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Pittsburgh Steelers mid-week practice report

Jim Wexell's blog-style mid-week report from the Steelers' practice facility on the South Side.

PITTSBURGH -- Apologies for no formal report this morning. Maybe it's all of the soccer excitement going on with my daughter's team, but I had to leave the South Side with a bit of illness Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it's the same illness that forced Martavis Bryant from practice Wednesday.

Bryant missed, as did Terence Garvin (knee), Markus Wheaton (ankle) and Matt Spaeth (knee) with injuries. James Harrison, Will Gay and Heath Miller were given veteran days off. Stephon Tuitt (knee) and Will Allen (ankle) were limited.

What does the above mean?

Well, the surprise seems to be Wheaton, the slot receiver who's hit a bit of a wall of late. Since catching a 72-yard touchdown pass at San Diego on Oct. 12, Wheaton has caught only four passes for 29 yards. Perhaps the ankle is to blame.

As for my daughter's team -- and I know this is the only real news you care about -- Norwin is undefeated and playing for the WPIAL championship Friday night against Upper St. Clair, the school that's produced Todd Haley, Doug Whaley, Kirk Ferentz, Sean Lee, Kevin Orie and Ryan Malone, among others.

Norwin has produced Doug Plank, me, my wife and my daughter. And a few others.

See yinz at Highmark Stadium.

RUNNING THE BALL

In a quick work-up of the Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers game this Sunday, the stat that jumped out at me was the 5.4 yards per rush the Steelers have enjoyed the last five games.
 
Of course, that correlates with the return of Le'Veon Bell from his two-game suspension six games ago. And now, he's done for the year.

DeAngelo Williams played well in the Steelers' first two games. He averaged 5.0 per carry as the starter then, and added a 55-yarder last Sunday against the Bengals.

Williams' backup is Jordan Todman, who has one carry for 11 yards this season. Todman has played in 41 games in his career and has rushed for 461 yards at a 4.1 per-carry clip.

"I've been here for eight weeks," said Todman. "But the opportunity to carve out a niche, or show a role, show more than the one play I've gotten earlier this year as far as things I'm able to do, is an opportunity in a bunch of situations for me and the team. It's pretty exciting."

The Steelers also added Isaiah Pead, a fourth-year vet who was signed off the street after being released by the St. Louis Rams a little over a month ago. You may remember Pead from the 2012 Combine when he told me the Steelers were very interested in him.

"I've talked to the Steelers a lot," Pead said back in February of 2012. "And behind the scenes, from what I've been told, if word of mouth means anything, the Steelers have spoken highly of me. And I'm happy for it."

The Steelers then had Pead in for a pre-draft visit, but the Rams drafted him in the second round. The Steelers, in need of backfield depth, drafted Chris Rainey in the fifth round.

But they got their man this week.
 
"Yeah, me and Coach (Mike) Tomlin had a conversation and I felt he was interested," Pead said Wednesday of the 2012 Combine. "Of course there were a lot of other guys feeling the same way, but I've always been a fan of Coach Tomlin. I never really had a favorite team growing up but I was a fan of him. I just like the way he approaches the team and speaks fire into the team and wants to win every game."

Pead is 5-10, 197 and ran a 4.41 40 at that Combine. He was the MVP of that year's Senior Bowl mainly because of his record 98 yards in punt returns, which Pead was doing for the first time since high school. He logged 3,288 rushing yards at the University of Cincinnati and was the 2011 Big East Player of the Year.

HARRISON OKs BURFICT TACKLE

The tackle by Vontaze Burfict that cost the Steelers Bell for the season isn't sitting well with many Steelers, but James Harrison didn't admit to having a problem with it.

"Once you've got your arms wrapped on the side/back of a person, it's not like you can plant your feet," said Harrison. "So what you do is you sling your body into it and you hold on. He got his leg caught in there."

BOSWELL: NO IDEA

Chris Boswell said he had "no idea" why he wasn't called upon to attempt a 53-yard field goal on the first possession of the fourth quarter Sunday. The Steelers instead punted 18 yards to the Cincinnati 17.

