The Morning After

The Morning After is a training camp blog from the keypad of SteelCityInsider.com publisher Jim Wexell. Here's what's going on at sunrise ...

SUNDAY, AUGUST 19

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's having a difficult time discerning what is supposed to be obvious:

• For example, after three preseason games I'm more confused than ever about who the right tackle and center are.

• Others keep telling me this: "Well, they didn't pay all that money to Sean Mahan to sit the bench." I might say the same about a half dozen other players on the bench.

• Remember, the going rate for an average interior lineman is $17 million in guaranteed money. You could look up what Mahan raked in and then say to yourself, "You know, the Steelers didn't really pay all that much money for Mahan to sit the bench."

• Brett Keisel has successfully taken the third-down quarter defense from the blackboard to the playing field, and that doesn't always happen. I gave Keisel the game's first star for his first-quarter rampage: He sacked the quarterback, batted down a pass in the red zone, made the tackle on the next play, and later chased down a running back in the flat as a linebacker in the quarter.

• Keisel also showed class after being incorrectly flagged for a late hit on Jason Campbell. After fist-bumping the limping QB, Keisel showed restraint in not stuffing the flag in the ref's shirt. The hit wasn't on or below the knee.

• My second star went to Deshea Townsend for his second-quarter rampage. After he tackled Ladell Betts for a loss on first down, he tackled a receiver out of the slot for a short gain, and on third down sacked the quarterback.

• I'll allow that it's obvious why Townsend is starting ahead of Bryant McFadden. He's a thinking man's cornerback. And a good blitzer, too.

• It's also obvious that the Steelers – in spite of saying the opposite three times on draft day – are trying to do away with their fullback. In breaking it down, Willie Parker -- who gained four yards on four carries -- ran best with Kreider in front of him. He gained four yards one time. Parker also lost a yard behind Kreider, but I don't count runs in which the left tackle falls down.

• Does Mike Tomlin really want to play his starters another whole half of another preseason game? Didn't the scrambling Ben Roethlisberger suck the breath from him?

• Then again, Roethlisberger's probably safer running downfield and ducking hungry linebackers than sitting back there in the pocket.

• It's obvious that Tomlin doesn't like to play rookies. How else to explain not using Jason Capizzi at LT until the last six minutes of the game? How else to explain not using Gary Russell on short-yardage with the big boys? How else to explain not using Lawrence Timmons in anything other than a strictly specialized blitz role on third down?

• Oh, yeah, Timmons won't have a real position until the Steelers move to a 4-3 in the year 2525.

• The best play of the game was Roethlisberger's hot read of Santonio Holmes for 30 yards on a third-and-17 play. But why would the Redskins rush eight on that play when they could've gotten there just as easily with four?

• Right. The other team has coaches, too. In the Redskins' case, 20 of them.

• How are the Redskins going to win a game this year with 20 coaches?

• It's obvious that the Steelers will draft at least seven O-linemen next year to compensate for the loss of Alan Faneca, among others. And then we'll see that the Steelers will use several of them on the D-line because "they didn't pay them all that money to sit the bench."

• Daniel Sepulveda will win the team's Rookie of the Year award.

• Tomlin does play LaMarr Woodley an awful lot. There must be a correlation between rookies who understand the playbook and playing time. Then again, that understanding isn't helping Brandon Torrey as he relegates the drafting of Cameron Stephenson moot.

• He almost rendered the life of Charlie Batch moot, too.

• Trai, you tried.

• Actually, Trai Essex did settle down and played well during the Steelers' final drive of the first half. But on an earlier play that shall live in infamy, Essex jumped offside, fell down, was flagged for tripping, and got the quarterback sacked.

• Maybe there's a place for Dan Kreider after all.

• Chidi Iwuoma keeps breaking down physically, but he keeps breaking down opponents' punt protections, too. This will be a tough decision, even though the answer is obvious: Chidi is the assassin.

• Speaking of coverage teams, the Steelers allowed their longest kickoff return of the preseason Saturday night – to the 30-yard line. Prior to that, on 11 kickoffs, the opponents' average starting position was the 20-yard line.

• Sepulveda's net punting average this preseason is 44.5. That would've led the NFL by 2.3 yards last season. It's up 6.5 yards over the Steelers' net last season.

• The punt return game remains fuzzy. Willie Reid hasn't impressed.

• I enjoyed watching Roethlisberger's leadership, James Farrior's footspeed, Clint Kriewaldt's line-drive power, and Troy Polamalu's all-around skills in the annual end-of-camp softball game. Funny, but on the football field Saturday night I saw the same things.

• I'm enjoying the way Ben is interacting with his team and in turn the respect his teammates are showing him. No Joe Namath there. It looks like I was wrong about that – and happily so.

• I understand that it takes time for young linebackers to grasp the game, as Rocky McIntosh proved after a poor rookie season, but Timmons has to play more.

• After much in-house debate over Arnold Harrison, Travis Kirschke, Carey Davis, Sepulveda, William Gay, and of course the unblockable Nick Eason, I've settled on the game's third star: Verron Haynes. Welcome back, kid.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 18

Camp doesn't really end these days until the boys have played their annual softball game on the St. Vincent College field. And a camp wrap-up can't be completed until information is gleaned from the players as they perform and interact without their helmets. In this setting you can learn so much: Who's funny, who's serious, who's an idiot, who argues over any and everything, who's a leader. First of all, the best pure baseball players of the bunch are Troy Polamalu, Clint Kriewaldt and Ben Roethlisberger. Polamalu is a natural, and not only that he's a switch-hitter with the most beautiful left-handed swing. He played third base for the crazed defensive team, and as you might suspect Troy was merely amused by the uproariousness going on around him. Larry Foote was the captain of the defensive team, so he naturally played shortstop and argued every call. When the LC-fielder screwed up, Foote went to play LCF. He's a bit of a control freak. Polamalu should've been the shortstop and Kriewaldt, who played second base, should've been the third baseman. Ricardo Colclough, who played first base and let a runner tag from third on a pop out (because he crashed into Kriewaldt to make the catch and then fell down) should've been put in right field and kept as far away from the action (and interaction) as possible. The Skipper, Casey Hampton, saw the problems that Colclough caused both in the field and at the plate (Colclough grabbed the bat and claimed the lead-off spot) but Hamp threw his hands up in the air and said that "Coaching your friends is impossible." Brett Keisel is another good ballplayer, except I only saw the catcher hit, and he should've been the clean-up hitter. Polo, Clint and Keisel should've been the 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 batters. As for Roethlisberger, he played shortstop with the ease you'd expect. What was most impressive is the light touch he has with his teammates. As opposed to Foote, Roethlisberger was supportive, encouraging and didn't feel the need to control or be the star. But he was obviously comfortable in that role, and his leadership skills with this team were on display. This was no Joe Namath out there, and for the first time I'm excited about his future as the cornerstone of this team. Speaking of smart, that was Hines Ward playing next to Roethlisberger at third base. Good ballplayer, but a smart move to again take the role as Ben's wing man. Dale Lolley and I watched for awhile. We watched Nate Washington show how shaky he was under fly balls. Last year, the WR who was surprisingly shaky plucking spheroids from the sky was Santonio Holmes, who played second base this year (another smart WR serving as the QB's wing man). Tyrone Carter was hilarious as the shaky RCF who couldn't catch with the catcher's glove he was forced to use, driving Skip Hampton crazy. After one drop by Carter, I told Hamp through the fence that he had to make a move. So he called for Carter to come in – during the middle of the inning – and sit on the bench. Ben, though, talked Skip into leaving Carter out there, "at least to run after loose balls." Hamp agreed amid much frivolity near the plate. So Dale and I walked on to dinner, where we saw Aaron Smith. Dale told him that the Defense needed him, that the Offense was kicking its butt. Aaron asked if Foote was playing. When told he was, and that he was arguing about every call, Aaron rolled his eyes and said, "Those guys planned this for two weeks and they still can't agree on anything." When told Carter and Colclough were also down on the field, Smith said there was no way he was going to go argue all night, that he was going to his room to relax. As Dale and I walked back from dinner, we entered from the right-field foul pole area. We were still halfway in the outfield -- as the sidewalk hugged the first-base line – when James Farrior hit a hot grounder to Ben at SS. Ben fielded it flawlessly and threw a bit in the dirt to first base. The ball was scooped but Farrior had beaten the throw. I don't know how he did it – and I'm wondering about my angle of view – but Farrior beat out a hard grounder that wasn't bobbled by a strong-armed SS. I knew Farrior still had his wheels in that last game last season, and now I'm convinced of it. Don't write the 32-year-old middle linebacker off just yet. ... Okay, back to football. I keep reading that the main difference in Bruce Arians's offense this year is that he's having the QBs throw deeper routes. The P-G this morning reported there have been four completions of 41 yards or more, one of 26, and throws to running backs that went for 33 and 24 yards. So I looked up that the Steelers' average per completion in two preseason games is 16.0 yards. That's fantastic, but will it stand up? Does it have to? And why praise a change over a team that was third in the NFL in Yards Per Catch (12.9) last year and first in the NFL in YPC (13.6) in 2005? The one change I fear from Arians is that the fullback will not only be phased out, but eliminated. Yeah, that may be a stretch. I did ask that question three times on draft day when Matt Spaeth was targeted instead of Le'Ron McLain, but three different subjects, including Arians, said that my worry was unfounded, that they will continue using a lead fullback in their running game. But Kreider is the team's only true lead blocker and several reporters claim they've been told he's "on the bubble," that he is likely to be cut and Verron Haynes kept to make room for young RBs Gary Russell and Carey Davis. Perhaps Davis can make the move from hybrid/emergency fullback to pure lead blocker, but I've heard that so many times about so many so-called lead blockers in the past and it never pans out. Lead blockers go to college as such and only develop their skills at the position. Big tailbacks become fullbacks in finesse offenses and catch a lot of passes, so that's the fear right now. Also, I think Kreider's a quiet leader and invaluable contributor on and off the field. Then again, so is Haynes. ... Can they keep six running backs? Well, let's break it down on the fly:

QB (2) – Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch.

RB (5) – Kreider, Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport, Russell, Davis.

WR (5) – Ward, Holmes, Cedrick Wilson, Washington, Willie Reid.

TE (3) – Heath Miller, Spaeth, Jerame Tuman.

OL (10) – Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Sean Mahan, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon, Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex, Marvin Philip/Chukky Okobi, Cam Stephenson.

DL (6) – Hampton, Smith, Keisel, Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke, Ryan McBean.

LB (8) – James Harrison, Foote, Farrior, Clark Haggans, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Kriewaldt, Rian Wallace/Arnold Harrison.

CB (5) – Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden, Colclough, William Gay.

S (4) – Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith, Carter.

ST (3) – Dan Sepulveda, Jeff Reed, Greg Warren.

That comes to 51 with Brian St. Pierre, Haynes, Jason Capizzi, Nick Eason and Anthony Madison fighting for the last two spots in the final three preseason games.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 14

If I were to start this segment off by saying the special teams played pretty well Saturday night, you'd probably laugh. Well, laugh away. I thought both coverage teams played well and the punt-return team was a Deshea Townsend holding penalty away from outstanding. Speaking of which, had I not been watching Willie Reid blaze his way through the practice teams all year, I'd think that Cedrick Wilson is the more fluid and polished return man. While that may be true at this point, I'll stick with Reid for the time, based on what I've seen in practice. The guy's too quick to give up on. ... But back to Saturday night's special teams, the Steelers stopped the Packers at the 17, 21 and 21 on three kickoffs. They also held the Packers to nine yards combined on four punts. Of course, one long return was called back by a penalty, but even then the Steelers had 10 men converging on the return man in the corner of the field, but he slipped through the arms of Matt Spaeth and was off down the sideline. Marquis Cooper managed to double back and help push Will Blackmon out of bounds past midfield. Cooper showed up later when he came within inches of blocking a punt. Those two plays might be the reason Cooper is sought after for his special teams work, and are part of the reason the Steelers were able to cut Matt King for another long-snapper. And that brings us to the lowlight of the special teams, the blocked extra point. Michael Montgomery slipped between long-snapper Greg Warren and right guard Chris Kemoeatu for the block and another long-snapper was brought in the next day. The Steelers put an emphasis on field-goal blocking at the next practice, going so far as to offer the block team a curfew-free night if successful. But the motivated first-teamers couldn't pull it off. However, the point is that the one play put a damper on an otherwise impressive special-teams performance. As ST Coach Bob Ligashesky said, "Such is the nature of special teams." ... I'm like most of the other reporters here. We're determined to find a weakness elsewhere on the squad for all of the time being put into special teams this camp. I may have found one: The young wide receivers are not progressing and it may be due to the lack of reps they're receiving. But on the flip side, third-team quarterback Brian St. Pierre has never looked better. So which is it? Well, I've come over to Ligashesky's side. There was plenty to like about his units the other night. Dallas Baker and Eric Fowler, meanwhile, can get their extra reps on the practice squad this season. ... St. Pierre limped into the cafeteria this morning. He said he banged his knee but that his hip felt the aftershock and was thus the cause of the limp. I asked if the hit was made on that hellacious sack by Larry Birdine in the fourth quarter. He said that it wasn't, but admitted he didn't know he'd survived that sack until he figured out where he was 30 seconds later. (To left tackle Jason Capizzi's credit, he stepped up and took the blame for the sack at practice yesterday. Capizzi took the wide rusher and it appeared the sack was Gary Russell's fault, but Capizzi said it was his ME – mental error.) In spite of the injury, St. Pierre said he's going to practice this afternoon. I asked him if he has a sense of whether Mike Tomlin will keep two or three quarterbacks. St. Pierre said he's been told they'll keep three, "but I've been told that before," he said with a laugh. St. Pierre did agree that this is by far his best camp. If it were up to me I'd keep him, and I have a feeling Tomlin will. ... So the two biggest flaws of the game -- kick protection and pass protection – received the brunt of the head coach's attention at Monday's practice. Tomlin walked over to watch the linemen in their one-on-one drills and became nearly as vocal as the drill's first sergeant, John Mitchell. "Write it up Hokie!" Mitchell bellowed to injured Chris Hoke, who wrote up citations to linemen who jumped offsides. "That's a hundred Hokie," Mitchell hollered. "Write another one up!" When Travis Kirschke jumped against Alan Faneca, Aaron Smith defended his linemate by saying, "The center moved the ball." But Tomlin jumped in: "Chalk it up Hokie!" When Nick Eason stepped up against Kendall Simmons, Tomlin said, "I like this matchup right here." And when Eason blew past Simmons, Tomlin shouted, "Do it again!" And the two battled to a draw. After Chris Kemoeatu stoned rookie Ryan McBean, Mitchell ordered them to do it again and said, "My money's on you 68." And Tomlin shouted, "Good money!" Kemoeatu made good on their bets, but McBean whipped the veteran in a third try. Finally, when LaMarr Woodley whipped Willie Colon on consecutive reps, Mitchell hollered, "Why can't you do that on Sundays?" To which Tomlin simply nodded along with everyone else who watches Woodley practice. ... Speaking of Hoke, his injury should only keep him out of one preseason game. The emergency nose tackle in the regular season would be Kirschke, another player who's enjoying his best camp with the Steelers. ... The hardest hit in Monday's practice was dished out by Ryan Clark. Coming off an outstanding game, Clark and the rest of the punt coverage team only took half reps as Ligashesky stressed fundamentals for most of the period. But for the final few reps, the cover team was ordered to continue down the field and make the play, and that was too bad for return man Dan Sheldon. He fumbled (possibly the first time all camp) a nano-second before Clark laid him out. It was a surprisingly brutal hit on a teammate, but Clark didn't apologize and Sheldon did not whine. He simply pounded his hands together because he was mad at himself for fumbling. I'm telling you, I like the kid. Too bad there's not enough room for this tough guy who asks no quarter. … A couple of interesting plays from yesterday's practice: Charlie Batch faked a handoff to a back and quickly threw a slant to Santonio Holmes, who took it and looked for a field full of Bengals to run through. The play-action on the quick pop pass was the twist. On another play, Willie Parker took a quick pitch to the three-man bunch formation on the left. I don't know why, but I've never seen it here. That quick toss normally is used as misdirection after a fake to the fullback. ... Okay, two more plays: Batch rolled out of heavy pressure to throw a sidearm strike to Reid, who caught it in stride for a big gain; and Ben Roethlisberger looked over a defense overloaded to his left by three receivers. He dropped back looking left, but squared up quickly to throw a 10-yard pass to the right, but Matt Spaeth dropped the ball. It appeared planned and looks to become an effective third-down play. We assume Spaeth will make the catch when it counts. ... If Ryan Wilson can talk about his college baseball career, so can I. But I couldn't help but to think back to days (minutes?) on the Robert Morris team when I saw the up-close shot of my former teammate, Jerry Bergman, the head linesman Saturday, as he discussed a call with Mike Tomlin. Bergman wasn't the nicest of competitors for playing time, but we've since put that behind us. Anyway, seeing him reminded me of Kevin Colbert's first month here on the job. Kevin's resume noted that he was the assistant baseball coach at Robert Morris the year I played, but I couldn't remember him. Turns out, Kevin coached the previous spring and I joined the team in the fall. When I asked him about it, Kevin's line to me was this: "Jim, if I'd have coached you, you'd still be playing." Now there's some faith. I'll take that comment and my lone RBI (sac fly) and put that against Ryan's .260 average any day.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 9

