Camp Dirt, Wednesday Night at the Fights

The Pittsburgh Steelers put on a good show Wednesday night in Greensburg. The house was packed and the players responded. The quarterbacks looked great. Josh Miller was back to booming the ball. And Jeff Reed made time for the young ladies, holding up the bus.

Speaking of the young ladies, two young ones dressed for an occasion other than football demonstrated for me that you don't need a press pass to get on the good side of the rope. And if you think Plaxico Burress' bad boy days are behind him, you didn't catch him making bug eyes out the bus window as it pulled away at a couple of girls, who obliged him with a scream.

If you haven't been to Offut Field, the fans are right on top of the players. There is not much sideline and the folks hanging out on the fence got a great look at their team. Talk about the play coming into your living room and onto your lap. More than a few times did I barely manage to avoid becoming "collateral damage" as the players flew into the mass of press, players, and voyeurs. You can't get much closer than this without drawing a penalty for too many men on the field.

If the atmosphere wasn't entertaining enough, the first fight of camp broke out between Chris Hoke and Oliver Ross. What is it with these Mormons? Brett Keisel loves nothing more than cracking skulls and now Hoke is mixing it up on the field. Hoke better find a way to get some attention. I like David Upchurch as the upset winner for Hoke's spot on the roster. Perhaps he figured that Ross was doing his best to make all the defensive linemen look good and that he'd cash in too. Guess he figured wrong.

I've spent most of my time watching the offensive linemen in camp. Everyone is concerned about this unit. Jeff Hartings continues to stand on the sidelines as questions about his future in football continue to grow. The entire right side of the line also continues to struggle, but perhaps not as mightily. Still, the Steelers find success running the ball when they go left, not right.

The good news is that Todd Fordham looks like a great pickup. He's been playing really well the last few practices, mostly at right guard. Strangely, the coaches appear reluctant to try Fordham at tackle in place of Ross. However, I did notice Fordham getting some more reps at right tackle in the one-on-one drills. Conceivably, he could replace either Ross or Keydrick Vincent.

I think this crew of offensive linemen is just about set. The Steelers carried 9 linemen on the final roster last season. I'll stick with that number: Oliver Ross, Kendall Simmons, Jeff Hartings (?), Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith, Todd Fordham, Chukky Okobi, Keydrick Vincent, and Mathias Nkwenti. Jack Fadule will make the practice squad and the Steelers may decide to carry 10 linemen. If they do, the 10th will be Calvin Collins. Collins does have some experience at center and the Steelers have listed him at that position on the roster sheet they hand out at camp.

I saw this last year and experienced déjà vu last night. Larry Foote is a very good football player. He's just too small. During the second team goal line drill, Foote filled the hole and met Verron Haynes head on. Foote struggled to bring Haynes down, even with a clear shot at him. He couldn't bring down Steve McNair either in the playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. Foote is always around the ball, just like college, but he can't bring the bigger NFL players down. At this point, Clint Kriewaldt looks much better at inside linebacker. That's right. Kriewaldt is better than Foote, even after watching Larry take down the Bus on another play.

Moving from the Foote followers to the hopeful Hope fans, Chris had a, dare I say it, stellar practice. On a run blitz during the goal line drill, Hope brought down Haynes with an ankle tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Haynes met Hope in a more dramatic fashion earlier in practice, getting smacked to the ground on a hit that drew a big reaction from the crowd. It was the hit of the night, perhaps even of the entire camp thus far. I don't know where Hope will fit in this season, but he has the pop that Foote lacks.

Staying with the defensive backs, I enjoy Deshea Townsend's enthusiasm. He seems as if he is having a great time out there. He's pretty vocal, but not in a trash talk sense. I wish Chad Scott was more like Townsend. Scott was beaten in the corner of the end zone, wearing his X-man jersey again, by Lamar Slade. Scott's face after getting burned by a scrub was priceless. Who was this chump beating the X-man? Time to pout…

I'm certain that the Steelers will carry 9 DBs this year, instead of the 8 they did in 2002. Deshea will be there along with Scott, Dewayne Washington, Ike Taylor, Chidi Iwuoma, Chris Hope, Brent Alexander (sorry, Ed), Troy Polamalu, and Mike Logan. Hank Poteat should get the axe with Nashville Dyer on the practice squad. Russell Stuvaints and Rashad Faison are in a battle for one of the other practice squad spots.

As I said at the top, the quarterbacks had a good night, really Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox. Maddox is developing a good rapport with TE Jay Riemersma. Both Batch and Maddox are finding the tight ends. Given the threats that three, perhaps even four, of the receivers provide, I actually believe Mularkey will finally use the tight ends more. I like Riemersma, Mark Bruener, and Jerame Tuman to round out this unit. Casey Poppinga, who made a couple of good catches over the last few practices, has a great shot at making the practice squad (I realize I'm quickly running out of PS slots).

Antwaan Randle El had a very good practice. In fact, he looks better as a receiver than he does as Inspector Gadget Play. Lee Mays was quiet today, but that's because Hines Ward, Burress, and Randle El were busy grabbing the spotlight (along with the tight ends). Chris Doering should make five, rounding out the receiving corps.

There's really not much competition beyond that. Haynes still has a ways to go, but could well replace Fu. J.T. Wall may not even survive the first cut. Right now, this team is busy coming together. The camp bodies are not particularly feisty because they know they have little chance of making the squad. Strike that, they have no chance of surviving the final cut. Practice should turn quickly into a showcase of how the team is coming together and how the various experiments, particularly on defense, are working. That was quite clear during the crowd-pleasing practice in Greensburg.

Jim Russell

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