Scout

The Pittsburgh Steelers are at St. Vincent College and these are the stories behind the stories

Jim Wexell reminds Steelers fans there's one more aspect of tonight's game to monitor

FRIDAY, AUG. 11

There's still one Lion to keep an eye on, but if he's been anything like he was through two days of practice, Wallace Gilberry will sleep tonight.

What a disappointment.

This media "ambulance chaser" had his eye fixed on that former Cincinnati Bengals bad boy through two entire practices this week, and the closest he came to getting into a fight, or even an argument, with a Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman, or Joey Porter, or his former head coach Todd Haley, was a brief tumble with Ramon Foster during one-on-ones. And that was just performance-based because Foster -- after Gilberry had jumped offside twice -- took him to the ground and then kind of got in his way as Gilberry tried to get back up, and then pulled him back down as Foster spilled back to the ground.

Something?

Anything?

Well, Maurkice Pouncey and Co. got a good laugh out of it. Oh, and they did cheer loudly for Chris Hubbard when Hubbard went up against Gilberry and won a one-on-one rep.

"Maybe we did," said David DeCastro. "But he had a good block on him. He had a good rep against him. I think it was that. Nothing personal."

Anything at all personal, Ramon?

"Nah," said Foster. "We've got to keep it clean. Have to. Can't be getting fined up here."

So, you were aware Gilberry had signed with the Lions?

"Oh, yeah. I was aware," Foster said. "Had been aware for a while."

To brush up on recent history, Gilberry was the Bengal who bumped Joey Porter while Porter was on the field tending to Antonio Brown following the vicious hit by Vontaze Burfict late in the teams' playoff game last season. The hit, the bump and then some words from Pacman Jones all added up to a 30-yard penalty in the closing seconds that led to a field goal and narrow Steelers win.

Prior to that, Gilberry had allegedly been the target of an alleged bounty by Haley -- at least that was the story in Cincinnati -- and had also been the focal point of the Steelers' offensive line for his trash talk and style of play.

Gilberry stopped to grant me and Mike Prisuta an interview as others glommed on.

"Nah, I never hated them," Gilberry said of the Steelers. "It's a helluva rivalry between those guys and Cincinnati, and that whole division. I think it's one of the most physical divisions out there. We're trying to bring it over here in Detroit. That's what we wanted to come out here and show them."

Gilberry was very well-mannered during the interview. He understood the nature of the ambulance chase.

"Things happen in the heat of the moment and you guys put mikes and cameras in our faces so you express yourself, but at the end of the day Ramon and I have known each other since college," he said. "I remember going against him since he was in Tennessee. We're both very familiar with each other."

Gilberry said that he and Porter spoke over the phone since the infamous bump, and as for Haley, Gilberry's former coach in Kansas City, Gilberry said, "Every day he made me prove myself and nine years later I'm still here, so I have no ill will towards him whatsoever."

Everyone said the right thing.

No one was fined.

But in watching the Steelers cheer on their teammates in one-on-ones, I still detected an edge that bears watching tonight.

However, as mentioned earlier, Gilberry seems like one Lion who just might prefer to sleep tonight.

HEAD CASE: We've beat this tight end thing into the ground and we've talked to Ben Roethlisberger about solutions. There's nothing much more to say, other than in my opinion Ladarius Green's headaches aren't all that's keeping him off the field because to me his athleticism hasn't shown up on the far field. Maybe that's just me.

As for Jesse James taking the bull by the horns, if I may use a cliche, I don't see that either. I just don't see much speed from him in the open field, or much in the way of blocking.

That said, James did get behind Lawrence Timmons during Landry Jones' two-minute drill early in the week, and in the red-zone period of the last practice, on the first play from the 20, Roethlisberger threw a bullet that James plucked out of the air while being covered in the end zone. And the following words rang through my imagination:

"Who's laughing now, tight ends?"

I'm sure you remember Roethlisberger's famous line following the last Super Bowl win about an offensive line that we -- me -- had criticized all season.

TEAM RUN: Since I wasted so much time watching Gilberry, I missed what reportedly was Matthew Stafford's picking apart of the Steelers' secondary on the other field.

That, of course, wouldn't be a stretch to believe.

But the good news for Steelers fans is that I know for a fact the Steelers tortured the Lions' front seven during Team Run sessions. And in those sessions, the defense knows the offense -- except for a rare play-action pass -- is going to run the ball.

Yet the Steelers' offensive line blew open holes in a talented Lions front. DeAngelo Williams popped through the right side for a big gain between DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert, and then the pair knocked Gilberry to the ground to spring Le'Veon Bell for a big gain. Even the second-team line freed Fitzgerald Toussaint, after which fullback Rosie Nix got in the grill of Gilberry to not-so-politely discuss his block on the play. Daryl Richardson followed with another long gain.

