FRIDAY, AUG. 25
As it does every year, training camp comes in with a bang and goes out with a whimper. Reporters mill outside the entrance on reporting day and cover everything from hopes and dreams to the automobiles they drive. On the last day, players go through a walk-through in front of no one and leave without taking any questions. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't reporters want to talk to the players after camp? … Not that all reporters left early. Two local TV stations did top-of-the-hour reports on the rooms their heroes slept in. "This is where Big Ben slept." Honest. The two decent stations did this. I couldn't bear to watch how the third station handled this non-story. … These are the producers and editors who claim there's an oversaturation of football info all year round, and that they have to do these off-beat pieces of garbage because the "ignorant yinzer" can't get enough. But until more than one news outlet – this one – covers the Senior Bowl, combine, pre-draft, spring ball, even training camp, the right way, we'll continue getting pounded over the head by moronic reports done in the name of goofy fans. And that's what they do: blame the fans for wanting to know what Big Ben's room looked like. … My favorite practice occurred Wednesday night in the form of a softball game on the adjacent St. Vincent College baseball field. The offense versed the defense and most of your stars were there, including, ahem, Hines Ward, who pitched for the offense and jogged around a bit. That hamstring must not be too bad because he even swung the bat and didn't seem bothered by it. I once hurt my hamstring and couldn't play softball. So I coached third base and helped out and could walk and appeared normal – normal enough for teammates to begin questioning the injury. So I tried to play and shredded the dang thing on the first swing of the bat. So maybe we shouldn't be too concerned about Hines. … The best softball player on the team – and stop me if I'm bordering on "Big Ben slept here" reporting – seemed to be Heath Miller. No one crushed the ball, which was disappointing, but Miller used a picture-perfect baseball swing and easily roped line drives into the outfield each time up. He was a picture of grace and my front-runner for Steeler who coulda gone MLB. … Ben Roethlisberger has a similar swing and showed the same ease of ability. He played left field, which tells me he's not such an egomaniac to have to play SS or P, and that he understands the key position in softball is LF. He gobbled up everything. One time he had a chance to gun someone down at the plate on a sac fly, but instead lobbed it to the SS. I was disappointed but at the same time thought it wise of him not to risk his arm. … Oh, I know, this belongs on Channel 4 News, but I think softball ability is an interesting parallel. … Like Joey Porter playing LF and Tyrone Carter playing LCF for the defense. Carter ran around like an idiot, crashing into Porter one time and forcing a drop. It was similar to the way he plays FS (except leave out the word "idiot" because that's "aggressiveness" in football). Porter, meanwhile, is the classic bulked-up footballer trying to play softball. I don't know how to describe it, but if you've seen a linebacker (or a wrestler) try to play baseball in high school you understand my point. … Big Marvel Smith came to the plate and with a ferocious swing dribbled a slow bouncer down the third-base line. He began sprinting to first as the third baseman pounced and threw to first baseman Ricardo Colclough, who pulled his foot even though Marvel was two feet from the bag. Colclough whipped the ball around the infield as everyone accepted the out, but me and Charlie Batch (and a few of his friends) were standing behind the fence behind first base. We all signaled safe, which started an argument. Colclough stepped across into foul territory to tell us we were crazy and I told him he pulled his foot. "Pulled my foot? The man's 300 pounds! Of course I pulled my foot!" And with that reasoning the out stood. … Santonio Holmes played right field and staggered under the only ball hit to him. He was as shaky as any RF who's had to play, by league rule, at least two innings at the end of a PONY game. He made the one-handed catch, but I was stunned that an athlete with such outstanding hands in football could look so awkward catching a fly ball. … Nate Washington played his HS position of second base. I always thought that an odd HS position for such a great athlete, but after watching his lack of instincts for the game I realize he was only put there for his range. … Tyrone Carter was eventually moved to catcher, where his trash talk and physical skills were put to better use. … After that essay, time to instruct local media bigwigs once again: Your hip hire this year seems to be Bryant McFadden. Shows a keen understanding of the team and its rising stars, but it's obvious you're not around the team much. McFadden is too quiet at this stage in his career. And that's good from a football perspective. That's where he should be. But let's let his personality emerge before thrusting him into the glare. The guy you want to hire for your shows this year is Larry Foote. He's engaging, charismatic, insightful, yet as tough a guy as anyone. He can tell you what Joey Porter and James Harrison are really thinking, and get away with it. That's a tough man who can do that. Foote's a local media star in the making. … Speaking of which, Mike Logan's opening a salon in the cultural district in early September, called Fahrenheit something or other. We'll have more info later. But I'll be trying it out. He told me he has an Italian guy who specializes in giving suburban white guys their first good haircuts. … Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley had me on their new TV show on On Demand (Comcast) and they stumped me with a simple question: What were the camp highlights and lowlights? I couldn't think of anything at the time. It's all been such a blur. But now that I've had time, some answers: A.) The first highlight was Roethlisberger's Wednesday night passing show at Latrobe stadium. This was the first sign he was going to be okay. It was also Hines Ward's best showing of camp. The guy did not forget how to play and he and Roethlisberger will not forget how they work so well together. Just rest, Hines. And don't let the public rush