storm stopped, I looked down at my pad and it was purple. So were my arms. So were my shorts. The tie-dye shirt had leaked. Badly.

It was one of those days.

* Anyone else getting nervous about O-line depth? It's the reason I hoped they would sign Fernando Velasco once he passed his physical, but he, like Jerricho Cotchery, signed with the Carolina Panthers. So I'm rooting for Chris Hubbard as one interior backup, along with Cody Wallace, but I watched Hubbard get out in front of a screen the other day and he wasn't moving real well in the "open grass."

Only the staff knows if Hubbard's assignment-ready. Only the staff knows if Bryant Browning can finally catch on after four teams had cut him the previous three years. Only the staff knows if it can get by with fifth-round pick Wesley Johnson, even though he needs to add strength. And only the staff knows if undrafted rookie guard Will Simmons can do anything more than get into fights.

Hubbard is leading the chase for that ninth and final spot. But are he, Wallace and Guy Whimper enough to satisfy the interior depth requirements? My guess is that will be the waiver-wire watch as the season draws near.

* I'm getting so many questions from fans about Ryan Shazier's "boo boo." I really don't think it's anything serious. He collided with Le'Veon Bell, limped off the field, had his knee checked, and then was left alone to walk freely, but he he's been sidelined the last three practices.

My guess is it's a bruised knee. It's not an ACL. But if it's a sprained MCL, he could miss another week or so. If he misses any real playing time, Sean Spence could continue his miracle comeback and start the opener. But don't rule out Terence Garvin. Watch both of those inside mack backers tonight for their pass-coverage skills in particular.

* Martavis Bryant gets yelled at more than any player in this camp, but he takes it well. And even though Roethlisberger is often the guy chewing out the 6-4 rookie receiver, you have to know deep down that it's tough love coming from the QB, who has to see that the big man is his first truly tall deep threat since Plaxico Burress left. One veteran cornerback even compared Bryant's presence to that of Mike Wallace.

I'm guessing 5 touchdowns for Bryant this season. And for every touchdown, someone will complain about a play he screwed up.

* Ray Jackson is in charge of Player Development, which apparently means he's a part-time special-team coach, a part-time physical therapist, a part-time psychologist, a part-time field manager, and sometimes a part-time head coach. In other words, the dude is always busy, and he was lamenting the fact the team had to practice one day on the turf field they use when it rains. No one likes to practice there, and no one likes to watch practice there, so I told Ray that with all of his pull he should get that changed.

"I have this much pull," he said as he circled his thumb and forefinger in a zero.

But I reminded him a day not all that long ago, in Kansas City, when, after several consecutive games of kick returns for touchdowns, the Steelers allowed the Chiefs to bring back the opening kickoff for another touchdown. The Steelers were just dumbstruck that it could've happened yet again, and the TV cameras picked up Jackson on the sideline and focused on him as if he was the reason why.

Ray's a black man, so maybe the TV producer thought he was Tomlin.

So Ray was Tomlin for a moment. And on that day he must've had more than "zero pull."

Jackson laughed.

"That wasn't the only day someone thought I was Coach," he said. "At the Hall of Fame game in Mike's first season, the officials came over to me and congratulated me for getting the job. I swore then that the next time it happened I would tell them what I really thought of the job they were doing. Coach kinda talked me out of that."

* Just as I'm becoming a bit uncomfortable with a lack of offensive line depth, I'm becoming more comfortable with the depth at cornerback. Antwon Blake has the perfect attitude for playing the position, and I think that's what Carnell Lake likes most about him. That, and the fact he has the speed and strength and grit, or competitiveness, to become a quality reserve.

I'm also liking what I've been seeing lately out of Brice McCain. This guy may have had a horrible year with the Houston Texans, but his expectations aren't nearly as high here, so he's more of a surprise with his speed as a No. 5 cornerback than anything else.

* The other day I was looking to interview one of the three RBs whom I believe are competing for a spot on the practice squad. I told the PR staffer to alert me when either Tauren Poole, Miguel Maysonet or Josh Harris walks past us and into the cafeteria for lunch. Well, one player I didn't recognize walked past and I got the staffer's attention and said, "Anybody?" and the staff said, "No."

But that player, Brice McCain, misunderstood. He thought the staffer was saying that no, he's not worth interviewing. McCain told the staffer, "I'm going to be somebody. You'll see." The staffer explained what happened and McCain understood. But he said it again, "I'm still going to be somebody."

And I think he's right.

TUESDAY, AUG. 5

Welcome to a much-needed day off, in which I once again need to run my laptop to the shop and of course do a thousand other things back at the homestead.

Yesterday was the sixth consecutive work day for the team and THE precise dawg day of summer. The games will start soon and the writing will be much easier, but until then it's onward with the little things, like watching John Mitchell walk past the media and hoping someone, anyone, would interview him just so I could watch him explode when the reporter inevitably changes the topic to Stephon Tuitt.