The third-team line then blew open the biggest hole of the day to propel Christian Powell for the biggest gain of the day.

No, it wasn't the patching of a problematic hole -- like watching the secondary find some success -- but at least the run game is showing more potential earlier in the season than should be expected. And there's nothing at all wrong with that.

ORDER RESTORED: Bell got into a shoving match with a Detroit linebacker at one point, and even reached up and smacked him in the facemask. I don't know if that will draw a fine or not, but order was restored quickly, and as I was tweeting those words I looked up and saw a Roethlisberger laser heading in the general direction of my face.

But Antonio Brown reached up and plucked it, got his feet down quickly at the pylon and came careening right at me. With my trusty phone in both hands, I swept both feet out of the way, and felt like Sayers dodging a vicious hit as bodies hit the deck all around me. And I continued my tweet like a 14-year-old who just couldn't be stopped.

Before I finished, photographer John Hevesham Nuttmeier got up off the ground and said to me, "You still got it, kid."

TUESDAY, AUG. 9

Maybe I just assumed the answer would've been inside linebacker, or outside linebacker, or just linebacker, when I asked someone with the Pittsburgh Steelers his opinion as to which was the deepest position on the team and would be the hardest to make cuts.

He said offensive line and wide receiver.

I asked for details and he gave me this one:

"Everyone wants to kill (Chris) Hubbard," he said. "But he plays center and guard and got us out of a game at left tackle last year."

Maybe "everyone" is me, if only because in the last installment of The Morning After I predicted that B.J. Finney would make the roster and probably even get a helmet on game day. Maybe I reached a bit with the helmet prediction because I believe Finney is behind Cody Wallace, who proved himself starter-capable last season in relief of Maurkice Pouncey.

And, yes, Wallace makes my team. So do reserve tackles Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins. That's eight offensive linemen.

Since Mike Tomlin has never brought 10 linemen into an opening game, it appears one of the two, Finney or Hubbard, will be cut.

Maybe that's why my team source believes one of the cuts could be in someone else's starting lineup this season, or, at least, he said, picked up as someone else's top reserve.

As for the competition at wide receiver, I have to believe seventh-round draft pick Demarcus Ayers is the talent they'll be trying to get through to the practice squad.

Just as occurred in the spring, Ayers didn't receive many reps early but appears to be getting more scrimmage work, and, as he did in the spring, is responding well.

Eli Rogers appears to be the No. 5 guy. Rogers is showing well as a slot receiver. He may not have the return skills that Ayers possesses, but with Antonio Brown available that's not a skill -- in and of itself -- that's going to earn someone a roster spot.

MAD MAX: The last time the Steelers kept 10 offensive linemen was Bill Cowher's last season, 2006, and they were coming off a championship in which the line, to quote Alan Faneca, "kicked ass."

All nine linemen from 2005 returned in 2006 and the team added two draft picks, so keeping 10 was a luxury that a champion felt it could afford.

And why not? The Steelers rushed for 2,223 yards in 2005. They haven't reached that number since. The previous season, 2004, was Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season and they rushed for 2,464 yards.

Yet, Roethlisberger called this year's version the best offensive line he has played with.

"That's because," said Max Starks, who played right tackle on that 2005 line, "he had that streak of losses when he threw more than 30 passes."

Roethlisberger's Steelers lost the first six games (and eight of the first nine) in which he attempted more than 30 passes. The breakthrough occurred in the second half of his third season against Cleveland.

Starks, working in radio covering the Arizona Cardinals, visited camp this week. He realizes the game has changed and that back then attempting more than 30 passes meant a team was trying to come from behind.

In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has attempted over 30 passes in 27 games. The Steelers are 16-11 in those games, with the arrow pointing up in large part because of the potential health and efficiency of this offensive line.

"I'd still like to see them line up in the I-formation and beat people up in the running game," said Starks.

And he's undoubtedly not the only one. The Steelers are 8-0 the last two seasons when Roethlisberger attempts 33 passes or less.

TRUE STORY: A scout told a story of looking at a player with a history of DUIs, and he asked the player how he could rightly go to his boss with confidence in support of the player.

"Because I promise it'll never happen again," said the player.

"Why?" asked the scout. "Did you quit drinking?"

"No," said the player. "I quit driving."

DAMAGED GOODS: While Tomlin said on reporting day that the Steelers understood the depth of Ladarius Green's injury problems, it's not the organization's M.O. to sign injured players in free agency.

Prior to signing Green to a four-year contract last March, the Steelers had signed 23 free agents to mult-year deals since the last one -- Gabe Northern in 2000 -- had to open training camp on the PUP list.

[Edit: Mike Mitchell was on the PUP list until Aug. 4 after signing as a free agent in March of 2014.]

