Rookie adds new dimension

PITTSBURGH – On the second play of the second practice of the 2006 spring season, Santonio Holmes ran past Ike Taylor and had the veteran cornerback beat by a good five yards.

Holmes began to settle under Ben Roethlisberger's deep pass, but just before the ball reached Holmes so did the recovering and flailing Taylor, who ripped Holmes to the ground.

No touchdown. No completion.

"Oh, man, he reached out and grabbed me," Holmes said. "He said, ‘You ain't getting nothing deep that easy.' But it's a lot of fun knowing I'm capable of doing some of the things I did in college against some of the NFL guys."

Was the route anything special?

"It was just a fly pattern," Holmes said. "I just ran right past him."

That's why the Pittsburgh Steelers made Holmes their No. 1 draft pick in the recent draft. He's a speedburner, and so is the wide receiver they drafted in the third round -- Willie Reid, who also made a spectacular catch along the sidelines before coming down in bounds with a nifty bit of footwork.

The two rookies are battling Nate Washington for time behind Hines Ward and Cedrick Wilson. Quincy Morgan was on the sidelines recovering from his leg injury. Sean Morey was covering kicks. Walter Young was looking to break free from duty on the practice squad. NFL veterans Lee Mays and Eugene Baker are also lurking.

"That's going to be a very competitive position," said Coach Bill Cowher. "I see some guys there that aren't going to go down easy."

That's one angle for the coaches to consider. The other is the offensive philosophy: Should the Steelers, who have an abundance of pass-catchers, think twice about pounding the ball between the tackles as a basic principal?

"We're going to diversify, try to diversify, but certainly we're not going to lose touch with the run," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "I mean when you've got guys to play the way Ben played, certainly we're going to try to integrate some of those things."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enters his third year with the hope of throwing the ball more. He jokes about the topic with the boss, but behind every joke is a layer of seriousness.

"Every day I say something to Coach Cowher jokingly hoping he'll take me serious," said Roethlisberger. "But, no, we've obviously had success running the ball. We'll always do that. I just hope that every year they gain more confidence in me and we go out and can continue to make it a balanced offense and maybe we can be more dangerous."

With Roethlisberger maturing and Holmes working into the mix, the Steelers could have their most potent passing attack since the late 1970s. Holmes not only flashed deep speed Saturday, he zipped around the middle of the defense as a fearless slot receiver. His diving catch of a Charlie Batch pass was his first highlight.

"Great hands," marveled Roethlisberger. "He made a couple good catches today. He's raw. There are things he has to work on: being able to be ready for the ball in the air before he comes out of his break. I talked to him a little bit about it today, but he's got one of the greats in Hines Ward to work under, so he's going to be okay."

Of course, Holmes was hoping to be drafted by the Steelers, his favorite team, and on draft day said he hoped to pattern himself after Ward.

"Seeing them on TV all this time and then actually being with them is a lot of fun," Holmes said. "There's a lot of learning to do, and it was a very fast tempo, but at the same time I'm learning as I go. I'll make a lot of mistakes but the vets are on me, telling me to slow down and learn a little bit at a time."

Holmes must return to school after minicamp ends Monday, and he isn't worried about falling too far behind. His coaches promised steady contact to keep him abreast of practices, and he's going back to Ohio State with his playbook.

Holmes is confident about being able to help the team right away. He and Reid could give the Steelers a pair of 4.3 burners in a four-receiver set, to go along with Willie Parker and his 4.28 speed coming out of the backfield. It's a delicious contemplation for these blue-collar Steelers.

"Yeah, but you know what?" said Whisenhunt. "It also creates a lot of problems for you, too, from the standpoint of the looks you're going to see and what you have to protect. We're going to look to expand the offense a little bit more this year, just like we did last year, and that could lead to some of that."

At least it's a consideration in this post-Jerome Bettis era.

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