I, of course, wrote about Mitchell battening down the hatches in the hype storm. "He's lost," was how Mitchell started his critique of Tuitt, who of course is a stud in the making.

Another reporter sat down the next day to interview Mitchell, who blew up in advance of any questions about Tuitt. The "offending" question was a softball about Cameron Heyward, and Mitchell said something about only having five practices in pads before he put an end to that discussion.

So, as the defensive line coach walked past reporters last evening, I said, "We still love you, Mitch." To which he said, "I still love you guys, too, but let's not name him All-Pro just yet."

He didn't have to say who he was talking about, and I didn't need to open with small talk about Heyward.

* Mitch's intern, Chris Hoke, had his own intern by the name of Michael McGuire, whom I've gotten to know over the years because he was Brett Keisel's quarterback in high school, remains a close friend of the bearded one, and as a coach of multiple state prep champions in Wyoming was invited to Latrobe this summer.

McGuire left the other day and was effusive in his praise of the people from whom he learned.

"Mitch is the greatest defensive line coach in the world," McGuire said.

I told him he's a little biased.

"Just look at his resume," Mike said with a shrug that told me he didn't really care about anyone else's opinion on the matter.

"Hokie was great, too," he said. "He's so smart. He understands the key to the defense. I'm not sure you could appreciate it unless you were in there with him."

Hokie's going to be a good coach some day, isn't he?

"A great coach," McGuire said.

* McGuire stopped talking when the conversation turned to his friend, Keisel. And as I wrote before, I take that as a hopeful sign.

The depth chart says it's possible, as well. The locks are Heyward, Tuitt, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, and Daniel McCullers. That's five. There's room for six, maybe even seven.

Brian Arnfelt has improved, and will not be outhustled, but he won't provide near the depth that Keisel would. Nick Williams is still a rookie, again, and hasn't made his way into the conversation as of yet. Moving into the conversation, though, is Josh Mauro, the undrafted rookie who's receiving important reps with the second-team sub-packages.

Even if Mauro continues his rise, there appears to be an opening. And if they do sign Keisel, I suspect it would occur after the opener for economic purposes.

* Speaking of McCullers, he can get lazy at times but he could also turn into a superstar if he really wants to.

Take the goal-line period last Saturday. I wrote about the fumbled exchange between Ben Roethlisberger and the running back. What I didn't write about was that Maurkice Pouncey caused that fumbled exchange because he was thrown back into the quarterback by McCullers.

* I should request an interview with Mitchell to discuss McCullers' future greatness.

* Speaking of Williams, he resembles Jarvis Jones, only bigger. Someone said that if you could put Jones' talent inside Williams' body, no one would question that player's worth as a first-round pick.

Then again, you wouldn't have been able to get that kind of an athlete after the top five picks.

* In the early portions of practice, the defense gets together and goes over its communications. The young guys who make up this revamped front seven are buzzing back and forth like a chorus. You look in the back and there are Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor completely bored out of their minds.

There's comfort in that scene. The back end has some world-class maturity, and that should make Steelers fans feel better about the inexperienced front.

* No one's going to outhustle Arnfelt and no one's going to outwork Chris Carter. The third-year OLB is in a fight for his football life. Arthur Moats is proving to be an outstanding addition and has moved past Carter as the No. 3 OLB. So Carter is fighting for his roster life against Howard Jones, an undrafted rookie with vast promise. It's an up-close human drama with many acts to play out in the next three weeks.

* I walked past my media buddy Mike Prisuta after practice and he was signing an autograph. I had to to a double take before needling him about it.

"I was temped to do the Tom Hanks thing," he said.

I just shrugged my shoulders in ignorance.

"You know, 'Avoid the clap, Jimmy Dugan.'"

* Mike Adams still doesn't extend his arms when pass-blocking. The experts are telling me that Marcus Gilbert is making great strides under Mike Munchak, but it doesn't appear so with Adams. Of course, there's still time.

* Martavis Bryant may look like all-world in the red zone -- he's the best they've got down there -- but the rookie made a mistake the other day that caused a collision with another receiver and forced the QB to take a sack. Causing your QB to take a sack in the red zone is the kind of rookie inconsistency that will keep him on the sideline.

* I wrote the other day that Le'Veon Bell appears to have lost too much weight. I talked to him and Todd Haley about it and they're both happy with Bell's weight, which was the target goal set by Mike Tomlin and the conditioning staff. That story will be out later today. Good stuff on Dri Archer, too.

* Archer took a hit from a linebacker Monday and bounced off, spun around, and headed north up the sideline. Chris Rainey never would've bounced off, and therein lies the big difference between the two small, speedy backs.

* Three coaching lines that were uttered in response to plays on the field:

1.) "Aw, (expletive), Big Mike!" -- after Adams flinched in the red zone.

2.) "Let's GO Martavis!" -- after Bryant slammed into Danny Coale in the red zone.

3.) "Stop tackling, Tuitt!" -- after the rookie slammed a back to the ground after the live tackling period had ended.