The Steelers are waiting for one of their rising free agents to show something before beginning any new contract negotiations. The player who drew their attention in the first game was Max Starks. The thinking was that they could extend the contract of the re-dedicated tackle and move Willie Colon to one of the guard spots next year. However, Starks failed to force the Steelers into action with his performance in the Hall of Fame Game. I thought he played well, for a first-time left tackle, but that's not what the front office thought. So, with the upcoming problem the team will have at guard next year, the team is monitoring the progress of Kendall Simmons. Everyone I talked to felt that Simmons played well, but I saw the same problem he's had over the last couple of years. He lacks strength and that's a problem with the middle of their line, yet Simmons's heart and mobility are unmatched among the linemen. But is that enough? As for Clark Haggans, Dan Kreider and Ricardo Colclough, those are players the Steelers can talk to next March, if they hold up this year, and if there's still a need for them next year. ... I noticed a line in the Greensburg paper that Ryan McBean has fallen further behind in the race for one of the roster spots on the defensive line. Don't be alarmed because that's old news, the same news you've read here for the last two weeks, that McBean is struggling with the playbook. Thing is, line coach John Mitchell remains infatuated with McBean's potential and yesterday I saw why. In the one-on-one drills, McBean was stoned by left guard Trai Essex. He did so poorly in the rep that Mitchell made him line up again, and McBean jumped offside. With everyone groaning around him, McBean lined up a third time and pushed Essex a step to the left and blew past him powerfully to the right. It made Mitchell and the rest of the D-linemen happy and gave me some insight into McBean's potential. I know McBean's too thin to play end in the Steelers' 3-4, but he's no skinnier than a guy by name of Aaron Smith when he was a fourth-round rookie in 1999. And if John Mitchell says he likes a guy's potential, I listen. I don't recall him saying anything close to that about Orien Harris last year. So McBean will be interesting to watch the rest of the preseason. It's unlikely he'd make it to the practice squad if he were cut, since so many teams wanted to draft him in the fourth or fifth round last April. ... Word is the Steelers will keep no more than 10 defensive backs, which makes sense. Let's see, there's Troy Polamalu, Anthony Smith, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay who appear to be locks. That's eight, so Ricardo Colclough, Chidi Iwuoma, Anthony Madison and Mike Lorello are fighting for two spots. I'll have to watch Grant Mason closely this week to see if he belongs in the fight. Chidi told me that Madison is the next quality gunner to rise from the ranks, but that may mean he takes Chidi's job. It should be interesting. ... The quarter defense took on a new look yesterday. Aaron Smith was the only lineman to put his hand down, but he was positioned to the far left end of the line. The rest of the front seven, which included rookie LaMarr Woodley, mingled about before the blitz. Woodley is back on the second team with the return of James Harrison, and is being used -- as planned in the spring – on the third-down defense. Why? Because he's a better pass-rusher than Clark Haggans. He also has the potential to be a better run-stopper – early in the year, too -- because of his extra 15 pounds. Woodley also showed he can get back into coverage, so why is he second team? That's going to be a tough call for Mike Tomlin. You hate to bench veteran leaders, but you also hate to sit the better talent. It'll be the new coach's first tough call. ... The sky is black at St. Vincent College and it's beginning to rain at 8:53 a.m. That probably will cause practice to be cancelled this morning, so we won't be back with an update until early in the afternoon following Tomlin's press conference.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 3

The theme today is tired football team. I noticed it Thursday morning in the cafeteria. Jon Dekker, the young tight end from Princeton who's in a fight with a third-round pick to make the club, wasn't his usual self. At the previous practice, he'd not only dropped a pass while wide open, but the pass knocked him down. I was sure that was the play that had him down, so I reminded him that today was his day, that it was the day he'd been waiting for. He finally did smile and I moved on my way. … At the Thursday morning practice, the short one for special teams only, I got to talking with John Mitchell on the other field when trainer John Norwig interrupted by calling my name. I didn't turn around at first, so then he yelled my name and pointed behind me. Running a sprint, right on the painted yard line on which I was standing, was a locomotive named James Harrison. He had no intention of moving. He was running full speed, testing the injury before he returned to practice. I had to jump out of the way. It was a close call. … After practice, the players filed quietly off the field. I walked up to Gary Russell for no particular reason. I didn't have any questions for a story, I just wanted to chit chat, start to get to know the guy, let him know that reporters don't always want something. We'd just begun chatting as we walked with the rest of the team when I heard my name again. Then a low voice barked, "Jim Wexell." I turned around and it was Harrison. He used his index finger to call me back. I figured he had thought over my request to interview his parents, and that he was going to say, "Forget it," or something similar to those two words. But all he said was, "My parents will meet with you Sunday morning instead of Monday." I said thanks. … I tell you, James loves messing with us geeky sportswriter. I think the first question to his parents will be, "Has James ever mentioned that he hates sportswriters?" But seriously, this book project should be tremendous. Most people, when I tell them, ask me how I'm going to afford it, how my family will get by, all those facts and details that I'm trying to ignore. Others, like Gene Collier, Mike Prisuta, Bob Labriola, think it's a fantastic idea and that I shouldn't listen to the crowd of common sense. … So anyway, my talk with Harrison complete, I walked with the team out of practice. I remarked to one of the strength coaches on how quiet it was. "Abnormally quiet," he said. Ryan Clark started complaining that the team ought to take out the hill that leads off the field. The players are used to the South Side where they walk 10 yards to the door and into the locker room. St. Vincent's hill is like every hill on every high-school practice field in Western Pa. … I didn't interview anyone after the morning practice because the players are not only physically tired, they're mentally tired and are in dread of answering politely the same questions over and over. So I got to the cafeteria and saw RB coach Kirby Wilson. I mentioned how quiet the guys were. He smiled an evil smile and said, "Y-e-a-a-h-h-h-h." … I asked around about Najeh Davenport. I asked if others were seeing great improvement from him over last year and the answers came in the form of shrugs. No one's really sure. They want to see him run in a game when people are actually trying to tackle him. … Is Eric Fowler slipping? Others aren't so sure. They say he's still very much in the mix, but that Dallas Baker is a solid No. 6. … Walking back from lunch, I saw Arnold Harrison waiting for a ride outside the weight room. He's one of my favorites, and I told him, Snelly, you bring it all the time, every snap, and that I'd hate to have to block you. He smiled and said, "I hope the coaches see it that way, too." I told him that Sunday night was his night. "I can't wait till Sunday," he said. … Art Rooney Jr., the brother of Dan, son of the Chief, and the Kevin Colbert of the 1970s, has always helped me with whatever history project I've worked on. He's cheerful and helpful on the phone and he sends hand-written note cards for no particular reason other than to lift my spirits and make my day. Gene Collier tells me the Chief was the same way. Well, I finally got to meet Artie for the first time. I looked into his eyes and felt I was looking into the Rooney family archives. Great moment. … So at practice last night, Jon Dekker catches several passes and then grabs a touchdown pass from Brian St. Pierre during the goal-line drill. At the cafeteria for dinner, he greets me at the door with an extended hand. "Thanks," he said. "I owe you one." I told him it wasn't me, that I had just reminded him what he already knew earlier that day. I told him that I'm a big believer in mind power, but that he already knows that, being from Princeton and all. He said, "Still, you reminded me. I needed that." I thought about that while I was jogging today. I had told him that today was his day, and I know where I got it from -- the interview with John Mitchell earlier in the week. I asked Mitch what wisdom from Bear Bryant is being passed down to today's Steelers. Said Mitch: "Never quit. Always stay in there and fight. I mean, tomorrow's another day. You might not have a great day today, but tomorrow is another day so you've got a chance every day to prove yourself." That's what was on my mind when I told Dekker that Thursday would be his day. I think I accidentally passed along some of Bear Bryant's wisdom.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2

The sun today was a perfect orange ball as it broke through the haze surrounding the mountain. When you can't see the mountain range to the east in the morning, you know it's going to be a hot one, but the morning practice will be light and the afternoon practice will be held later in the evening as Chuck Noll Field is formally celebrated. The players are cranky this morning. I told one of my favorite young guys, Jon Dekker, that this was his day. He always has a smile, but I think he's pretty beat. He didn't have such a good day yesterday and is seeing his chances slip away. ... Speaking of slipping, that's the word one scout used to describe Eric Fowler's status. The cornerbacks have learned that they can get up on the line and press him because he doesn't have the speed to scare anyone. Fowler did beat Troy Polamalu deep in 7-on-7 drills, but that may have been due to Polamalu not needing to proving anything to anyone the way, say, William Gay does. Fowler now has to make the next step. He needs to learn to get off the line to make some of these guys pay. He won't do it with speed. He'll have to find another way. ... Speaking of Gay, he's being used more this week, even getting reps with the first team. I don't know if it's because I watch camp practices from the sideline as opposed to watching OTAs from up on the balcony, but Gay looks much quicker now than he did in the spring. Maybe he carries his pads better than most. ... I'm really impressed with the way Najeh Davenport is running the ball. He looked a bit creaky last year, but his knees, his speed, his strength, his cutting, all look to be improved. I know, you can be so wrong about running backs when they're not being tackled in camp, but this guy looks like the Davenport of old. Very interesting. ... Speaking of old vets who appear reborn, Charlie Batch is throwing the ball so effortlessly and so on the money, it's kind of startling. I know Cedrick Wilson was swearing up a blue streak because Batch missed him, but Batch didn't miss Dallas Baker breaking open the other day. I'd seen Baker earlier in the day, limping to the cafeteria with a wrapped left ankle, but he said "I have to" when I asked him if he was going to practice. On that deep ball, there wasn't a hint of an injury. Maybe Brett Timmons ought to take note of how hungry the seventh-rounder is. ... Willie Reid shows absolutely no propensity for fumbling kicks. He's so confident in picking up bouncing or squibbed kicks. He has no hesitation whatsoever, never a bobble. And he's fast. The crowd gave him a nice round of applause yesterday after he cut a kick up the middle and was gone. This guy's going to have a good year. ... Reid's a lock for the fifth WR job and it appears the No. 6 is Baker. Now, whether they'll keep six is up in the air, since the contract situations may demand the extra man be kept from the offensive line. ... Jason Capizzi had his first bad day yesterday. He thinks it might be the heat. I asked him if he remembers the P-G's Pitt beat man, Paul Zeise, writing in 2004 that Capizzi "has a 10-cent head." Capizzi just smiled, knowing the situation Zeise has stepped into at his paper, and said, "Karma's a bitch." ... Shaun Nua, I'm told, is the sixth defensive lineman. Ryan McBean would have to be kept as the No. 7, and the Steelers have every intention of keeping him around, so I guess that means the D-line gets the extra player this year. Derrick Jones will be kept on the practice squad. The coaching staff is high on both young players, but back to Nua. I was surprised to hear that he'd been having a good camp, but since I hadn't been paying attention, and since John Mitchell's late-round picks have a way of blossoming once they add weight, I believe it. So I went to watch the line drills on Field 2 instead of the 7-on-7s yesterday. I watched Nua get one rep, and Willie Colon put up his left hand and flat stoned him and then rag-dolled him. I haven't seen that kind of brute, overwhelming strength since James Harrison's first camp (I've since become accustomed to Harrison's strength). But I have no idea why Colon is still on the second-team line. This dude has to play somewhere. That strength and his solid fundamentals are now being matched by a growing confidence. They won't be able to keep this guy down much longer. But, hey, hats off to Max Starks. All we ever wanted was for him to take it seriously, and he has. He's lost weight, listened to the coach, and is playing well. Good guy, too. ... Speaking of Harrison, I'll be meeting with his parents in Akron on Monday after the Hall of Fame game. I just got the thumbs up from my friend on his RV. We're going to take it around the country and write a book called "A Steeler Nation." We'll attend the Phoenix, Denver and Cincinnati games, interview fans, watch the team play home games from fan bars, disrupt the city of Seattle, visit hometowns of the current stars, and in general call down the thunder of this proud fandom. It's going to be silly. First up, the Harrisons. And, James, thanks for not killing me when I asked to investigate your background. Also on the docket are the hometowns of Heath Miller, Willie Parker, Lawrence Timmons, Alan Faneca/Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. Hey, in looking that over it's a pretty impressive list, and I think you can see our planned route. Then again, if a strong breeze comes up, we're going to follow it. ... Just one draft note. Or, is it too early? Yeah, just teasing. But a personnel man who studies the area says USC is the team to beat. He loves Keith Rivers. I know, nothing groundbreaking there. But I asked him about Arizona State running back Ryan Torain. I'd noticed that Mel Kiper ranked him the No. 2 running back, and was surprised since I hadn't heard of him. My source just kind of rolled his eyes, the way they all do when Kiper's name is mentioned. He said that once the juniors are included – like the two Arkansas running backs – Torain would fall down the charts. But I could see his wheels spinning, and my source said, "He's a big back without much wiggle. He'd fit ... hell, he'd fit here. Yeah, this would be a perfect fit for him." Just thought you'd like to know one man's opinion. I know I'll keep my eye open for Ryan Torain.