Green missed the entire spring while recovering from post-season ankle surgery. He's been on the PUP list through the first 12 days of training camp thus far and the tight end position is a big question mark.

The retirement of Heath Miller and the failed physical by Matt Spaeth has left second-year man Jesse James as the player with the most continuous service to the team at the position. Behind him are David Johnson, Xavier Grimble, Paul Lang and Michael Cooper.

* James has gotten stronger with a better anchor but he's still more of a receiving tight end, albeit one without much speed. That said, he got behind Lawrence Timmons in the two-minute drill on Sunday to haul in a 30-yard catch from Landry Jones. It was the key play of the two-minute drill that led to a touchdown between the first teams.

* Johnson always could block and alternated with Rosie Nix the other day at fullback in the goal-line drill. D.J. has also impressed coaches with his route-running since his two-year stint in San Diego.

* Grimble is the best pure athlete, but so far has been a tease. He makes a play and then misses. Robert Golden blew him up on a high bootleg pass in goal-line Sunday.

* Lang was signed late in the spring and was better known for his blocking in college. He did get open to catch a pass the other day, but we're more likely to view that  in terms of Mike Reilly showing his weakness (coverage) as an OLB.

* Cooper replaced Jake Phillips who replaced Mendel Dixon who replaced Jay Rome in the succession of No. 5 tight ends. The last three have all worn No. 49.

As for Green, his expected activation date is of course a tightly guarded national secret.

SATURDAY, AUG. 6

Jarvis Jones hates being interviewed these days, and he has a point when in these rare meetings he tells the reporter to please ask a new question.

1. Are you stronger?

2. Are you better?

3. Are you disappointed the team didn't pick up your option year?

4. Are you motivated for a big contract next March?

Apparently, the answer is yes to all of the above, if we are to believe the Jarvis Jones of Friday night is the new, improved, stronger, more motivated Jarvis Jones.

The body looks tight AND strong and that physical presence was in evidence last night in backs on backers.

Jones opened the proceedings by beating a professional blitz picker-upper in Le'Veon Bell.

Later, in a drill used mainly for reserves and players trying to make the roster, Jones physically hammered Cameron Stingily.

Jones' showing also impressed our eagle-eyed analyst, Craig Wolfley.

"Stronger with a nice array of pass-rush moves," said Wolf. "That might've been his best practice series ever."

In other words, I might add, Jones wasn't the helmet magnet that seemed to forever be attracted to shoulder pads since being drafted in the first round in 2013.

So there might be some hope here.

And maybe a fresh interview.

MORE BACKS V BACKERS

* Wolfley also enjoyed watching Anthony Chickillo and said he was thinking a little bit about one of tonight's honorees, Kevin Greene, while watching the way Chickillo converts speed to power.

We're all raving about Chickillo, who received similar acclaim early in last year's training camp before fading.

Now, he may not be the 10-sack starter readers could be expecting after all of this glowing praise, but he's at least quality depth who can push guys like Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats. He'll definitely be a plus in the run game and will get his sacks with opportunity.

Last night, Chickillo was surprised in his first rep by the physical aggression of Xavier Grimble before whipping Jesse James twice, which elicited an "I wanna see Chick vs. Rosie!" from Mike Tomlin."

Chickillo and fullback Roosevelt Nix then had two satisfyingly physical reps -- (satisfying to the soul, in case you're wondering) -- and then swept James two more times, prompting Tomlin to wonder aloud, "Can anybody block Chickillo?!"

Tomlin called for "D.J." who did better against Chickillo than most, so Tomlin thanked him.

* James is too tall for this drill, and I'm not going to hold his performance against him because another reporter nailed it when he said, "He looks like Heath."

Yep, Heath Miller -- who wasn't used much in this drill as his status ascended -- wasn't much for bracing, anchoring and leveraging these wild-eyed linebackers with seven-yard headstarts.

* As reported last night, "Dirty Red," Tyler Matakevich, was the star of the drill. And then you think he's going to be a nasty, gritty interview after watching him play but he's a humble, wide-eyed, quick-to-smile kid. And I use "kid" in the most mature sense possible while trying to impart a true description of youthful humility and enthusiasm to the reader.

* "Kids" like Matakevich are the reason I don't take kindly to old farts ripping on "kids these days." There are always good and bad in every generation.

* Jordan Zumwalt is playing a new position with a seemingly new body. No, he's not the rookie who intrigued us so much in preseason games before being knocked out with a bad hip injury two years ago, but he's getting better every day here, and last night he used some effective pass-rush moves to win his share of reps.

* Bell may never do this drill again, as his status/seniority continues to rise, but he stepped forward in the middle of the drill last night and a surprised Tomlin asked him who he wanted. Bell pointed to Timmons, and Tomlin became even more surprised. The two combatants looked like big horn sheep rocking each other, but Timmons put Bell on skates and drove him straight back after the initial contact.