They're all very descriptive and definitive of what's going on up here -- the good, the bad, and the ugly, but not in that order.

* Young punter Brad Wing was hitting some bombs yesterday, and most of them hung in the air in the 4 to 5-second range. His final one stayed up for 5.7 seconds. That's Ray Guy stuff.

* The running backs behind the big three of Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Archer received all of the goal-line reps, and Tomlin noted after that practice how "backs explode onto the scene every year and they come in different forms, free agents and so forth."

So I've tried to pin down which of the next three backs can enter the conversation about a potential roster or practice-squad spot. But every day it's someone new. While Tauren Poole and Josh Harris scored touchdowns at the goal line, yesterday it was Miguel Maysonet drawing raves for his blitz pick-up of a hard-charging Terence Garvin. It allowed Ben Roethlisberger to let go of a bomb that just eluded Antonio Brown's diving attempt.

It's probably better to wait for the preseason games to hone in on the one who will rise, or perhaps "explode onto the scene."

* The first team scored as time ran out in the two-minute drill yesterday. Roethlisberger found Brown running across the back of the end zone after his first option was covered. It was a 2-yard touchdown pass, but the key catches on the drive were both made by Wheaton.

* Enjoy your day off. I'll be mowing the lawn and taking out the trash.

SATURDAY, AUG. 2

This one's going to be short and sweet -- unless I get on an inexplicable roll this morning.

Mike Tomlin last night made his way over to my vantage point where I was standing with Bob Labriola and Dale Lolley over on the far sideline and he finished watching practice with us. That's always a treat, because, say, when the ball's in the air and before we can see the intended target, he'll say something like, "OK, big guy, go up and get this." And you turn and it's intended for Martavis Bryant.

So, yes, the head man knows the play and the key men in each play, and to hear him exhorting his players and/or grunting his exasperation in real time is truly a treat.

"Way to HUNT Law Dawg!" Tomlin shouted as Lawrence Timmons ran down Le'Veon Bell at the sideline.

My guess is Tomlin wanted to tell some of us in the media his feelings about ILB Vince Williams, who had just ignited a brawl over in the backs-on-backers pit by blowing up Bell, rolling around on the ground with him, and then taking a flying blow from LeGarrette Blount.

But Tomlin watched Williams diagnose one inside play and close with ferocity and said "Vince Williams, now there's a guy having a great camp. He's Bart Scott, man. Ten years ago he would've been drafted a lot higher, when the grass didn't matter as much, but I like him, man."

Williams, of course, is the guy who was displaced by the immediate insertion of first-round pick Ryan Shazier into the starting lineup.

That's not usually Tomlin's protocol, but the Steelers decided to make a bold move in sliding Timmons over to the playcalling position and inserting a rookie with blinding speed at Timmons' old spot. And there could be no time wasted in Shazier's learning process. So Williams was the odd man out after starting 11 games as a rookie at a complex position of leadership, but yet he was out on the first day of minicamp.

You would have a hard time finding a similar example down through the years, so I'm not going to waste my time with the research.

Fair? Life's not fair. But by keeping his mouth shut and coming back with resolve to have an even better camp than he did as a rookie, Williams is proving to be on another plane as a human being.

That certainly won't escape Tomlin's eagle-eyed view of his team. And my guess is Tomlin wanted to make sure he told the right people his message.

Let's move on to some other notes:

* I'm waiting on a photo to post my story on Stephon Tuitt. I've learned that Tomlin is raving about him in private. I talked to all of the particulars, with only DL coach John Mitchell throwing up his arms and saying, "Jim, we're not even out of training camp! How can you ask me about putting him in the starting lineup?"

Got to love the old-school coach. I have a more precise quote from Mitch on tape and am looking forward to writing this story. Suffice to say I'm pretty excited about Tuitt and Cameron Heyward serving as DL bookends in the future.

* Someone smarter than me gave me some thoughts on what he's seeing on the field and in the film room this camp. Here's a taste:

-- On Shazier: "You watch him on film and he has a great knack for getting off blocks. You see a 320-pound guard coming out and you think he's going to get swallowed up, but after the initial point of contact Shazier gets off the block and makes the play."

-- On Timmons: "He's showing great leadership this camp. He has his group running to the ball because he is running to the ball. It's contagious."

-- On Lance Moore: "He looks like -- now, you're going to think I'm crazy, so don't take this too seriously, but I'm just trying to give you an example -- but he looks like Hines."

As I looked up, Moore was walking back to the huddle and I could visualize Ward. Moore's just slightly smaller and has a 1 on his jersey where Ward's 8 was, but the 6 helped the visualization as the source continued: "Moore is just so dependable and crafty in the middle of the field."