MONDAY, JULY 30

Last year on this day, the Steelers practiced for the first time and Ben Roethlisberger wowed reporters with his ability to play catch less than six weeks after his accident. Look where he and the Steelers are now: They have a week of intense practice under their belts and Roethlisberger looks like the big, athletic quarterback with the fastball and command of the offense. No one's asking him how lucky he is to be alive. They're asking him which critic he's going to prove wrong first. ... Roethlisberger's carving up of the defense Friday night under the lights was a pretty good warm-up act for the fireworks display. The chaos actually started right after practice when the players rushed to fill the five buses. I snapped at the TV reporters to "keep it short" with Mike Tomlin and "just get info." They're starting to hate me, but it was a good thing because we had to fight through the crowd and bang on the doors of the last bus to get a ride home. I apparently pushed the mascot back toward the back of the bus as I plopped down in the second seat. The guy next to me warned me not to take the foam steel girder that the mascot uses as his prop. He had left it standing behind the bus driver. Me, having zero respect for this idiotic mascot, had to take it as I walked off the bus. I didn't know what to do with it, so I stuffed it in the garbage can. I noticed the next day, when the mascot was signing autographs, that he'd found his prop. ... They can't find a name for this Bill Cowher imitation? How about B.G.H. That's what we called Cowher, the Big Giant Head, after the all-knowing "god" on "Third Rock From the Sun." Really, it's hard to believe they're serious about using a Cowher imitation as the mascot, but my understanding is it was nearly a mandate from the NFL. The Steelers don't plan to use it on the field, only in the community. Good luck with all that. ... Speaking of stealing props, we in the media are eyeing up the footballs-on-a-stick that the special-teams coaches are using to simulate snaps. Sort of like stealing the Navy goat, we in the media believe that stealing the footballs-on-a-stick would endear us to the players. Someone said three of us should put black hoods over our heads, make a video with a knife to the "neck" of the football-on-a-stick, and warn the staff that if the special-teams coaches don't stop boring us with special-teams practice every 15 minutes, the football-on-a-stick has had it. Ah, just a thought. ... But back to Friday night. When we arrived back at campus, the fireworks display had begun. Watching it over the tops of the spires of the basilica made me think of Disney World, but this seemed more realistic. The town of Ampipe, as Tomlin had called downtown Latrobe, doesn't do this kind of thing every night. This night was special. What made it more special was the thought of Cowher the Mascot shuffling through the garbage for his prop. ... Okay, you want football news. I know. The buzz on new talent has been mostly about LaMarr Woodley, of course, but undrafted giant left tackle Jason Capizzi is being talked about by everyone in the personnel department, from Kevin Colbert on down. Capizzi had his best practice Friday night and is now just biding his time, waiting for real reps to come his way. Right now he's third-team left tackle behind Trai Essex, but Essex is developing a reputation in the front office as something of a Mr. August, that he knows how to make the team but could resume underachieving once the roster is set. That's only the perception right now, but Essex does have the good feet and he has his moments. Capizzi is not someone, the Steelers think, who'll be able to make it back to the practice squad if they waive him. Even though he wasn't drafted, it's clear he has the talent, the feet and the strength to play in the league, and that teams, after looking at some of their tackles, will jump at a second chance to steal Capizzi. So, while the coaches think differently than the scouts, Capizzi may need to be kept on the final roster if they intend to keep him in black and gold for the future. … A defensive coach's breakdown of the center position: Doesn't give Chukky Okobi a serious chance since his champion, Russ Grimm, is gone; says Kendall Simmons is still too jumpy and will block the first man he sees, even if it's not the right man; and Willie Colon is too aggressive for the position, that "he tries to rip your head off" and the team is better served with him at another position. By process of elimination, that leaves Sean Mahan, who already got the seal of approval from Casey Hampton. ... Max Starks has lost a ton of weight and is receiving approval from the personnel people. I still say he's too stiff to hold off Colon, but the people who matter aren't agreeing with me. ... The Steelers are waiting for the preseason games before they resume any considerations of extending further contracts. ... Matt Spaeth, even though he's injured, has regained solid footing in the bid for the No. 3 TE job. He's a big possession target and a tough kid. He'll scratch and claw as an in-line blocker, too. ... Rookie DL Ryan McBean whipped Brandon Torrey three times during one-on-one drills Friday night, but McBean still has a long way to go to understand the playbook. He's talented, but not very bright, so he's no lock to be the sixth defensive lineman. ... When someone in the know asks me who's going to be the sixth DL, I assume Nick Eason's not cutting it. So I asked about undrafted rookie Derrick Jones and got a mixed reaction. Yeah, he's improving, but no he's not good enough to claim that sixth roster spot at the position. ... Jones can make a veteran such as Chris Kemoeatu look bad during one-on-one drills, but then he turned around the next day and jumped offside twice. ... Tomlin and official Terry McAulay had an interesting discussion on the field Friday night about "strike points" on the punt-coverage gunner. Tomlin was defending the hold-up man's right to strike the gunner in the face. Tomlin illustrated to McAulay how the receiver, when he changes his foot position in order to get off the line, will often lower his chest, so that the "strike point" becomes his face and not his chest. That maneuver often leads to an illegal-hands-to-the-face call and it changes a fourth down to a first down. McAulay listened to Tomlin's gripe, and ended up agreeing with him that the rule must be interpreted differently. … A guy who works for the NFL assured me that when I got back to campus over the weekend, there would be no pimps in the general vicinity. He laughed and we got to talking about Michael Vick. The man said Vick would get more sympathy from the public if he had immigrants fighting to the death and not dogs. ... Tomlin says he understands Roethlisberger, that he's just a big kid who needs and loves attention. Tomlin doesn't foresee having any trouble with the franchise QB. ... After Saturday's practice, and after Tomlin was asked if he was going to "increase the tempo next week," someone said that if they increased the tempo any more, he expected the Baltimore Ravens to be on the other side of the line. ... My pre-camp choice for rookie sleeper, Eric Fowler, is still catching everything thrown to him, but he's not beating DBs by much. Not that he gets many reps. And I expect that to increase this week. A scout told me Fowler's best 40 time at his pro day was a 4.57, and that his time is generally considered to be in the 4.62 range. They like his route-running ability, his size and his hands. I look for him to break out a bit this week. ... The rule of thumb for hitting WRs in training camp, according to a former DB, is that it's okay if you hit a WR while going for the ball, but that hitting a teammate in the back after a catch is generally a no-no on all teams. ... Funny how Hines Ward is perceived as a whiner. Even some of the reporters – who still carry Plaxico Burress grudges – were "whining" about Ward "whining" the other day. According to the message boards, many of the fans feel the same way. But there was Ward at the dinner table Saturday night having a great time with his best friend Deshea Townsend and the rest of the DBs. It's obvious these guys don't take their utterances to the media as seriously as many of the fans and reporters do. ... Sorry that his blog entry is so long, but I have another player to watch: ILB Richard Koonce. He's No. 46, the guy with all the hair. He played in NFL Europe, and has a year experience, so we haven't done much investigative work on him prior to camp. But the Steelers like his physical style and "he could take the place of the guy who's not been very physical at all." That couldn't be Clint Kriewaldt, I said in response. "Right," said the source. So I said that it had to be Rian Wallace. And the source said, "See, you know more than you think. Trust your instincts." Then, Wallace went and played OLB and Tomlin praised his versatility. I would hate to see the more physical inside backer lose a spot to a guy just because that guy can play another position. ... Fans have taken to calling little Dan Sheldon "Rudy." He's actually become a fan favorite because "He can run," as one woman yelled. And he can. Sheldon slipped behind a bunch of backup DBs to catch a home-run ball from Brian St. Pierre. And Tomlin did call Sheldon "legitimate" prior to camp, so keep on eye on the little return man with the big wheels. ... And to get your week off to a good start, I report to you that Sunday's punt return men were, in order, Willie Reid, Cedrick Wilson, Sheldon, Santonio Holmes, and Jovon Johnson. Ricardo Colclough was not involved.

THURSDAY, JULY 26

This one has to be a quick one because that new coach, that Mike Tomlin, he's crazy, man. There's another practice going on right now. They're probably stretching, so I have a few minutes to blog, since I already did my jog, but today's not one of those wimpy special teams practices that they had yesterday morning, when the coaches were so bored they played hit-the-can with the quarterbacks. Heck, today they may fire out of the gate with a goal-line drill this morning, knowing this crazy coach. … Seriously, I really like what Tomlin's doing. Even though the special-teams drills are a waste of time – and I know you fans think I'M the crazy one since their special teams have stunk the past few years – but these in-between, faux morning practices serve a great purpose: They get the players up and into their pads and into a routine. Go to bed, get up and practice twice, meet at night, and go back to bed. I do think Tomlin will take a page out of the Bill Cowher playbook and cancel Saturday morning's practice. He'll do it just like Cowher did it: after the night practice at Latrobe. The players will all yip and run like Super Bowl champs out of Latrobe Stadium and they'll be in a great mood for a tough Saturday afternoon workout. … Speaking of Latrobe Stadium, Zambelli fireworks will go off after that practice, thus keeping the hordes at the park while I sneak off on the wide-open, single-lane road back to campus. Hah. Good for me. … Here's another reason I'm taking to Tomlin: He told two reporters their dumb questions yesterday weren't newsworthy. That deserves a triple exclamation point!!! See, when we all mob the coach after practice, it's an embarrassing situation. The poor guy can hardly breathe with all of the microphones in his face. The cameramen are jostling with the writers for space. And of course the bellicose TV reporters want the coach to think they're cute, or smart, or something. Cowher used to answer these guys, at length, and then sneer at those of us who wanted to know when the hell he's going to put Sean Mahan at center. Tomlin, like any man with half a brain, is doing the opposite: He's showing contempt for the grandstanders and showing respect for the football questions that have to be asked. Now, Mike, you're almost a hero in my book, so just please win, baby. Show everyone that people with half a brain can succeed in this league. … Okay, off the soapbox and back to the center position. I know readers want updates of all the players right now, but first of all I'm not that smart and second of all I don't get to watch film. We're field level and I like to focus on one player, or a pair of players who play next to each other or cover one another, per play. My focus has been mainly on the two rookie linebackers and the center position. What I see at the center position is Okobi being stood up consistently by Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. Okobi is giving 100 percent, and flashes some nice downfield mobility, but from my half a brain I can't see him holding up to the rigors of the run game. I just presume Mahan will do a better job. So, Mike, let's get to it. … As for the rookie linebackers, LaMarr Woodley's display of power on the first day diminishes, in my mind, the flaws in his downfield work. That was to be expected, and one play yesterday showed the difference between Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. A running back caught a pass in the middle of the field and cut to the sideline to where Woodley had dropped. Yes, he's instinctive enough to do the right thing and get down the field and be in the proper position, but he had no chance when he lumbered to turn that big body around and make a play on the back who ran past him. Timmons, with that fantastic change-of-direction ability, would've given the team a chance to stop that big play. However, at the point of attack, Timmons is getting rag-dolled, and that was to be expected. He's 238 pounds and he said that's where he wants to stay. In time, he'll learn enough technique to stay stout at the point, but right now his game is quickness, whether that be in coverage or in getting after the quarterback. … Remember, these are preliminary reports from a MEDIA GUY. Take them for what they're worth. We'll be getting the word from the smart people in the film room soon enough. … James Harrison seems to be lowering his guard around me a bit. I wasn't so sure. I'd heard the story of how he had to transfer high schools. The report alleged that he'd shot a teammate in the butt with a bb gun. So when I looked up while pouring my Raisin Bran into my bowl in the cafeteria, I thought of that as I noticed James staring at me. I'd just finished jogging and was all sweaty and he was the last player in the cafeteria. (Did I mention they have another practice?) So he says, "Were you a wrestler?" I forgot I was wearing my "Hempfield Wrestling" shirt. I told him, no, this was a gift from the Hempfield coach – Vince DeAugustine – one of the great American Legion catchers that I had coached at Jeannette. James nodded. I asked him if he was a wrestler. He said, "No, but people think that I was. I don't know why." He smiled and left. He knows his Cleveland Slam is the stuff of which wrestling legends are made. It took me a while to figure it out because I was just happy that he had smiled. It's better than a cap in the ass, wouldn't you say? … We'll have much more later. I thought of a ton of stuff to write, but I don't want to miss this morning goal-line drill. We'll report back all day. And, hopefully tomorrow, instead of going down to watch that slappy special-teams practice with all of its toys, I'll sit in my room and reflect on the wonders of nature … and Pittsburgh Steelers football.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 25

Finally, a chance to take a breath. It's been full go since the minute I arrived here and I apologize for just now getting around to putting my thoughts down on paper. So many writers up here, it's mind-buh-logging. Every paper has sent one, two, maybe three, and even the beat writers are blogging. It'll be interesting to see if they figure out that there's a fine line to walk. Most beat reporters keep their opinions to themselves so that they don't sacrifice the information flow. You can't rip the quarterback and then expect him to give you some good behind-the-scenes stuff later ... at least that's the thinking at metro papers where the beat reporters report on the team and the columnists hack away in attempt at insight. As I said, it's a fine line for those of us who do both, and the horde that's descended on St. Vincent will learn what's taken me 13 years on the beat to learn. … Funny, editors seem to think that any old body in their newsroom can come up and blog, but what they don't understand is that it takes years to cultivate sources. For example, the story at ProFootballTalk.com about Aaron Brooks forced me to ask a trusting source for confirmation. And, yes, said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers did bring the former New Orleans playoff quarterback in for a workout last week. Colbert said that it wasn't so much Mike Tomlin's Virginia ties that led to the workout, but that the Steelers were simply "interested in a veteran quarterback who's available." But Brooks "wanted to explore his options" and didn't take the Steelers up on their offer to join the team at training camp. Now, it's too late. "We're rolling now," Colbert said. "It's dead." ... I still say Charlie Batch is a better quarterback than Brooks, who has some butt-ugly mechanics. Brian St. Pierre could become a serviceable No. 3 quarterback, considering that he played with better confidence at minicamp. If the Steelers choose to go with only two quarterbacks (St. Pierre is out of practice-squad eligibility), the fourth quarterback, Bryan Randall, isn't a bad option for the practice squad. ... Two radio shows on the first two nights have put a crimp in my writing, but here are some of the nuggets unveiled on our Fox 970 AM shows (7-9 p.m.): Dan Rooney Jr., the part-owner, part-scout, otherwise known as The Guy Who Discovered Fast Willie Parker (T.G.W.D.FWP), thinks this year's FWP could be undrafted center Darnell Stapleton out of Rutgers. I did notice Stapleton playing center yesterday with the third line, with center Marvin Philip playing left guard next to him. That's a change from minicamp, when Stapleton was used only as the 7-on-7 center. The key here, I think, is that the team wants Philip to learn guard. Taking it a step further, I think the team is preparing him for a career as a center-guard backup, something Chukky Okobi can't provide, and yet another sign that the future for Okobi is probably not in Pittsburgh. ... We've beat the Eric Fowler watch to death, but his teammate at Grand Valley State, defensive lineman Derrick Jones (6-4, 282), has impressed DL coach John Mitchell. Mitch believes "a year on scholarship" will help Jones make the team by the 2008 season. It's those late-round and undrafted rookie linemen who consistently do well in Mitchell's no-glory three-man front, and it doesn't take a psychologist to understand why. Mitch also thinks fourth-round pick Ryan McBean will make it over the long haul. Mitch was pretty hard on the confused McBean this spring, but "tough love" was Mitchell's plan for McBean all along. ... Levon Kirkland is still the man. A couple of us called him over at lunch yesterday for some quotes about the tough first practice. He was as helpful as ever, and then the other reporter asked him about his weight. Kirkland, who appears to weigh over 300 pounds, boasted that he'd lost 52 pounds since the Steelers' Super Bowl. I said to Kirk: Even after all these years reporters are still asking about your weight. "Yes, but I don't take it personally like I used to," he said, and then he winked and was gone. I'd like to see Captain Kirk stick with the team in the scouting department, just to have him around. He's another in a long line of class acts that have trod the pathways of SVC.


Steel City Insider Top Stories

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SUNDAY, AUGUST 19\r\n

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's having a difficult time discerning what is supposed to be obvious:\r\n

• For example, after three preseason games I'm more confused than ever about who the right tackle and center are.\r\n

• Others keep telling me this: \"Well, they didn't pay all that money to Sean Mahan to sit the bench.\" I might say the same about a half dozen other players on the bench.\r\n

• Remember, the going rate for an average interior lineman is $17 million in guaranteed money. You could look up what Mahan raked in and then say to yourself, \"You know, the Steelers didn't really pay all that much money for Mahan to sit the bench.\"\r\n

• Brett Keisel has successfully taken the third-down quarter defense from the blackboard to the playing field, and that doesn't always happen. I gave Keisel the game's first star for his first-quarter rampage: He sacked the quarterback, batted down a pass in the red zone, made the tackle on the next play, and later chased down a running back in the flat as a linebacker in the quarter.\r\n

• Keisel also showed class after being incorrectly flagged for a late hit on Jason Campbell. After fist-bumping the limping QB, Keisel showed restraint in not stuffing the flag in the ref's shirt. The hit wasn't on or below the knee.\r\n

• My second star went to Deshea Townsend for his second-quarter rampage. After he tackled Ladell Betts for a loss on first down, he tackled a receiver out of the slot for a short gain, and on third down sacked the quarterback.\r\n

• I'll allow that it's obvious why Townsend is starting ahead of Bryant McFadden. He's a thinking man's cornerback. And a good blitzer, too.\r\n

• It's also obvious that the Steelers – in spite of saying the opposite three times on draft day – are trying to do away with their fullback. In breaking it down, Willie Parker -- who gained four yards on four carries -- ran best with Kreider in front of him. He gained four yards one time. Parker also lost a yard behind Kreider, but I don't count runs in which the left tackle falls down.\r\n

• Does Mike Tomlin really want to play his starters another whole half of another preseason game? Didn't the scrambling Ben Roethlisberger suck the breath from him?\r\n

• Then again, Roethlisberger's probably safer running downfield and ducking hungry linebackers than sitting back there in the pocket.\r\n

• It's obvious that Tomlin doesn't like to play rookies. How else to explain not using Jason Capizzi at LT until the last six minutes of the game? How else to explain not using Gary Russell on short-yardage with the big boys? How else to explain not using Lawrence Timmons in anything other than a strictly specialized blitz role on third down?\r\n

• Oh, yeah, Timmons won't have a real position until the Steelers move to a 4-3 in the year 2525.\r\n

• The best play of the game was Roethlisberger's hot read of Santonio Holmes for 30 yards on a third-and-17 play. But why would the Redskins rush eight on that play when they could've gotten there just as easily with four?\r\n

• Right. The other team has coaches, too. In the Redskins' case, 20 of them.\r\n

• How are the Redskins going to win a game this year with 20 coaches?\r\n

• It's obvious that the Steelers will draft at least seven O-linemen next year to compensate for the loss of Alan Faneca, among others. And then we'll see that the Steelers will use several of them on the D-line because \"they didn't pay them all that money to sit the bench.\"\r\n