* The two most soul-satisfying reps, in terms of explosive contact, came early: L.J. Fort trucked Fitzgerald Touissant, followed immediately by Vince Williams blowing up D.J.

TOP ROOKIE?

Sean Davis is playing three positions -- slot corner, strong and free safety -- and doesn't appear to miss an assignment. That was confirmed by someone who watches the practice tape.

What appeals to coaches about Davis' play, it was explained to me, is that as a safety who played cornerback his senior year in college, Davis understands what cornerbacks want and need from a safety.

Cornerbacks fear the deep post, of course, but they don't want to overplay the post because of the deep corner-post-corner, so they count on the safety to help with the post. And Davis can be relied upon to make the cornerback's job easier in that regard.

And he blows stuff up, which coaches like to see out of an inside, up-close slot corner.

If Davis continues this trajectory, coaches are not going to want to see him leave the field, and thus he could start the opener.

SPEAKING OF DAVIS ...

* I got a chance to ask Tunch Ilkin what he's seeing, what he likes the other day at practice.

"I like Sean Davis," was how he started. "I like his length, the way he moves, his ability to recover. And he gets enough cloth to slow receivers down. An official looking at that will say, 'Should I call that or not? Nah.'"

Tunch of course keeps an eye on the offensive linemen and I asked him about a guy who's impressed me, fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins.

"I've seen some things I like and seen some things I don't like, and that's to be expected from a rookie," said Ilkin. "He's very athletic, but I don't know how tough he is. I'm not saying he's not tough. I'm saying I don't know."

Tunch also went on to say that he likes what he's seen from Ryan Harris, the veteran swing tackle who played on the left side for the champion Broncos last season.

While fans and media seem to immediately dismiss Harris for a perceived lack of athleticism, the veteran tackle in Ilkin understands the position and appreciates the little things Harris accomplishes.

* I also got a chance to ask the same question of former NFL scout Matt Williamson, who was in town working in media. The two guys who surprised him most are Chickillo and Hawkins.

* And finally, I asked center Maurkice Pouncey about rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave. "I like him," Pouncey said. "He's short but that makes him tough to block. He's going to be a good one. I'm glad we have him."

Later that day, Hargrave blew past a center whom I believe will make the team and probably be active on game days, B.J. Finney. It elicted a "Grave Digger!" from an excited fan on the hill.

MEDIA MATTERS

* The media bus is always the last of, oh, seven buses escorted by police from St. Vincent College to the downtown stadium for "Friday Night Lights." The players rarely set foot on said bus while parked at SVC. Mike Mitchell, for instance, stepped up and looked at our mugs and said, "Ugh," and turned back to find a seat on another bus.

But last night Ben Roethlisberger had no problem getting on board and sitting near the back. It seemed odd, then, that while driving past fans waving and chanting "Go Media!" (not really) that the adulation was directed not at Ben but at "Hey!! It's Kaboly!!"

To quote a safety of some renown, "Ugh."

* My brother is in town for his high school reunion this weekend. I asked him to bring my wife and daughter and daughter's boyfriend to Latrobe to take in the practice.

He thought it a good idea, and when they showed up I passed their tickets to them through the fence and past the masses. He said his first order of business was to get Antonio Brown's autograph for his son back home in Connecticut. I told him last I saw, A.B. was being swallowed up by a horde in the most densely populated segment of the stadium. He went anyway. I wished him good luck as the rest of my family set off for the other side of the stadium.

I caught up with my brother about a half hour later and asked him if he got lucky with A.B.

"No," he said as he unrolled his Terrible Towel. "But who's Will Monday?"

WEDNESDAY, AUG. 3

I've held onto this Keith Butler interview too long for any good use by now. The Senquez Golson injury and two days of hitting have probably rendered it moot. Not that it was any great shakes to begin with but the one nugget I wanted to impart on you was the one about the 4-3 look I thought I had spied during an early team scrimmage.

KB: Well we did it last year, the same thing.

Q: Just a new twist?

KB: It's not even a tweak. We did it last year against San Francisco. There might be a couple of things we'll do out of it that we haven't done before but we'll do that a little bit. We're trying to take advantage of putting one of our big defensive ends on their tight ends and see if we can get a mismatch in terms of the running game.

Q: Cam or Tuitt?

KB: Could be either one. They're going to play right and left and it will be according to the offensive formation as to who it's going to be playing the nine-technique.

It occurred in practice with Jordan Zumwalt originally lining up as a 3-4 OLB and then dropping into the 4-3 OLB spot he had played in college. The rest of the four players in the front shifted accordingly. It struck me that Zumwalt and/or rookie Travis Feeney would be perfect for that shift OLB position opposite Bud Dupree.

Press corner: Mike Tomlin called Artie Burns "a master bump corner" after drafting him in the first round, but Burns is having difficulty developing his press technique against the pros.