-- And finally, on Bryant: "The guy reminds me of Willie Gault. Great downfield threat, but it took Gault so long to get into his break. Martavis does the same thing, he just keeps tapping both feet and you're like, 'C'mon already, make the cut.' But it's something that can be worked on. Scottie Montgomery used to have a great drill for that, with picking up a towel off the ground and then cutting. It helps sink the hips. In the game you don't have to reach all the way down to the ground, you just cut more quickly. We were talking about that the other day, so maybe you'll see it. But at least for now the kid's a deep threat for Ben."

* OK, one more "scouting" analysis, this from broadcast analyst Tunch Ilkin, who told me his "Camp Phenom" is Howard Jones.

No one in my Web interaction world is asked about more than Jones, and last night he had some outstanding moments in the backs-on-backers drill. Tunch just said he likes the way he moves, and compared Jones, the undrafted rookie OLB, to his old teammate Jerrol Williams because of his thin legs and build.

Hey, it might not be Greg Lloyd, but that's a start for Jones, who's no doubt an interesting prospect.

THURSDAY, JULY 31

Off to a late start this morning, I slugged my way to breakfast, and it started raining, and I slugged my way back to the dorm, and it started raining again. I had an excuse to go back to bed on this dreary morning, and since it's still early in camp and no one's put enough on tape to begin forming not-so-reckless opinions, I have THE perfect excuse.

But I wanted to get this entry written because I have some notes that I've been saving. Some are brief, but some have to stretch out and will take a bit more of your attention, I'm sure:

* Dri Archer was asked by a reporter a couple of days ago if he's becoming acclimated to the speed of the game. I couldn't help but answer for Dri. "This guy IS the speed of the game," I said.

* As you know, I've been impressed with Ben Roethlisberger's leadership this off-season. I saw him take Antonio Brown -- during a special-teams segment -- over to the far nd zone to work on red-zone plays. Later I asked Brown if he thought Roethlisberger is a better leader this year than ever before.

"Somewhat," said Brown.

Somewhat? That's all?

"I mean, he's always been a leader," Brown said. "He's the quarterback, man."

OK, but I'm sticking with my gut feeling that Roethlisberger is maturing into a true team leader.

* Speaking of special-teams segments, that provides a lull during practice for first-team players AND coaches. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley took that time Monday to walk over to chat with his wife, who was standing with the rest of the crowd along the sidelines. When Haley tried to return to the field, he was stopped by a young security guard who told Haley that he had to get back in with the rest of the crowd.

"What do you mean?" asked Haley.

"You don't have a credential. Please, step back," said the guard.

"Don't you know who I am?" Haley said.

"No, why?"

"I'm a coach."

"Oh. Why didn't you tell me? You could've saved me from looking bad."

Of course, the guard was doing a pretty good job of that all by himself.

* So I finally caught up with Ike Taylor and asked him if he ever paid back Shaquille Richardson for interrupting Ike's media talk on reporting day.

"We went him to Wal-Mart to get snacks," said Ike.

So, you let him off pretty easily.

"Yeah, it was minor, but he's got a lot on his plate."

Can the kid make it?

"He can definitely make it, man."

* Speaking of special teams, it appears coordinator Danny Smith is grooming Stephon Tuitt to follow in the "wedge-busting" tradition of previous defensive line reserves Orpheus Roye and Brett Keisel.

* You've read my work long enough to know my next three words: Speaking of Keisel, he won't return my calls but now neither will his buddies whom I've gotten to know. They won't say one word about Brett's situation either way. I'm taking that as a positive sign that Brett doesn't want me screwing up any potential return. And, again, as I've written all along, I believe it will depend on how the defensive ends are playing here at camp. I highly doubt it will have, or has, anything to do with money.

* I watched Jarvis Jones look like a beast in one of Jerry Olsavsky's creative dummy-and-sled drills, and I watched him beat a technically sound Kelvin Beachum on three consecutive one-on-one reps, but then I watched Jones struggle mightily with Matt Spaeth in the TE-vs.-OLB run-game drill and he didn't look like the same guy I watched in the other drills.

* There's also this: (and it can be said for Beachum's three aforementioned reps as well) Players are often working on more than what we see and they are often gauging their results not on overall success, but whether they did the little things the coach had been discussing with them that day in a meeting.

* Maybe it's because I was a former sports editor and understand their value but some of my best friends up here are photographers. (Or maybe it's because I'm half hippie, I don't know.) But one of my photographer buddies asked me these three questions: 1. Who's impressed you the most? 2. Who's playing better than you expected? 3. Who's playing worse than you expected?

I answered the first question with Markus Wheaton. I saw him make a catch during individual drills in which he dove and also did a 270-degree twist of his body, while in mid-air, to catch the ball. I'm not calling him a question mark, or key to the offense, anymore. The guy has what it takes. And he's very confident, yet way too humble to tell me he's confident. You can just see it in his body language.

* Unless Emmanuel Sanders continues to make inane remarks about ex-teammates, I don't think his name will come up at all this season.

