Moments with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the final preseason week

Jim Wexell shares the time he spent with the Steelers as the final preseason game draws near

It's time to celebrate the final week of preseason. The Steelers' starters didn't practice all that much, and with good reason. But they all showed up, and here are some vignettes from the week:

Stephon Tuitt

He caught my eye, and ear, because the third-year giant was walking off the field with his position coach, John Mitchell, and they were talking like old buddies about to go fishing, or about to get a beer, maybe both. I asked Tuitt there's been a softening with Mitch.

I thought he was a hardass with you young players.

"He is. He still is," Tuitt said with a laugh.

But you two seem like best buddies.

"Well, it's because I understand what he wants. I know what he wants as a coach. I know when we go out to the practice field what he wants us to do. I know when we go out to games, I know what he wants us to do."

Tuitt practiced all week without Cameron Heyward, his sidekick who suffered a mild high-ankle sprain in last week's game. Heyward has vowed to return for the opener but of course missed the practice week and won't play tonight.

But what if he doesn't play in the opener?

"Next man up," Tuitt said. "And it will be up to me to put the young guys under my wing and show them if Cam isn't able to play or return at that time -- which, I think he will, and he had better. But if not, worst-case scenario is it will be up to me to step in as the leader and show the guys under me how we're going to play this thing and how we're going to do this thing and lead us to a victory."

Has Mitch taken any of the youngsters in? Does he joke and laugh after practice with any of them?

Tuitt laughed for a couple of seconds.

"Here," he continued, "it's all about going out and performing and showing what you can do. If they're able to do that, and I think they will, eventually we'll have a good, solid d-line."

And then he laughed again.

That friendship thing with Mitch apparently will have to wait.

Artie Burns

As reported earlier in the week, Burns returned an interception for a touchdown in his first full practice back from injury, and he said, "They don't pay me to get picks in practice."

Well, the next day he intercepted two more passes. It was, in fact, a big day for the young defensive backs. Ross Cockrell picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice while covering Antonio Brown and Sean Davis intercepted a deflection.

What's that about not making your money in practice?

"It's coming back. It's coming back," Burns said with a degree of satisfaction. "I've just got to keep working every day and get some picks in the game and then I'll talk about getting paid."

Tyler Matakevich

The image was one of the last from the game last week in New Orleans. The TV screen faded to commercial with Matakevich sitting on the bench, smiling and tightly holding the football he had just intercepted as if he was still running with it.

Where's the ball?

"Back in the room, back at the hotel," he said after practice.

When you get one in a varsity game you can replace that one on the mantel with a real one.

"Oh," he said, a bit confused. "I'm going to enjoy the (stuff) out of this one."

Does it matter it was thrown right at you?

"No. At the end of the day, it's however you get the job done. It just so happened I literally didn't have to move. But, no, the coaches have taught me a lot since I've been here and that's something I've needed to get better at and I'm trying to do. I'm listening to (Ryan) Shazier and (Lawrence) Timmons and watching them. They're professionals and I'm trying to learn from them."

Matakevich played only nine snaps last week. He got the interception -- as did the third-team buck ILB, Stevie Johnson -- and had a tackle. Matakevich has been third team since the spring but he's been on the first kick-coverage team, the first punt team and calls the defenses in the huddle.

That all will mean something when it comes to cutting the team in the next two days won't it?

"Of course," he said. "Everything is taken into consideration. All that matters is how you do on the field. It's how you play, if you're making plays, if you're doing your job, if you're accountable. Those are all factors the coaches see. I'm trying to show them that I'm an accountable guy, that they can trust me when I'm in the game."

Johnny Maxey

A writer or two and a PR man or two were talking on the sideline during practice about how NFL players are so much smarter than fans sometimes want to give them credit for being. It's not just about athleticism here. These guys have to be intelligent.

Take Maxey. One would think an undrafted nobody D-lineman who had to attend a DI-AA school because he was late with his paperwork wouldn't be the brightest bulb. But this guy's bright, and he's putting that intelligence to use here.

"Tuitt gives me a lot of advice," Maxey said. "And just watching him I can learn a lot, just seeing how he goes about diagnosing plays, watching film. Cam, too. And watching their technique, you can learn a lot from it as a new person in this league."

Maxey hasn't played much this preseason, but No. 62 practiced quite a bit this week and expects to play a lot tonight.

"It's my time. I'm excited right now," said the man from Mars Hill who hasn't missed a practice since rookie minicamp.

Is it all coming down to one game?

"Yeah. Thursday night. Coach Mitch keeps telling us it's important for a lot of people. If you're playing in that game, most likely it's really important for you. I need to have a good game."

What does Mitch want to see?

"You've just got to know what you're doing and you've got to play the technique he wants you to play. And if you do that, everything will take care of itself."

