The Morning After

Read "The Morning After" three times a week for Jim Wexell's thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers as they train for the 2005 season at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Wednesday, August 17th

23.


In the locker room after the game, Dan Rooney reached over and grabbed me by the arm to say hello. I'd been scuttling past and walked back to shake his hand and congratulate him on getting his team in that day, and he just said, "By the end of the week." I took that as Hines Ward contract info and figured I'd pass it along.

Now that that's unofficially out of the way, we can comfortably look back and talk about what went right and wrong out on the field Monday night:

Donovan McNabb threw into triple coverage on the first play of the game, so Willie Williams had company from Chris Hope and Larry Foote as he walked into the end zone. Williams had his ups and downs the rest of the game, but the other two, Hope and Foote, played very well.

Troy Polamalu isn't the only speedy safety for the Steelers. He and Hope cover a lot of ground back there. Polamalu made a great open field tackle of Greg Lewis, but his speed really cut down the angle first. Hope did the same thing two plays later and appears to be playing with great confidence. Rooney should make a quick strike on extending Hope's contract before the season begins. Bagging Ward and Hope would make everybody –fans included – just one big happy family heading into the season.

• Foote opened the game with a great tackle for loss and also had a quarterback pressure early. The buzz about Foote began in earnest the day after Joey Porter had surgery. James Farrior chose him as the replacement for Porter as the on-field motor mouth, but he did so because "Foote made so many big plays last year." My point is, the veterans have genuine respect for Foote. I also recall the story about Aaron Smith talking to a trainer late last season, telling him not to rush Kendrell Bell back. The players seem to like Foote more than the fans do, but I think the fans are catching up.

• All of the starting linebackers looked good Monday. Farrior set up Foote's tackle for loss, and James Harrison was roaming sideline to sideline just like he roams up the field on a pass rush. He got his sack with a hard charge way up the field with a loop back under. Clark Haggans also looked very active and could be in store for his best season. On a down note, Alonzo Jackson just doesn't have it. He should be cut on the first round so his decent combo of size and speed stops tempting the coaching staff.

• Dick LeBeau sure sent enough blitzes. Isn't the early preseason schedule for vanilla defenses only? It's exciting to see him cranking it up with little regard for future scouting reports.

Deshea Townsend was solid in coverage, but what to do on the other side? Williams had his moments, like the third-and-three play in which he jumped the tight end's route. He would've had a second interception had the ball not been thrown away. Williams is so savvy, and that's what might be lacking with either Ricardo Colclough or Ike Taylor taking his place. Then again, they probably wouldn't have gotten beat on third-and-17 the way Williams was.

• Taylor has been used at right cornerback all camp, but Townsend isn't the guy who'll need replaced. And since you don't want to mess with Taylor's comfortability factor, if that term can be used, it appears as if LeBeau put Taylor on the wrong side to open camp. He's ahead of Colclough and Bryant McFadden, but do you put him on the other side right now?

Ben Roethlisberger threw high all night, but no way will I be drawn into making any criticisms now. I'm resigned to the fact he will have his ups and downs as a quarterback. Hopefully, the fans are resigned to it, too, and can allow him to develop.

• I would start Verron Haynes at tailback in place of Duce Staley. Let Haynes take the physical abuse while Jerome Bettis eases his way into the season the way he did last year. Haynes would be effective behind that line. I realize the line wasn't in synch the other night, but I have confidence it will come together, and I have confidence the Steelers would win with Haynes. That would allow Willie Parker to take the field on passing downs.

Reggie Brown, my predicted Steelers first-round draft pick, looked pretty good for the Eagles, but the Steelers made the right move with Heath Miller. I still haven't seen him beat anyone deep, but he has everything the Steelers will need in a tight end for the next 10 years.

• Boy, Ike Taylor sure is sudden. Before his 100-yard kickoff return, he came from out of nowhere to tackle a back for a loss. His interception of the first-half Hail Mary was another example of his superior athleticism.

• On Taylor's touchdown return, there were seven blocks being made in a circle around Taylor as he crossed the 20. Colclough then beat two guys while running to catch up and block for Taylor. He could've passed Taylor down the stretch. That's some serious speed.

Brett Keisel blew up a defender on Colclough's punt return and on his first defensive series blew up the middle of the line and almost killed Koy Detmer. Keisel had another pressure in the game, but was pushed rather easily out of the way on Ryan Moats's touchdown run.

Chris Hoke defended Keisel's unnecessary roughness penalty by blaming Eagles cheap-shot linemen, but also said he ignored it while Keisel couldn't. Keisel then had to take a Cowher shower for his transgression.

• This team not only has speed, it has mature speed. Colclough, Taylor, Hope, Polamalu, even Willie Parker and Keisel are growing up. The role players could make this a special year for the Steelers.

• On a down note, I'm growing weary of the Hollywood-type face of the Steelers right now. Bettis, Roethlisberger and Ward are just a little too comfortable in front of the cameras. Good thing for the maturing role players. Someone's gotta be ugly on this team.

Fred Gibson showed toughness Monday, and that's been his rap. On the same series, he caught a pass over the middle and used a spin move into the defender to break free for a first down. He then laid that beautiful block during Nate Washington's big gainer.