* I didn't answer the other two questions, because I told my friend that I watched so much ball in the spring that my expectations are pretty spot-on. But this morning I have some answers. Arthur Moats has exceeded my expectations. He looks so very quick. I'm being told that he's finally found his natural position as a 3-4 OLB. I'm going to talk to him today about that, because I could've swore he played that position with the Buffalo Bills before they went to a 4-3.

* The guy who's playing below my expectations is David Paulson. Now, I know the fans have railed against him for a while. I guess I've been the last to come around. I keep waiting for his time in the weight room to turn him into a physical tight end, but it's just not happening. Both Rob Blanchflower and especially Eric Waters -- the two rookie tight ends -- are much more physical. And being that Mike Tomlin was always a fan of David Johnson, a very physical tight end/fullback, I can't see Tomlin keeping Paulson over those two rookies, unless Paulson starts blocking better.

* Yes, I'm the last two know, just like the aforementioned security guard.

* Speaking of tight end/fullbacks, Will Johnson was said to have been a star in the aforementioned TE-vs.-OLB drills. Johnson also makes plays with the ball in the open field. He's going to factor into the TE numbers on cut-down day.

* I can't stop using "aforementioned." Please, help me.

* Terence Garvin is probably surprising some people, but as you know those behind the scenes have been fascinated with his potential since spring practice. The "Big Safety" has been popping people as an ILB/OLB in live drills, and he seems to have a much better understanding of his assignments this year.

* Spaeth also is showing more speed than I ever remember. You may recall him telling me in the spring after he had the screw removed from his foot that he hadn't felt so good in a long time. Well, it's showing out here.

* I researched 32-year-old quarterbacks the other day for a Steelers Digest piece and came up with Ken Anderson and Bart Starr as potential analogies to Roethlisberger. Both Anderson and Starr were in the middle of long careers and at that age guided their teams to Super Bowls and were named MVP.

* I didn't expect to go back that far to find my comparison, but at least there are precedents.

* Everyone -- teammates, coaches and media -- loves Ramon Foster. He's a source of positive energy and has become a friend of mine. I can say that without feeling I'm exaggerating our relationship because he's such a nice guy that he won't mind at all. So everyone feels so bad for Ramon, who's dealing with the unexpected death of his mother. He's the rare guy who makes YOU feel better about HIS tragedy rather than vice-versa.

* With Ramon back at left guard, Chris "Mother" Hubbard, who spent his rookie season last year on the practice squad, returns to the second-team offensive line.

"It was a great experience," said Hubbard. "It was just so awesome running with Maurkice Pouncey. I've always been wanting to do that."

I asked Hubbard if he minds being called "Mother" Hubbard, as Tomlin calls him.

"Nah. My strength and conditioning coach in college always used to call me that."

Tomlin's pretty quick with the nicknames, isn't he?

"He IS," Hubbard said with admiration. "My first day here he said, 'Well, hello, Mother Hubbbard.' And I said, man, it's just like college."

* The injury to David Snow has yet to afford an opportunity at center for Chris Elkins, the undrafted rookie from Youngstown State who has looked so good, so well-coached, in one-on-one drills. It appears that the immediate beneficiary has been rookie fifth-round pick Wesley Johnson, who's received even more time at center as he rotates in there and at tackle and guard. Johnson hasn't overwhelmed anyone with his strength, but he's been solid and efficient at all three positions.

* I asked a source if Elkins has a chance to make it with that great leverage of his. The guy said, "He has GREAT hands, but not-so-great feet. The concern is that he'll have a hard time with the outside zone-blocking plays."

* There's definitely been more outside zone being run at this camp. That was one of the myths about last year's camp, that they worked so hard on the outside zone plays but had to scrap them after Pouncey went down in the opener. The truth is they rarely ran outside zone in team scrimmages last camp.

* I was watching Elkins yesterday and the third-team line ran an outside zone play and new running back Josh Harris stuck his foot in the ground and cut it up inside for a 10-yard gain, just the way it's drawn up. Elkins stumbled a bit, but the overall lack of cohesion on that unit may have had more to do with that than any perceived slow feet. After all, Pouncey said Elkins has quick feet. So let's watch some more.

* Furthermore, the aforementioned source told me that "it's not a one-on-one drill out there, especially a one-on-one drill against defensive linemen who can't really move well. Guys like Geno Atkins, those are the guys you have to be able to stop up here."

* Daniel McCullers, about whom I wrote glowingly the other day in this column, used his 352 pounds to overpower Elkins in yesterday's one-on-one drill. McCullers, with that size and steady improvement, is starting to look like a can't-cut rookie.

* Jordan Zumwalt could have a career in the media after football, he's that personable and interesting. I ran into him yesterday and asked the rookie from L.A. if he likes Pittsburgh.

"I really do," said Zumwalt.

I asked him why.

"The people here are so real. You never know what you're getting when you meet someone in L.A."

* On the first snap of the only full tackling period yesterday, LeGarrette Blount found a hole up the middle, stiff-armed Ryan Shazier to the ground, and took off for a gain of 10 yards or so. After practice I caught up with Blount as he was making his way up Autograph Hill.