Has the South end zone been a problem for Boswell as it has been for most NFL kickers?

"No. I kicked good," Boswell said of warm-ups. "Just a judgment call you have to live with. It's not my call anyway. I just go out there whenever they say 'field goal.'"
NFL kickers have made only nine of 29 field-goal attempts of 50 yards or longer at Heinz Field. That's 31 percent, against the league average of 57 percent during the same time period (courtesy of Football Outsiders).

Boswell did make a 51-yarder against Arizona, but that was into the North end zone. The South end zone, to which the Steelers were heading at that point Sunday, has been the more difficult end zone over the years. Although, the open seating end on that side had been closed this offseason.

"I noticed in that Pitt-North Carolina game they struggled going into the North end zone," long-snapper Greg Warren said of the college game played three nights earlier. "I don't know if it was just that game or the wind or what, but the wind was knocking everything down going into the North end zone. It knocked a lot of your kickoffs down last week."

"It knocked both of mine down," Boswell added.

"There's always been a crosswind in the South," said Warren. "The North, it just seems like it's right in your face and just knocks everything down."

Could the blocked field goal by Cam Heyward that ended the previous Bengals' possession have spooked Tomlin?

"Nah, it wouldn't have spooked us. Our field goal protection is pretty solid," Warren said with a nod to locker room-neighbor Matt Spaeth, one of the edge blockers. "I don't think there's been a lot that's spooked (Tomlin) this year. I think he's been a lot more aggressive in a lot of things. But a 53-yarder is right on the line in a field-position game. I'd be the last one to second-guess him. I am not a coach. That's for sure. But, no, I wasn't surprised by his decision. If anything it's probably Matt Spaeth's fault. If anything spooked him it's this guy."

Spaeth, sitting near Warren and Boswell, just smiled and shook his head.

ROETHLISBERGER NOTES

Ben Roethlisberger speaks to the Pittsburgh media on Wednesdays. Here are some highlights from the scrum this week:

* On the Raiders: "It’s going to be very physical. Their defensive backs do a lot of grabbing, holding and just being physical in general. It’s a really good test for our
receivers, and for me to be accurate."

* On the next quarter of the season: "We’re closing the chapter on the first half of the season, so that’s a good thing. We can move on and don’t have to talk about it, because there were some negatives in that first half."
 
* On Williams replacing Bell at RB: "I’m not going to call anything any different because he’s in there. He’s a back who knows what he’s supposed to do and will do it with every ounce of his being."
 
* On taking off the knee brace: "Probably not yet. I’m going to listen to the doctors very closely on this one. They want to keep it on for a while. Whether that’s the rest of the season, a couple games, whatever it is, I think that’s the prudent and a smart thing to do."

* On his ability to step into throws: "From being off for so long you have to get your muscles built back up. When you step in and drive, those are different muscles than the ones you use just walking around or sitting down. Just getting your body acclimated again to doing those things and really driving into balls, that’s all."

GRANT CALLED UP

Fourth-round draft pick Doran Grant's hard work on the practice squad paid off yesterday when the rookie cornerback was promoted to the 53-man roster. The Steelers waived QB/WR Tyler Murphy and are expected to put him on the practice squad if he clears waivers.

I expected Grant to be called up last week but when asked at the time Grant said he wasn't even thinking about it. "I'm only thinking about going out to practice today and working as hard as I can," he said.

That's the kind of attitude that nearly always pays off.

WHO'S DOUG PLANK?

Man, I must be getting old. Plank was a quarterback at Norwin, a free safety at Ohio State, and the middle linebacker for Buddy Ryan's 5-1-5 alignment in the early 1980s for the Chicago Bears.
 
Plank, normally the strong safety next to Gary Fencik, was used by Ryan in the middle of that 5-1-5 against the San Diego Chargers in order to put pressure on Dan Fouts and also have enough secondary help to stop that great passing attack.
 
The alignment evolved into the famed "46" defense, so named because 46 was Plank's number. He retired in 1982 and proudly watched "his" defense demolish the NFL in 1985.


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