• Washington has been a favorite of scout Phil Kreidler's since April. We call him Nate Kreidler. Good call, Phil.

Chukky Okobi buried the Eagles' middle linebacker on Parker's touchdown run up the middle. It was the only offensive touchdown of the half. Okobi also threw the key block on Parker's screen pass earlier in the drive.

• Early in the third quarter, rookie guard Chris Kemoeatu pulled left on a sweep and gave a small block to end Hugh Douglas that knocked Douglas suddenly out of the TV screen. It was a quick show of brute strength that reminded me of the way Harrison surprised people his rookie camp.

Trai Essex did a good job. As I've said before, he doesn't look pretty, but he's scratching and clawing to get the job done. He also has good feet, so I'm under the belief they've found a guy who can provide back-up help this season.

Shaun Suisham kicked a 46-yarder and it was no surprise to those of us who've watched him kick field goals at camp. The kid's going to kick in this league after the Steelers cut him. The same should go for punter Mike Barr. That guy's built like a linebacker. Both are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

• With Essex and Kemoeatu showing quality skills, the Steelers may not have to keep 10 linemen. So that final offensive spot will go to either a sixth wide receiver, a sixth running back or a fourth tight end. They could keep two of those three players if they opt to keep only 23 defensive players (5 safeties, 4 CBs, 8 LBs, 6 DL).

Monday, August 15th

22.


JW: Answer Man, our subscriptions have gone through the roof since your last appearance, and I thank you.

Answer Man: How?

JW: Well, I just did. Sorry, can't give you a cut.

AM: Whatever.

JW: But I did take some heat for not asking you about Hines Ward.

AM: Ask away.

JW: First of all, are the papers right, are the two sides talking?

AM: We're discussing the framework and possible structures, but no numbers.

JW: Well, what about the report where Hines was quoted as saying he wants between $16 and $18 million in guaranteed money?

AM: You know what I thought of when I saw that? I thought that Hines hasn't been talking with his agent. I think his agent's leaving him out of the loop. Like when Hines said that first week that we only made an offer the week before camp; that's just not true. And I know Hines. He's a good, truthful person. So the only conclusion I can come to is that his agent's not keeping him informed. We'd made like eight proposals at that point.

JW: Well that's another subject. The public has the impression the Steelers are dragging their feet in these negotiations, that they didn't begin until late. Is that true?

AM: No. I think the first time we talked was at the combine, and then up through the draft. There'd been back and forth going on ever since.

JW: What kind of numbers are we talking about here? What are the parameters?

AM: I don't want to get into any numbers, but I can say he'll be the highest paid player in team history.

JW: Yes, but that record keeps going up and up. Next year there will be a new record.

AM: By who?

JW: Umm … well, maybe not next year, but Ben will be up in a couple of years.

AM: That's right. He's probably the guy who will break the record, but he's a quarterback. That's who you want at the top of your pay scale.

JW: But Hines is a dream player. You know all the positives about him. I don't have to list them here.

AM: We agree. He's a great player. I think the problem is his agent believes he's a top-3 wide receiver, that he belongs up there with Moss and T.O. and Harrison. We think he's in the next tier. And, frankly, he's 29. In three years, when he loses the step he can't afford to lose, what will we have then? I don't think any other business would go as far as we have with him. It's really not smart. But we've gone this far because we do think he's a special kid.

JW: I saw a report that the Steelers are hesitant because he has an arthritic condition in his knee.

AM: Everybody in football has a little arthritis somewhere.

JW: Does he have any malady that might be holding your interest down a bit?

AM: No.

JW: If he were to ask for eight figures in guaranteed money, would the deal get done? AM: Eight figures?

JW: Ten million.

AM: I'll just say he has to come to camp. He has to. If he reports right before the regular season, it probably wouldn't get done because we won't talk during the regular season. It's our policy and he knows it.

JW: Would you stretch that policy a little bit?

AM: Why would we?

JW: Because he is special; you admitted it.

AM: But it would set a bad precedent. We just couldn't; we wouldn't. We're prepared to stretch this contract more than what we believe is smart to begin with, so there's no chance we'd break policy and establish precedent here.

JW: What's your gut instinct tell you?

AM: That he'll report right before the season starts.

JW: Would that have an adverse effect on the team?

AM: No. The coach is behind him all the way. He loves the kid. But he also respects what we're doing. He's fine with all of this, so it's been a good atmosphere for all concerned, I think, because of the coach. You know, the coach has had his ups and downs with people here and there throughout the organization, but he's always backed the players. He'd go to the wall for his players. But I think Hines would lose him if he waited until the very last minute, or beyond, to come in.

JW: Would Cowher bench him?

AM: No, but their relationship would be strained. I imagine in that scenario Hines would play the season out and move on.

Friday, August 12th

19.


Guys who cover trash talking instead of football are apoplectic today. The questions came from every direction yesterday and most went along these lines: "Who's going to replace Joey Porter's mouth?" And they were serious.