"He got away with some things in college so he's trying something new every play here," one personnel man told me. "Right now he's like the free-throw shooter who changes his approach every time he misses. He needs to find one technique and work on it. And he will."

The source doesn't doubt Burns' potential and believes he'll help this season. "Going against Antonio Brown every day will help him," he said. "He's hungry to get better. You can see it."

Stats are funny: The Steelers ranked 30th in pass defense last year. That's a yardage stat. But normally, in looking through stats behind the overall ranking, one can find the specific problem.

I couldn't. Was it lack of interceptions? They ranked sixth. Was it lack of a pass rush? They ranked third. Was it tackling? They ranked 16th in yards per completion. Are the cushions to blame? They ranked 18th in yards per attempt. Was it just poor coverage? They ranked 22nd in completion percentage.

All of those numbers align better with having the 21st-ranked defense overall, which they did, but the 30th-ranked pass defense should have some bottom-of-the-barrel numbers behind it. Yet it's just the composite yardage total that ranked near the bottom.

All I can surmise is that no one wanted to run the ball against a 3-4 team that didn't use a nose tackle on almost 70 percent of the snaps.

Cuzzo: We learned in backs-on-backers that not only can Darryl Richardson handle blitzes, but his nickname is "Cuzzo." He told me later that Maurkice Pouncey knew one of his buddies back in Florida, so he started calling Richardson "Cuz."

Pouncey was proud of it. He's in fact the modern day Plaxico Burress in that he seems to know everyone in the league, and everyone's cousin. Pouncey also gave me this:

"I don't want to speak out of turn here but I'll just say that I think Cuzzo's going to enjoy his time in Pittsburgh."

Translation: Pouncey thinks Richardson's going to make the team.

Ben's legs: The other day I corrected a couple of radio interviewers who told me Ben Roethlisberger looks just as young as ever. I've countered that he's not nearly as mobile at age 34.

Of course, that afternoon Roethlisberger sidestepped a couple of pass-rushers and found Brown in the back of the end zone to start Seven Shots. On the third snap he double-pumped to give Xavier Grimble just enough time to break free in the back of the end zone. On the fourth snap, Roethlisberger looked right and pivoted left to fire, without hesitation, to Brown, who was open for the fourth score of the period.

No, he may not be able to scramble in the open field the way he used to, but Roethlisberger still has all the niftiness and savvy that he needs.

Tight ends-on-backers: It's not the media spectacle of backs-on-backers. In fact, the drill only drew one reporter -- me -- the other day since the rest were either watching the one-on-ones between the linemen or the WRs and CBs. But Tomlin was over there, too, because this team needs to find tight ends capable of sealing the edge in the run game.

That man was not Grimble, who was laid to waste in three attempts by Anthony Chickillo.

Jesse James did better, but, again, Chickillo came out on top. In fact, James became so frustrated that after the last rep he shoved Chickillo in the back to send the yellow-jerseyed defender to the ground face first. Chick got up and said, "Come on, man, you can't get like that," to which James apologized and slapped Chick on the back.

A couple of the lighter OLBs -- Zumwalt and Feeney -- fared well against the tight ends who are listed deeper on the depth chart; Zumwalt showing progress at a new position and Feeney showing innate toughness.

After the drill, I asked a personnel man if he saw anything he liked. "Yeah," he said, "all from the yellow shirts, unfortunately."

What did I just see? Le'Veon Bell caught a pass in the flat and stopped suddenly before spinning 180 degrees to cut it up up freely into the middle of the field. I think the defender had the same look on his face that I had.

Big Al: There's so much to watch during a single scrimmage snap, and this time I chose to watch left tackle Alejandro Villanueva stone Chickillo cold on a pass rush. Chickillo looked so very average in his attempt against the 6-9 brick wall, but in a one-on-one setting, with most of the media watching, Chickillo blew by Villanueva in embarrassing fashion. That's what was reported in several notes columns, although Big Al did stop Chickillo on the second rep.

I bring this up because I asked Alan Faneca whether this line could compare to his 2005 line that won a Super Bowl. "Man, we kicked ass," Faneca said of his line that also included Marvel Smith, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks. But Faneca added that he likes this group and in particular he raved about Villanueva's performance thus far at camp.

The buzz: In light of the loss of Golson, I asked one of the personnel men to give me a sleeper in the defensive backfield. He said he likes the potential of 6-2, 200-pound cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz.

The quote: A team of Pro Football Focus reporters were on hand to watch practice the other day and another reporter told me he overheard Ramon Foster say to them, "Your ratings suck."

I asked Foster the next day if he in fact took issue with PFF.

"Yeah, a little bit," he said. "We see ourselves as rated higher than what they gave us. But, hey, they gave them credentials, right?"