you into anything stupid. B.) That night, Cedric Humes took a handoff on first down for the second-team goal line and he hesitated in the backfield and was thrown for a loss. Joey Porter, out with an injury, walked onto the field and mocked him with a stream of racial profanities. Verron Haynes is the best short-yardage runner on the team but Willie Parker will have his chances. My guess is Haynes and Parker will score the same amount of TDs this season. C.) The first Saturday in August rivaled college football's fabled "third Saturday in October" for crisp weather and crisper hitting. But the play of that day was a bomb from Roethlisberger to Nate Washington. We've watched Washington run under plenty of passes, but this time he had to look straight up and straight back because the ball was directly overheard with Ike Taylor on one side and a safety on the other. Washington used great concentration and soft hands to reel in the pass. He went on to have a great camp and is a lock as the No. 3 receiver ahead of the draft picks. It's a dream scenario for the Steelers, who are now set at WR, TE, OL and QB for a long time on offense. P.S. The next best deep catch was made by Cedrick Wilson at the last full practice. Wilson quietly put together a strong camp and should have a good season. D.) For the first time, I saw fear in Bill Cowher's eyes during his stint as QB in the backs-on-backers drill. Cowher is famous for talking smack right back to the linebackers, but the day James Harrison barreled into his shin/ankle area after rounding the left tackle, Cowher did not say a word. He was more relieved, I think, to be standing. And the next time they did the drill, Harrison pushed Cowher to get at a yapping FB. Cowher didn't say a word. E.) Willie Colon stood up to one of the veteran leaders and nodded his helmetless head as if to say ‘bring it on' to Clark Haggans. Then he blew his mind by blowing him a kiss. The yapping continued, and Colon, as he said was his intention, eventually gained Haggans's respect. F.) Colon won't take guff from anyone, so Ryan Clark was surprised to see Colon carrying it into the "bring it up" huddle to end practice. Clark looked at him as if he was crazy, and I have to believe the coaches did, too, because Colon has begun acting like a teammate instead of a lunatic lately. Someone must've talked to him. G.) On Washington's reverse to start last game, Jeff Hartings and Kendall Simmons made great downfield blocks. Those two players' strengths are in the open field. But I'm still intrigued by the move of Simmons to center to get Chris Kemoeatu on the field. I wouldn't mind seeing that kind of muscle in the Jacksonville game when Henderson and Stroud line up in the middle of Jax's 4-3 defense. H.) Heath Miller is a stud; we know that. But the injury to Jerame Tuman weakens a group of young tight ends. Charles Davis can't block, but he caught a pass in the penultimate practice that was as pretty as any Willie Reid has made this camp. Davis has sweet hands and can shift his body while aloft, like an agile forward grabbing a rebound. At the last practice, Davis caught a pass and motored down the sideline like a power forward gone mad. No one approached because of a good block by the WR, but it was a touch-football practice in shells instead of pads. That's when Davis shines. I want to see how he responds to a hit in the open field. And the last note on TEs, Princeton's Jon Dekker has one scout mocking the media for their perception of him. So I watched more closely; yes he has good hands, yes he's kind of small, no he can't block. Practice squad. That's what the media here still says. I.) Remember that sweet block Marvin Philip threw out in front of the long screen to Humes in the first game? So do I. It stamped him as a Steeler center. But that didn't help him against Chris Hoke one day in practice. While Casey Hampton can terrorize, he takes it easy on the guys at times. Not that he's dogging it, but he knows when a young guy needs a break. Not Hoke. If you're not ready for the Tasmanian Devil on every snap, you're going to get flattened, and so is your QB. Philip found that out about Hoke, who still has that unrelenting motor. J.) It's hard to watch every aspect on every snap, so you just focus on certain individuals at certain times. At the last practice I fixed a gaze on second-team dime safety Anthony Smith. He picked up Dekker out of the slot and gave him a slight push as he made his break. The pass went right to Smith for the interception and no one said anything about the push. Maybe they didn't see it if they were, like the officials, watching the ball. Smith strikes me as a player who'd get away with that push in a game, too. He's savvy already.
TUESDAY, AUG. 22
As the final days of camp wind down, waking up bright and early to hash out the whos, whats and wheres here becomes more difficult. I know; boo hoo. Maybe I'm just getting old, but, really, it's been a camp of faux news, in my opinion, with Bill Cowher's future, Ben Roethlisberger's health, and Joey Porter's contract being the prime examples. The story on Porter in the Trib today stressed the phrase "no news" as if the writer was trying to send a message to an interfering boss. And here's a great example of non-news being reported (and in this case recycled) as if it mattered: KDKA-TV, in the first five minutes of its morning newscast, reported that Coach Cowher, while not entirely dissatisfied with the 0-2 start, was grouchy enough with a few third-down failures Saturday, the anchor explained, that he yelled at some linemen yesterday in practice. The anchor did admit -- since he's obviously played a game or two in his life -- that coaches do tend to yell at players during practice. In other news this morning …
Alright, so where do we stand with the roster? Should we cut the team? Sure.
QUARTERBACK (2) – Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch.
RUNNING BACK (4) – Willie Parker, Verron Haynes, Dan Kreider, Duce Staley.
WIDE RECEIVER (6) – Hines Ward, Cedrick Wilson, Nate Washington, Santonio Holmes, Willie Reid, Sean Morey.
TIGHT ENDS (2) – Heath Miller, Jerame Tuman.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9) – Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks, Willie Colon, Trai Essex, Marvin Philip, Chris Kemoeatu.
DEFENSIVE LINE (7) – Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke, Rodney Bailey, Orien Harris.