Who, I counter, will replace his talent? And Duce Staley's? And Hines Ward's? Those are the real questions after watching a listless goal-line drill at Latrobe Stadium on Wednesday night. Not that Porter's talents matter all that much at the goal line, nor Ward's for that matter. They have more to do with the passing game than anything. Of course they are heroes in this town because of what they offer in the run game. The listlessness, I believe, had less to do with the lack of trash talking than the overall boredom of a drill that's been over-hyped by, well, those many who analyze and sift through reports of trash talking, other team's trash talking and how that trash talking will affect the Steelers' trash talking in coming games.

It's just dumb.

What's not dumb is the drip, drip, drip of talent leaving the field. Does anyone really believe James Harrison can replace Porter? Or Verron Haynes can replace Staley? Or anyone can replace Ward at flanker in this offense? It's going to be difficult.

Take Harrison. He's a great story, rags to riches. And he's playing up that b-a-a-a-d man aspect. But I caught him smiling with kids; caught him red-handed as he was helping out a family with some photos. And he is a great story. Harrison is an explosive player but that's been brought out more because he is a good story. But for every little running back he's blown up in the next over-hyped drill – backs on backers – Harrison counters by being caught under Max Starks's shoulder pads. I've yet to see Harrison beat an offensive tackle during team scrimmage. Don't get me wrong. I like Harrison's power, but Starks owns him. Over on the left side, the story was much the same with Marvel Smith yesterday. Porter also provides more for the team – much more – in pass coverage. There's also the leadership, and I'm not just talking about the mouth.

As for Haynes, he's an OK runner. There are some things to like about him. He's not a bruiser, nor is he very quick, or sudden, but he's a nice combination of the two, can catch, block. He's OK, a nice back. But Staley is better in every facet. That's just how I see it. I like Haynes, but if you're thinking about the championship level, nice is not going to get it done.

So that's what we had at the goal line the other night. Haynes scored in three carries. He did score. But it was unimpressive, bland, dull even. And not because the yippers were gone. It's probably because the goal-line drill is so played, as is the yapping that goes with it and then the media over-hype that follows. You want excitement, throw a screen to Staley; set Porter loose on a pass rush; have Ward bust down on a defensive end on fourth-and-one. That's what I'll miss most the next four weeks.

20.


What to do at running back? Fast Willie Parker is justifiably gathering steam as everyone's answer, but my hunch is Haynes will start, Jerome Bettis will be the goal-line runner, and Parker will become the third-down back. That's how I'd set it up. No disrespect intended here, but I'd let Haynes withstand the early-season brutality; I'd use him up, for lack of a better phrase. He'll provide the plow-horse yardage, and could even surprise behind a terrific offensive line. Let Bettis ease into the season and let Parker ease his way into the NFL.

Last year was Step One for Parker. Let the first half of this season become his second step. Make both Haynes and Parker prove something before making a radical move with either.

OK, so starting Haynes is a fairly large jump, but they still have Bettis in reserve. Just flop Haynes for Staley and see where it leads.

As for Staley, the team has to forget about him. Yes, his injury is expected to heal soon, but he's been injury-plagued throughout his career. Put him in the back shelf of your mind, forget about him and then whatever he gives you is gravy.

21.


It didn't take a genius to figure out the Steelers needed depth at linebacker coming into the season, and now it appears that Alonzo Jackson will make the team.

Has Jackson played that well? Not really. Is he better than his last two years? Yeah. He drops into coverage now and blocks a ball every now and then; he hurries quarterbacks when going up against back-up tackles; he's a big body. But in games, he won't do a thing. He's not a player, but he's all they have right now.

Dedrick Roper is OK. Andre Frazier is a prospect who needs to put on weight. So they are stuck with Jackson, and it's not his fault. He will give them the best Alonzo Jackson that he can. Unfortunately, it will not be enough. The kid's just not a player.

Tuesday, August 9th

18.


We've moved this up a day to make time for our special guest, Mr. A. Man. Yes, the Answer Man has been roused. Actually, he called after reading some of the posts on the message board. He likes some of the answers, but understands we don't have access to the practice film. In other words, he felt sorry for the readers.

Answer Man: You seem to have a problem with James Harrison. Don't you like him anymore?

JW: That's not it at all. I just haven't seen him flash during any of the live scrimmages.

AM: You haven't? Boy, you need to watch some of the tapes. He's having a great camp.

JW: OK. If you say so. Since I have you, what did the tape say of the goal-line scrimmage? Any key blocks? Where was Larry Foote on Verron Haynes's touchdown?

AM: There weren't any key blocks. Actually there were some missed blocks. Verron just did it on his own. Foote had him at the goal line but couldn't wrap him up; Verron's momentum carried him in. Hey, it was the first day of tackling. That's to be expected. That's why we always get beat the first preseason game, because we don't hit much up here.

JW: You usually get beat the first regular-season game, too.

AM: Agreed. We're a slow-starting team.

JW: What can you tell me about Willie Parker's run outside during goal line?

AM: All Willie. He just turned the corner and was gone. Rian Wallace had a nice angle on him, but Willie's just too fast.

JW: Wallace doesn't look good.

AM: He looks good to me. I like him a lot. You're not seeing what I'm seeing on tape.

JW: It doesn't look like he takes on blocks or that he can even run. He looks like he needs to lose weight.