(For more of my thoughts on camp, check out this thread on our South Side message board.)

MONDAY, AUG. 1

Welcome to August. I thought July would never end.

We're getting there.

I ran into a former player early Sunday and we talked about judging players before they put on pads. He said he doesn't put much stock in receivers who stand out in shorts, that he was looking forward to seeing some of them when they have to think about being hit.

Well, I wonder what he thinks of Sammie Coates today after the receiver suffered through a case of the dropsies during the first live session after starring for three months in shorts.

I realize that's a cheap assessment of Coates, who was spectacular Saturday and not so much Sunday, and I'll just keep in mind that Coates dropped a lot of passes in shorts as a rookie and therefore the exact analogy doesn't carry over. Was probably just a bad day.

* But we got to talking about headhunters in the secondary and I told him that the father of Anthony Smith -- the alleged bad boy safety with the Steelers of the late 2000s -- told me that his son's infamous open shot on Hines Ward the first day of pads some nine, 10 years ago was ordered by a coach. The ex-player Sunday said he didn't doubt it, that that practice went back to Bill Cowher, and in particular the arrival of Cedrick Wilson.

Why do you think Cam Heyward got in a fight almost every day his rookie season?" the ex-player asked. "The coaches wanted to test him. They wanted to check his tolerance and his toughness."

I asked him if he thought Bud Dupree's first-day fight last year, during his rookie camp, might've been premeditated.

"I wouldn't doubt it," he said. "I'll be looking forward to seeing who gets into a fight today."

* Nobody got into a fight Sunday afternoon. Mike Tomlin, in his opening remarks to the media, said "The only way we're going to grow and develop and be the type of group we need to be is we've got to compete against one another. In doing so, we've got to learn how to do it hard but also do it professionally."

I told him I was surprised by the lack of scuffling in the first padded practice and asked whether he had discussed that with the team beforehand.

"That's some of the professionalism I'm talking about," he said. "I just believe with this group that we can work and compete and sharpen the iron on the iron but also respect the professionalism that's going to be required to take care of one another as we do so moving forward."

I couldn't help but think they're getting ready for the Bengals the right way.

* The stretch period ended with the linebackers meeting in a circle around James Harrison, who began a call-and-response session that finished with a revival of Joey Porter's "Who Ride?/We Ride!" from the 2005 championship run.

* Without Ben Roethlisberger, Seven Shots started with Landry Jones at quarterback. On the first snap he found a wide open Bud Dupree in the end zone. The linebacker dropped the pass.

* On the second snap, Le'Veon Bell lined up wide with Lawrence Timmons over him. It definitely drew eyeballs, so that was probably the thinking behind the quick throw to tight end David Johnson over the middle for the score.

* Fullback Roosevelt Nix snared a pass from Dustin Vaughan for the only other score. Nix was being smothered in coverage by Anthony Chickillo and snared the low pass to continue the college defensive tackle's showing of outstanding hands this camp.

* Backs-on-backers is a notekeeper's dream. Here are some that I jotted down during the period:

- Timmons has either slowed down or was just being smart when he took on Bell in the first snap. Timmons used to be the highlight with the loudest popping of pads, but he didn't bring much into Bell, who tied Timmons up as the two pushed and pulled. "Y'all marrying your sisters!" Tomlin said of the draw.

- After a run of defensive wins, Tomlin asked if "Any white shirts gonna win one?" And Daryl Richardson stepped up and blasted Jarvis Jones.

- The 5-8, 200-pound fireplug, Brandon Brown-Dukes, showed courage in stepping up to pop Chickillo, but he still got run over. "Get your weight up Mercyhurst," Tomlin said to the rookie from the Erie school.

- "Law Dawg comin!" Tomlin hollered as Timmons lined up for his second turn. And he did, crushing Xavier Grimble.

- Vince Williams also brings about violent collisions, but Richardson continued his fine showing in this drill by stepping up and showing courage and a strong anchor.

- Ryan Shazier's mastery of this drill doesn't need recounted here. See "Shazier Leads Feeding Frenzy" for more info.

- "Let's go hyphenated Mercyhurst!" Tomlin said as Brown-Dukes lined up again. And the rookie anchored up and stopped the physical L.J. Fort as Tomlin said, "That's it B! I'm  going to call you by your name if you keep that up!"

- Speaking of nicknames, the offensive star here, Richardson, is called "Cuzzo" as in Cuz-O, or Cuz, as in "Maurkice Pouncey knows one of my friends in Florida so he started calling me 'Cuz,'" Richardson explained. Tomlin picked it up from there.

* During team scrimmage, Eli Rogers caught a pass in the middle of the field and made some moves, got past some people, and for a minute I thought Antonio Brown had the ball. For a minute.

* The one-on-one line drills got off to a peculiar start with Chickillo and Alejandro Villanueva getting locked up by their facemasks.