• Daniel Sepulveda will win the team's Rookie of the Year award.\r\n

• Tomlin does play LaMarr Woodley an awful lot. There must be a correlation between rookies who understand the playbook and playing time. Then again, that understanding isn't helping Brandon Torrey as he relegates the drafting of Cameron Stephenson moot.\r\n

• He almost rendered the life of Charlie Batch moot, too.\r\n

• Trai, you tried.\r\n

• Actually, Trai Essex did settle down and played well during the Steelers' final drive of the first half. But on an earlier play that shall live in infamy, Essex jumped offside, fell down, was flagged for tripping, and got the quarterback sacked.\r\n

• Maybe there's a place for Dan Kreider after all.\r\n

• Chidi Iwuoma keeps breaking down physically, but he keeps breaking down opponents' punt protections, too. This will be a tough decision, even though the answer is obvious: Chidi is the assassin.\r\n

• Speaking of coverage teams, the Steelers allowed their longest kickoff return of the preseason Saturday night – to the 30-yard line. Prior to that, on 11 kickoffs, the opponents' average starting position was the 20-yard line.\r\n

• Sepulveda's net punting average this preseason is 44.5. That would've led the NFL by 2.3 yards last season. It's up 6.5 yards over the Steelers' net last season. \r\n

• The punt return game remains fuzzy. Willie Reid hasn't impressed. \r\n

• I enjoyed watching Roethlisberger's leadership, James Farrior's footspeed, Clint Kriewaldt's line-drive power, and Troy Polamalu's all-around skills in the annual end-of-camp softball game. Funny, but on the football field Saturday night I saw the same things. \r\n

• I'm enjoying the way Ben is interacting with his team and in turn the respect his teammates are showing him. No Joe Namath there. It looks like I was wrong about that – and happily so.\r\n

• I understand that it takes time for young linebackers to grasp the game, as Rocky McIntosh proved after a poor rookie season, but Timmons has to play more.\r\n

• After much in-house debate over Arnold Harrison, Travis Kirschke, Carey Davis, Sepulveda, William Gay, and of course the unblockable Nick Eason, I've settled on the game's third star: Verron Haynes. Welcome back, kid.\r\n \r\n\r\n\r\n

SATURDAY, AUGUST 18\r\n\r\n

Camp doesn't really end these days until the boys have played their annual softball game on the St. Vincent College field. And a camp wrap-up can't be completed until information is gleaned from the players as they perform and interact without their helmets. In this setting you can learn so much: Who's funny, who's serious, who's an idiot, who argues over any and everything, who's a leader. First of all, the best pure baseball players of the bunch are Troy Polamalu, Clint Kriewaldt and Ben Roethlisberger. Polamalu is a natural, and not only that he's a switch-hitter with the most beautiful left-handed swing. He played third base for the crazed defensive team, and as you might suspect Troy was merely amused by the uproariousness going on around him. Larry Foote was the captain of the defensive team, so he naturally played shortstop and argued every call. When the LC-fielder screwed up, Foote went to play LCF. He's a bit of a control freak. Polamalu should've been the shortstop and Kriewaldt, who played second base, should've been the third baseman. Ricardo Colclough, who played first base and let a runner tag from third on a pop out (because he crashed into Kriewaldt to make the catch and then fell down) should've been put in right field and kept as far away from the action (and interaction) as possible. The Skipper, Casey Hampton, saw the problems that Colclough caused both in the field and at the plate (Colclough grabbed the bat and claimed the lead-off spot) but Hamp threw his hands up in the air and said that \"Coaching your friends is impossible.\" Brett Keisel is another good ballplayer, except I only saw the catcher hit, and he should've been the clean-up hitter. Polo, Clint and Keisel should've been the 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 batters. As for Roethlisberger, he played shortstop with the ease you'd expect. What was most impressive is the light touch he has with his teammates. As opposed to Foote, Roethlisberger was supportive, encouraging and didn't feel the need to control or be the star. But he was obviously comfortable in that role, and his leadership skills with this team were on display. This was no Joe Namath out there, and for the first time I'm excited about his future as the cornerstone of this team. Speaking of smart, that was Hines Ward playing next to Roethlisberger at third base. Good ballplayer, but a smart move to again take the role as Ben's wing man. Dale Lolley and I watched for awhile. We watched Nate Washington show how shaky he was under fly balls. Last year, the WR who was surprisingly shaky plucking spheroids from the sky was Santonio Holmes, who played second base this year (another smart WR serving as the QB's wing man). Tyrone Carter was hilarious as the shaky RCF who couldn't catch with the catcher's glove he was forced to use, driving Skip Hampton crazy. After one drop by Carter, I told Hamp through the fence that he had to make a move. So he called for Carter to come in – during the middle of the inning – and sit on the bench. Ben, though, talked Skip into leaving Carter out there, \"at least to run after loose balls.\" Hamp agreed amid much frivolity near the plate. So Dale and I walked on to dinner, where we saw Aaron Smith. Dale told him that the Defense needed him, that the Offense was kicking its butt. Aaron asked if Foote was playing. When told he was, and that he was arguing about every call, Aaron rolled his eyes and said, \"Those guys planned this for two weeks and they still can't agree on anything.\" When told Carter and Colclough were also down on the field, Smith said there was no way he was going to go argue all night, that he was going to his room to relax. As Dale and I walked back from dinner, we entered from the right-field foul pole area. We were still halfway in the outfield -- as the sidewalk hugged the first-base line – when James Farrior hit a hot grounder to Ben at SS. Ben fielded it flawlessly and threw a bit in the dirt to first base. The ball was scooped but Farrior had beaten the throw. I don't know how he did it – and I'm wondering about my angle of view – but Farrior beat out a hard grounder that wasn't bobbled by a strong-armed SS. I knew Farrior still had his wheels in that last game last season, and now I'm convinced of it. Don't write the 32-year-old middle linebacker off just yet. ... Okay, back to football. I keep reading that the main difference in Bruce Arians's offense this year is that he's having the QBs throw deeper routes. The P-G this morning reported there have been four completions of 41 yards or more, one of 26, and throws to running backs that went for 33 and 24 yards. So I looked up that the Steelers' average per completion in two preseason games is 16.0 yards. That's fantastic, but will it stand up? Does it have to? And why praise a change over a team that was third in the NFL in Yards Per Catch (12.9) last year and first in the NFL in YPC (13.6) in 2005? The one change I fear from Arians is that the fullback will not only be phased out, but eliminated. Yeah, that may be a stretch. I did ask that question three times on draft day when Matt Spaeth was targeted instead of Le'Ron McLain, but three different subjects, including Arians, said that my worry was unfounded, that they will continue using a lead fullback in their running game. But Kreider is the team's only true lead blocker and several reporters claim they've been told he's \"on the bubble,\" that he is likely to be cut and Verron Haynes kept to make room for young RBs Gary Russell and Carey Davis. Perhaps Davis can make the move from hybrid/emergency fullback to pure lead blocker, but I've heard that so many times about so many so-called lead blockers in the past and it never pans out. Lead blockers go to college as such and only develop their skills at the position. Big tailbacks become fullbacks in finesse offenses and catch a lot of passes, so that's the fear right now. Also, I think Kreider's a quiet leader and invaluable contributor on and off the field. Then again, so is Haynes. ... Can they keep six running backs? Well, let's break it down on the fly:\r\n

QB (2) – Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch.\r\n

RB (5) – Kreider, Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport, Russell, Davis.\r\n

WR (5) – Ward, Holmes, Cedrick Wilson, Washington, Willie Reid.\r\n

TE (3) – Heath Miller, Spaeth, Jerame Tuman.\r\n

OL (10) – Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Sean Mahan, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon, Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex, Marvin Philip/Chukky Okobi, Cam Stephenson.\r\n

DL (6) – Hampton, Smith, Keisel, Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke, Ryan McBean.\r\n

LB (8) – James Harrison, Foote, Farrior, Clark Haggans, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Kriewaldt, Rian Wallace/Arnold Harrison.\r\n

CB (5) – Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden, Colclough, William Gay.\r\n

S (4) – Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith, Carter.\r\n

ST (3) – Dan Sepulveda, Jeff Reed, Greg Warren.\r\n

That comes to 51 with Brian St. Pierre, Haynes, Jason Capizzi, Nick Eason and Anthony Madison fighting for the last two spots in the final three preseason games.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, AUGUST 14\r\n\r\n

If I were to start this segment off by saying the special teams played pretty well Saturday night, you'd probably laugh. Well, laugh away. I thought both coverage teams played well and the punt-return team was a Deshea Townsend holding penalty away from outstanding. Speaking of which, had I not been watching Willie Reid blaze his way through the practice teams all year, I'd think that Cedrick Wilson is the more fluid and polished return man. While that may be true at this point, I'll stick with Reid for the time, based on what I've seen in practice. The guy's too quick to give up on. ... But back to Saturday night's special teams, the Steelers stopped the Packers at the 17, 21 and 21 on three kickoffs. They also held the Packers to nine yards combined on four punts. Of course, one long return was called back by a penalty, but even then the Steelers had 10 men converging on the return man in the corner of the field, but he slipped through the arms of Matt Spaeth and was off down the sideline. Marquis Cooper managed to double back and help push Will Blackmon out of bounds past midfield. Cooper showed up later when he came within inches of blocking a punt. Those two plays might be the reason Cooper is sought after for his special teams work, and are part of the reason the Steelers were able to cut Matt King for another long-snapper. And that brings us to the lowlight of the special teams, the blocked extra point. Michael Montgomery slipped between long-snapper Greg Warren and right guard Chris Kemoeatu for the block and another long-snapper was brought in the next day. The Steelers put an emphasis on field-goal blocking at the next practice, going so far as to offer the block team a curfew-free night if successful. But the motivated first-teamers couldn't pull it off. However, the point is that the one play put a damper on an otherwise impressive special-teams performance. As ST Coach Bob Ligashesky said, \"Such is the nature of special teams.\" ... I'm like most of the other reporters here. We're determined to find a weakness elsewhere on the squad for all of the time being put into special teams this camp. I may have found one: The young wide receivers are not progressing and it may be due to the lack of reps they're receiving. But on the flip side, third-team quarterback Brian St. Pierre has never looked better. So which is it? Well, I've come over to Ligashesky's side. There was plenty to like about his units the other night. Dallas Baker and Eric Fowler, meanwhile, can get their extra reps on the practice squad this season. ... St. Pierre limped into the cafeteria this morning. He said he banged his knee but that his hip felt the aftershock and was thus the cause of the limp. I asked if the hit was made on that hellacious sack by Larry Birdine in the fourth quarter. He said that it wasn't, but admitted he didn't know he'd survived that sack until he figured out where he was 30 seconds later. (To left tackle Jason Capizzi's credit, he stepped up and took the blame for the sack at practice yesterday. Capizzi took the wide rusher and it appeared the sack was Gary Russell's fault, but Capizzi said it was his ME – mental error.) In spite of the injury, St. Pierre said he's going to practice this afternoon. I asked him if he has a sense of whether Mike Tomlin will keep two or three quarterbacks. St. Pierre said he's been told they'll keep three, \"but I've been told that before,\" he said with a laugh. St. Pierre did agree that this is by far his best camp. If it were up to me I'd keep him, and I have a feeling Tomlin will. ... So the two biggest flaws of the game -- kick protection and pass protection – received the brunt of the head coach's attention at Monday's practice. Tomlin walked over to watch the linemen in their one-on-one drills and became nearly as vocal as the drill's first sergeant, John Mitchell. \"Write it up Hokie!\" Mitchell bellowed to injured Chris Hoke, who wrote up citations to linemen who jumped offsides. \"That's a hundred Hokie,\" Mitchell hollered. \"Write another one up!\" When Travis Kirschke jumped against Alan Faneca, Aaron Smith defended his linemate by saying, \"The center moved the ball.\" But Tomlin jumped in: \"Chalk it up Hokie!\" When Nick Eason stepped up against Kendall Simmons, Tomlin said, \"I like this matchup right here.\" And when Eason blew past Simmons, Tomlin shouted, \"Do it again!\" And the two battled to a draw. After Chris Kemoeatu stoned rookie Ryan McBean, Mitchell ordered them to do it again and said, \"My money's on you 68.\" And Tomlin shouted, \"Good money!\" Kemoeatu made good on their bets, but McBean whipped the veteran in a third try. Finally, when LaMarr Woodley whipped Willie Colon on consecutive reps, Mitchell hollered, \"Why can't you do that on Sundays?\" To which Tomlin simply nodded along with everyone else who watches Woodley practice. ... Speaking of Hoke, his injury should only keep him out of one preseason game. The emergency nose tackle in the regular season would be Kirschke, another player who's enjoying his best camp with the Steelers. ... The hardest hit in Monday's practice was dished out by Ryan Clark. Coming off an outstanding game, Clark and the rest of the punt coverage team only took half reps as Ligashesky stressed fundamentals for most of the period. But for the final few reps, the cover team was ordered to continue down the field and make the play, and that was too bad for return man Dan Sheldon. He fumbled (possibly the first time all camp) a nano-second before Clark laid him out. It was a surprisingly brutal hit on a teammate, but Clark didn't apologize and Sheldon did not whine. He simply pounded his hands together because he was mad at himself for fumbling. I'm telling you, I like the kid. Too bad there's not enough room for this tough guy who asks no quarter. … A couple of interesting plays from yesterday's practice: Charlie Batch faked a handoff to a back and quickly threw a slant to Santonio Holmes, who took it and looked for a field full of Bengals to run through. The play-action on the quick pop pass was the twist. On another play, Willie Parker took a quick pitch to the three-man bunch formation on the left. I don't know why, but I've never seen it here. That quick toss normally is used as misdirection after a fake to the fullback. ... Okay, two more plays: Batch rolled out of heavy pressure to throw a sidearm strike to Reid, who caught it in stride for a big gain; and Ben Roethlisberger looked over a defense overloaded to his left by three receivers. He dropped back looking left, but squared up quickly to throw a 10-yard pass to the right, but Matt Spaeth dropped the ball. It appeared planned and looks to become an effective third-down play. We assume Spaeth will make the catch when it counts. ... If Ryan Wilson can talk about his college baseball career, so can I. But I couldn't help but to think back to days (minutes?) on the Robert Morris team when I saw the up-close shot of my former teammate, Jerry Bergman, the head linesman Saturday, as he discussed a call with Mike Tomlin. Bergman wasn't the nicest of competitors for playing time, but we've since put that behind us. Anyway, seeing him reminded me of Kevin Colbert's first month here on the job. Kevin's resume noted that he was the assistant baseball coach at Robert Morris the year I played, but I couldn't remember him. Turns out, Kevin coached the previous spring and I joined the team in the fall. When I asked him about it, Kevin's line to me was this: \"Jim, if I'd have coached you, you'd still be playing.\" Now there's some faith. I'll take that comment and my lone RBI (sac fly) and put that against Ryan's .260 average any day.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, AUGUST 9\r\n\r\n

