Monday Camp Notes, the Dirt

The play of the offensive line got you down? Who needs blocking when you have Antwaan Randle El? Mike Mularkey dusted off a few of the trick plays today, forcing the defense to play a little bit more offense. The offense still looks rusty, but the Pittsburgh Steelers will be even more fun to watch in 2003.

His name is Antwaan Randle El. He's now getting time as the holder on the first team field goal unit, not the second team. He lines up at quarterback during the one-minute drills. He catches a screen out of the backfield. He runs an end around. And yes, he's still a wide receiver.

His passing game needs some work, but that's what camp is for. Mike Mularkey clearly has a new favorite toy.

Perhaps Mularkey grew tired of the vanilla offense. Maybe he decided to throw the offense a bone for its strong showing in the goal line drill last Saturday. While there are plenty of kinks to work out, the Steelers sent a message to the rest of the NFL that a major source offensive innovation will continue to be Pittsburgh.

My favorite offensive formation was the wishbone. Tommy Maddox was behind center and Jerome Bettis was the feature back. His wingmen were none other than Hines Ward and Randle El. The options out of this alignment seem endless. At the very least, Mularkey will keep the opposition guessing.

Unfortunately, that's the extent of the good news concerning the offense. Jeff Hartings was missing from the action. Apparently his knee is acting up again and the Steelers are just taking the necessary "precautions." I'm not buying a word of it. Hartings has not looked good at all out there when he makes it to practice. I don't mind Chukky Okobi at center, but there is no depth behind him. I thought the coaching staff appeared just that much more anxious to squeeze something out of Jimond Pugh.

Perhaps Hartings will provide the needed cap room to go into the 2003 season.

Despite the journey deeper into the playbook, I did not see much Maddox magic today. The passing game had a few moments, but mostly it was flat. And then there were the usual botched snaps, dropped passes, and blown blocking assignments.

Instead of continuing my frustration, I'll move on to special teams. Yes, Mike Schneck did botch a snap, but I really like what I see from this unit. Don't worry at all about Jeff Reed. He's reacted well to the competition from Jonathan Ruffin and demonstrated today that he is the better talent at place kicker.

I was glad to see Josh Miller in shoulder pads again. I haven't focused on his punting as of yet. Now that he is back practicing with the team, I'll start charting his punts.

The coverage units for kickoffs received some work today. The key is to follow who is on the first team. I can see from watching special teams that Chidi Iwuoma is an important part of the Steelers. Start counting the defensive backs and include Ike Taylor, who also is on the first team coverage along with Polamalu. Alonzo Jackson has yet to make much of an impact on special teams (he's second team), which does not speak well for him. Don't forget Lee Mays. He's there on coverage as well.

The camp fodder is starting to smell the Turk. The third teams were plenty physical today. Players have realized that time is already short and they need to grab the attention of the coaching staff. David Upchurch made a bit of noise, blowing up a few plays and popping pads. Heck, even Kendrick Clancy was fired up today. However, there are not many spots available. Most of these guys are beyond hope already, which is why Dave Costa probably left camp.

I gather that you are reading plenty about Randle El and Polamalu. I've said plenty concerning the poor play of the offensive line. What can I add?

I've been scouting the press from my perch on the hill (I am the lone gunman) and I've made the Steelers organization a bit nervous with my constant viewing through the binoculars followed by copious note taking. From there I can catch the baby deer crisis in front of the dormitory or the blonde bombshell distracting those who should be covering the play on the field. What I see is Tunch Ilkin watching more intently than some of the coaching staff. I doubt this guy says half of what he sees. Jim Wexell spoke highly of Ilkin on a few occasions and I can see why. If Ilkin is talking, listen carefully.

I'd like to ask Ilkin about the various defensive schemes Tim Lewis likes to run. He's already passed on a few nuggets about the nickel. The dime has two variations. So far, the 3-2-6 looks the best. Kendrell Bell does not look good at all rushing from the RDE position. I wonder if Tunch would touch that one? That's what we see in what I call the "Porter dime." This is the 4-1-6 I spoke about in my last report and was the dime package of choice in 2002. Bell plays Porter's old spot and the scheme loses something in the translation.

I can't help noticing Wexell's comment, "But the nickel is still nothing more than a novelty for the Steelers, who in the past few seasons have used the dime almost as often as their base package."

The 3-2-6 looks an awful lot like the nickel package. I imagine the Steelers will become very comfortable running this version of the dime. I also imagine that the opposition will learn to fear this scheme. I don't expect to see Lewis return Polamalu to his place on the second team dime. This may be the most flexible defensive alignment Lewis has ever played with.

And there is my closure. Polamalu is the Randle El of the defense, with apologies to Chris Hope.

Jim Russell

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