Me: On the first run of the day you stiff-armed Shazier to the ground. You looked happy. Was it payback for what he did to you?

LG: Payback for what?

Me: For the backs-on-backers drill on Monday.

LG: For what he did to me?

Me: He beat you the first two times before you smacked him the third time.

LG: Oh, OK. No, it was no payback. Nah. That's how you gotta run the play. (Pause) I was just joking with you about it before, about not knowing what you were talking about. But it's just a part of how I play the ball. I didn't even know that was him that I stiff-armed. I was just running the football.

Me: Were you happy about gaining 10 yards there?

LG: It's always going to feel good. But in the game that's going to be a touchdown. Hands down that's going to be a touchdown.

I don't doubt him. I've seen the big man break off some long runs.

* In talking to Blount, I felt like I was talking to James Harrison. There's an edge there, and a line between player and reporter that you think can be breached at any time. Violently.

* The first-team offensive line really played well as a unit yesterday. I don't know if it was the return of Foster or that the high draft picks are beginning to emerge as players or that Mike Munchak's coaching is paying off. It was probably a combination of all three "aforementioned" factors. I was thinking about all this as I was staring at one of the final plays of the final scrimmage yesterday when the line formed a perfect pocket for Roethlisberger, who with all kinds of time and space found Spaeth wide open in the middle of the field. Spaeth rumbled on well after the catch for a touchdown.

* One thing that's caught my eye here is the use of rolling pockets for Roethlisberger. I always loved that from the Hogs and Joe Theismann back with the Washington Redskins.

* And people keep talking about the use of the no-huddle this year. I watched them work on it for one, maybe two, days in the spring and I haven't seen any of it yet this camp. Yet, I keep hearing that they're working on it night and day. It's probably another myth that's in the process of holding up in the media.

* As aforementioned.

MONDAY, JULY 28

Finally, it's time to hit.

I know. I know. I've been slow as a slug around these parts, lifeless in fact. I just can't muster up much enthusiasm to report the details of Markus Wheaton catching a long bomb from Ben Roethlisberger during flag football practice because it's the SAME THING that I've been watching since the first day of spring.

Of course, the new bloggers who are allowed to attend practices out here at St. Vincent College for the first time are seeing all of this with fresh eyes, and their reports crackle with joy. Those reports are easy and fun to read. And I'm sure it gives the reader at home the feeling that fresh, new football is being played around here.

But it's not. God bless the bloggers anyway. And God bless the veteran reporters who are actually paying close attention here, probably most for the first time this calendar year.

But, now, it's time to hit. It's time to watch some real football. It's time to report on real football. Thank you very much.

In the meantime, here are five things I've been meaning to say about my first three days at St. Vincent College:

1. Troy Polamalu, that scamp. I think I'm getting to understand him, and I fear for the most part that it's too late because this is probably his last season. But what a class move in bringing his successor, Shamarko Thomas, into his home and teaching him all the things that millions of young athletes around the world need to know: a Hall of Fame approach to holistic athletic training.

I read the quotes from Thomas on reporting day about being taken into Troy's home, and I had to talk to Troy about it. But, of course, Troy didn't test the waters of the media mob outside the dorm on reporting day. He never does. And he doesn't walk past the line of reporters hawking the cafeteria at lunch time.

Does Troy even eat lunch?

I don't know, but I remember one day last year that he ate lunch. He put a cell phone to his ear and quickly strode past us as we respectfully left him to his "cell-phone conversation."

Was that an act? My guess is that it was. So did he go to confession?

No, but seriously I'm not knocking him. I understand that he just HATES to have to lie to us, and every athlete playing on a team has to lie in some capacity at some point in a mob interview. So, yes, interviews = lies, unless you want your teammates angry at you.

And that's why Troy walks off the back of the field, to a waiting golf cart, most every afternoon after practice. He's almost like an apparition around here, and I respect every last second of why and how he does it.

But there he was late Saturday afternoon, playing catch after practice with one of the backup QBs. I don't know if he was working on his hands or helping the QB work on his arm. As I waited to catch Troy -- with an interview request for Carnell Lake already placed with the proper authorities -- Roethlisberger began talking to the media that was waiting for Mike Tomlin. As Ben talked, the mob grew. I joined in because Troy was still playing catch and I had nothing else to do. But I kept my eye on Troy as I hoped he would try to walk out the front door as Ben held us at bay.

And he did. Troy began walking over to Autograph Hill. I left the Roethlisberger interview not because Troy is a better catch, but because the entire Internet will have Ben's quotes the next day. So I walked halfway across the three St. Vincent fields, stayed in my media roped-off zone, and hollered out to ask Troy if he had a couple of minutes. He did. He walked over with his helmet still on but with that unmistakeable Polamalu-trademarked unsnapping of the bottom two buttons of the chin strap. It's a look I'm sure you would recognize; a look that I fear will be seen for the last season. He stopped and I could feel his anguish as I asked him to tell me about what happened at his home this summer.