The Steelers are waiting for one of their rising free agents to show something before beginning any new contract negotiations. The player who drew their attention in the first game was Max Starks. The thinking was that they could extend the contract of the re-dedicated tackle and move Willie Colon to one of the guard spots next year. However, Starks failed to force the Steelers into action with his performance in the Hall of Fame Game. I thought he played well, for a first-time left tackle, but that's not what the front office thought. So, with the upcoming problem the team will have at guard next year, the team is monitoring the progress of Kendall Simmons. Everyone I talked to felt that Simmons played well, but I saw the same problem he's had over the last couple of years. He lacks strength and that's a problem with the middle of their line, yet Simmons's heart and mobility are unmatched among the linemen. But is that enough? As for Clark Haggans, Dan Kreider and Ricardo Colclough, those are players the Steelers can talk to next March, if they hold up this year, and if there's still a need for them next year. ... I noticed a line in the Greensburg paper that Ryan McBean has fallen further behind in the race for one of the roster spots on the defensive line. Don't be alarmed because that's old news, the same news you've read here for the last two weeks, that McBean is struggling with the playbook. Thing is, line coach John Mitchell remains infatuated with McBean's potential and yesterday I saw why. In the one-on-one drills, McBean was stoned by left guard Trai Essex. He did so poorly in the rep that Mitchell made him line up again, and McBean jumped offside. With everyone groaning around him, McBean lined up a third time and pushed Essex a step to the left and blew past him powerfully to the right. It made Mitchell and the rest of the D-linemen happy and gave me some insight into McBean's potential. I know McBean's too thin to play end in the Steelers' 3-4, but he's no skinnier than a guy by name of Aaron Smith when he was a fourth-round rookie in 1999. And if John Mitchell says he likes a guy's potential, I listen. I don't recall him saying anything close to that about Orien Harris last year. So McBean will be interesting to watch the rest of the preseason. It's unlikely he'd make it to the practice squad if he were cut, since so many teams wanted to draft him in the fourth or fifth round last April. ... Word is the Steelers will keep no more than 10 defensive backs, which makes sense. Let's see, there's Troy Polamalu, Anthony Smith, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay who appear to be locks. That's eight, so Ricardo Colclough, Chidi Iwuoma, Anthony Madison and Mike Lorello are fighting for two spots. I'll have to watch Grant Mason closely this week to see if he belongs in the fight. Chidi told me that Madison is the next quality gunner to rise from the ranks, but that may mean he takes Chidi's job. It should be interesting. ... The quarter defense took on a new look yesterday. Aaron Smith was the only lineman to put his hand down, but he was positioned to the far left end of the line. The rest of the front seven, which included rookie LaMarr Woodley, mingled about before the blitz. Woodley is back on the second team with the return of James Harrison, and is being used -- as planned in the spring – on the third-down defense. Why? Because he's a better pass-rusher than Clark Haggans. He also has the potential to be a better run-stopper – early in the year, too -- because of his extra 15 pounds. Woodley also showed he can get back into coverage, so why is he second team? That's going to be a tough call for Mike Tomlin. You hate to bench veteran leaders, but you also hate to sit the better talent. It'll be the new coach's first tough call. ... The sky is black at St. Vincent College and it's beginning to rain at 8:53 a.m. That probably will cause practice to be cancelled this morning, so we won't be back with an update until early in the afternoon following Tomlin's press conference.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, AUGUST 3

\r\n\r\nThe theme today is tired football team. I noticed it Thursday morning in the cafeteria. Jon Dekker, the young tight end from Princeton who's in a fight with a third-round pick to make the club, wasn't his usual self. At the previous practice, he'd not only dropped a pass while wide open, but the pass knocked him down. I was sure that was the play that had him down, so I reminded him that today was his day, that it was the day he'd been waiting for. He finally did smile and I moved on my way. … At the Thursday morning practice, the short one for special teams only, I got to talking with John Mitchell on the other field when trainer John Norwig interrupted by calling my name. I didn't turn around at first, so then he yelled my name and pointed behind me. Running a sprint, right on the painted yard line on which I was standing, was a locomotive named James Harrison. He had no intention of moving. He was running full speed, testing the injury before he returned to practice. I had to jump out of the way. It was a close call. … After practice, the players filed quietly off the field. I walked up to Gary Russell for no particular reason. I didn't have any questions for a story, I just wanted to chit chat, start to get to know the guy, let him know that reporters don't always want something. We'd just begun chatting as we walked with the rest of the team when I heard my name again. Then a low voice barked, \"Jim Wexell.\" I turned around and it was Harrison. He used his index finger to call me back. I figured he had thought over my request to interview his parents, and that he was going to say, \"Forget it,\" or something similar to those two words. But all he said was, \"My parents will meet with you Sunday morning instead of Monday.\" I said thanks. … I tell you, James loves messing with us geeky sportswriter. I think the first question to his parents will be, \"Has James ever mentioned that he hates sportswriters?\" But seriously, this book project should be tremendous. Most people, when I tell them, ask me how I'm going to afford it, how my family will get by, all those facts and details that I'm trying to ignore. Others, like Gene Collier, Mike Prisuta, Bob Labriola, think it's a fantastic idea and that I shouldn't listen to the crowd of common sense. … So anyway, my talk with Harrison complete, I walked with the team out of practice. I remarked to one of the strength coaches on how quiet it was. \"Abnormally quiet,\" he said. Ryan Clark started complaining that the team ought to take out the hill that leads off the field. The players are used to the South Side where they walk 10 yards to the door and into the locker room. St. Vincent's hill is like every hill on every high-school practice field in Western Pa. … I didn't interview anyone after the morning practice because the players are not only physically tired, they're mentally tired and are in dread of answering politely the same questions over and over. So I got to the cafeteria and saw RB coach Kirby Wilson. I mentioned how quiet the guys were. He smiled an evil smile and said, \"Y-e-a-a-h-h-h-h.\" … I asked around about Najeh Davenport. I asked if others were seeing great improvement from him over last year and the answers came in the form of shrugs. No one's really sure. They want to see him run in a game when people are actually trying to tackle him. … Is Eric Fowler slipping? Others aren't so sure. They say he's still very much in the mix, but that Dallas Baker is a solid No. 6. … Walking back from lunch, I saw Arnold Harrison waiting for a ride outside the weight room. He's one of my favorites, and I told him, Snelly, you bring it all the time, every snap, and that I'd hate to have to block you. He smiled and said, \"I hope the coaches see it that way, too.\" I told him that Sunday night was his night. \"I can't wait till Sunday,\" he said. … Art Rooney Jr., the brother of Dan, son of the Chief, and the Kevin Colbert of the 1970s, has always helped me with whatever history project I've worked on. He's cheerful and helpful on the phone and he sends hand-written note cards for no particular reason other than to lift my spirits and make my day. Gene Collier tells me the Chief was the same way. Well, I finally got to meet Artie for the first time. I looked into his eyes and felt I was looking into the Rooney family archives. Great moment. … So at practice last night, Jon Dekker catches several passes and then grabs a touchdown pass from Brian St. Pierre during the goal-line drill. At the cafeteria for dinner, he greets me at the door with an extended hand. \"Thanks,\" he said. \"I owe you one.\" I told him it wasn't me, that I had just reminded him what he already knew earlier that day. I told him that I'm a big believer in mind power, but that he already knows that, being from Princeton and all. He said, \"Still, you reminded me. I needed that.\" I thought about that while I was jogging today. I had told him that today was his day, and I know where I got it from -- the interview with John Mitchell earlier in the week. I asked Mitch what wisdom from Bear Bryant is being passed down to today's Steelers. Said Mitch: \"Never quit. Always stay in there and fight. I mean, tomorrow's another day. You might not have a great day today, but tomorrow is another day so you've got a chance every day to prove yourself.\" That's what was on my mind when I told Dekker that Thursday would be his day. I think I accidentally passed along some of Bear Bryant's wisdom. \r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2\r\n\r\n

The sun today was a perfect orange ball as it broke through the haze surrounding the mountain. When you can't see the mountain range to the east in the morning, you know it's going to be a hot one, but the morning practice will be light and the afternoon practice will be held later in the evening as Chuck Noll Field is formally celebrated. The players are cranky this morning. I told one of my favorite young guys, Jon Dekker, that this was his day. He always has a smile, but I think he's pretty beat. He didn't have such a good day yesterday and is seeing his chances slip away. ... Speaking of slipping, that's the word one scout used to describe Eric Fowler's status. The cornerbacks have learned that they can get up on the line and press him because he doesn't have the speed to scare anyone. Fowler did beat Troy Polamalu deep in 7-on-7 drills, but that may have been due to Polamalu not needing to proving anything to anyone the way, say, William Gay does. Fowler now has to make the next step. He needs to learn to get off the line to make some of these guys pay. He won't do it with speed. He'll have to find another way. ... Speaking of Gay, he's being used more this week, even getting reps with the first team. I don't know if it's because I watch camp practices from the sideline as opposed to watching OTAs from up on the balcony, but Gay looks much quicker now than he did in the spring. Maybe he carries his pads better than most. ... I'm really impressed with the way Najeh Davenport is running the ball. He looked a bit creaky last year, but his knees, his speed, his strength, his cutting, all look to be improved. I know, you can be so wrong about running backs when they're not being tackled in camp, but this guy looks like the Davenport of old. Very interesting. ... Speaking of old vets who appear reborn, Charlie Batch is throwing the ball so effortlessly and so on the money, it's kind of startling. I know Cedrick Wilson was swearing up a blue streak because Batch missed him, but Batch didn't miss Dallas Baker breaking open the other day. I'd seen Baker earlier in the day, limping to the cafeteria with a wrapped left ankle, but he said \"I have to\" when I asked him if he was going to practice. On that deep ball, there wasn't a hint of an injury. Maybe Brett Timmons ought to take note of how hungry the seventh-rounder is. ... Willie Reid shows absolutely no propensity for fumbling kicks. He's so confident in picking up bouncing or squibbed kicks. He has no hesitation whatsoever, never a bobble. And he's fast. The crowd gave him a nice round of applause yesterday after he cut a kick up the middle and was gone. This guy's going to have a good year. ... Reid's a lock for the fifth WR job and it appears the No. 6 is Baker. Now, whether they'll keep six is up in the air, since the contract situations may demand the extra man be kept from the offensive line. ... Jason Capizzi had his first bad day yesterday. He thinks it might be the heat. I asked him if he remembers the P-G's Pitt beat man, Paul Zeise, writing in 2004 that Capizzi \"has a 10-cent head.\" Capizzi just smiled, knowing the situation Zeise has stepped into at his paper, and said, \"Karma's a bitch.\" ... Shaun Nua, I'm told, is the sixth defensive lineman. Ryan McBean would have to be kept as the No. 7, and the Steelers have every intention of keeping him around, so I guess that means the D-line gets the extra player this year. Derrick Jones will be kept on the practice squad. The coaching staff is high on both young players, but back to Nua. I was surprised to hear that he'd been having a good camp, but since I hadn't been paying attention, and since John Mitchell's late-round picks have a way of blossoming once they add weight, I believe it. So I went to watch the line drills on Field 2 instead of the 7-on-7s yesterday. I watched Nua get one rep, and Willie Colon put up his left hand and flat stoned him and then rag-dolled him. I haven't seen that kind of brute, overwhelming strength since James Harrison's first camp (I've since become accustomed to Harrison's strength). But I have no idea why Colon is still on the second-team line. This dude has to play somewhere. That strength and his solid fundamentals are now being matched by a growing confidence. They won't be able to keep this guy down much longer. But, hey, hats off to Max Starks. All we ever wanted was for him to take it seriously, and he has. He's lost weight, listened to the coach, and is playing well. Good guy, too. ... Speaking of Harrison, I'll be meeting with his parents in Akron on Monday after the Hall of Fame game. I just got the thumbs up from my friend on his RV. We're going to take it around the country and write a book called \"A Steeler Nation.\" We'll attend the Phoenix, Denver and Cincinnati games, interview fans, watch the team play home games from fan bars, disrupt the city of Seattle, visit hometowns of the current stars, and in general call down the thunder of this proud fandom. It's going to be silly. First up, the Harrisons. And, James, thanks for not killing me when I asked to investigate your background. Also on the docket are the hometowns of Heath Miller, Willie Parker, Lawrence Timmons, Alan Faneca/Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. Hey, in looking that over it's a pretty impressive list, and I think you can see our planned route. Then again, if a strong breeze comes up, we're going to follow it. ... Just one draft note. Or, is it too early? Yeah, just teasing. But a personnel man who studies the area says USC is the team to beat. He loves Keith Rivers. I know, nothing groundbreaking there. But I asked him about Arizona State running back Ryan Torain. I'd noticed that Mel Kiper ranked him the No. 2 running back, and was surprised since I hadn't heard of him. My source just kind of rolled his eyes, the way they all do when Kiper's name is mentioned. He said that once the juniors are included – like the two Arkansas running backs – Torain would fall down the charts. But I could see his wheels spinning, and my source said, \"He's a big back without much wiggle. He'd fit ... hell, he'd fit here. Yeah, this would be a perfect fit for him.\" Just thought you'd like to know one man's opinion. I know I'll keep my eye open for Ryan Torain.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, JULY 30

\r\n\r\nLast year on this day, the Steelers practiced for the first time and Ben Roethlisberger wowed reporters with his ability to play catch less than six weeks after his accident. Look where he and the Steelers are now: They have a week of intense practice under their belts and Roethlisberger looks like the big, athletic quarterback with the fastball and command of the offense. No one's asking him how lucky he is to be alive. They're asking him which critic he's going to prove wrong first. ... Roethlisberger's carving up of the defense Friday night under the lights was a pretty good warm-up act for the fireworks display. The chaos actually started right after practice when the players rushed to fill the five buses. I snapped at the TV reporters to \"keep it short\" with Mike Tomlin and \"just get info.\" They're starting to hate me, but it was a good thing because we had to fight through the crowd and bang on the doors of the last bus to get a ride home. I apparently pushed the mascot back toward the back of the bus as I plopped down in the second seat. The guy next to me warned me not to take the foam steel girder that the mascot uses as his prop. He had left it standing behind the bus driver. Me, having zero respect for this idiotic mascot, had to take it as I walked off the bus. I didn't know what to do with it, so I stuffed it in the garbage can. I noticed the next day, when the mascot was signing autographs, that he'd found his prop. ... They can't find a name for this Bill Cowher imitation? How about B.G.H. That's what we called Cowher, the Big Giant Head, after the all-knowing \"god\" on \"Third Rock From the Sun.\" Really, it's hard to believe they're serious about using a Cowher imitation as the mascot, but my understanding is it was nearly a mandate from the NFL. The Steelers don't plan to use it on the field, only in the community. Good luck with all that. ... Speaking of stealing props, we in the media are eyeing up the footballs-on-a-stick that the special-teams coaches are using to simulate snaps. Sort of like stealing the Navy goat, we in the media believe that stealing the footballs-on-a-stick would endear us to the players. Someone said three of us should put black hoods over our heads, make a video with a knife to the \"neck\" of the football-on-a-stick, and warn the staff that if the special-teams coaches don't stop boring us with special-teams practice every 15 minutes, the football-on-a-stick has had it. Ah, just a thought. ... But back to Friday night. When we arrived back at campus, the fireworks display had begun. Watching it over the tops of the spires of the basilica made me think of Disney World, but this seemed more realistic. The town of Ampipe, as Tomlin had called downtown Latrobe, doesn't do this kind of thing every night. This night was special. What made it more special was the thought of Cowher the Mascot shuffling through the garbage for his prop. ... Okay, you want football news. I know. The buzz on new talent has been mostly about LaMarr Woodley, of course, but undrafted giant left tackle Jason Capizzi is being talked about by everyone in the personnel department, from Kevin Colbert on down. Capizzi had his best practice Friday night and is now just biding his time, waiting for real reps to come his way. Right now he's third-team left tackle behind Trai Essex, but Essex is developing a reputation in the front office as something of a Mr. August, that he knows how to make the team but could resume underachieving once the roster is set. That's only the perception right now, but Essex does have the good feet and he has his moments. Capizzi is not someone, the Steelers think, who'll be able to make it back to the practice squad if they waive him. Even though he wasn't drafted, it's clear he has the talent, the feet and the strength to play in the league, and that teams, after looking at some of their tackles, will jump at a second chance to steal Capizzi. So, while the coaches think differently than the scouts, Capizzi may need to be kept on the final roster if they intend to keep him in black and gold for the future. … A defensive coach's breakdown of the center position: Doesn't give Chukky Okobi a serious chance since his champion, Russ Grimm, is gone; says Kendall Simmons is still too jumpy and will block the first man he sees, even if it's not the right man; and Willie Colon is too aggressive for the position, that \"he tries to rip your head off\" and the team is better served with him at another position. By process of elimination, that leaves Sean Mahan, who already got the seal of approval from Casey Hampton. ... Max Starks has lost a ton of weight and is receiving approval from the personnel people. I still say he's too stiff to hold off Colon, but the people who matter aren't agreeing with me. ... The Steelers are waiting for the preseason games before they resume any considerations of extending further contracts. ... Matt Spaeth, even though he's injured, has regained solid footing in the bid for the No. 3 TE job. He's a big possession target and a tough kid. He'll scratch and claw as an in-line blocker, too. ... Rookie DL Ryan McBean whipped Brandon Torrey three times during one-on-one drills Friday night, but McBean still has a long way to go to understand the playbook. He's talented, but not very bright, so he's no lock to be the sixth defensive lineman. ... When someone in the know asks me who's going to be the sixth DL, I assume Nick Eason's not cutting it. So I asked about undrafted rookie Derrick Jones and got a mixed reaction. Yeah, he's improving, but no he's not good enough to claim that sixth roster spot at the position. ... Jones can make a veteran such as Chris Kemoeatu look bad during one-on-one drills, but then he turned around the next day and jumped offside twice. ... Tomlin and official Terry McAulay had an interesting discussion on the field Friday night about \"strike points\" on the punt-coverage gunner. Tomlin was defending the hold-up man's right to strike the gunner in the face. Tomlin illustrated to McAulay how the receiver, when he changes his foot position in order to get off the line, will often lower his chest, so that the \"strike point\" becomes his face and not his chest. That maneuver often leads to an illegal-hands-to-the-face call and it changes a fourth down to a first down. McAulay listened to Tomlin's gripe, and ended up agreeing with him that the rule must be interpreted differently. … A guy who works for the NFL assured me that when I got back to campus over the weekend, there would be no pimps in the general vicinity. He laughed and we got to talking about Michael Vick. The man said Vick would get more sympathy from the public if he had immigrants fighting to the death and not dogs. ... Tomlin says he understands Roethlisberger, that he's just a big kid who needs and loves attention. Tomlin doesn't foresee having any trouble with the franchise QB. ... After Saturday's practice, and after Tomlin was asked if he was going to \"increase the tempo next week,\" someone said that if they increased the tempo any more, he expected the Baltimore Ravens to be on the other side of the line. ... My pre-camp choice for rookie sleeper, Eric Fowler, is still catching everything thrown to him, but he's not beating DBs by much. Not that he gets many reps. And I expect that to increase this week. A scout told me Fowler's best 40 time at his pro day was a 4.57, and that his time is generally considered to be in the 4.62 range. They like his route-running ability, his size and his hands. I look for him to break out a bit this week. ... The rule of thumb for hitting WRs in training camp, according to a former DB, is that it's okay if you hit a WR while going for the ball, but that hitting a teammate in the back after a catch is generally a no-no on all teams. ... Funny how Hines Ward is perceived as a whiner. Even some of the reporters – who still carry Plaxico Burress grudges – were \"whining\" about Ward \"whining\" the other day. According to the message boards, many of the fans feel the same way. But there was Ward at the dinner table Saturday night having a great time with his best friend Deshea Townsend and the rest of the DBs. It's obvious these guys don't take their utterances to the media as seriously as many of the fans and reporters do. ... Sorry that his blog entry is so long, but I have another player to watch: ILB Richard Koonce. He's No. 46, the guy with all the hair. He played in NFL Europe, and has a year experience, so we haven't done much investigative work on him prior to camp. But the Steelers like his physical style and \"he could take the place of the guy who's not been very physical at all.\" That couldn't be Clint Kriewaldt, I said in response. \"Right,\" said the source. So I said that it had to be Rian Wallace. And the source said, \"See, you know more than you think. Trust your instincts.\" Then, Wallace went and played OLB and Tomlin praised his versatility. I would hate to see the more physical inside backer lose a spot to a guy just because that guy can play another position. ... Fans have taken to calling little Dan Sheldon \"Rudy.\" He's actually become a fan favorite because \"He can run,\" as one woman yelled. And he can. Sheldon slipped behind a bunch of backup DBs to catch a home-run ball from Brian St. Pierre. And Tomlin did call Sheldon \"legitimate\" prior to camp, so keep on eye on the little return man with the big wheels. ... And to get your week off to a good start, I report to you that Sunday's punt return men were, in order, Willie Reid, Cedrick Wilson, Sheldon, Santonio Holmes, and Jovon Johnson. Ricardo Colclough was not involved.\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, JULY 26

