Notebook: Steelers, Nkwenti Arriving Late

<b>HARRISON CITY –</b> The Steeles liked the scenery and friendly faces of the Penn-Trafford School District yesterday, just don't expect them ever to return after traffic caused a 30-minute delay to the start of practice. <br><br> The police escort that guided the Steelers' buses proved useless on the two-lane road leading into this burgeoning Westmoreland County suburb. The Steelers needed 55 minutes to travel the 15 miles west from Latrobe for Wednesday's afternoon practice.

The team targeted Penn-Trafford's stadium because of its use of Field Turf, the same artificial playing surface used at the Steelers' indoor practice facility on the South Side of Pittsburgh. But the daily traffic jams on Route 130 were made worse Wednesday by an estimated practice crowd of 1,200.

Bill Cowher didn't meet with the media after practice, but several members of the travel entourage put it kindly when they said the head coach was not pleased.

Cowher's also biting his tongue on the source of the problem at soggy St. Vincent College: the lack of field crowns. The fields were re-positioned this year due to school renovations, but the crowns, which help with drainage, weren't factored into the job.

He still lacks aggressiveness in his run blocking, and doesn't finish off his blocks like he should, but the cut-ups from Saturday's preseason opener against the Detroit Lions showed that Mathias Nkwenti's pass-blocking is up to NFL standards.

That's the opinion of coaches and scouts with the Steelers as the team sorts out an offensive line that's been wracked by injury and illness.

Nkwenti enters his third season with the team and the Steelers are hoping his days of consistently making mental blunders are over.

"I didn't give up any sacks and that's the main thing," said Nkwenti. "If you've got a hat on somebody you pretty much have more than half the problem solved there. But I felt comfortable. It would've been a lot better if our offense was all moving on the same page, but it was just some little things. Russ [Grimm] is a great [line] coach and he'll fix it right up. We'll be on the same page and we'll have all cylinders going."

Nkwenti is the Steelers' back-up left tackle, but the problem is on the right side after Marvel Smith moved from right tackle to left tackle to replace the departed Wayne Gandy. In his only year of playing offense in college, Nkwenti played right tackle at Temple. Would a move back to right tackle fit both Nkwenti and the Steelers?

"If it'll help me get on the field, I'll do whatever it takes," Nkwenti said. "Most coaches – and I think one was Hudson Houck – tell me I'm a natural left tackle, that right wasn't for me, that left is my natural position. I guess they were right because I actually feel more comfortable at left than I ever did at right. Right felt good but left, maybe it's something deep and down, but left is me. You have to play right and left in this offense anyway so it really shouldn't be a problem, just a little adjusting."

Nkwenti has received limited reps as the second-team right tackle this week. If neither Oliver Ross nor Todd Fordham grabs the job Saturday against the Philadelphia Eagles, expect Nkwenti's activity on the right side to pick up.

With Lee Flowers gone, the Steelers might have their quietest defense in years. Only Joey Porter remains from a trash-talking trio formerly led by Flowers and Earl Holmes. But Porter said that doesn't necessarily make him the unit's leader.

"I definitely feel I have leadership qualities," he said. "At the same time, Jason Gildon's been here the longest and when he says something everybody pays attention and listens. You tend to look up to him when he's out there."

Any other leaders?

"I think we've got a lot of good leaders," said cornerback Dewayne Washington. "I've been here a long time and I think the guys in the backfield look up to me, look up to Chad [Scott], and Brent [Alexander], who lines up everybody on defense, is someone you can't help but respect. Jason's been our captain the last three, four years. He makes plays, is consistent and is always out there. Guys like that people really respect. A guy like Kimo [von Oelhoffen], who really doesn't say anything, but he's been out there so long the younger guys look up to him and respect him. It really boils down to the eye of the beholder for the most part."

Jim Wexell

Steel City Insider Top Stories