"Shamarko really wanted to come out," Troy started. "And I of course really do appreciate my privacy with my family, especially in the off-season, and Shamarko is part of that family."

With that warning out of the way, he proceeded, but with trepidation. I, though, was happy with any bit of conversation about his workout routine and hoped my tape recorder was picking him up through the wild calls from the crowd for Troy.

As he was wrapping it up, I saw Lake over at the side waiting for me. I worried Lake would leave, but as Troy was concluding an important point about the combination of physical, mental and spiritual coming together in a workout routine, Joey Porter interrupted for a photo and autograph from Troy with Joey's little nephew. I motioned over to Carnell to wait while I finish with one of his players. The look on his face said about what you'd expect from a busy man.

Troy returned from the photo shoot and pretty much forgot the grand point he was about to make. I thanked him for his help and hustled over to Lake and apologized.

"That's OK," Carnell said. "Troy's more important than me."

I chuckled and apologized again. I think Carnell understood that I had to grab the apparition while I had the chance. And that this is probably the apparition's final go-round, so every one-on-one opportunity should be taken. I would've been foolish not to have.

2. I saw Ben the next day in the cafeteria. I nodded; he looked away, and I wondered if he was PO'd that I left him for Troy.

Nah. Can't be. It was just my imagination, running away with me.

3. Let's talk a little bit about Daniel McCullers, who has apparently made the jump into the No. 2 nose tackle spot on the depth chart over Loni Fangupo and Al Lapuaho.

For two days now, McCullers, the rookie sixth-rounder who's listed at 352 pounds, has been the backup nose to Steve McLendon. And McCullers was a guy I expected to have trouble finishing the conditioning test.

But that was far from the case. "He ran very well," said one source who was down on the sidelines. "He ran them all, and he especially ran the last one well."

The source was watching closely, because most everyone felt the big rookie would suffer some Jamain Stephens-like symptoms.

"Cam Thomas, too," said the source. "They all ran well. Everyone passed. No one asked anyone to take a break and no one even had to be encouraged, like, 'C'mon, you can do this last one.' There was none of that stuff that you usually hear. I did hear Gie (conditioning coach Garrett Giemont) ask one player if he was all right, but that's about it."

So the team is in shape. I hope to soon find out specifically how in shape McCullers is, but he looks pretty lean for a big man. I do know that his name is constantly being mentioned whenever I ask coaches or scouts to name a sleeper. But it always precedes comments such as, "If he decides he wants it," or "If he develops an edge," or more precisely, "If he lets 'em drop."

I'll let you sort through that one on your own.

4. Jarvis Jones reported to camp a little bit after Wheaton and I immediately decided that my first story would be on those two, because in my opinion those two second-year players are the keys to the defense and offense, respectively.

Wheaton -- who didn't play much last year and who therefore isn't really held in as low esteem by fans and media as Jones -- was very cordial. He's bubbling over his prospects this season and it shows.

But Jones, he actually played through his struggles, and had only one sack, and fans think he stinks. So, he, of course, has been less than bubbly with the media. I noticed this when I said, "Hey, Jarvis, after you drop your stuff off are you coming back to talk?"

He mumbled something as he kept walking. But another reporter pointed out that Jarvis had left his truck running in the street and therefore had to return to put it in the parking lot.

Well, five minutes turned into 20 minutes and the truck was still running. And then the Steelers' PR department said at 3:45 p.m. that they were leaving, that it was almost time for the run test. I shrugged my shoulders, looked at the idling truck, and left.

The next day, Jarvis was mobbed by reporters at lunch. He did his best. He perspired as profusely under the glare as he had the day after he was drafted and had to speak at the podium. He doesn't dislike the media, he just doesn't like the attention. And particularly after last year, after politely answering all of the questions about his struggles during the course of that year, he just isn't in the mood for talking about what he's going to do. He realizes he has to actually do what he's going to do, and that there's nothing more to say.

I asked him a question along those lines after he had walked away from the lunch-time mob.

"I've never been a talker," he said. "That's why I keep saying that I just have to keep chopping wood. Yeah, I know I didn't have a great season last year. Everybody in the world knows I didn't have a great season last year. But, man, that was last year. This is a whole new year."

Keep chopping, my man. It'll come around.

5. Ike Taylor has really come to embrace the media. He understands that it's not the questions, but the answers that matter. So he doesn't get upset. He just answers how he wants to answer. That's what gets out to the public, and so Ike has learned how to seize control of this stage. He revels in it. But he was interrupted at one point on reporting day by Shaquille Richardson, who hollered out of his dorm window, "Hey Ike! Hey Ike!" or some other such nonsense. Ike hollered back with a smile to the rookie cornerback he had taken under his wing this summer to the Tom Shaw speed camp.

"That's Shaq Richardson right there, the little rookie," Taylor said as he turned his attention back to the media mob.

