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

Jim Wexell's final installment of The Morning After is free and open to the public, like today's final practice

TUESDAY, AUG. 16

Following Monday's practice, Mike Tomlin approached the waiting reporters and said, "You guys look like you're ready to go home."

Today's the last day of camp, and I preface this report that way because I don't want the readers to worry unnecessarily about their team, since I believe Tomlin is right.

I think I'm tired of watching the sausage being made. I think I'm tired of watching Jesse James and whichever tight end's wearing No. 49 today getting the crap kicked out of them. I'm tired of ordinary guys wearing Nos. 60 through 65 slug it out with each other in one-on-one drills. And I'm tired of watching just-a-guy run patterns against just-another-guy while several key players rehab on the far field in shorts with the assistant trainers as one veteran after another takes the day off and calls it "a maintenance day."

Not to be critical.

So, yes, Tomlin is right. Maybe I just need to get away from his lab for a bit because his Pittsburgh Steelers are starting to look so 8 and 8.

But I had to ask him about it.

Even though I knew the answer before the question came out of my mouth, and even though I tried to frame it delicately by saying that I know we in the media might be overreacting, but I have to know: How do you coach this?

"How do you enter a season saying you have to improve your pass rush and your secondary and replace the great Heath Miller, and then spend the camp watching three No. 1 picks and your premium free-agent acquisition merely go through rehab?"

Tomlin didn't hesitate with the expected reply.

"I’ll let you guys do what you do and we’ll do what we do," he said. "Injuries and things of that nature are part of this process. We’ll deal with them. We’re not going to let that slow our day down, or our focus down. As always, I focus on the guys who are available to us, and their preparation and ultimately their play. If I spend any time worrying about those who aren’t available to us, then I’m not giving attention to those who are. So, we focus on the guys who are available to us and their performance. That’s always been our approach."

Yes, it has.

And to Tomlin's credit he didn't finish with, "Wex, you've been here long enough. You outta know better."

At least I did know better than to ask the follow-up that was on my mind:

Why practice at all? Why even go through any of this if it's merely about maintenance and avoiding injuries?

But I do realize I'm probably too close to the product to have grown that dismayed, because it IS a process and I know better than to let the dog days of mid-August drag me into this pit of hopelessness.

Someone else asked a follow-up instead. A new reporter to the local scene, a young guy who certainly didn't mean anything by it asked Tomlin how he keeps Artie Burns engaged while he's not practicing.

"He better keep himself engaged," Tomlin snapped as he ended the session.

Tomlin walked away muttering about the question, even sparked up some rage about it.

Maybe that rage was a carryover from my rage, or at least my exasperation. Maybe Tomlin's a little tired himself of the Millionaires Club meeting over there with the assistant trainers.

If so, he was smart to not have expressed it head on. He knows these are the dog days.

TURN OUR LONELY EYES

I'm pretty sure you know how I feel about James Harrison. I've covered the guy since he first stepped into the locker room as an undrafted rookie in the spring of 2002. I've marveled at his natural strength ever since and staunchly take his side in this recent fishing expedition by the NFL.

To paraphrase another columnist's tweet, if Harrison is suspended for not dignifying a since-retracted claim to a now-defunct network about him taking PEDs, then all players are open to being blackmailed by anyone.

And you probably know of my admiration for Harrison's work ethic and the way he mixes his lone-wolf approach with goals that are solely team driven.

Just as long as you understand all of this, because I took in with interest Harrison's lackluster approach to the individual competition period on Monday.

As he lined up against Jesse James for the backers-on-tight ends run-blocking drill, I found myself wondering why, and what in the world the young tight end and Tomlin, who was nearby monitoring the drill, hope to accomplish because James is not -- nor ever will -- going to seal the corner against Harrison.

Yep, probably just my bad mood over Ladarius Green being out again that causes me come down hard on Jesse, but I'm just not seeing starting material right now.

So I was surprised when he fired off the ball and shoved Harrison back five yards.

"What's up?" Tomlin asked Harrison.

"You hurt Deebo?" asked the injured Anthony Chickillo.

After waiting a couple of seconds without getting a response, Tomlin said "Get your (butt) outta here."

Tomlin threw another angry sentiment out there as Harrison took a seat on the water cooler and sat out the rest of a drill that would now be populated by guys who will soon be cut.

As I saw my sour mood in Harrison, and frankly enjoyed it, I also, well, saw my sour mood and knew better.

I know that's no way for a leader to act. I know Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel or whatever hero you want to pick from the past -- maybe Harrison himself -- doesn't allow that kind of apathy to run roughshod over a coach.

I'm always willing to excuse a player who's worked as hard to get where he is as Harrison has. And I know deep down he's all about the team. But he has to remember that the young guys are watching. Always.