AM: No. He's fine. He can run. And if you don't think he can take on blocks, watch his junior film. I like him.

JW: What about the rest of the back-up linebackers?

AM: It's a good group. Even Alonzo Jackson's holding his own. Andre Frazier's doing real well, too. Dedrick Roper, all of them. I like them. It'll come down to who can help the most on special teams.

JW: What about the secondary?

AM: Ike Taylor's playing real well; Bryant McFadden's doing well, even though he makes some mistakes; Ricardo (Colclough) is doing alright, but he hasn't taken that step up yet the way we'd hoped.

JW: I heard Mike Logan's close to taking the job from Chris Hope.

AM: No way. Hope's much, much better.

JW: Is Tyrone Carter close to taking Logan's roster spot?

AM: No. You can't have him covering tight ends. He's too small. Now, Troy Polamalu, he can get it done. He's special. He's all over the place this camp. They're using him everywhere: up, back, fake a blitz and drop to cover the middle third. That's tough to do, and he's doing it all. He's special.

JW: How are the young defensive linemen?

AM: Elliott Harris shows flashes. Eric Taylor doesn't do much during the one-on-one drills, but not everybody does well in that drill; Jeff Hartings is a perfect example. But Taylor's doing well in live scrimmages. He's stout at the point of attack.

JW: Speaking of the one-on-one drills, Kendall Simmons hasn't performed very well in them. Is he OK?

AM: He's doing a great job in scrimmages; he really is. There's nothing wrong with him at all, trust me.

JW: Anything else you like on the offensive line?

AM: There are a few free agents that aren't doing well. Other than that I like all of our free agents. Trai Essex has some technique flaws but I like him. He's not overwhelmed by anything. He looks ugly doing it, but he'll work that out. He wasn't at the OTAs remember. Chris Kemoeatu is going to be a good one, a real good one. I saw your note on his punch, and you're right, but he even uses his melon to hit people. He's hurting people out there.

JW: What about Max Starks? He looks like he can be a great one, and then …

AM: And then he looks soft. I know. But even when he gets beat it takes a cab ride to get around him. He'll be fine.

JW: What about the receivers? Where did Freddie Gibson go?

AM: Again, watch the tapes. He's flashed a few times. I don't see a problem with him. Walter Young's starting to tail off. He's dropped a few. Even with a hamstring problem, he shouldn't be dropping balls. Nate Washington has a lot to learn, and he's not the fastest guy, but I like him. He looks like he could make the practice squad. At tight end, Heath Miller is everything we've expected.

JW: Will he start the opener?

AM: I don't know. He could. But there's really good depth there. There's really good depth everywhere, to tell you the truth. I like the back-up running backs, too.

JW: What about Ben? Do you think his hand's bothering him?

AM: I think Ben looks great.

JW: I love his size, strength and foot speed – they've allowed him to make some big plays -- but his throwing has been average at best sometimes.

AM: I don't know what you're looking at. Some of those outs he throws, you just don't see that. I think he's making it look too easy for you.

JW: I can't watch him all the time.

AM: I know. Nobody can stand down there and watch all 11 people. You watch a Rian Wallace on one play and somebody else the next three plays; meanwhile, Rian Wallace is doing great things the three plays you looked at somebody else. Trust me. I know what you're going through. That's why I appreciate the chance to look at the tapes.

JW: OK, wise guy, what did the tapes say about the alleged collision between Ben and Jerome?

AM: Didn't see it. I looked for it, but honest to God I couldn't see it on film.

JW: Thanks. I needed that. We're the only news outlet that didn't report "a collision."

AM: I know. Like I said when I called, I'm watching you guys.

Monday, August 8th

11.


In order to sleep in a little this morning, I cheated. I wrote this last night. Drove to the top of Laurel Mountain and put the laptop out on the picnic table; Henry David Thoreau indeed. But a storm is creeping in. There's thunder on the mountain.

12.


The offense killed the defense Saturday. The quarterbacks were pin-point, particularly in the red-zone drill. Since the goal-line drill of '01, we in the media have made such a big deal about that drill on the first Saturday in August, the red-zone drill before that is forgotten. And if you weren't paying attention this year, you'd have missed it. The offense got it done in a blink of an eye.

On the first play, from the 20, Ben Roethlisberger threw an out to Antwaan Randle El for a touchdown in front of Janssen Patten. Regular pass. No laser; wasn't needed.

The second team needed two plays. Tommy Maddox threw a high pass to Walter Young in the end zone; Young went way up and Chidi Iwuoma went way up -- and may have interfered (not called by attending game officials) – and the ball bounced away. On the next play, Maddox threw a beautiful fade in the back corner of the end zone to Cedrick Wilson for a touchdown. Great pass and catch. Wilson is in line for a great season.

I'd erroneously reported that Roethlisberger threw the pass to Randle El. It was also my response to the harsh critiques being made of Roethlisberger's throwing so far at camp, which brings up an important topic: Roethlisberger's throwing.