LINEBACKERS (9) – Joey Porter, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Clark Haggans, James Harrison, Rian Wallace, Clint Kriewaldt, Andre Frazier, Arnold Harrison.
CORNERBACKS (5) – Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Ricardo Colclough, Chidi Iwuoma.
SAFETIES (5) – Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Anthony Smith, Mike Logan.
TEAMS (3) – Jeff Reed, Greg Warren, Mike Barr.
That brings us to 52 and one spot is left. The fact I couldn't come up with 53 shows the lack of competition at the bottom of this roster, and the competition isn't much better for starting jobs. Last year there were these job battles: Ike Taylor vs. Willie Williams; Heath Miller vs. Jerame Tuman; Antwaan Randle El vs. Cedrick Wilson; Willie Parker vs. Jerome Bettis. This year, there are battles at free safety and right cornerback, but the loser of each still plays at least 20 snaps per game. I worry when there are no real blood battles going on, but back to that lone roster spot. Here are the contenders:
Omar Jacobs QB, John Kuhn RB, Quincy Morgan WR, Charles Davis TE, Chukky Okobi C, Shaun Nua DE, Richard Seigler LB, Anthony Madison CB, Mike Lorello S.
Let's start by putting Jacobs, Kuhn, Davis, Nua, Madison and Lorello on the practice squad, so we're down to Morgan, Okobi and Seigler.
Seigler is playing well but he's a buck linebacker and Kriewaldt is still playing well at that position. So Seigler's a tough cut, and I wouldn't be surprised to see roster player No. 52, Orien Harris, get the axe instead of Seigler. However, I'll stick with the positional parameters.
Morgan is the team's best kickoff returner, but with the promise that Washington will be active on game day seven wide receivers would have to be active just to fill special-teams niches. So Morgan loses out. Holmes and perhaps Reid become the kickoff returners with Reid a lock as the punt returner.
And so the last job goes to Okobi, and I have to admit his quick return paints a picture of someone with the perfect team attitude. Sure he's motivated by the rookie center and the work Simmons is putting in at the position, but he could've soured; I probably would've. But Okobi's attitude works for me. I can't speak for the coaches, but it can't hurt him.
MONDAY, AUG. 14
Let me see if I have this right: 1.) Ben Roethlisberger not only survived, he played well, perhaps his best NFL preseason game. 2.) Willie Parker improved since last season. He's more patient as a runner and showed off his underrated hands as a receiver. He also threw a perfect chip block that prevented a sack on the play in which Roethlisberger was sacked by the other end. 3.) The rookie class exceeded expectations, particularly Anthony Smith, the free safety the Steelers targeted late on the first day of the draft. 4.) The special teams were in fine preseason form thanks to all of the roster competition. 5.) The offensive lines, and even the second one which Bill Cowher criticized, didn't play too bad. 6.) Charlie Batch played well and even came within a foot of turning the game around, and the rookie quarterbacks weren't as dreadful as they'd been in practice. So with all of that going right for the Steelers, how were they whipped from start to finish by the Arizona Cardinals? Well, of course, there's will to win and the Cardinals had it. They played their first and second-team quarterbacks for all but the final series. Cowher, on the other hand, gave Shane Boyd the opportunity of a lifetime. I don't remember Cowher giving such an average player so much time, and it's a reflection of his lack of confidence in Omar Jacobs. But Jacobs made one play that outclassed all of the huffing and puffing done by Boyd in all of his time on the field. Jacobs dropped back, rolled right and, while on the run, threw across his body to Sean Morey, a la Roethlisberger. Jacobs then benefited from a big screen play to lob a pretty one-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Smolko. Cowher will take Jacobs's last drive as a sign of improvement over his difficult camp and awful first possession. If Cowher doesn't, and plays Boyd ahead of Jacobs again, it could be a sign that both quarterbacks will be cut. … Could Jacobs become Fred Gibson all over again? The talented Gibson was cut after what appeared to be a decent performance that included a killer downfield block. But missed assignments doomed him. Only the coaching staff really knows how well someone plays. … It appeared as if Willie Colon blew an assignment on his first play. That may or may not be true, considering his assignment on the play, but even if it was his mistake he still played well. Marvin Philip is receiving the plaudits, and he did play well, but Colon fared just as well, if not better, and he went up against the Cardinals' starter throughout most of his stint. … On the other hand, Chris Kemoeatu pulled left and crushed a linebacker on his first play, a run that lost yardage, but was average at best the rest of the way. The left guard didn't help the second team much, either, and neither did Barrett Brooks, although he did prevent a sack by cutting off a blitzing backer up the middle. … Orien Harris showed some explosiveness on the defensive line, but again he appears best suited for a 4-3. When he tried to control two gaps he was blown off the ball. He's a dime tackle or a mere project this year. Last year's project, Shaun Nua, also showed some quickness, but again doesn't have the size to control two gaps the way Rodney Bailey did. The sixth lineman is important since Travis Kirschke's back has already flared up this camp. … Ryan Clark looks quicker and more fluid on film than he does up close on the practice field. I'm feeling better about his signing, even though he appeared hesitant in his assignments. I'm assuming that will come in time. … How long until Anthony Smith moves into the lineup? The rookie safety did it all: ballhawked, stuffed the run, fought off blocks. You'd like to see Cowher move him up to get a taste of the first team at some point in the preseason, but the battle for the first-team free safety job will hinder that idea I fear. … Rian Wallace played with more urgency than ever. He may be more comfortable in his second season, or he may be feeling the heat from Richard Seigler, who played well but appears better suited to playing buck linebacker. … Could that mean Clint Kriewaldt's in trouble? Not unless Seigler can prove, in a hurry, that he can play special teams as well as Kriewaldt. … Brett Keisel and Clark are speed upgrades over Kimo von Oelhoffen and Chris Hope. The only player considered slow on the defense now is Casey Hampton, but Big Snack smelled out a screen and made the tackle at the sideline. He might be slow for this defense, but he's also the quickest nose tackle in the league. … What I'd like to see this week: 1.) John Kuhn in short-yardage; 2.) Omar Jacobs as the third quarterback; 3.) More of Nate Washington, whom I refuse to believe is a mere practice player; 4.) Isaac Smolko as the third, heck even second, tight end; and 5.) Cedrick Wilson throw a gadget pass. You can never plan too early for quarterbacking emergencies.