RUN TO THE BALL!

I will close the pontification portion of today's column by saying John Mitchell and his defensive linemen did rejuvenate me by the end of the day.

Mitch was in rare form Monday. In spite of acclaim from most quarters that the Steelers defensive linemen performed well throughout the preseason opener, their coach was not happy.

I can't use the words Mitch used in coaching his guys on this day (although some of it may bleed over into the video above). But I can tell you no one was shirking his duty, and the leaders stood up and stood out in helping the coach coach.

One after another was told to hit the sled and sprint -- no, SPRINT!! -- down the field because film had showed that they didn't run downfield to the ball in Friday night's game.

Mitch, as usual, was toughest on Big Dan McCullers. But Mitch didn't baby his prize rookie, either, as he hounded Javon Hargrave. And Hargrave responded in kind with some hard work. Even though his stock is rising, and he played so well Friday night, Hargrave doesn't seem to be buying the hype for one minute.

It was refreshing to watch, and guys like Cam Heyward revived my faith in the leadership of this team.

QUICK HITTERS

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown can lift anyone's spirits. They connected on a perfect timing pass to beat a smothering Will Gay in Seven Shots. There was absolutely nothing the anguished Gay could've done about it.

Artie Burns likewise had great coverage on Brown when the second-team defensive unit (including safeties Sean Davis and Doran Grant) took the field, but Ben didn't look A.B.'s way even though he called for the ball.

* I know. Let us know when A.B. doesn't call for the ball.

Landry Jones stepped up and slid a few steps to his left to give Le'Veon Bell just enough time to get open for a successful conversion. I know fans are taking shots at Jones from all corners, but for the first time in his career I have confidence in his ability to be the man under center.

* Not THE man, but A man.

* Six-foot-three Jacob Hagen had his best practice Monday. I've been waiting to see something from the lanky safety who spent last season on the Rams' practice squad and Monday he broke up the final pass of Seven Shots and later went high to pluck a deep pass away from a tall receiver for an interception.

* The new outside linebacker, Jermauria Rasco, knocked Michael Cooper on his can with a quick punch during the backers-on-tight ends drill. The stocky Rasco flashed his strength a few other times during the day, but I'm going to chalk it up to his fresh legs until I see more.

* Speaking of Grant, he worked with Ray Vinopal at third-team safety and was clearly unsure of himself in the middle of the field. As the free safety, Grant took a bad angle on a Brandon Brown-Dukes run that would've gone for 70 yards had the whistle not blown the play dead.

* Safeties with cornerback experience ideally pay attention to the post pattern so the corner doesn't have to overcommit and thus become vulnerable to the post-corner. Well, Grant didn't pay attention and Donald Washington did get burned by Darrius Heyward-Bey's easy touchdown reception from Roethlisberger.

* ILB L.J. Fort dropped into the deep middle to shadow Xavier Grimble underneath and intercepted Roethlisberger.

* Readers naturally become frustrated when we report on players making great plays in practice only to watch them make poor plays in the preseason games. But, trust me, Sammie Coates really did make a fantastic diving catch of a Jones deep ball in practice Monday. Coates really does have mad skills.

* Travis Feeney returned to practice and Tomlin called for DC Keith Butler to let Feeney leave 7-on-7 for some pass-rushing one-on-ones against the O-linemen. Feeney impressed Tomlin with speed and strength in winning back-to-back reps against a backup tackle.

* Yes, Vince Williams looked stout and strong while rolling downhill against the Lions on Friday night, and he did so at 238 pounds, or 13 fewer than he played with last season. The team's backup at both ILB spots has increased his speed without losing any of his up-front disruptive skills.

* And, yes, McCullers does take to coaching. After Mitch spent a period lighting up his big nose tackle, McCullers followed up in the scrimmage by running to the ball. Only problem was, McCullers blew up a linemate, Ricardo Mathews, while chasing a play down field. Mathews grimaced in pain as a reporter described McCullers as "the Kool-Aid guy breaking through a wall."

* And finally another yes to a column on the Talk of Fame Network about Donnie Shell, whom I believe to be the greatest player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Author Derek Burns repeated recent inductee Tony Dungy's call for Shell to be in the Hall and recounted Shell's 51 career interceptions, 19 recovered fumbles, five Pro Bowls, four All-Pros, four rings and his inclusion on the Super Bowl's 50-Year Team because of how well he played the run and the pass. We've all seen the highlight of Shell breaking Earl Campbell's ribs, and we're now once again realizing how hard it is for safeties to cover slot receivers the way Shell did. Only seven safeties are in the Hall of Fame, and the last, Ken Houston, retired in 1980. It's time the voters reconsider Donnie Shell.

(For SteelCityInsiders.net customers wishing to read the complete Morning After diary, click here.)


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