In this changing media world, waves of internet reports are created by fans, many of whom are reporting that Roethlisberger's throwing has been off. They're right. He hasn't been sharp. Why isn't this being reported in the mainstream? Because we've seen it before. Anyone who's covered a football team long enough knows not to get too excited about passing ups and downs. Imagine the internet reports of a young Terry Bradshaw! So, this is not being reported. But Ben looks great in other ways. He's running like a young Bradshaw. During team scrimmage, first team against first, Roethlisberger scrambled away from James Farrior – with ease – and gained 15 yards. His pass to Wilson that ended the one-minute drill the other day was a game-changer, the type of play he's capable of making at any time. Yes, he's fluttering some stuff up there; yes, I'm concerned about the ice on the hand. That's the story that needs watched. He won't talk about it; the trainers can't. And Bill Cowher, like any coach, won't acknowledge an injury unless the trainer's talking. So it needs watching, as does a defense that's been giving up too many touchdowns.

13.


I went home Saturday night, a few miles down the road to Irwin, and had ice cream with my wife and daughter. The bill came to $6.66. The waitress got scared. And now … the winds are easing as the sky becomes darker … it's the quiet before the storm. There's an eerie quiet on the mountain.

14.


Cedrick Wilson flat out looks great, and he came to play. The beauty of the Hines Ward holdout is that Wilson and Randle El can play at the same time. It's giving the coaches a great look at both players. Antwaan's been good, but Wilson is winning the split end job. A stat whiz (footballoutsiders.com) took a comprehensive look at football in a new book called Pro Football Prospectus. He and his associates tore into football stats like the baseball guys have done, and the result is something I cannot yet understand. But the Steelers' section deals with Wilson and an exhaustive look at size and receiving. They claim that tall guys are overrated. I have read it twice and cannot grasp his theories, but his finding is that tall receivers are overrated. But here are some of Wilson's camp highlights:

1. He took a big lick from Chris Hope, but on that day I remember Wilson chirping at Ben. I didn't see anything wrong with it. He thought he was open. Damn, he's cocky too. I took it as a good sign because Ben respects stuff like that.

2. The spin move that made Ricardo Colclough fall down was capped by making Troy Polamalu fall down. I remember the two DBs getting off the ground, not Wilson running in for a touchdown.

3. The deep catch of the 3rd-and-1 bomb from Roethlisberger during the one-minute drill. It showed – without any complicated stats – that any receiver can stand quietly and wait for his quarterback to reverse his field and flick his wrist.

15.


Speaking of snapshots:

1. Brian St. Pierre scrambled right and threw a bullet to Zamir Cobb for 20 yards. My view from the sideline was in perfect line to see the quick decision and then snap of the arm across his body – while on the run – St. Pierre had to make. Maybe I'm looking for good things from St. Pierre because the word is the coach loved him at mini-camp.

2. Willie Parker hit a seam and was gone, but that snapshot was nearly lost amid the Roethlisberger one-minute heroics. In the team scrimmage preceding the one-minute drill Friday, Parker ran a draw out of the shotgun from a spread third-down formation. He looked so patient, confident, and then turned it up and was gone.

3. Noah Herron ran over Ike Taylor, so I bet Prisuta $10 to win $15 Herron will lead the team in preseason rushing. The other day, Parker, the betting favorite, broke through two collapsing arm tackles. I thought his No. 39 was No. 38, but Willie's probably stronger than Herron.

4. Speaking of gambling, we asked Kevin Colbert to bet on guys-to-make-the-roster with us. He turned around and laughed. He's a happy guy. His daughters, too, are the prettiest, sunniest teenage girls you ever could imagine. The older one, Kacie, used to work as an intern with the Steelers. She was just on "The View" dancing during a Faith Hill concert. His younger daughter is now working in the camp office and she's always smiling. I do believe the Colberts will be with the Steelers for a long time.

5. Heath Miller was a great draft pick. He's a nice guy, but by no means a softie. He's smart, athletic and tough and he's just soaking it all in right now, becoming familiar with the terrain. He hasn't done much pass catching in team scrimmage yet, so we shall save the Todd Heap comparisons for now. At least he's a Frank Wycheck. Right now, Ben will take that.

6. Willie Parker just hit another seam. This was a couple of plays before the brilliant red-zone drill commenced. So again, Willie's big run was lost amid some shuffling. This time he cut back and got low and turned on the jets. The guy next to me said: "How can that guy not have been drafted?" They all say that. It's like being in the lounge at intermission after the North Mississippi Allstars have just warmed another act up. "Those guys were so good. How could they not have been drafted?"

7. It's starting to get spooky up here on the mountain.

16.


ROOKIE REPORT

1. Heath Miller – pro blocker; rangy runner; big, soft hands; says yes sir; keeps quiet even though he's smart enough to say a lot; still want to see him get open, although he hasn't been called upon much in scrimmages.

2. Bryant McFadden – thinking too much now, so he's not using all the skills that were evident the first day; sticky in man but getting beat a few times has taken some of his aggression away; giving up big cushions in zone; needs time; don't we all.

3. Trai Essex – playing right tackle, which is a change from the original plan, not sure what it means, but Essex has shown me he could survive in an emergency; just seems to get it done – at the expense of Alonzo Jackson, Andre Frazier that I recall – with decent feet, fights and claws and keeps his weight balanced; smart guy which is always good in a lineman; I feel good about him.