FRIDAY, AUG. 11
HEADLINE: Ben Roethlisberger returns to start at quarterback! REAL STORY: Bill Cowher grouchy after sloppy week.
Cowher has been on edge most of the week. I can't vouch for the televised images, but he knows he spent too much time with the third and fourth teams to prevent embarrassment. Quarterback Shane Boyd – a more accurate but less physical Tee Martin – moved ahead of rookie Omar Jacobs – a dirt-poor man's Dan Marino – on Tuesday and received enough reps this week to deaden the proceedings. These guys ground it to a halt. The No. 3 O took on the Nos. 3 and 4 Ds as the pre-game routine moved through its practice-week peak. These two quarterbacks will probably play three-fourths of the game, and by now they have their four plays down. Boyd is a heady scrambler; Jacobs a massive in-the-pocket dart thrower. Jacobs is the better long-term prospect, but Cowher clearly has him fourth in mind. Boyd received perhaps 50 percent more reps this week than Jacobs. If Cowher deems Jacobs a worthy long-term prospect, he has a funny way of showing it. Boyd is charismatic and could sneak in the back door of a backup quarterbacking career.
The front office believes a worthy No. 3 will emerge, so they haven't looked into the street free agents, but two names mentioned were Kerry Collins and Tommy Maddox. Collins, they feel, is waiting for a starting job to open. Maddox has not burned bridges here. That's their story.
HEADLINE: If the No. 3 QB has to play, it's over anyway! REAL STORY: The No. 3 QB can decide a championship.
Maddox and Charlie Batch each started two games last year. Maddox was 0-2 (1 save); Batch was 2-0 and injured in his second game. It can't be refuted that any variation, either way, in the Steelers' regular-season results would've cost them a championship.
HEADLINE: Joey Porter returns from PUP list! REAL STORY: His replacement continues to blow up the practice field.
James Harrison is forcing his will upon Cowher. That is how you get playing time; not by any design. You force the coach to put you on the field and how can Harrison be denied? There are sounds of the game. Jeff Reed's foot is one of them. Old-timers remember the whistle on Terry Bradshaw's outs. There is also the sound of Silverback's pads flattening running backs in blitz pickup. He pancaked Willie Parker in a drill, and on Wednesday night flattened Cedric Humes. I missed the play, but heard it. When I looked up, Humes was spread eagle on his back. Does Dick LeBeau have many five-linebacker sets? I'm going to have to remember to ask him about it.
HEADLINE: Tyrone Carter starts at free safety REAL STORY: Ryan Clark still second string!
Note the exclamation point. Face it, most of us want Ryan Clark to start here. We know what Tyrone can do; we always want the other guy. In this case the other guy was the most expensive new free agent, so he's the guy we want to see. He has to be one of the reasons the Redskins were so tough in that 16-7 Steelers win two years ago. And Clark's going, the personnel people believe, to give the Steelers more speed back there than Chris Hope did. But Carter's not going away. This is a legitimate competition because the coaching staff was so pleased with how Carter played in the playoffs last season. At stake are 40 to 50 snaps per game.
HEADLINE: Nate is Great at training camp! REAL STORY: Media gets one right!
It's a win-win for everyone, except maybe Santonio Holmes, or perhaps Cedrick Wilson. Remember when Nate Washington was in the hunt last camp for the No. 5 receiving spot? Then Quincy Morgan got hurt and the kid from Tiffin was looking at the No. 4 job in the playoffs. He did well and in the spring was making noise that he could become the No. 3 as Antwaan Randle El's replacement. Now, before the first preseason game of his second year, Washington's pushing for Wilson's No. 2 job. The fact that Washington is replacing the injured Hines Ward technically makes him the No. 1, but let's not rush things. Washington has been the team's most dangerous deep threat, and Roethlisberger likes him and likes throwing to him. Washington has great tracking skills, is sneaky fast, and yesterday outjumped the defense twice to snare a couple of Roethlisberger passes in the back of the end zone. And I swear Nate often catches the back end of the ball. Oh, and the sound: There is none, barely an audible swoosh. Forcing his will the quiet way.
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 9
I've seen this before: Writer breaks story; reader questions writer's source and motivation; other writers learn the story and bury it because by then it's old news. Happens every year, unless said writer works for a metro. But that's okay. Keep believing this is just a "rookie thing" with Omar Jacobs, but the fact of the matter is the braintrust of the defending NFL champions – a team with two quarterbacks of questionable health prospects -- doesn't believe it has a No. 3 quarterback right now. That's news. ... I asked another source whether Ben Roethlisberger had problems similar to what Jacobs is going through as a rookie and he said "not even close." My theory is that Jacobs has so much to think about with his new fundamentals, such as dropping back from center, that the mental aspect of learning the playbook, let alone the nomenclature, has him reeling.