* Maurkice Pouncey finally sat something out, the one-on-ones, but he did step in to snap for the reserves toward the end of the drill.

* Hargrave bullrushed Chris Hubbard straight and immediately backward in the most impressive moment of the period.

* Jerald Hawkins looked like the rookie tackle that he is when he was schooled by Chickillo, but Hawkins rebounded nicely by planting Arthur Moats on his back.

* Markus Wheaton seemed to be struggling with his quadriceps injury Sunday.

* Shamarko Thomas was a human missile Sunday, and he was zeroing in on Brown-Dukes near the sideline when Artie Burns shoved Brown-Dukes out of bounds. "Good thing for that boy you got him," Thomas said to Burns.

* I asked Craig Wolfley after practice if he had any hot takes for me, and he provided four:

1. Jesse James has a much stronger core this year.

2. Tyler "Dirty Red" Matakevich has that "Adam Sandler/Bobby Boucher" look about him during a play (that's a good thing).

3. Hargrave "has some twitch."

4. The inside linebackers looked better than the outside linebackers in backs-on-backers.

SUNDAY, JULY 31

Finally, it's hitting day. And what better way than to celebrate the first day of real football than a talk with Joey Porter about his outside linebackers.

Porter's another one of those defensive coaches who gets fired up when talking about his guys. But instead of asking the No. 5 all-time QB sacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers a bunch of questions, I made a media statement/stance/generalization, whatever you want to call it, about each of his first six players. Joey then responded. Here's how it went:

* Jarvis Jones has plateaued and doesn't have any more improvement to make.

JP: "Well, that's a good thing about being in the media. You guys have your opinions and that's cool. But I think the arrow's still pointed up. There's A LOT of good football in that guy."

* Bud Dupree has lost weight, worked on his pass-rushing moves in the offseason and has an explosive plateau ahead of him, possibly this season.

JP: "Well, he's definitely going to get better because he knows the defense. He's going to come in and feel that much more comfortable. You're always supposed to see a change in a guy from his first year to the next year, and I think just by him learning the way he did last year, he's definitely grown. He's grown in communication, how he runs the defense, how he thinks. As far as him making plays, that's just going to happen. I think he definitely has another notch going forward."

* Arthur Moats is a solid, versatile journeyman who is everything you would want in a reserve.

JP: "Moats is a guy who can go out there if something were to happen to one of our starters. I would feel comfortable with him being in the game. I feel he can go out there and get the job done. He's given us everything we've asked him to do and I expect him to keep doing that and more."

* James Harrison works so hard that he could even be better this season than he was the last.

JP: "Well, the only thing James is fighting is Father Time, like we all do. As long as he keeps himself as healthy as he can, and we manage him in the best way we can, he's going to give us what we need him to give us. He played a lot last year and he did a lot for us. I mean, just the way he closed up the last game in Denver shows you that he still has some more in his tank. So I'm excited for him to go out there and give us another good one."

* Anthony Chickillo is now in his second year at his proper position and his proper weight and could be the camp surprise.

JP: "He'll surprise you guys because you don't see him like we see him every day. He's a really athletic guy. We just have a lot of guys at that position, so when he wasn't getting reps last year you really didn't get a chance to see it. But I think now that he's in that rotation where he's going to see reps, you're going to see him make some explosive plays. It's going to be a shock to you guys, but it's something I've been kind of counting on for a year now."

* Travis Feeney missed spring practices with and injury and looks too light, so he probably needs a redshirt year.

JP: "The thing about it is we don't have redshirt years so he'll have to play something. I think he might be too good to just be a practice squad player. When you say redshirt, I think practice squad. I don't see that for him. He's just so fast, and he'll definitely make special teams plays. Now, he has to fight hard to crack that lineup to get some playing time but I definitely think that the way he hits, and his speed, his range, I think Danny Smith will be wanting to see him do some things (on special teams). So he'll definitely have some opportunities there. And like you said, we haven't seen him in full pads. That's just a guy we're waiting to see what happens."

In conclusion, there appear to be six quality outside linebackers. The Steelers never keep that many. Porter is excited by his depth but how is this going to work out?

"Oh man, I have a lot of guys that I get to pull from," he said. "I have great options, and I'm rooting for all of them. I think all of them have a spot for me and on this team. I just don't get to make all the decisions. They know what it is, and they know what the competition is, and they came in shape and they're ready to prove themselves."

THE CONTRACT BUZZ

Here's some of the scuttlebutt I've heard on top players whose contracts will expire following the 2016 season:

* David DeCastro -- Shouldn't be a problem other than agreeing on the math, because DeCastro has no sense of urgency to rip up a contract that's already paying him $8 million this year and the Steelers have no urgency to entice a guard with much more.

