Day 4 Camp Notes, The Dirt

Injuries are beginning to mount. Kendall Simmons was the big story coming into camp. Josh Miller is already coming round, but then down went Hank Poteat. I doubt most Steelers fans even flinched upon hearing about QB Tim Levcik and his injury. Ah, but just a few words concerning the bandage around Troy Polamalu's leg will stir the interest of even the most casual of fans.

We'll see how serious Troy Polamalu's strained whatever is later this afternoon. For now, let's focus on the positives. Tim Lewis called a run blitz during the highlight of last night's practice at the stadium in downtown Latrobe. Polamalu, already seeing significant playing time with the first team, was in on the goal line defense. If you had any doubts about Troy's talent, he put those to rest as he bolted around the right side of the offense and flew into the running back, stopping the Steelers just short of the goal line.

James Farrior would be the hero of the stand, making two big stops and forcing a fumble, but Polamalu is already making a name for himself. Perhaps not as impressive as the hit heard around the world that was Kendrell Bell colliding with Jerome Bettis, but Troy will eventually have more impact on this team during his rookie year than Bell did during his first year.

There is a lot riding on Polamalu, which became much more apparent when the Steelers unveiled their nickel experiment. Lewis has the defense in a 4-2-5 alignment. Up front from left to right are Jason Gildon, Aaron Smith, Kimo Von Oelhoffen (Casey Hampton is on the second team nickel defense), and Joey Porter. Kendrell Bell and James Farrior are the two linebackers, with Mike Logan playing up with them in the middle of the field. DeWayne Washington and Chad "The Kid" Scott are your corners. Brent Alexander and Troy Polamalu fill out the defensive backfield.

That's right, if you are counting at home, Lewis plans on using 3 safeties in his version of the nickel. I suspect this is to give the defense a little more pop against the run. Polamalu will be the lynchpin in this scheme, given his ability to run like a cornerback and hit like a linebacker. However, the Steelers have a long way to go perfecting the nickel if they plan on using it much during the 2003 season. The run defense in particular is a mere shadow of its usual dominant self.

Around the field…

The night practices do not have the same look and feel of the afternoon sessions. Wednesday night was more a showcase for the fans than anything else. However, I did manage to keep tabs on a few players and see how they are doing.

A poster on the message board asked about how Russell Stuvaints was faring. I didn't have to look hard. Stuvaints was all over the field last night, sticking his nose in on a number of plays. I guess he saves his best for the spotlight. I'll leave him to Wex for a legend in the making.

Josh Burr was struggling again handling Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans. There's plenty of camp to go and I don't get to see the morning sessions, but I think Mathias Nkwenti will stick as the backup left tackle. Besides, Burr is getting all his time at right tackle, behind Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham.

Plaxico Burress failed to wow the crowd, even dropping an easy one down the seam. Spike did break up a sure interception by Nashville Dyer on a deep ball, shaking up Dyer in the process.

Mike Mularkey got tired of calling running plays up the gut on the goal line stand and when the second team offense came in, he went after Alonzo Jackson in coverage against Casey Poppinga. With the offense's ego bruised by Farrior on the preceding series, Mularkey went right after the rookie.

Speaking of Farrior, he had a great night. He was superb in coverage, particularly on a pass to Riemersma in the end zone. He's much more comfortable in the defense and has impressed me more than Bell so far in camp.

Brett Keisel ate up a shovel pass to Amos Zereoue in the backfield. Keisel looks like he is coming on lately. I don't think Von Oelhoffen is looking over his shoulder, but great to see Keisel flash some of what caught Cowher's attention last season.

Keydrick Vincent appears a bit jumpy, particularly with Aaron Smith across from him. Smith is having his way with Vincent and the right side of the offensive line has to be a major concern for Russ Grimm right now. Ross, Vincent, and Jeff Hartings have struggled mightily in handling Smith and Hampton. These three may get their game together, but what happens when Kendall Simmons re-enters the mix in 10 days or so?

Overall, I'd say the defense is much further along than the offense right now, but that's without considering the nickel, which is still a rough draft at best. Everything I have seen from Tommy Maddox so far leads me to believe that he will not be a one-hit wonder. But with Mularkey and Cowher shying away from his risky play, are the Steelers going against the grain of the offense? With the defense re-emerging as the centerpiece of this team, the offense grows more confused about its identity.

Jim Russell

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