While I had the source, I asked him about a few more players:
Is Duce Staley slow because he's over the hill?
"No, he's just rusty. He hasn't played in awhile. Anyway, we wouldn't cut him. Who else do we have?"
"He runs too tall. He's not the inside runner I thought he was. Verron Haynes, on the other hand, is running better than ever. He had microfracture surgery a few years ago and that's tough to overcome, but it looks like Verron has."
Would the coaches play Nate Washington over Cedrick Wilson?
"Scouts would. People who value pure talent and potential would. Now, the coaches, that will be a tougher sell. But Washington is a true talent. If not now, it's only a matter of time."
Who's the third tight end?
"Looks like Charles Davis by default."
Was Marvin Philip ahead of Chukky Okobi?
"Again, scouts will tell you they prefer Philip because of his potential but the coaches preferred Okobi's state of readiness."
Willie Colon or Trai Essex?
"Essex has disappointed. He hasn't taken the next step. His body's sloppy and you have to wonder how much he cares about conditioning."
Like Rian Wallace?
"Exactly like Rian Wallace. Richard Seigler has moved ahead of him at inside linebacker in my opinion."
What about the defensive line?
"That will be a tough call. They're still not sure who the sixth guy is?"
I assume the Nos. 4 and 5 guys are Travis Kirschke and Chris Hoke. Who's in the fight for No. 6?
"Rodney Bailey's in there, but I like Orien Harris. He's short, doesn't have an impressive physique, and doesn't really fit into a 3-4, but he's quick. I like him as a dime tackle."
He reminds me of Kendrick Clancy.
"Exactly. I like Harris. I think he'll make the team."
What about Shaun Nua?
"Nua has disappointed me. He hasn't taken the next step. He's not reliable against the run. But don't get me wrong. He's not playing poorly. He just hasn't progressed as much as I'd hoped."
Can Lee Vickers make the roster as a wedge-buster?
"Definitely. He's raw but he has some skills that would allow him to serve the front seven in an emergency. But with him it'll all come down to his play on special teams. We won't know if he can really get down there and bust wedges until the game Saturday. It'll determine his fate."
Who'll get whacked from the secondary?
"I don't know. I think the last spot is between Chidi [Iwuoma] and Mike Logan. Logan's having a great camp and Chidi's a stud. That'll be a tough call."
Any other surprises?
"Yeah, Cowher's watching the punters. He said they're even now and that the better kicker in these preseason games will make the team."
Mike Barr has the stronger leg but will shank one every now and then. Chris Gardocki is more consistent.
MONDAY, AUG. 7
Bill Cowher picked Willie Parker. Craig Wolfley picked James Harrison. Nate Washington was another bright star of the first week of training camp, and, of course, so was Ben Roethlisberger. My pick for most dynamic player during the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of training camp is Brett Keisel. He's huge. I see him blowing past studs Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca in one-on-one drills and I see him stacking up the line for linebackers in the 9-on-7 run-game drill. I also see him plowing through the big jar of protein powder over by the blender in the cafeteria. "Don't get TOO big," I say to The Diesel, who flashes a smile as wide as his chest and shoulders. He's digging his new size and strength, not to mention the freedom from the weight- watching he had to do as a wedge-buster/pass-rusher. Here are some other notes by position in the form of a first-week rundown:
QUARTERBACKS – Roethlisberger is getting into shape on the run, the way they used to do it in the old days. Charlie Batch looks like a guy with whom you can win, but fans hope he's in line for an injury-free season because No. 3 Omar Jacobs isn't ready. The rookie is having trouble getting the team in and out of the huddle and really has no idea what he's doing once he does get the snap. He's throwing quick, short stuff, but not because he's checking down. It's because he wants to get rid of it right away. He's built like a brick outhouse, yes, but right now those bricks go all the way to the top. No. 4 QB Shane Boyd looks like Tee Martin on the field, but perhaps a touch more accurate.
RUNNING BACKS – One board member told me Friday night he thought Duce Staley looked old and slow. I watched more closely Saturday and have to agree. I looked into it to learn the inside buzz and, while the point is definitely not dismissed, the counterpoint is: "There's no one else." So while Willie Parker runs inside to show off his added weight, and Verron Haynes runs outside to show he has the speed to play on first down, Staley and Cedrick Humes make the roster by default. Not that Humes is playing poorly; time will tell with him. He's quicker than I'd remembered of his Virginia Tech days, but then he doesn't look like the inside banger I remember either. Fullback Dan Kreider is still a stud and backups Branden "Slow" Joe and Doug "Witches of" Easlick are battling for a spot on the practice squad. Not that Joe's slow, but he's a fullback, and if he's paired with "Fast Willie" I want to be ready with a nickname.