* Lawrence Timmons -- Wait and see what he's showing this camp, his 10th.

* Antonio Brown -- His contract doesn't expire until March of 2018, and the team can simply take monies from his 2017 contract and pay him this year, as they did last year. As for ripping up a deal that pays a receiver who's caught 110, 129 and 136 passes the last three season the 18th-highest average salary per year at his position, GM Kevin Colbert said on radio that he's not going to do it. The Steelers aren't going to break their self-imposed negotiating rule (of not renegotiating with more than a year left) on a wide receiver. As for being poorly paid per his production, the Steelers will tell you he may have been overpaid when he signed the deal in 2012.

* Le'Veon Bell -- The Steelers believe in Bell because he hasn't failed a drug test. He's been given SEVERAL and has passed them all. Remember, marijuana doesn't leave the system quickly so in the team's eyes his alleged missed test had to have been a snafu in procedure, from one side or the other. With that knowledge, don't be surprised if they extend his deal.

UNDER-THE-RADAR PRACTICE NOTES

Jon Ledyard has been doing such an outstanding job the first two days covering practice that he's left me little to report. But, he has left me a little and I'll run through that small opening to daylight every time. Here are a few observations:

* Mike Tomlin said at his opening press conference in announcing how the two PUP players were different from the under-conditioned rookie Devaunte Sigler, who was placed on the Non-Football Injury list, "Sigler, we've got a little something special for him." Well, that "little something special" is merely work in the famed Casey Hampton Pit, where trainers oversaw the big man's solo conditioning on a field separate from where the two PUP guys work out. Hampton, of course, was put on the PUP list for being under-conditioned when he reported to Tomlin's second camp.

* Speaking of nose tackles, Daniel McCullers drew chuckles during the first practice when he dropped to cover DeAngelo Williams in the flat/slot area where a tight end would line up. Ben Roethlisberger looked downfield, saw his first choices covered and looped a high pass over the 6-8 McCullers, who had his back turned to the ball. Williams went way up to snare the ball with one hand over the big man. "I have to work on my coverage skills today," McCullers told Mike Prisuta the next morning.

* McCullers also told Prisuta he's down to 354 pounds after having been as high as 380 during his two previous seasons with the team. I talked to McCullers the week of the draft and he told me he was down to 350 then. I thought he had put some weight back on during spring practices, so apparently he had suffered a bit of a setback since looking so fit and feeling so proud of his routine back in April.

* Javon Hargrave, the third-round pick and nickel nose tackle, looks like he's lost weight, but said he weighs the same, that he's just reapportioned it. In other words, he looks good.

* John Mitchell is quick to send Hargrave onto the field for a nickel that's used 70 percent of the time, or in other words the team's primary look. In the 3-man Okie, Hargrave is the second-team nose flanked by L.T. Walton and Ricardo Mathews. The other lineman in the second-team nickel is Mathews.

* I may as well run through the lineman depth chart, since some of you are keeping track at home. The third-team DL is Johnny Maxey-Roy Philon-Caushaud Lyons. On the offensive side, the second-unit OL has been Ryan Harris/Al Villanueva-B.J. Finney-Cody Wallace-Chris Hubbard-Jerald Hawkins/Brian Mihalik. The third OL has been Mihalik-Cole Manhart-Quinton Schooley-Matt Feiler-Hawkins.

* And as Tomlin says, "Don't read too much into any of that." So, OK.

* Sammie Coates has deservedly garnered much attention, but don't take A.B. for granted. He's been truly spectacular the first two days here. He caught one pass amid traffic, was off-balance and appeared certain to fall to the ground, but somehow regained his footing and went in for a touchdown amid raucous applause.

* In the first practice, Jordan Zumwalt lined up as a 3-4 DE and suddenly dropped off the ball as the unit shifted into a 4-3. I asked Keith Butler about it in a one-on-one I'll have for you tomorrow.

* Sorry, I have to tease sometimes.

* Speaking of teases, that's exactly what the free practice reports from Ledyard have been. They'll go under cover of the paywall starting today. I believe Jon completes the best staff we've had here.

* Maurkice Pouncey took a tumble the other day and limped through the next couple of snaps. I worry -- and this is strictly a selfish point of view -- that I may not get to watch the Pouncey of old again, as he comes off his medically troubled 2015.

* Then again, Pouncey didn't sit out a snap. He hadn't missed any of the volunteer workouts last spring and doesn't appear to be falling under the Tomlin "management" umbrella of injured and formerly injured players at this camp.

* Brandon Brown-Dukes received much more work at running back in the second practice than the first, and he looked like a playmaker, as expected. He's my darkhorse back there as Bell is seemingly headed for his four-game suspension. Cameron Stingily and Daryl Richardson have also looked good, but today's the day these guys start taking on contact. Stay tuned.


Steel City Insider Top Stories