One of the reporters asked Ike if there would be any consequences for "the little rookie" after he interrupted the veteran's press conference.

"Yeah. Don't worry, I'm gonna get him for that. Don't even worry," Ike said. "I was disrespectful to y'all, but don't worry, I got him."

I don't know if Ike's gotten him yet, or if Shaq is playing well in his limited reps as the number ... um ... what number down the CB depth chart is Shaq?

Ah, it's flag football anyway. But I did ask Lake about his No. 4 cornerback competition. Since we had been talking about Thomas, I started there with Lake.

"Shamarko's talented enough to do it," Lake said of playing cornerback. "Right now I think he's better suited to play safety for us. I hope we don't have to use him at corner."

Do you like what you saw out of Antwon Blake or anyone else as the No. 4 corner in the spring?

"I do," Lake said. "I think Blake's coming around. Blake looks really good. Brice McCain's looking good. Shaq Richardson's looking good. Isaiah Green's looking good. (Chuckles) We've got guys who I think can go in there and help us right now. And if you look at what some of those guys are doing on special teams, three of the four top tacklers on special teams are DBs, four of the top five tacklers on the defense are defensive backs. So I like where we are as a group."

What about Shaq? Did he show you something in the spring?

"Shaq is always around the ball. He's very close in coverage. He doesn't shy away from press coverage. When you get a guy like that, who has confidence in staying close to receivers, I think you've got something. I think we've got something, especially considering we got him in the fifth round."

Considering Shaq broke up Ike's press conference, he must have some degree of confidence. He just has keep looking over his shoulder for Ike's payback. I'll have that for you when it happens.

But for now, it's about time for some real football. Thank you for waiting.

SATURDAY, JULY 26

If you remember my column from last year, you remember that I really, really dislike reporting day.

No. I hate it.

It's a day for TV pictures and radio soundbites. And if you're listening to a podcast rife with quotes from the reporting players, may the good Lord still give you more time to waste.

I arrived late to this one. I really had no questions to ask anyone. I did all of that in the spring. Maurkice Pouncey's recent travails? Bah. I heard that no one had asked him about the questionable assault charge and ensuing lawsuit anyway. Apparently, Maurkice's demeanor scared the reporters into non-relevance. And, boy, do I hate to see a good man turned bad by the non-stories that swirl around his universe.

Anyway, there really wasn't much that interested me as I arrived around 2:30 p.m. and headed over to Rooney Hall, where the players check in.

The first person I saw was Dale Lolley. He was leaving. He had had enough and was going to begin writing some kind of introductory story about training camp. Next to pass me going the other way was another one of my reporter friends, Mike Ciarochi. He was bored out of his mind, but did have something cosmetic to write for his paper.

In spite of their warnings, I continued walking toward the mob of TV cameras and radio mike stands. Someone was standing in the middle of the mob and he was wearing a Pirates hat. He had long braids tied in a pony tail coming out the back of the hat, a la Andrew McCutchen, but I knew it was Markus Wheaton. Now, HE, in fact, was someone who interested me. And as I arrived, the sea of cameras parted and left. I was alone, as if I was meant to interview this player for whom everyone who knows him roots for him. He's that sweet of a kid.

So, we talked.

JW: Hi Markus. I thought you were McCutchen at first.

MW: (Laughs) I get that.

JW: I have you figured as the most important person in this offense at this camp because you're the new guy.

MW: I agree with you. Everybody's established. You've seen everybody play. Everybody's proven. I'm pretty much the only one who's not, so it's pretty exciting for me going into it and having a group around me that's so experienced and has done so well in the past. That will help me out getting to where I want to go.

JW: Excitement must mean confidence, because you would be nervous if you weren't confident.

MW: Definitely, but I'm nervous also. If you're not nervous than you don't care much about it, so I am a little bit nervous. Very much excited. Definitely confident with how OTAs went, with knowing what I know now compared to last year.

JW: What can you be opposite Antonio Brown, who's both a deep threat and a catch-and-run guy? How would you describe your game? Because the fans really haven't seen you.

MW: They haven't seen me at all. I'm going to be whatever they want me to be, whatever my coaching staff, whatever plays they put together for me, I'm going to be that person. I feel I'm very versatile, can do a little bit of everything.

JW: Now, your hand's OK?

MW: Yep.

JW: Could you show me that pinky finger for the last time?

MW: (Right pinky permanently half closed.)

JW: Now, does that affect catching the pass at all?

MW: Not at all. Not at all. I played with it throughout OTAs and had no problem with it at all.

JW: Everyone I talked to was pretty happy about your play this spring. Were you?

MW: I think so. Obviously it was just seven on seven in shorts and t-shirts, but I still plan on getting better and I still plan on proving something here.

With that, Wheaton began looking around, seemingly for some help to put an end to this. Even nice people hate interviews. So I read the body language, wished him luck, and he was gone with the understanding that the real work, and perhaps the most important work for this team, his work as Emmanuel Sanders' replacement, begins today.


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