WIDE RECEIVERS – Nate Washington made a great catch of a deep ball Saturday. It may have been the best catch of a great week for the pride of Tiffin. Washington got behind Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark and had to slow down for a Roethlisberger deep pass that was in the most difficult of tracking positions – directly over his head. Washington's concentration was immaculate and he plucked the pass 60 yards downfield. Is he better than Cedrick Wilson? Should he start opposite Hines Ward? A talent scout would say yes; a coach who wants to make sure a veteran's where he needs to be at the right time would probably say no. But Washington's right there pushing. Santonio Holmes shows first-round talent but is understandably out of synch with the quarterback at times. Willie Reid is the best punt returner on the team and a guy who's still taking short passes out of the slot and cutting straight up the field. He did beat Anthony Madison for a deep ball to end Friday's one-minute drill among second-teamers. Quincy Morgan is in the thick of the battle because, other than Ward, he's the only big man capable of getting deep. Sean Morey has shown plenty of pluck as a receiver, and is a special-teams leader. What sets him apart, in my mind, is his winning attitude. This guy exudes professionalism and will be very difficult to cut. Super Bowl teams don't cut proven winners for a prospect unless that prospect is certain to become a player some day. Certain.
TIGHT ENDS – Heath Miller is money in the bank and Jerame Tuman is a fine No. 2. The use of Brett Keisel at the goal line Saturday might indicate the staff is considering keeping only two tight ends, but fifth-round pick Charles Davis hasn't disappointed. Word is he's up and down, but he has a pro body, soft hands and mixes it up in-line. His fate will be determined by how he deals with real contact on game day. Both Isaac Smolko and Jon Dekker are showing more than tight ends in similar situations the last couple of years and one will make the practice squad. Give Smolko the advantage through a week.
OFFENSIVE LINE – Marvel Smith has been a masher up here, and with attitude. He's developed into a quiet leader on this team. We all know what Alan Faneca can do. Center Jeff Hartings hasn't slipped. Right guard Kendall Simmons is healthy and alert but still has trouble with big D-tackles. Don't we all? Right tackle Max Starks was the star of reporting day after dropping 25 pounds in six weeks. He's picked up from where he left off last year. Fourth-round pick Willie Colon should really slow down and think about what he's doing with his attitude. Yes, you're bad; you showed us that with Clark Haggans, but these guys are your teammates. We get it. Ryan Clark and Colon had a brief tussle on the last play of a practice Friday and the smack talk and posturing continued into the team huddle called by Cowher. Clark looked at Colon as if he was crazy, and frankly so did I. Get a handle on yourself big guy. Right guard Chris Kemoeatu is also picking up from where he left off. Rookie center Marvin Philip may have passed Chukky Okobi, who must respond with a big couple of weeks if he wants to keep his job. Trai Essex is still a sloppily built guy who's plugging. He gets it done but it's not pretty. Barrett Brooks may have motorcycled his way off the team this weekend, if he hadn't already.
DEFENSIVE LINE – I'll admit I need to do more investigative work here before knowing what I'm talking about, but here goes: deep, deep, deep. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton remain at a Pro Bowl level, and we already talked about Keisel. The second-team ends are Rodney Bailey and Travis Kirschke, who are dependable. I believe Bailey needs a better second week. To this untrained eye he appears to have lost a step. Kirschke is Kirschke; dependable when healthy. Chris Hoke is a lock as the backup nose tackle. Rookie Orien Harris reminds me of Kendrick Clancy because he's short and explosive and definitely worth keeping. Shaun Nua is a terror in the one-on-one drill because of his explosiveness, but as Craig Wolfley pointed out Nua needs to prove he can two-gap with that thin frame (for a 290-pounder). Rookie free agent Scott Paxson has flashed a bit and would appear to be a contender for the practice squad.
LINEBACKERS – After the top three outside backers and the top three inside backers, there's a bit of a depth problem. Andre Frazier is another backup outside and a fine special-teams player, but the other inside backup, Rian Wallace, is struggling. Like Trai Essex, Wallace has a sloppy body, only Wallace doesn't play the offensive line where a player can get away with it. Wallace doesn't appear to have worked out much this off-season; nor does he give the impression he'll pull it together anytime soon. Coaches like him more than anyone else does. Arnold Harrison is next in line, but if Lee Vickers grabs Keisel's old wedge-busting job Harrison doesn't have a chance.
SECONDARY – There may not be a better trio of corners in the NFL than Deshea Townsend-Ike Taylor-Bryant McFadden. Ricardo Colclough is playing better in the seconday than on special teams. The fifth corner will either be undrafted rookie Anthony Madison or Chidi Iwuoma. Madison has played well and would be a difficult cut (his one bust aside), but Iwuoma is another quiet team leader who is expert on covering kicks. Close call there, but I'll lean to Iwuoma. At safety, Ryan Clark is fitting right in with the leadership of this team, and he's smart enough to give Tyrone Carter the respect he deserves. Those two will play enough in the quarter defense so it shouldn't become a problem when Clark moves into the first team for good. Mike Logan has made a remarkable recovery and should make the team. So, with Troy Polamalu, the Steelers have four safeties. In the battle for a fifth job, if available, or a spot on the practice squad, are tall and rangy Zach Baker and heady hitter Mike Lorello. It's an interesting battle between the two undrafted rookies.