4. Fred Gibson – the mystery man; where's he gone? Walter Young gets more playing time, so maybe Gibson's battling a nagging injury – like Young with his hamstring – or is being babied. (Note to self: Investigate this today.)

5. Rian Wallace – big inside backer hasn't taken on blocks well nor has he run well; don't know what the films are showing but I don't see anything here; am, of course, willing to be persuaded otherwise this week.

6. Chris Kemoeatu – has punched people off balance; has decent feet; will be a masher if he understands what's being taught him. I criticized this guy before for not being too smart, but the next day he took in coaching instruction, did what was told and improved to Russ Grimm's delight. This is the guy who ran his last few 40s in the run test without a shirt, while his pants were falling down, akin to today's style. It was quite a scene. Hope to one day say, "Why I remember that kid when he ran naked around these fields."

7a. Shaun Nua – interesting athlete who needs to put weight on; ideal for the practice squad -- if he's picked up, oh well, because some team will have to keep a light DE the whole year.

7b. Herron – tough, smart and shows flashes of speed at times; will get plenty of carries in the preseason so all of us will know more soon enough, but he looks to have strength, enough quicks, hands, blocking ability, smarts.

Elliott Harris – not a nose tackle and you wonder why they even tried this 280-pound backup from Arkansas at the nose (toughen him up?), but he has flashed at end. He ran over – ran over – Max Starks in a one-on-one drill; not near ready as Eric Taylor seems to be, but shows more flashes than the WVU kid they liked the last few years. (Note to self: See what's up with Eric Taylor today. Seems to be coming on strong, plus has a cool hairstyle.)

Nate Washington – smooth strider who is a candidate for the practice squad; not ready yet; lacks confidence, but enthusiastic and perhaps big enough and fast enough.

Andre Frazier – word's out he has a chance but frankly haven't seen it so I'll defer to others on this one; someone to watch while remembering that OLBs making the change from DE need time.

17.


Well, it hasn't rained. The mosquitoes are biting, though. They're hungry for blood on the mountain.

Friday, August 5th

8.


Last year, I reported to camp enthusiastic and open-minded before devolving into insanity. The overkill, I believe, did me in. The media up here is flat-out cuckoo. So to counter that, I reported to camp this year already insane and am currently evolving into a normal functioning human being. In fact, I feel like the sanest guy up here. The frenzy over Ben Roethlisberger's alleged "injury" was over the top. I did not see a collision, even though I watched every play closely; I did not see Ben limping, even though he did not miss a snap; I did not report any of this to the Associated Press, which pays for such dispatches. So they sent an e-mail expressing their disappointment. "What are the viewers of KDKA going to think?" Apparently, that station interrupted its newscast with "an exclusive" on Ben's injury. And because of that, I'm supposed to cover their butts and clear up any misunderstanding.

Now, Ben's wrapped right hand may be cause for concern. He really hasn't looked sharp up here and a hand injury would certainly explain that. It will be a difficult nut to crack because everyone's so tight-lipped about minor-but-nagging injuries. I know you'd like to know more about it, but that's all I have, and if it's carried over from last year, it would explain his playoff slump.

But back to my media rant: It's not the volume of the coverage here that's out of control, as it has been in years past, it's the unabashed cheering, and I'm not even going into the one-sided reporting of the Hines Ward fiasco.

At lunch, I had the opportunity to make monkey-shines behind Andrew Stockey's "podcast". It was fun because it was a live interview with Mike Logan at lunch! Wow! Andrew signed off something like: This is your friendly neighborhood jackass saying, "Goooo Steelers!"

Objectivity doesn't matter anymore because people want to see open cheering from the press; it's what drives ratings. Sigh.

9.


I saw Max Starks in the morning. He was preparing to appear on the Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley radio show. I told him he looks like a completely different person in the one-on-one drills than he did a year ago, and he agreed. I told him I'd keep the contrast in mind when judging rookies in the future. He agreed that I should. Then he went on the air and Tunch raved about how well Max looked in the one-on-ones.

OK, fast-forward to Thursday afternoon's practice. Starks lines up, all confident, perhaps pleased with his bad self, and promptly gets run over by rookie free agent Elliott Harris. Now, understand, undrafted rookies have a tendency to take these drills a lot more seriously than starters do. It's why Eric Taylor beat Alan Faneca. So while it may have been an aberration, Max never seemed to recover. He was beat the next time up by seventh-round pick Shaun Nua. It was obvious Starks's confidence had waned.

The reason I'm not concerned by any of this is what happened between Starks's stellar performances early in camp compared to yesterday. I'd focused on Starks during the 9-on-7 run-game drill. Starks absolutely killed Haggans; looked like Jonathan Ogden doing so. The 6-foot-8 Starks showed up in the best shape of his life, muscled-up at 347 pounds. He's the son of Ross Browner, so he has the bloodlines. Watching Starks play at times in camp makes me believe he could not only become an effective player this year, but a Pro Bowler, if not eventually a Hall of Famer. There isn't anyone else up here with the potential for greatness that Starks has. What a great third-round draft pick last season! So, while his confidence sagged, it's only a one-on-one drill. And I know, the play that fired me up was done against an average linebacker, but the potential is blatant.