And you have a good feeling you can do that?

"I do. I do have a good feeling about that."

Bruce Gradkowski

Gradkowski has since been placed on IR, and on Monday he wasn't in the mood to talk about his hamstring injury with a reporter. But when I told him I wanted to talk about the other quarterback, Bryn Renner, Gradkowski's mood suddenly brightened.

"I think he's doing a great job," Gradkowski said. "It's always tough being a young quarterback coming in towards the end of camp and trying to learn a new system, but I think he's doing a good job. The one thing coaches want to see, they want to be able to trust you that you get the snap, you can execute the plays. That's one thing you have to build, that trust with the coaches being the young guy in a new system. You've got to know where to go with the ball and do the fundamental things. That's what they're looking for. You don't have to go out there and throw five touchdowns or hit the deep one. You've got to manage the offense."

Renner had credited Gradkowski with helping him cram this past week, and it was obvious out on the field that Gradkowski's pulling for Renner. Every positive play was met with a Gradkowski fist pump and a "Yeah!"

Realize, that at the time, Gradkowski's future with the team would've been diminished with a strong performance by Renner. But that's the unspoken realization with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Gradkowski was honest in rooting for the younger QB.

"In my career, my 11th year, you've just got to persevere and keep grinding," he said. "This new guy, he cracks me up. He's got such a great attitude. He just cares so much if a mistake happens. That's why I tell him he's got to move on. And that's hard. Getting an opportunity, you want to be perfect. Sometimes you can't try too hard. You've just got to do what you're coached to do, one play at a time."

Javon Hargrave

Sitting at his locker, under a handmade nameplate that reads "J. Wobble," the rookie's smile left his face when I asked if I should call him "J. Wobble."

That's Heyward's new nickname for the talented young nose tackle. But Hargrave's smile reappeared when I told him I like "Grave Digger" better anyway. The more important question I had for him was this:

Do you have the sense you're the starter now?

"What do you mean?" he asked.

With Daniel McCullers back in full gear today, you still took all the reps at nose tackle.

"Oh, no, Dan's still out. He dressed but just didn't practice," Hargrave explained.

With his first sack last week, Hargrave is moving closer to the job.

"Thank you," he said.

With a smile.

Ricardo Mathews

A group of reporters huddled around the guy who would likely be Heyward's replacement in the opener. But we couldn't help but ask dumb questions. It happens that way sometimes.

Why do you think San Diego didn't keep you?

"I didn't produce enough," he said. "I was in on all passing downs, but if you're not sacking the quarterback ..."

That's really not the job of a defensive end here though, is it?

"(Shoot) yeah," he said. "Getting after the quarterback? We've got to hold our integrity in our lanes, yeah, that's the bigger picture, trying to have the right pass-rush lanes, but we have to keep that quarterback under duress."

The guys say you've progressed, that you're athletic. Is that your game?

"Of course," he said with a laugh. "I'm trying to be the biggest, strongest, fastest out there. I'm pretty sure that's everybody's M.O. on the field."

But there's more emphasis on agility and athleticism as opposed to power.

"As far as what?"

Guys talking about you.

"Yeah. Appreciate that my teammates would say that."

Ricardo, did you ever play with Cam Thomas?

"No, I didn't. I just missed him, so when he came over (here) I guess I filled his role at San Diego."

Is this kind of a new beginning for you here?

"In what sense? What do you mean?"

You said you didn't sack the QB enough last year. Is this a second chance? More of a second life for you here?

"I think it's another opportunity. Still on the same life (laughs). But it's another opportunity and a better opportunity I assume. You know, with the offense that we have, the defensive-caliber players that we have, we really have a chance of going all the way. That's what our focus is."

Maurkice Pouncey

Pouncey and his good friend Ramon Foster were walking off the field and into the locker room when I fell in line behind them.

The first-team interior didn't work all week. The second-teamers will start tonight, probably with Alejandro Villanueva and Ryan Harris as the tackles, so I joked with Ramon.

Now you know what it's like to be a sportswriter.

"How's that?" Foster asked.

Standing on the sideline all practice.

"That's a good life," Pouncey said with a laugh.

Except now I have to start work.

He laughed again.

But you guys deserve the time off. You haven't missed a day since the start of OTAs.

"That's true," said Foster. "And next week we'll be busting our asses."

Once in the locker room, I told Pouncey I had a question that he may prefer to not answer. He nodded his head.

Is Richardo Mathews a better defensive lineman than the last guy you got from San Diego, Cam Thomas.

"Hell yeah," Pouncey said without hesitation. "I like Ricardo. He gets after it. You see when he plays in the game, he brings energy. And he's not all about beating out Cam and Tuitt. He wants to work into the rotation with them. Hell, yeah. I like that guy."


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