\r\n\r\nThis one has to be a quick one because that new coach, that Mike Tomlin, he's crazy, man. There's another practice going on right now. They're probably stretching, so I have a few minutes to blog, since I already did my jog, but today's not one of those wimpy special teams practices that they had yesterday morning, when the coaches were so bored they played hit-the-can with the quarterbacks. Heck, today they may fire out of the gate with a goal-line drill this morning, knowing this crazy coach. … Seriously, I really like what Tomlin's doing. Even though the special-teams drills are a waste of time – and I know you fans think I'M the crazy one since their special teams have stunk the past few years – but these in-between, faux morning practices serve a great purpose: They get the players up and into their pads and into a routine. Go to bed, get up and practice twice, meet at night, and go back to bed. I do think Tomlin will take a page out of the Bill Cowher playbook and cancel Saturday morning's practice. He'll do it just like Cowher did it: after the night practice at Latrobe. The players will all yip and run like Super Bowl champs out of Latrobe Stadium and they'll be in a great mood for a tough Saturday afternoon workout. … Speaking of Latrobe Stadium, Zambelli fireworks will go off after that practice, thus keeping the hordes at the park while I sneak off on the wide-open, single-lane road back to campus. Hah. Good for me. … Here's another reason I'm taking to Tomlin: He told two reporters their dumb questions yesterday weren't newsworthy. That deserves a triple exclamation point!!! See, when we all mob the coach after practice, it's an embarrassing situation. The poor guy can hardly breathe with all of the microphones in his face. The cameramen are jostling with the writers for space. And of course the bellicose TV reporters want the coach to think they're cute, or smart, or something. Cowher used to answer these guys, at length, and then sneer at those of us who wanted to know when the hell he's going to put Sean Mahan at center. Tomlin, like any man with half a brain, is doing the opposite: He's showing contempt for the grandstanders and showing respect for the football questions that have to be asked. Now, Mike, you're almost a hero in my book, so just please win, baby. Show everyone that people with half a brain can succeed in this league. … Okay, off the soapbox and back to the center position. I know readers want updates of all the players right now, but first of all I'm not that smart and second of all I don't get to watch film. We're field level and I like to focus on one player, or a pair of players who play next to each other or cover one another, per play. My focus has been mainly on the two rookie linebackers and the center position. What I see at the center position is Okobi being stood up consistently by Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. Okobi is giving 100 percent, and flashes some nice downfield mobility, but from my half a brain I can't see him holding up to the rigors of the run game. I just presume Mahan will do a better job. So, Mike, let's get to it. … As for the rookie linebackers, LaMarr Woodley's display of power on the first day diminishes, in my mind, the flaws in his downfield work. That was to be expected, and one play yesterday showed the difference between Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. A running back caught a pass in the middle of the field and cut to the sideline to where Woodley had dropped. Yes, he's instinctive enough to do the right thing and get down the field and be in the proper position, but he had no chance when he lumbered to turn that big body around and make a play on the back who ran past him. Timmons, with that fantastic change-of-direction ability, would've given the team a chance to stop that big play. However, at the point of attack, Timmons is getting rag-dolled, and that was to be expected. He's 238 pounds and he said that's where he wants to stay. In time, he'll learn enough technique to stay stout at the point, but right now his game is quickness, whether that be in coverage or in getting after the quarterback. … Remember, these are preliminary reports from a MEDIA GUY. Take them for what they're worth. We'll be getting the word from the smart people in the film room soon enough. … James Harrison seems to be lowering his guard around me a bit. I wasn't so sure. I'd heard the story of how he had to transfer high schools. The report alleged that he'd shot a teammate in the butt with a bb gun. So when I looked up while pouring my Raisin Bran into my bowl in the cafeteria, I thought of that as I noticed James staring at me. I'd just finished jogging and was all sweaty and he was the last player in the cafeteria. (Did I mention they have another practice?) So he says, \"Were you a wrestler?\" I forgot I was wearing my \"Hempfield Wrestling\" shirt. I told him, no, this was a gift from the Hempfield coach – Vince DeAugustine – one of the great American Legion catchers that I had coached at Jeannette. James nodded. I asked him if he was a wrestler. He said, \"No, but people think that I was. I don't know why.\" He smiled and left. He knows his Cleveland Slam is the stuff of which wrestling legends are made. It took me a while to figure it out because I was just happy that he had smiled. It's better than a cap in the ass, wouldn't you say? … We'll have much more later. I thought of a ton of stuff to write, but I don't want to miss this morning goal-line drill. We'll report back all day. And, hopefully tomorrow, instead of going down to watch that slappy special-teams practice with all of its toys, I'll sit in my room and reflect on the wonders of nature … and Pittsburgh Steelers football.

\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nWEDNESDAY, JULY 25\r\n\r\n

Finally, a chance to take a breath. It's been full go since the minute I arrived here and I apologize for just now getting around to putting my thoughts down on paper. So many writers up here, it's mind-buh-logging. Every paper has sent one, two, maybe three, and even the beat writers are blogging. It'll be interesting to see if they figure out that there's a fine line to walk. Most beat reporters keep their opinions to themselves so that they don't sacrifice the information flow. You can't rip the quarterback and then expect him to give you some good behind-the-scenes stuff later ... at least that's the thinking at metro papers where the beat reporters report on the team and the columnists hack away in attempt at insight. As I said, it's a fine line for those of us who do both, and the horde that's descended on St. Vincent will learn what's taken me 13 years on the beat to learn. … Funny, editors seem to think that any old body in their newsroom can come up and blog, but what they don't understand is that it takes years to cultivate sources. For example, the story at ProFootballTalk.com about Aaron Brooks forced me to ask a trusting source for confirmation. And, yes, said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers did bring the former New Orleans playoff quarterback in for a workout last week. Colbert said that it wasn't so much Mike Tomlin's Virginia ties that led to the workout, but that the Steelers were simply \"interested in a veteran quarterback who's available.\" But Brooks \"wanted to explore his options\" and didn't take the Steelers up on their offer to join the team at training camp. Now, it's too late. \"We're rolling now,\" Colbert said. \"It's dead.\" ... I still say Charlie Batch is a better quarterback than Brooks, who has some butt-ugly mechanics. Brian St. Pierre could become a serviceable No. 3 quarterback, considering that he played with better confidence at minicamp. If the Steelers choose to go with only two quarterbacks (St. Pierre is out of practice-squad eligibility), the fourth quarterback, Bryan Randall, isn't a bad option for the practice squad. ... Two radio shows on the first two nights have put a crimp in my writing, but here are some of the nuggets unveiled on our Fox 970 AM shows (7-9 p.m.): Dan Rooney Jr., the part-owner, part-scout, otherwise known as The Guy Who Discovered Fast Willie Parker (T.G.W.D.FWP), thinks this year's FWP could be undrafted center Darnell Stapleton out of Rutgers. I did notice Stapleton playing center yesterday with the third line, with center Marvin Philip playing left guard next to him. That's a change from minicamp, when Stapleton was used only as the 7-on-7 center. The key here, I think, is that the team wants Philip to learn guard. Taking it a step further, I think the team is preparing him for a career as a center-guard backup, something Chukky Okobi can't provide, and yet another sign that the future for Okobi is probably not in Pittsburgh. ... We've beat the Eric Fowler watch to death, but his teammate at Grand Valley State, defensive lineman Derrick Jones (6-4, 282), has impressed DL coach John Mitchell. Mitch believes \"a year on scholarship\" will help Jones make the team by the 2008 season. It's those late-round and undrafted rookie linemen who consistently do well in Mitchell's no-glory three-man front, and it doesn't take a psychologist to understand why. Mitch also thinks fourth-round pick Ryan McBean will make it over the long haul. Mitch was pretty hard on the confused McBean this spring, but \"tough love\" was Mitchell's plan for McBean all along. ... Levon Kirkland is still the man. A couple of us called him over at lunch yesterday for some quotes about the tough first practice. He was as helpful as ever, and then the other reporter asked him about his weight. Kirkland, who appears to weigh over 300 pounds, boasted that he'd lost 52 pounds since the Steelers' Super Bowl. I said to Kirk: Even after all these years reporters are still asking about your weight. \"Yes, but I don't take it personally like I used to,\" he said, and then he winked and was gone. I'd like to see Captain Kirk stick with the team in the scouting department, just to have him around. He's another in a long line of class acts that have trod the pathways of SVC.\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":"

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's having a difficult time discerning what is supposed to be obvious:

• For example, after three preseason games I'm more confused than ever about who the right tackle and center are.

• Others keep telling me this: \"Well, they didn't pay all that money to Sean Mahan to sit the bench.\" I might say the same about a half dozen other players on the bench.

• Remember, the going rate for an average interior lineman is $17 million in guaranteed money. You could look up what Mahan raked in and then say to yourself, \"You know, the Steelers didn't really pay all that much money for Mahan to sit the bench.\"

• Brett Keisel has successfully taken the third-down quarter defense from the blackboard to the playing field, and that doesn't always happen. I gave Keisel the game's first star for his first-quarter rampage: He sacked the quarterback, batted down a pass in the red zone, made the tackle on the next play, and later chased down a running back in the flat as a linebacker in the quarter.

• Keisel also showed class after being incorrectly flagged for a late hit on Jason Campbell. After fist-bumping the limping QB, Keisel showed restraint in not stuffing the flag in the ref's shirt. The hit wasn't on or below the knee.

• My second star went to Deshea Townsend for his second-quarter rampage. After he tackled Ladell Betts for a loss on first down, he tackled a receiver out of the slot for a short gain, and on third down sacked the quarterback.

• I'll allow that it's obvious why Townsend is starting ahead of Bryant McFadden. He's a thinking man's cornerback. And a good blitzer, too.

• It's also obvious that the Steelers – in spite of saying the opposite three times on draft day – are trying to do away with their fullback. In breaking it down, Willie Parker -- who gained four yards on four carries -- ran best with Kreider in front of him. He gained four yards one time. Parker also lost a yard behind Kreider, but I don't count runs in which the left tackle falls down.

• Does Mike Tomlin really want to play his starters another whole half of another preseason game? Didn't the scrambling Ben Roethlisberger suck the breath from him?

• Then again, Roethlisberger's probably safer running downfield and ducking hungry linebackers than sitting back there in the pocket.

• It's obvious that Tomlin doesn't like to play rookies. How else to explain not using Jason Capizzi at LT until the last six minutes of the game? How else to explain not using Gary Russell on short-yardage with the big boys? How else to explain not using Lawrence Timmons in anything other than a strictly specialized blitz role on third down?

• Oh, yeah, Timmons won't have a real position until the Steelers move to a 4-3 in the year 2525.

• The best play of the game was Roethlisberger's hot read of Santonio Holmes for 30 yards on a third-and-17 play. But why would the Redskins rush eight on that play when they could've gotten there just as easily with four?

• Right. The other team has coaches, too. In the Redskins' case, 20 of them.

• How are the Redskins going to win a game this year with 20 coaches?

• It's obvious that the Steelers will draft at least seven O-linemen next year to compensate for the loss of Alan Faneca, among others. And then we'll see that the Steelers will use several of them on the D-line because \"they didn't pay them all that money to sit the bench.\"

• Daniel Sepulveda will win the team's Rookie of the Year award.

• Tomlin does play LaMarr Woodley an awful lot. There must be a correlation between rookies who understand the playbook and playing time. Then again, that understanding isn't helping Brandon Torrey as he relegates the drafting of Cameron Stephenson moot.

• He almost rendered the life of Charlie Batch moot, too.

• Trai, you tried.

• Actually, Trai Essex did settle down and played well during the Steelers' final drive of the first half. But on an earlier play that shall live in infamy, Essex jumped offside, fell down, was flagged for tripping, and got the quarterback sacked.

• Maybe there's a place for Dan Kreider after all.

• Chidi Iwuoma keeps breaking down physically, but he keeps breaking down opponents' punt protections, too. This will be a tough decision, even though the answer is obvious: Chidi is the assassin.

• Speaking of coverage teams, the Steelers allowed their longest kickoff return of the preseason Saturday night – to the 30-yard line. Prior to that, on 11 kickoffs, the opponents' average starting position was the 20-yard line.

• Sepulveda's net punting average this preseason is 44.5. That would've led the NFL by 2.3 yards last season. It's up 6.5 yards over the Steelers' net last season.

• The punt return game remains fuzzy. Willie Reid hasn't impressed.

• I enjoyed watching Roethlisberger's leadership, James Farrior's footspeed, Clint Kriewaldt's line-drive power, and Troy Polamalu's all-around skills in the annual end-of-camp softball game. Funny, but on the football field Saturday night I saw the same things.

• I'm enjoying the way Ben is interacting with his team and in turn the respect his teammates are showing him. No Joe Namath there. It looks like I was wrong about that – and happily so.

• I understand that it takes time for young linebackers to grasp the game, as Rocky McIntosh proved after a poor rookie season, but Timmons has to play more.

• After much in-house debate over Arnold Harrison, Travis Kirschke, Carey Davis, Sepulveda, William Gay, and of course the unblockable Nick Eason, I've settled on the game's third star: Verron Haynes. Welcome back, kid.