10.


OK, so let's update some pluggers. Obviously Harris is a better end than nose tackle. He also killed Marvel Smith in the one-on-ones before being stoned by Ben Claxton, the Mall Guard, at center. Before I believe Claxton is a sleeper, I'm going to believe the 280-pound Harris is a better end than nose tackle. I mean, even a half-insane podcaster can put two and two together sometimes. Taylor also looked good and not just against Faneca. Perhaps the second-year D-lineman is coming along. During the run-game drill, rookie third-rounder Trai Essex stoned Alonzo Jackson easily. By the way, Essex, at 6-feet-4, 324 pounds, looked like a midget coming in to replace Starks at right tackle. Essex shows signs of becoming a serviceable tackle. That's all I can say at this point.

More plugger news: I wonder if Grant Bowman, now in his second camp with the club, can develop into a Chris Hoke. He's stout at nose tackle, and he did play at Michigan, so he's not overwhelmed by any of this. Perhaps he can emerge into a serviceable back-up some day and then effectively replace a starter when needed, as Hoke has done. This much is certain: Bowman is a nose tackle; Harris is not.

Much ballyhooed rookie free agent Andre Frazier, the OLB insiders here say will replace Jackson, hasn't shown me much. Josh Burr handles him easily. Frazier is a rangy athlete, and OLBs converting from college defensive ends DO take time.

While watching line drills, I couldn't watch the 7-on-7 passing drill on the other side of the field. I was told Brian St. Pierre was impressive and was "the only quarterback who attacked down field." And so I watched the Saint in team scrimmage throw wildly to an open Fred Gibson. The ball couldn't even have been intercepted by the out-of-position cornerback. Maybe it's just me with St. Pierre. I hope I'm not causing the kid any bad luck.

Lee Mays dropped a couple more passes, but for some reason Walter Young was not thrown to all day. I just don't understand what the coaches are doing some times. Perhaps they don't want Young to become too confident after what he called his best practice day with the Steelers. Sheesh.

Thursday, August 4th

4.


Lee Mays missed Wednesday morning's practice with a hamstring problem, so as he walked to lunch I asked him if he would practice that afternoon. When he said he would, I nodded and told him he'd better because there are some hungry players behind him. "I'm hungry, too," he said as he walked away.

Well, at least Mays has the right attitude, but after two days of camp I don't know if he'll make the team. It was a ludicrous suggestion over the summer, I'd believed. Folks loves to trash Mays, but why, I believe I asked in print, would the Steelers nurse him along for three years and then cut him after he'd made strides and was peaking athletically? But he played poorly his first time out this week, and then had to miss with a minor injury. In his place, guys like Walter Young, Zamir Cobb and Nate Washington are performing well.

Young is a tall target who doesn't have the deep speed of say Fred Gibson, but he keeps catching deep passes. He's not just a possession receiver and looks like he, in fact, could've been the fourth-round draft pick and not Gibson. And please, don't take this is a knock against Gibson, who has his moments but is not as consistent at this early stage.

Cobb has picked up from where he left off last season. His one-handed catch, made after turning his body back, back, back, is so far the catch of camp. He's also returning punts.

Washington has a smooth gait and soft hands. The scout who recommended him out of Tiffin said last spring that Washington could be the camp sleeper, and on the first day he hauled in a bomb over Willie Williams.

Any of these three players could knock Mays from the roster. And if Chidi Iwuoma, who intercepted Brian St. Pierre for a touchdown Tuesday, continues to play well and vie for that last special-teams spot, Sean Morey could be in trouble as well.

5.


Speaking of St. Pierre, word here – from another reporter who received the unsolicited tip last spring – is that he has a roster spot locked up. The loser of the battle for the No. 2 QB job, Tommy Maddox or Charlie Batch, will apparently be cut.

That doesn't make sense to me, but Bill Cowher supposedly loved the way St. Pierre played in the spring.

He looked like the same St. Pierre to me, and then in camp threw the aforementioned pick for a Chidi TD. That was preceded in the 7 on 7 drills by an interception to rookie linebacker Rian Wallace.

Both Maddox and Batch have played better. Unless that changes, those are the two players who should be backing up Ben Roethlisberger. St. Pierre has made too little progress since he was drafted in 2003.

6.


When will this time warp expire? I was certain Jerome Bettis should've retired after last season. He struggles walking up a flight of stairs, but guess what? There are no stairways on the field. He still has those quick feet and he won't go away. Duce Staley, meanwhile, had to miss Wednesday afternoon's practice with an inflamed knee. That's not a 30-year-old who struggled with a hamstring injury last season.

Behind them, Verron Haynes looks like a bull; he could be in store for a strong season and should have the opportunity. Willie Parker and Noah Herron are also running well. In fact, I thought I saw Parker blow through a hole yesterday morning, but it was instead Herron, who isn't supposed to be anywhere near that quick. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's Herron. I never like to mistrust my instincts. And to Parker's credit, as he broke through a pair of arm tackles during team scrimmage Wednesday afternoon, I thought at first glance that he was the bigger Herron.