SATURDAY, AUG. 5
Mark the date down. This crowd today, I predict, will be the biggest in St. Vincent College history. I remember the 1970s, when the cars parked along busy Route 30 and the fans poured in with their coolers and got drunk in the woods surrounding the field, but this day will top them all. It's the right day, the right temperature, the right team and the right goal-line drill. Speaking of the right drill, a crowd packed in for Friday's backs-on-backers and was treated to some showmanship by Bill Cowher. Early in the drill, James Harrison had bull-rushed and flattened Willie Parker to get to QB Cowher. Later, with the crowd engaged, Harrison stepped into the ROLB spot with Parker in the backfield and Cowher called (behind Parker's back with hand signals) for the other linebacker to rush, not Harrison. Two snaps later, before the final snap of the drill, Harrison and another backer stepped up as the choices for Dan Kreider. Cowher chose Harrison and the crowd buzzed. The other backers said, "Silverback's coming. Silverback's coming." And here came Silverback, or Harrison, as he's known to those who are too fearful to call him Silverback. But Kreider stepped up and crushed him in the chest and stoned Harrison in his tracks. The offense cheered, the fans cheered, and both units followed a fired-up Cowher over to the other field. I almost started running with them myself it was that inspiring. … Now, if Cowher is half the showman I think he is, he'll have Harrison up against Willie Colon in a drill coming soon to a field of dreams near all of us. … Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt spent Thursday answering questions about his re-discovered offense. After Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and the rest of the receivers played so well Wednesday night, the media kept Whisenhunt pretty busy with lunch-time interviews Thursday. It was the same day Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette wrote his column about Whisenhunt being next in line to replace Cowher as head coach. It struck me in the middle of one huddle with Whisenhunt: "We're all writing about Air Whisenhunt today," I said to him. He said: "Yep." And then I said that air could be spelled with an H, too. He said: "Nope." The idea really bugs him. The next day, which would've been yesterday, the damage control police went to work. Russ Grimm, go the whispers, is very much in consideration to replace Cowher should he leave after this season. Some whispers say Grimm's actually a preferred choice over Whisenhunt. Could be, but my thinking is it was just damage control. … I think I was the last reporter to come around to the concept of Cowher actually retiring for a year or two. People are starting to make sense in their arguments to me that this could happen, and now it wouldn't surprise me. Cowher does enjoy watching his girls play basketball, so I'll ride along for now. It helped that Joe Starkey wouldn't make anything more than a "gentleman's bet" with me. You may remember that writer Starkey offered, in his column, to bet anyone Cowher would retire. In rebuffing my advances, Starkey said his column was just a spoof. Hey, Joe, your life is a spoof! Hah. Just kidding. Joe's one of the best writers in Pittsburgh. … Speaking of which, how about a hand for Ryan Wilson? The kid's rounding into from, as I told you he would. … Yeah, I told you so. … Unfortunately, Omar Jacobs isn't progressing as quickly as Ryan. The rookie quarterback's having trouble grasping the offense and reading defenses. Oh, heck, he can barely get the team into and out of the huddle. Nice size, quick release, but it'll be awhile before he can step in and win in this league, so don't expect much (i.e. bet on the club) in early preseason games if Jacobs and fourth-teamer Shane Boyd are seeing much time. I do like the way Charlie Batch is playing. Good leadership, can read the defenses and can still throw the deep ball. And so far, so healthy. … Just the other day I was thinking that, boy, no one's heard much from Anthony Madison this camp. That's not just a good thing, that's a GREAT thing for an undrafted rookie cornerback. I went on to explain to camp visitors that every other alleged darkhorse rookie cornerback over the years would've been burned two or three times already in camp. And just about when I was set to look into Madison's prospects with the club, he got burned deep in the one-minute drill Friday by Batch and Willie Reid. But I'm still not down on Madison. He'll just have to play teams like he's Chidi Iwuoma if he wants that fifth cornerback job. Other than that play, Madison has played well. … Okay, so the rhetoric out of the Ike Taylor camp has me inching my signing bonus offer up to $7 million. But that's as far as I go. Eight digits? Come on. That's a bit much, considering the leader of the wideouts barely crossed that plateau just last preseason. No way the Steelers move the bar that quickly.
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 2, 2006
The crowds have died down after the big start. They're back to normal, and surprisingly so is the size of the media contingent, or more precise the size of the national media contingent. The big shots just aren't around and that's a surprise, considering the story that is Ben Roethlisberger. A couple of national reporters came out for the first practice and that was it. In fact, the local media has even stopped calculating Roethlisberger's practice passer rating. One reporter figured out that Roethlisberger's rating the first two days, counting 7-on-7 drills, was 22.4. "He's in Super Bowl form," the reporter cracked. But we're all walking away, on to the rest of an agenda that includes a search for the next goal-line runner, the next camp phenom, and the next free safety. Everyone has their agenda, but we may be missing the big story that's as plain as the broken nose on Roethlisberger's face. For me, it's back to the passer today. He's improving daily and everyone seems to be yawning about it. … Not only is Roethlisberger a story that's continuing to develop, he's playing for the defending champion. Where's Peter King? Where's Michael Wilbon? Heck, I'll even take Skip Bayless. … On second thought, scratch that last one. … Here's another correction: Santonio Holmes's signing bonus was not $4.52 million, but $5.42 million. Sorry about that. … Speaking of big money, word is Ike Taylor's negotiations are being hindered by the consideration of what Troy Polamalu will cost the team next summer. Polamalu has two seasons left on his contract and the Steelers consider him a must-sign, but they don't want to price him out of their cap by paying Taylor too much, because Polamalu's the