Big Week, Interesting Week

Jim Wexell with a review of this past week in Steelers football, from both a personal and professional perspective:

From the notebook of a sportswriter whose answers will probably only bring up more questions:

* Someone asked me recently about Alejandro Villanueva, the 6-foot-9 offensive tackle on the Steelers' practice squad. First of all, he's big and muscular but lean. He's listed at 277 but has to be closer to 320. He's athletic. Very athletic. Tunch Ilkin is working with him and said he's also explosive. Also said he's hungry, that "He wants to be great." Can he? "He has a chance," said Ilkin.

* The bad news is that he knows so little about the position. He was a wide receiver at Army, and when he came back from serving our nation as a captain with the Army Rangers, he played defense.

* The good news is that he knows so little about the position. "He has no bad habits," Ilkins said. "He's a fresh mound of clay."

* Ilkin, you may remember, spent time working with Kelvin Beachum after Beach's rookie season. The Steelers' left tackle right now might be the most underrated player in the NFL.

* Beachum's size doesn't befit a left tackle, but of course you can get away with shorter guys, I think, as long as you don't have too many. I looked up at Wednesday's practice with Bruce Gradkowski replacing Ben Roethlisberger and Dri Archer in the backfield in place of Le'Veon Bell and, with Beachum, thought to myself, "My goodness, they have a bunch of runts."

* But Beachum's a keeper. And I believe in Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.

* Mike Adams is coming off a below-average game, but that's not the reason I've been watching college tackles closely this fall. It's just that there seem to be so many of them that the position could present great value in the first round.

* And even with Adams, the Steelers have only three on their active roster.

* Let Villanueva learn the position at the proper pace.

* While I've opened up the can of draft worms here, Bell was talking to a few of us about prospects, specifically his former teammate Trae Waynes, a 6-1 cornerback who would look absolutely brilliant in black and gold.

* There aren't many other elite CBs I can see at this point. Marcus Peters is one, but he was kicked off his team. Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson and TCU's Kevin White are probably high second-rounders.

* But Waynes is the other elite CB. Bell loves him. So do I. So, probably, do 31 other teams.

* By the way, I'm still not crossing Peters off my personal list. I want to hear his story at the combine first. I think he's that good.

* While we're throwing a few draft names around, if a cornerback can't fit on the value board my second-round target is UCLA DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa. He's a 270-pounder with uncommon strength. He's actually more of a 4-3 end and often moves inside to play the 5-tech for UCLA. But he would be in the nickel package right away for me, and I would hope he can do some LaMarr Woodley things in pass coverage later.

* Back to the practice week. After all, it's a pretty big week.

* Can the Steelers beat the Bengals? Well, ask yourself if Roethlisberger can beat Andy Dalton. So that's a start. My worry is all of the young defenders trying to slow down the Bengals' run game. So much will be up to NT Steve McLendon and his ailing shoulder. I asked him if he passed the strength test Thursday with flying colors. "I practiced," was all he would say.

* So, I'm guessing "flying colors" wasn't the appropriate description.

* Don't expect Jarvis Jones to show much in the way of increased strength. He's missed nine games with a disclocated wrist. His focus in the weight room was first-step explosiveness and leg and core strength. He said he only did as much upper-body work as he could with his cast.

* So I'm not going to judge him harshly at the finish of this season. I already see so many critics lining up to call him a bust anyway. But Dick LeBeau isn't one of those. He genuinely believes in Jones.

* And he believes in Stephon Tuitt. But, man, Tuitt will have his hands full with the Cincy run game.

* On offense, one of the guys I expect to play more is Josh Harris, the rookie running back who was just promoted from the practice squad.

* That's just a hunch, so don't put him on your fantasy roster just yet.

* One of the practice plays that stood out this week was the brief fight between Maurkice Pouncey and new DE Clifton Geathers. But the highlight was Adams racing over the top and taking Geathers down by the head, neck and shoulders and slamming him to the ground. I'm guessing Adams was told to step up his aggressiveness that day in the film room.

* The fight occurred in one of the final periods. So at the end of practice, Pouncey walked over toward my sideline and hollered that "I saw you here and felt like I had to get in a fight."

* If you have questions about that note, read this thread on our message board.

* After missing the last four weeks of practice, I was welcomed back this week by Mike Tomlin, LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Gilbert, Pouncey, Joey Porter and Ramon Foster. It made me feel good to know that my absence was noticed.

* Polamalu stopped an Xs and Os conversation with LeBeau to say hello. He caught me again later outside the locker room and said, "We missed you around here. We need a real man like you to cover the team."

* It was of course a dig, a shot, but there was definitely a smile in his eyes.

* Ed Bouchette pepped me up by running down the list of "dust-ups" over the past that pale significantly by comparison, like Dan Pastorini tackling and threatening a sportswriter before an AFC Championship Game. Could you imagine what they'd be saying about Pastorini on radio talk shows if he did that today?

* Then again, my primary antagonist in this matter -- all matters, in fact -- once gleefully reveled in the news that his buddy Joe Bendel went toe-to-toe with Ryan Clark at training camp a few years ago.

* I think we all know in this case it's about the personal agenda of the guy doing the reporting. What good news it must've been to him.

* Anyway, the other play that stood out to me this week was a leaping interception by Mike Mitchell at the goal line. I asked him about his vertical and he said he jumped 37 inches in college. I told him it looked like 43 on the interception. He thanked me for talking about something positive, and I told him we would talk again about this after his upcoming pick in Cincinnati. "I like that. I like that," Mitchell said. "That'll be good for us. That'll be my first one. Get me on the board."

* Mitchell not only has a goose egg in the interceptions column, he's broken up only two passes and I don't think he laid a hand on either. It's becoming difficult to understand why they brought him in as a free agent when they could've just handed the job over to Shamarko Thomas.

* Is Thomas having trouble understanding the defense? Or is his lack of playing time due to his injuries? No one but the staff knows the answer to that one.

* As for Mitchell, I like him. I do. Of course, I'm suddenly drawn to those who've become pariahs of the fan base. I actually applaud him for personally telling one jerk to go ahead and off himself.

* I know. That's just me. But I'm tired of the hate on the Internet. I really am.

* I wouldn't have gone to that extreme. I would've just blocked the jerk. I probably have more people blocked than I have followers.

* I realize Twitter's become the competitive proof in journalism these days, but popularity just doesn't mean anything to me. I've always been appreciative of the few true friends I have anyway. And after spending the last month at the bottom of the pit, I've become even more appreciative, because those few friends stepped up. I couldn't have asked for more.


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