Now, Parker wears No. 39 and Herron wears No. 38, so that's part of the identity problem. The other part is that Herron just might be another camp sleeper, as Parker was last year.

7.


One of my favorite Steelers is superscout Bill Nunn, the guy who played such a big role in building the team of the '70s. Nunn enjoys dispensing wisdom to us youngsters, and his style is low key; he preaches not to become too excited over one play, one practice, one week, even one season. So after the first full practice, the one that sent reporters like me over the edge in their dispatches, I asked him what he liked out there.

"You know me better than that," he said. "Haven't you listened to anything I've said to you?"

I told him I was joking. I also told him I was disappointed that he wasn't mentioned in the outstanding 2004 book "America's Game", which chronicles the rise of the NFL. He said that he wasn't disappointed because he really wasn't the first to scout the black colleges, that it had been the Los Angeles Rams.

"But they used my (black college) All-America teams," Nunn said with a laugh.

Nunn, of course, was a sportswriter before Chuck Noll talked him into scouting for the Steelers.

I told Nunn that I'd watched clips of Marion Motley, the huge Cleveland fullback from the 1950s, and said he'd still be a star in today's game.

"You should've seen him play linebacker," Nunn said. "In his first game in the NFL, against the Eagles, the Browns threw him out there at the goal line. The Eagles ran at him three times and he stopped them cold each time. He was a great one."

Back at you, Mr. Nunn.

Monday, August 1st

1.


Hines Ward is not playing football and Kevin Colbert is talking tough.

As the great Vince Lombardi might ask in a raised voice: "What the hell is going on around here?"

I expected a strange camp, but not for this reason. I expected a team -- a team built with an underdog's chip on its shoulder -- to have difficulty assuming the mantel of 15-1 elitists, and I still expect that difficulty. Chris Hoke is a fighter, a scrapper, an underdog, and there are 40-some guys just like him on this team. The questions should involve how they will cope in their new environment, but those questions are now on the back burner. The front burner is represented by Ward and Colbert, who are doing the exact opposite of what's in their nature.

From the back of the media room, Dan Rooney listened to Colbert repeat that the team would not negotiate further. After Colbert was done with the press, Rooney quickly grabbed his arm and walked with him down the hallway. He had something important to say. Had Colbert not represented what was intended? Had he not answered the ugliest question properly?

"Does Ward now crawl back to camp or is his season over?"

Rooney would've corrected that question before answering, and perhaps would have chuckled at its seriousness. Colbert let the question pass before saying "no".

Was Rooney instead re-shaping team policy with Colbert on this one?

I don't know but I would've loved to have eavesdropped on that one.

Bill Cowher started the day by instructing his assistant coaches not to comment. Now that's the type of solution I expect from him: Don't let the assistants say "Sure we'll miss him but I'll just coach the guys who show up and we'll be fine." Or something along that line of blather, but shutting them up fits Cowher. Ward not playing football and Colbert talking tough does not fit either of those men. Steeler fans might want to hope this dream ends soon because it's turning strange.

2.


The numbers? I'll need more time. We're dealing with experts in the field of keeping quiet when you're dealing with the Steelers and Ward's agent Eugene Parker. Here's what we do know:

According to last Friday's Post-Gazette, the Steelers have offered "more than $8 million in a signing bonus and it might be closer to $9 million."

Yes, a very strange way to put it. If the first part is right, and the Steelers offered Ward eight million and one dollars, than eight million and two dollars would allow the second part of the sentence to also be correct.

Alas, it's being accepted now by fans that the offer is $9 million. Until proven otherwise, let's keep it closer to $8 million, but up over the $8.1 million paid to Kordell Stewart, which the Steelers now claim is their team record.

The night that story was released, by the way, a TV station that's close to the Steelers announced that "a source" put Ward's asking price at $15 million. Now wasn't that timely?

No matter how hard they try to make Ward look like the bad guy, and no matter how many fans buy this $9 million offered/$15 million asked parameter, I'm going to keep believing this will be settled at $10 million, even $9.5 million. That's where my gut tells me these two sides are hoping to go. They're just taking the long cut, and it might have grown longer with Sunday's strange unfolding of events.

3.


Radio analyst and former player Tunch Ilkin believes Ward will settle after the third preseason game. He believes a player in Ward's shape needs a week to get used to the game again and another week to get ready for the opener. Ilkin ought to know. He was one of the last veterans to hold out from training camp.

Ilkin, Louis Lipps, Carnell Lake and Thomas Everett all held out in 1992. Ilkin came in after a month with only one day of camp left; Lake a few days later. Those two succeeded. Everett, though, was traded to the Cowboys and Lipps was waived after the season started.

Before that, Mike Merriweather, a three-time Pro Bowler, held out the entire 1988 season and was then traded to the Vikings.

A story went around yesterday about how Larry Brown ended his holdout. After agreeing to a contract, Brown told Rooney, "You know, I signed this thing too early. I'm getting too old for two-a-days, and I really could've used a few more weeks with my family."

Rooney said "If you don't tell anyone, I won't."

And so the agreement was made, but not announced until Brown could enjoy another couple of weeks off.

I fear we're not in those friendly confines anymore.


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