Camp doesn't really end these days until the boys have played their annual softball game on the St. Vincent College field. And a camp wrap-up can't be completed until information is gleaned from the players as they perform and interact without their helmets. In this setting you can learn so much: Who's funny, who's serious, who's an idiot, who argues over any and everything, who's a leader. First of all, the best pure baseball players of the bunch are Troy Polamalu, Clint Kriewaldt and Ben Roethlisberger. Polamalu is a natural, and not only that he's a switch-hitter with the most beautiful left-handed swing. He played third base for the crazed defensive team, and as you might suspect Troy was merely amused by the uproariousness going on around him. Larry Foote was the captain of the defensive team, so he naturally played shortstop and argued every call. When the LC-fielder screwed up, Foote went to play LCF. He's a bit of a control freak. Polamalu should've been the shortstop and Kriewaldt, who played second base, should've been the third baseman. Ricardo Colclough, who played first base and let a runner tag from third on a pop out (because he crashed into Kriewaldt to make the catch and then fell down) should've been put in right field and kept as far away from the action (and interaction) as possible. The Skipper, Casey Hampton, saw the problems that Colclough caused both in the field and at the plate (Colclough grabbed the bat and claimed the lead-off spot) but Hamp threw his hands up in the air and said that \"Coaching your friends is impossible.\" Brett Keisel is another good ballplayer, except I only saw the catcher hit, and he should've been the clean-up hitter. Polo, Clint and Keisel should've been the 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 batters. As for Roethlisberger, he played shortstop with the ease you'd expect. What was most impressive is the light touch he has with his teammates. As opposed to Foote, Roethlisberger was supportive, encouraging and didn't feel the need to control or be the star. But he was obviously comfortable in that role, and his leadership skills with this team were on display. This was no Joe Namath out there, and for the first time I'm excited about his future as the cornerstone of this team. Speaking of smart, that was Hines Ward playing next to Roethlisberger at third base. Good ballplayer, but a smart move to again take the role as Ben's wing man. Dale Lolley and I watched for awhile. We watched Nate Washington show how shaky he was under fly balls. Last year, the WR who was surprisingly shaky plucking spheroids from the sky was Santonio Holmes, who played second base this year (another smart WR serving as the QB's wing man). Tyrone Carter was hilarious as the shaky RCF who couldn't catch with the catcher's glove he was forced to use, driving Skip Hampton crazy. After one drop by Carter, I told Hamp through the fence that he had to make a move. So he called for Carter to come in – during the middle of the inning – and sit on the bench. Ben, though, talked Skip into leaving Carter out there, \"at least to run after loose balls.\" Hamp agreed amid much frivolity near the plate. So Dale and I walked on to dinner, where we saw Aaron Smith. Dale told him that the Defense needed him, that the Offense was kicking its butt. Aaron asked if Foote was playing. When told he was, and that he was arguing about every call, Aaron rolled his eyes and said, \"Those guys planned this for two weeks and they still can't agree on anything.\" When told Carter and Colclough were also down on the field, Smith said there was no way he was going to go argue all night, that he was going to his room to relax. As Dale and I walked back from dinner, we entered from the right-field foul pole area. We were still halfway in the outfield -- as the sidewalk hugged the first-base line – when James Farrior hit a hot grounder to Ben at SS. Ben fielded it flawlessly and threw a bit in the dirt to first base. The ball was scooped but Farrior had beaten the throw. I don't know how he did it – and I'm wondering about my angle of view – but Farrior beat out a hard grounder that wasn't bobbled by a strong-armed SS. I knew Farrior still had his wheels in that last game last season, and now I'm convinced of it. Don't write the 32-year-old middle linebacker off just yet. ... Okay, back to football. I keep reading that the main difference in Bruce Arians's offense this year is that he's having the QBs throw deeper routes. The P-G this morning reported there have been four completions of 41 yards or more, one of 26, and throws to running backs that went for 33 and 24 yards. So I looked up that the Steelers' average per completion in two preseason games is 16.0 yards. That's fantastic, but will it stand up? Does it have to? And why praise a change over a team that was third in the NFL in Yards Per Catch (12.9) last year and first in the NFL in YPC (13.6) in 2005? The one change I fear from Arians is that the fullback will not only be phased out, but eliminated. Yeah, that may be a stretch. I did ask that question three times on draft day when Matt Spaeth was targeted instead of Le'Ron McLain, but three different subjects, including Arians, said that my worry was unfounded, that they will continue using a lead fullback in their running game. But Kreider is the team's only true lead blocker and several reporters claim they've been told he's \"on the bubble,\" that he is likely to be cut and Verron Haynes kept to make room for young RBs Gary Russell and Carey Davis. Perhaps Davis can make the move from hybrid/emergency fullback to pure lead blocker, but I've heard that so many times about so many so-called lead blockers in the past and it never pans out. Lead blockers go to college as such and only develop their skills at the position. Big tailbacks become fullbacks in finesse offenses and catch a lot of passes, so that's the fear right now. Also, I think Kreider's a quiet leader and invaluable contributor on and off the field. Then again, so is Haynes. ... Can they keep six running backs? Well, let's break it down on the fly:

QB (2) – Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch.

RB (5) – Kreider, Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport, Russell, Davis.

WR (5) – Ward, Holmes, Cedrick Wilson, Washington, Willie Reid.

TE (3) – Heath Miller, Spaeth, Jerame Tuman.

OL (10) – Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Sean Mahan, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon, Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex, Marvin Philip/Chukky Okobi, Cam Stephenson.

DL (6) – Hampton, Smith, Keisel, Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke, Ryan McBean.

LB (8) – James Harrison, Foote, Farrior, Clark Haggans, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Kriewaldt, Rian Wallace/Arnold Harrison.

CB (5) – Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden, Colclough, William Gay.

S (4) – Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Anthony Smith, Carter.

ST (3) – Dan Sepulveda, Jeff Reed, Greg Warren.

That comes to 51 with Brian St. Pierre, Haynes, Jason Capizzi, Nick Eason and Anthony Madison fighting for the last two spots in the final three preseason games.

If I were to start this segment off by saying the special teams played pretty well Saturday night, you'd probably laugh. Well, laugh away. I thought both coverage teams played well and the punt-return team was a Deshea Townsend holding penalty away from outstanding. Speaking of which, had I not been watching Willie Reid blaze his way through the practice teams all year, I'd think that Cedrick Wilson is the more fluid and polished return man. While that may be true at this point, I'll stick with Reid for the time, based on what I've seen in practice. The guy's too quick to give up on. ... But back to Saturday night's special teams, the Steelers stopped the Packers at the 17, 21 and 21 on three kickoffs. They also held the Packers to nine yards combined on four punts. Of course, one long return was called back by a penalty, but even then the Steelers had 10 men converging on the return man in the corner of the field, but he slipped through the arms of Matt Spaeth and was off down the sideline. Marquis Cooper managed to double back and help push Will Blackmon out of bounds past midfield. Cooper showed up later when he came within inches of blocking a punt. Those two plays might be the reason Cooper is sought after for his special teams work, and are part of the reason the Steelers were able to cut Matt King for another long-snapper. And that brings us to the lowlight of the special teams, the blocked extra point. Michael Montgomery slipped between long-snapper Greg Warren and right guard Chris Kemoeatu for the block and another long-snapper was brought in the next day. The Steelers put an emphasis on field-goal blocking at the next practice, going so far as to offer the block team a curfew-free night if successful. But the motivated first-teamers couldn't pull it off. However, the point is that the one play put a damper on an otherwise impressive special-teams performance. As ST Coach Bob Ligashesky said, \"Such is the nature of special teams.\" ... I'm like most of the other reporters here. We're determined to find a weakness elsewhere on the squad for all of the time being put into special teams this camp. I may have found one: The young wide receivers are not progressing and it may be due to the lack of reps they're receiving. But on the flip side, third-team quarterback Brian St. Pierre has never looked better. So which is it? Well, I've come over to Ligashesky's side. There was plenty to like about his units the other night. Dallas Baker and Eric Fowler, meanwhile, can get their extra reps on the practice squad this season. ... St. Pierre limped into the cafeteria this morning. He said he banged his knee but that his hip felt the aftershock and was thus the cause of the limp. I asked if the hit was made on that hellacious sack by Larry Birdine in the fourth quarter. He said that it wasn't, but admitted he didn't know he'd survived that sack until he figured out where he was 30 seconds later. (To left tackle Jason Capizzi's credit, he stepped up and took the blame for the sack at practice yesterday. Capizzi took the wide rusher and it appeared the sack was Gary Russell's fault, but Capizzi said it was his ME – mental error.) In spite of the injury, St. Pierre said he's going to practice this afternoon. I asked him if he has a sense of whether Mike Tomlin will keep two or three quarterbacks. St. Pierre said he's been told they'll keep three, \"but I've been told that before,\" he said with a laugh. St. Pierre did agree that this is by far his best camp. If it were up to me I'd keep him, and I have a feeling Tomlin will. ... So the two biggest flaws of the game -- kick protection and pass protection – received the brunt of the head coach's attention at Monday's practice. Tomlin walked over to watch the linemen in their one-on-one drills and became nearly as vocal as the drill's first sergeant, John Mitchell. \"Write it up Hokie!\" Mitchell bellowed to injured Chris Hoke, who wrote up citations to linemen who jumped offsides. \"That's a hundred Hokie,\" Mitchell hollered. \"Write another one up!\" When Travis Kirschke jumped against Alan Faneca, Aaron Smith defended his linemate by saying, \"The center moved the ball.\" But Tomlin jumped in: \"Chalk it up Hokie!\" When Nick Eason stepped up against Kendall Simmons, Tomlin said, \"I like this matchup right here.\" And when Eason blew past Simmons, Tomlin shouted, \"Do it again!\" And the two battled to a draw. After Chris Kemoeatu stoned rookie Ryan McBean, Mitchell ordered them to do it again and said, \"My money's on you 68.\" And Tomlin shouted, \"Good money!\" Kemoeatu made good on their bets, but McBean whipped the veteran in a third try. Finally, when LaMarr Woodley whipped Willie Colon on consecutive reps, Mitchell hollered, \"Why can't you do that on Sundays?\" To which Tomlin simply nodded along with everyone else who watches Woodley practice. ... Speaking of Hoke, his injury should only keep him out of one preseason game. The emergency nose tackle in the regular season would be Kirschke, another player who's enjoying his best camp with the Steelers. ... The hardest hit in Monday's practice was dished out by Ryan Clark. Coming off an outstanding game, Clark and the rest of the punt coverage team only took half reps as Ligashesky stressed fundamentals for most of the period. But for the final few reps, the cover team was ordered to continue down the field and make the play, and that was too bad for return man Dan Sheldon. He fumbled (possibly the first time all camp) a nano-second before Clark laid him out. It was a surprisingly brutal hit on a teammate, but Clark didn't apologize and Sheldon did not whine. He simply pounded his hands together because he was mad at himself for fumbling. I'm telling you, I like the kid. Too bad there's not enough room for this tough guy who asks no quarter. … A couple of interesting plays from yesterday's practice: Charlie Batch faked a handoff to a back and quickly threw a slant to Santonio Holmes, who took it and looked for a field full of Bengals to run through. The play-action on the quick pop pass was the twist. On another play, Willie Parker took a quick pitch to the three-man bunch formation on the left. I don't know why, but I've never seen it here. That quick toss normally is used as misdirection after a fake to the fullback. ... Okay, two more plays: Batch rolled out of heavy pressure to throw a sidearm strike to Reid, who caught it in stride for a big gain; and Ben Roethlisberger looked over a defense overloaded to his left by three receivers. He dropped back looking left, but squared up quickly to throw a 10-yard pass to the right, but Matt Spaeth dropped the ball. It appeared planned and looks to become an effective third-down play. We assume Spaeth will make the catch when it counts. ... If Ryan Wilson can talk about his college baseball career, so can I. But I couldn't help but to think back to days (minutes?) on the Robert Morris team when I saw the up-close shot of my former teammate, Jerry Bergman, the head linesman Saturday, as he discussed a call with Mike Tomlin. Bergman wasn't the nicest of competitors for playing time, but we've since put that behind us. Anyway, seeing him reminded me of Kevin Colbert's first month here on the job. Kevin's resume noted that he was the assistant baseball coach at Robert Morris the year I played, but I couldn't remember him. Turns out, Kevin coached the previous spring and I joined the team in the fall. When I asked him about it, Kevin's line to me was this: \"Jim, if I'd have coached you, you'd still be playing.\" Now there's some faith. I'll take that comment and my lone RBI (sac fly) and put that against Ryan's .260 average any day.

The Steelers are waiting for one of their rising free agents to show something before beginning any new contract negotiations. The player who drew their attention in the first game was Max Starks. The thinking was that they could extend the contract of the re-dedicated tackle and move Willie Colon to one of the guard spots next year. However, Starks failed to force the Steelers into action with his performance in the Hall of Fame Game. I thought he played well, for a first-time left tackle, but that's not what the front office thought. So, with the upcoming problem the team will have at guard next year, the team is monitoring the progress of Kendall Simmons. Everyone I talked to felt that Simmons played well, but I saw the same problem he's had over the last couple of years. He lacks strength and that's a problem with the middle of their line, yet Simmons's heart and mobility are unmatched among the linemen. But is that enough? As for Clark Haggans, Dan Kreider and Ricardo Colclough, those are players the Steelers can talk to next March, if they hold up this year, and if there's still a need for them next year. ... I noticed a line in the Greensburg paper that Ryan McBean has fallen further behind in the race for one of the roster spots on the defensive line. Don't be alarmed because that's old news, the same news you've read here for the last two weeks, that McBean is struggling with the playbook. Thing is, line coach John Mitchell remains infatuated with McBean's potential and yesterday I saw why. In the one-on-one drills, McBean was stoned by left guard Trai Essex. He did so poorly in the rep that Mitchell made him line up again, and McBean jumped offside. With everyone groaning around him, McBean lined up a third time and pushed Essex a step to the left and blew past him powerfully to the right. It made Mitchell and the rest of the D-linemen happy and gave me some insight into McBean's potential. I know McBean's too thin to play end in the Steelers' 3-4, but he's no skinnier than a guy by name of Aaron Smith when he was a fourth-round rookie in 1999. And if John Mitchell says he likes a guy's potential, I listen. I don't recall him saying anything close to that about Orien Harris last year. So McBean will be interesting to watch the rest of the preseason. It's unlikely he'd make it to the practice squad if he were cut, since so many teams wanted to draft him in the fourth or fifth round last April. ... Word is the Steelers will keep no more than 10 defensive backs, which makes sense. Let's see, there's Troy Polamalu, Anthony Smith, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay who appear to be locks. That's eight, so Ricardo Colclough, Chidi Iwuoma, Anthony Madison and Mike Lorello are fighting for two spots. I'll have to watch Grant Mason closely this week to see if he belongs in the fight. Chidi told me that Madison is the next quality gunner to rise from the ranks, but that may mean he takes Chidi's job. It should be interesting. ... The quarter defense took on a new look yesterday. Aaron Smith was the only lineman to put his hand down, but he was positioned to the far left end of the line. The rest of the front seven, which included rookie LaMarr Woodley, mingled about before the blitz. Woodley is back on the second team with the return of James Harrison, and is being used -- as planned in the spring – on the third-down defense. Why? Because he's a better pass-rusher than Clark Haggans. He also has the potential to be a better run-stopper – early in the year, too -- because of his extra 15 pounds. Woodley also showed he can get back into coverage, so why is he second team? That's going to be a tough call for Mike Tomlin. You hate to bench veteran leaders, but you also hate to sit the better talent. It'll be the new coach's first tough call. ... The sky is black at St. Vincent College and it's beginning to rain at 8:53 a.m. That probably will cause practice to be cancelled this morning, so we won't be back with an update until early in the afternoon following Tomlin's press conference.



