Mike Mitchell is recovering from a couple of surgeries but at least he was on the sideline and wearing a uniform -- which included his Pittsburgh Steelers tossle cap -- for the start of OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Tuesday.
Three of the other defensive backs who took the fields in Cincinnati and Denver as part of the team's nickel playoff package have shuffled off and away.
There were still enough returning veterans to field a starting secondary yesterday, just ahead of the high draft picks from the past two draft classes. And Mitchell liked what he saw.
"Yeah, for Day One we got our hands on a lot of balls," said the free safety. "(QB coach) Randy (Fichtner) and I always have a friendly banter going back and forth, and I was just telling him I was happy about that. I'd like to see us finish a couple more of them, but just the fact we're in the right position is a good thing, especially for Day One."
The returnees include safeties Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas and cornerbacks Will Gay and Ross Cockrell. Last year's second-round draft pick, Senquez Golson, and this year's first-round draft pick, Artie Burns, are hunting for a starting cornerback position. This year's second-round draft pick, Sean Davis, wants the strong safety job next to Mitchell.
"I thought Senquez played well today," Mitchell said. "Twenty-five (Burns) got an interception early in Seven Shots. Everyone was making their own plays. It was good to communicate a lot with Sean in the back to see where his head is at. I was happy with the overall group's work today."
What's the most important thing Mitchell wants to communicate to the new group?
"Toughness, the way we want to go about doing our work," he said. "Coach always says it's not about what we say, it's about what we do, and I think it's a culture in our secondary (that) we want to be one of the best, most physical secondaries. I think when we played our best football we were definitely hitting people, we were jamming at the line of scrimmage, we had great communication and we played like a unit. That's what I want to impart on the young guys so that way we can hit the ground running."
Thomas, who confirmed that he replaced Mitchell yesterday, a good eight months after losing his spot with the first team, said "I feel blessed. I'm working hard and taking it day by day."
In what way has he improved?
"Just knowing the whole playbook, more calm, being myself," he said. "The biggest thing is being myself. If I'm myself, anything is possible."
Thomas, like everyone else, was amazed to watch the way running back Le'Veon Bell was running and cutting during the workout. "Amazing ... freak athlete," Thomas said.
And that's about how Bell put it.
"It felt amazing just to be back out here with my teammates, being out here at practice, being in the huddle. I felt good," said Bell, who set his schedule for a return to scrimmaging this way:
"Right now, I am just trying to do what the coaches tell me to do," he said. "They are trying to protect me from myself. I am listening to those people, taking care of my body, doing what I can. They are getting me back into it slowly. Right now, I feel like I could do everything. But obviously, they are going to protect me from myself, like I said, and really take it slow for me."
Bell, of course, was knocked out of a second consecutive season with a knee injury after taking a questionable hit from one of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Bell had to miss the 2014 playoffs after Reggie Nelson put his helmet into Bell's right knee, and Bell said last year it would never be the same. Bell then missed the 2015 playoffs and half the regular season after Vontaze Burfict grabbed Bell by the back of the shoulder pads and threw his weight into Bell's right knee and tore the MCL.
Bell said Burfict messaged him with congratulations on Twitter after Bell announced he was back up and running early in March.
"I said 'All right,'" Bell said with a chuckle. "'I appreciate it, you know, but --' I'm just glad to be back out here."
Will Bell think about such hits the next time he plays Cincinnati?
"Not just Cincinnati," he said. "It'll be everybody. I feel like I just got to protect myself. I feel like a lot of teams feel like it's easier to take me out or A.B. or Ben. Whatever. We obviously have got to be cautious. I didn't think people played football like that, but it's real. I guess people really do. I've just got to take care of myself."
SUPER FREAK II
The other key returnee from injury, center Maurkice Pouncey, was his usual high-energy self on the practice field, but with one difference: He was quiet.
"There was a little nervousness in it, testing everything out," said left guard Ramon Foster. "He won't say that, but that's what it is. I asked him 'How is it?' He said, 'I won't say anything.' That's just him getting back used to it, getting his footing, literally."
Well, Maurkice, how is it?
"I'm full go. I'm not missing anything," he said. "I'm ready to come out here and play, each day at a time. I'm great now. Everything is good. I appreciate all the doctors and trainers for everything they have done. They did a great job."
A bit of Pouncey's energy is on display in the following video. (And for those without a lineup card, here are the names to go with your numbers: 77 Marcus Gilbert, 66 David DeCastro, 53 Pouncey, 73 Foster, 78 Alejandro Villanueva; and then 65 Jerald Hawkins, 67 B.J. Finney, 72 Cody Wallace, 74 Chris Hubbard and 68 Ryan Harris.)
So, Ramon, what was it like having your buddy back at your side?
"Awesome. Awesome," said Foster. "Not a knock at all on Cody, man. Cody did an amazing job but it’s a different animal having Maurkice in there, man. Just his strength, his speed, his awareness, man, his tenacity. He’s back and I like it."
THE MISSING FREAK
I'll admit I've probably gone overboard in calling Martavis Bryant "Randy Moss II," and I whined probably a little too loudly about how his suspension might've crippled the Steelers' chances this season.
Las Vegas responded by putting the Steelers in a group of five other teams behind the favored New England chances, so apparently the Steelers won't be all that "crippled."
But here's what Ben Roethlisberger had to say yesterday about the loss of Bryant:
"He was a big weapon for us, obviously. One of the best and had a chance to be one of the best in the NFL. He was growing and was getting better. It hurts. It’s unfortunate and it disappointed all of us, especially a guy I felt I was getting really close to and reached out to a lot when it came to his off-the-field stuff his first time around. So, very disappointing and we will miss him."
The Steelers have attempted to replace both Bryant and the retired Heath Miller by signing a freakish type of tight end in Ladarius Green, a 6-6, 240-pounder who ran a 4.47 40 at the 2012 Combine before spending the last four seasons buried behind Antonio Gates with the San Diego Chargers.
But Green is also recovering from a 2015 injury and spent the day helping tight ends coach James Daniel put the rest of the group through its paces.
"I just know kind of the things I’ve heard and seen with him and the Chargers," Roethlisberger said. "Excited to have him out here. Just not sure when that’s going to be. We spent some time talking behind the scenes a little bit, behind practice, so I hope mentally he’ll be ready to go when he’s physically ready."
One of the wide receivers who's expected to pick up the slack for Bryant is Sammie Coates, who wished during last season, his rookie season, that he had been in better shape.
What else has he learned?
"Just coming in after going through all the stuff in the draft process and seeing how everybody else worked here, seeing how much they ran, how much they had everybody in shape, that's what I had to learn and do and that's what I did this offseason," Coates explained.
And how does he feel?
"I feel great," he said. "I'm getting used to it. I know everything that's going on around me. I know all the guys so it's just about getting back at it right now."
Is it fair to Coates that so many expect him to step in and become the team's next great deep threat?
"We've got a lot of great players and you have no choice but to fill in behind them," Coates said. "You want to be great yourself, so I just sat back and watched those guys work and it made me work harder, too."
The expectations for Coates were most likely formed after he made catches of 37 and 24 yards against the Broncos in the last playof game.
"I built the confidence throughout the regular season when I was going hard at practice, going on the scout team and helping with that," he said. "It just built confidence, and, when it got to the point where I had to perform, I was ready."