start of the secondary. I think you follow this reasoning – not that it's fair. … Polamalu's answers to the mob-media questioning Tuesday were so honest and fresh. I approached him later in the day to tell him I got my six-year-old daughter off pop and juice and onto Gatorade, and he'd just trashed Gatorade in the interview. Polamalu was a fierce junk-food eater as a child, so we'd had this dialogue running for a few seasons now. I asked him what was left now for my daughter to drink, besides water. He said to go with organic orange juice. He explained how non-organic juices are not only rife with sugar, but pesticides. I agreed, adding that people can't even eat fish now because of the mercury. "Teach her the Jesus Diet," Troy said. "So many people worry about what goes into their mouth when they should worry more about what comes out of it – the Jesus Diet." More words of wisdom. Thanks, Troy. … But this is what you came for: The second-team offensive line Tuesday, from left to right, was Trai Essex, Barrett Brooks, Marvin Philip, Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon. The only change from Monday was a flow of Essex and Brooks. Russ Grimm is giving Essex more work at guard because, if they cut Brooks, they'll be shy at guard. Neither of the two backup centers – Chukky Okobi and Philip – plays guard; neither does Colon, who's working strictly at tackle right now. Grimm keeps rookies at one position so they're not overwhelmed. … Another change in the second teams from Monday to Tuesday was Philip replacing the absent Okobi. Philip's name is making the rounds among reporters who are wired into the team. In my estimation, Philip, the sixth-round pick, stands No. 10 on the chart behind Colon, who's a lock to make the squad. If the Steelers keep 10 linemen, I think the final offensive spot will be up for grabs between WR Quincy Morgan and TE Charles Davis. The latter is a big, mobile athlete, the type you don't normally find in the fifth round. Because the tight end crop was so deep last draft, the Steelers may have found a keeper in Davis. … One more note on the backup offensive linemen: Kemoeatu's name is tattooed across the back of his shoulders, like a name on a jersey. He said he's had it for two years, but to not let his mother know about it, so please, keep quiet. Loose lips could get us all killed in this instance. And, yes, Kemoeatu's as strong as ever, and says he's much more comfortable, too. … Ricardo Colclough's woes as a punt returner continued Wednesday. On Monday he muffed three punts. On Tuesday he was left out of the drill as a disciplinary measure. On Wednesday he muffed two more punts. So much for the hunch that he'd open the season as the return man over the two flashy rookies. … Two Good Guy awards: one to safety Mike Logan, who pulled up from delivering a blow over the middle that would've certainly knocked receiver Lee Mays out cold; and two, to owner's son and team scout Dan Rooney, Jr., who left a package of Super Bowl goodies for Brother Pat, a monk at St. Vincent who's beset with Alzheimer's. Brother Pat is a most affable man, hale and well-met, and he was aglow yesterday over his Super Bowl jersey and assorted knickknacks from Detroit. … On paper, it might not read like a big deal, but the next time you win a Super Bowl, in the middle of winter, let's see if you remember a sick monk whom you only see in the summer. … While I'm warm and fuzzy, a reminder to give the "Jesus Diet" a try today. Not to be preachy, but it sounds like it can't miss.
MONDAY, July 31
One TV reporter called Ben Roethlisberger's performance "great, wonderful" as a hardened listener howled "he was awful" in response. In my view, Roethlisberger was somewhere in between. Perhaps I've fallen into the "considering what he's been through" camp but I've never put too much stock in a quarterback's practice performance anyway, let alone the first day of practice when rust is expected. Roethlisberger's accuracy was off, no doubt, but I liked his mobility and arm strength. The latter impressed me at minicamp after I'd watched him struggle with the thumb injury last season. It's funny how many reporters still think Roethlisberger was in some way trying to fool everyone with an exaggerated injury. The training staff, though, is now allowed to speak the truth and they call it a serious injury that couldn't be treated with anything but rest. Of course, Roethlisberger couldn't rest. He played down the stretch with a broken right thumb and the zip on his passes right now, in my mind, overrides any rust buildup. I'm willing to give him time, as I'm sure most are. ... Giving Santonio Holmes time is also preferred, but as some of you may have noticed in my review of his opening press conference that time may not heal his trouble. Some of you wrote to me expressing your disappointment in my opinionated report that was critical of Holmes for not apologizing for his conduct this summer. I realize Holmes can't apologize for fear or legal reprisal, but that didn't appear to be his motive at the press conference since he doesn't even know if he's being charged or not. That was a major point with me: Either Holmes is not smart enough to know the status of his trial, or he doesn't care. Neither is a preferred option for a first-round pick. Those are players you expect to become team captains some day. As for Holmes saying he didn't receive any calls from Roethlisberger, I believe him. He didn't understand the question at first and when it was repeated he appeared to honestly not know what the reporter was talking about. These little silly white lies might be the reason few bought into Ben's thumb injury last season. ... By the way, you couldn't help but feeling better about Holmes the night after his first practice. His teammates clamored for him to be the first to get up in the cafeteria to sing, and Holmes sheepishly agreed. Soon, a big smile was on his face as he began the process of fitting in ... One of the scouts here was a bit miffed with something I've been saying on the radio since the end of minicamp. "Why do you keep saying Ryan Clark runs a 4.7 40?" he asked. "He ran a 4.49 for us." I asked the scout why Clark was undrafted coming out of college if he could run like that with his good instincts and tackling ability, and he answered that Clark was a cornerback coming out of college and his hips weren't fluid enough. I guess even guys who are willing to give heady tacklers the benefit of the doubt can get caught up into a prejudice against undrafted players. Every time he gets beat you want to knock a tenth off his 40 time, and Clark was beaten a few times deep at minicamp. But from here on out, he'll be known as sub-4.5 Ryan Clark.