The theme today is tired football team. I noticed it Thursday morning in the cafeteria. Jon Dekker, the young tight end from Princeton who's in a fight with a third-round pick to make the club, wasn't his usual self. At the previous practice, he'd not only dropped a pass while wide open, but the pass knocked him down. I was sure that was the play that had him down, so I reminded him that today was his day, that it was the day he'd been waiting for. He finally did smile and I moved on my way. … At the Thursday morning practice, the short one for special teams only, I got to talking with John Mitchell on the other field when trainer John Norwig interrupted by calling my name. I didn't turn around at first, so then he yelled my name and pointed behind me. Running a sprint, right on the painted yard line on which I was standing, was a locomotive named James Harrison. He had no intention of moving. He was running full speed, testing the injury before he returned to practice. I had to jump out of the way. It was a close call. … After practice, the players filed quietly off the field. I walked up to Gary Russell for no particular reason. I didn't have any questions for a story, I just wanted to chit chat, start to get to know the guy, let him know that reporters don't always want something. We'd just begun chatting as we walked with the rest of the team when I heard my name again. Then a low voice barked, \"Jim Wexell.\" I turned around and it was Harrison. He used his index finger to call me back. I figured he had thought over my request to interview his parents, and that he was going to say, \"Forget it,\" or something similar to those two words. But all he said was, \"My parents will meet with you Sunday morning instead of Monday.\" I said thanks. … I tell you, James loves messing with us geeky sportswriter. I think the first question to his parents will be, \"Has James ever mentioned that he hates sportswriters?\" But seriously, this book project should be tremendous. Most people, when I tell them, ask me how I'm going to afford it, how my family will get by, all those facts and details that I'm trying to ignore. Others, like Gene Collier, Mike Prisuta, Bob Labriola, think it's a fantastic idea and that I shouldn't listen to the crowd of common sense. … So anyway, my talk with Harrison complete, I walked with the team out of practice. I remarked to one of the strength coaches on how quiet it was. \"Abnormally quiet,\" he said. Ryan Clark started complaining that the team ought to take out the hill that leads off the field. The players are used to the South Side where they walk 10 yards to the door and into the locker room. St. Vincent's hill is like every hill on every high-school practice field in Western Pa. … I didn't interview anyone after the morning practice because the players are not only physically tired, they're mentally tired and are in dread of answering politely the same questions over and over. So I got to the cafeteria and saw RB coach Kirby Wilson. I mentioned how quiet the guys were. He smiled an evil smile and said, \"Y-e-a-a-h-h-h-h.\" … I asked around about Najeh Davenport. I asked if others were seeing great improvement from him over last year and the answers came in the form of shrugs. No one's really sure. They want to see him run in a game when people are actually trying to tackle him. … Is Eric Fowler slipping? Others aren't so sure. They say he's still very much in the mix, but that Dallas Baker is a solid No. 6. … Walking back from lunch, I saw Arnold Harrison waiting for a ride outside the weight room. He's one of my favorites, and I told him, Snelly, you bring it all the time, every snap, and that I'd hate to have to block you. He smiled and said, \"I hope the coaches see it that way, too.\" I told him that Sunday night was his night. \"I can't wait till Sunday,\" he said. … Art Rooney Jr., the brother of Dan, son of the Chief, and the Kevin Colbert of the 1970s, has always helped me with whatever history project I've worked on. He's cheerful and helpful on the phone and he sends hand-written note cards for no particular reason other than to lift my spirits and make my day. Gene Collier tells me the Chief was the same way. Well, I finally got to meet Artie for the first time. I looked into his eyes and felt I was looking into the Rooney family archives. Great moment. … So at practice last night, Jon Dekker catches several passes and then grabs a touchdown pass from Brian St. Pierre during the goal-line drill. At the cafeteria for dinner, he greets me at the door with an extended hand. \"Thanks,\" he said. \"I owe you one.\" I told him it wasn't me, that I had just reminded him what he already knew earlier that day. I told him that I'm a big believer in mind power, but that he already knows that, being from Princeton and all. He said, \"Still, you reminded me. I needed that.\" I thought about that while I was jogging today. I had told him that today was his day, and I know where I got it from -- the interview with John Mitchell earlier in the week. I asked Mitch what wisdom from Bear Bryant is being passed down to today's Steelers. Said Mitch: \"Never quit. Always stay in there and fight. I mean, tomorrow's another day. You might not have a great day today, but tomorrow is another day so you've got a chance every day to prove yourself.\" That's what was on my mind when I told Dekker that Thursday would be his day. I think I accidentally passed along some of Bear Bryant's wisdom.

The sun today was a perfect orange ball as it broke through the haze surrounding the mountain. When you can't see the mountain range to the east in the morning, you know it's going to be a hot one, but the morning practice will be light and the afternoon practice will be held later in the evening as Chuck Noll Field is formally celebrated. The players are cranky this morning. I told one of my favorite young guys, Jon Dekker, that this was his day. He always has a smile, but I think he's pretty beat. He didn't have such a good day yesterday and is seeing his chances slip away. ... Speaking of slipping, that's the word one scout used to describe Eric Fowler's status. The cornerbacks have learned that they can get up on the line and press him because he doesn't have the speed to scare anyone. Fowler did beat Troy Polamalu deep in 7-on-7 drills, but that may have been due to Polamalu not needing to proving anything to anyone the way, say, William Gay does. Fowler now has to make the next step. He needs to learn to get off the line to make some of these guys pay. He won't do it with speed. He'll have to find another way. ... Speaking of Gay, he's being used more this week, even getting reps with the first team. I don't know if it's because I watch camp practices from the sideline as opposed to watching OTAs from up on the balcony, but Gay looks much quicker now than he did in the spring. Maybe he carries his pads better than most. ... I'm really impressed with the way Najeh Davenport is running the ball. He looked a bit creaky last year, but his knees, his speed, his strength, his cutting, all look to be improved. I know, you can be so wrong about running backs when they're not being tackled in camp, but this guy looks like the Davenport of old. Very interesting. ... Speaking of old vets who appear reborn, Charlie Batch is throwing the ball so effortlessly and so on the money, it's kind of startling. I know Cedrick Wilson was swearing up a blue streak because Batch missed him, but Batch didn't miss Dallas Baker breaking open the other day. I'd seen Baker earlier in the day, limping to the cafeteria with a wrapped left ankle, but he said \"I have to\" when I asked him if he was going to practice. On that deep ball, there wasn't a hint of an injury. Maybe Brett Timmons ought to take note of how hungry the seventh-rounder is. ... Willie Reid shows absolutely no propensity for fumbling kicks. He's so confident in picking up bouncing or squibbed kicks. He has no hesitation whatsoever, never a bobble. And he's fast. The crowd gave him a nice round of applause yesterday after he cut a kick up the middle and was gone. This guy's going to have a good year. ... Reid's a lock for the fifth WR job and it appears the No. 6 is Baker. Now, whether they'll keep six is up in the air, since the contract situations may demand the extra man be kept from the offensive line. ... Jason Capizzi had his first bad day yesterday. He thinks it might be the heat. I asked him if he remembers the P-G's Pitt beat man, Paul Zeise, writing in 2004 that Capizzi \"has a 10-cent head.\" Capizzi just smiled, knowing the situation Zeise has stepped into at his paper, and said, \"Karma's a bitch.\" ... Shaun Nua, I'm told, is the sixth defensive lineman. Ryan McBean would have to be kept as the No. 7, and the Steelers have every intention of keeping him around, so I guess that means the D-line gets the extra player this year. Derrick Jones will be kept on the practice squad. The coaching staff is high on both young players, but back to Nua. I was surprised to hear that he'd been having a good camp, but since I hadn't been paying attention, and since John Mitchell's late-round picks have a way of blossoming once they add weight, I believe it. So I went to watch the line drills on Field 2 instead of the 7-on-7s yesterday. I watched Nua get one rep, and Willie Colon put up his left hand and flat stoned him and then rag-dolled him. I haven't seen that kind of brute, overwhelming strength since James Harrison's first camp (I've since become accustomed to Harrison's strength). But I have no idea why Colon is still on the second-team line. This dude has to play somewhere. That strength and his solid fundamentals are now being matched by a growing confidence. They won't be able to keep this guy down much longer. But, hey, hats off to Max Starks. All we ever wanted was for him to take it seriously, and he has. He's lost weight, listened to the coach, and is playing well. Good guy, too. ... Speaking of Harrison, I'll be meeting with his parents in Akron on Monday after the Hall of Fame game. I just got the thumbs up from my friend on his RV. We're going to take it around the country and write a book called \"A Steeler Nation.\" We'll attend the Phoenix, Denver and Cincinnati games, interview fans, watch the team play home games from fan bars, disrupt the city of Seattle, visit hometowns of the current stars, and in general call down the thunder of this proud fandom. It's going to be silly. First up, the Harrisons. And, James, thanks for not killing me when I asked to investigate your background. Also on the docket are the hometowns of Heath Miller, Willie Parker, Lawrence Timmons, Alan Faneca/Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. Hey, in looking that over it's a pretty impressive list, and I think you can see our planned route. Then again, if a strong breeze comes up, we're going to follow it. ... Just one draft note. Or, is it too early? Yeah, just teasing. But a personnel man who studies the area says USC is the team to beat. He loves Keith Rivers. I know, nothing groundbreaking there. But I asked him about Arizona State running back Ryan Torain. I'd noticed that Mel Kiper ranked him the No. 2 running back, and was surprised since I hadn't heard of him. My source just kind of rolled his eyes, the way they all do when Kiper's name is mentioned. He said that once the juniors are included – like the two Arkansas running backs – Torain would fall down the charts. But I could see his wheels spinning, and my source said, \"He's a big back without much wiggle. He'd fit ... hell, he'd fit here. Yeah, this would be a perfect fit for him.\" Just thought you'd like to know one man's opinion. I know I'll keep my eye open for Ryan Torain.



Last year on this day, the Steelers practiced for the first time and Ben Roethlisberger wowed reporters with his ability to play catch less than six weeks after his accident. Look where he and the Steelers are now: They have a week of intense practice under their belts and Roethlisberger looks like the big, athletic quarterback with the fastball and command of the offense. No one's asking him how lucky he is to be alive. They're asking him which critic he's going to prove wrong first. ... Roethlisberger's carving up of the defense Friday night under the lights was a pretty good warm-up act for the fireworks display. The chaos actually started right after practice when the players rushed to fill the five buses. I snapped at the TV reporters to \"keep it short\" with Mike Tomlin and \"just get info.\" They're starting to hate me, but it was a good thing because we had to fight through the crowd and bang on the doors of the last bus to get a ride home. I apparently pushed the mascot back toward the back of the bus as I plopped down in the second seat. The guy next to me warned me not to take the foam steel girder that the mascot uses as his prop. He had left it standing behind the bus driver. Me, having zero respect for this idiotic mascot, had to take it as I walked off the bus. I didn't know what to do with it, so I stuffed it in the garbage can. I noticed the next day, when the mascot was signing autographs, that he'd found his prop. ... They can't find a name for this Bill Cowher imitation? How about B.G.H. That's what we called Cowher, the Big Giant Head, after the all-knowing \"god\" on \"Third Rock From the Sun.\" Really, it's hard to believe they're serious about using a Cowher imitation as the mascot, but my understanding is it was nearly a mandate from the NFL. The Steelers don't plan to use it on the field, only in the community. Good luck with all that. ... Speaking of stealing props, we in the media are eyeing up the footballs-on-a-stick that the special-teams coaches are using to simulate snaps. Sort of like stealing the Navy goat, we in the media believe that stealing the footballs-on-a-stick would endear us to the players. Someone said three of us should put black hoods over our heads, make a video with a knife to the \"neck\" of the football-on-a-stick, and warn the staff that if the special-teams coaches don't stop boring us with special-teams practice every 15 minutes, the football-on-a-stick has had it. Ah, just a thought. ... But back to Friday night. When we arrived back at campus, the fireworks display had begun. Watching it over the tops of the spires of the basilica made me think of Disney World, but this seemed more realistic. The town of Ampipe, as Tomlin had called downtown Latrobe, doesn't do this kind of thing every night. This night was special. What made it more special was the thought of Cowher the Mascot shuffling through the garbage for his prop. ... Okay, you want football news. I know. The buzz on new talent has been mostly about LaMarr Woodley, of course, but undrafted giant left tackle Jason Capizzi is being talked about by everyone in the personnel department, from Kevin Colbert on down. Capizzi had his best practice Friday night and is now just biding his time, waiting for real reps to come his way. Right now he's third-team left tackle behind Trai Essex, but Essex is developing a reputation in the front office as something of a Mr. August, that he knows how to make the team but could resume underachieving once the roster is set. That's only the perception right now, but Essex does have the good feet and he has his moments. Capizzi is not someone, the Steelers think, who'll be able to make it back to the practice squad if they waive him. Even though he wasn't drafted, it's clear he has the talent, the feet and the strength to play in the league, and that teams, after looking at some of their tackles, will jump at a second chance to steal Capizzi. So, while the coaches think differently than the scouts, Capizzi may need to be kept on the final roster if they intend to keep him in black and gold for the future. … A defensive coach's breakdown of the center position: Doesn't give Chukky Okobi a serious chance since his champion, Russ Grimm, is gone; says Kendall Simmons is still too jumpy and will block the first man he sees, even if it's not the right man; and Willie Colon is too aggressive for the position, that \"he tries to rip your head off\" and the team is better served with him at another position. By process of elimination, that leaves Sean Mahan, who already got the seal of approval from Casey Hampton. ... Max Starks has lost a ton of weight and is receiving approval from the personnel people. I still say he's too stiff to hold off Colon, but the people who matter aren't agreeing with me. ... The Steelers are waiting for the preseason games before they resume any considerations of extending further contracts. ... Matt Spaeth, even though he's injured, has regained solid footing in the bid for the No. 3 TE job. He's a big possession target and a tough kid. He'll scratch and claw as an in-line blocker, too. ... Rookie DL Ryan McBean whipped Brandon Torrey three times during one-on-one drills Friday night, but McBean still has a long way to go to understand the playbook. He's talented, but not very bright, so he's no lock to be the sixth defensive lineman. ... When someone in the know asks me who's going to be the sixth DL, I assume Nick Eason's not cutting it. So I asked about undrafted rookie Derrick Jones and got a mixed reaction. Yeah, he's improving, but no he's not good enough to claim that sixth roster spot at the position. ... Jones can make a veteran such as Chris Kemoeatu look bad during one-on-one drills, but then he turned around the next day and jumped offside twice. ... Tomlin and official Terry McAulay had an interesting discussion on the field Friday night about \"strike points\" on the punt-coverage gunner. Tomlin was defending the hold-up man's right to strike the gunner in the face. Tomlin illustrated to McAulay how the receiver, when he changes his foot position in order to get off the line, will often lower his chest, so that the \"strike point\" becomes his face and not his chest. That maneuver often leads to an illegal-hands-to-the-face call and it changes a fourth down to a first down. McAulay listened to Tomlin's gripe, and ended up agreeing with him that the rule must be interpreted differently. … A guy who works for the NFL assured me that when I got back to campus over the weekend, there would be no pimps in the general vicinity. He laughed and we got to talking about Michael Vick. The man said Vick would get more sympathy from the public if he had immigrants fighting to the death and not dogs. ... Tomlin says he understands Roethlisberger, that he's just a big kid who needs and loves attention. Tomlin doesn't foresee having any trouble with the franchise QB. ... After Saturday's practice, and after Tomlin was asked if he was going to \"increase the tempo next week,\" someone said that if they increased the tempo any more, he expected the Baltimore Ravens to be on the other side of the line. ... My pre-camp choice for rookie sleeper, Eric Fowler, is still catching everything thrown to him, but he's not beating DBs by much. Not that he gets many reps. And I expect that to increase this week. A scout told me Fowler's best 40 time at his pro day was a 4.57, and that his time is generally considered to be in the 4.62 range. They like his route-running ability, his size and his hands. I look for him to break out a bit this week. ... The rule of thumb for hitting WRs in training camp, according to a former DB, is that it's okay if you hit a WR while going for the ball, but that hitting a teammate in the back after a catch is generally a no-no on all teams. ... Funny how Hines Ward is perceived as a whiner. Even some of the reporters – who still carry Plaxico Burress grudges – were \"whining\" about Ward \"whining\" the other day. According to the message boards, many of the fans feel the same way. But there was Ward at the dinner table Saturday night having a great time with his best friend Deshea Townsend and the rest of the DBs. It's obvious these guys don't take their utterances to the media as seriously as many of the fans and reporters do. ... Sorry that his blog entry is so long, but I have another player to watch: ILB Richard Koonce. He's No. 46, the guy with all the hair. He played in NFL Europe, and has a year experience, so we haven't done much investigative work on him prior to camp. But the Steelers like his physical style and \"he could take the place of the guy who's not been very physical at all.\" That couldn't be Clint Kriewaldt, I said in response. \"Right,\" said the source. So I said that it had to be Rian Wallace. And the source said, \"See, you know more than you think. Trust your instincts.\" Then, Wallace went and played OLB and Tomlin praised his versatility. I would hate to see the more physical inside backer lose a spot to a guy just because that guy can play another position. ... Fans have taken to calling little Dan Sheldon \"Rudy.\" He's actually become a fan favorite because \"He can run,\" as one woman yelled. And he can. Sheldon slipped behind a bunch of backup DBs to catch a home-run ball from Brian St. Pierre. And Tomlin did call Sheldon \"legitimate\" prior to camp, so keep on eye on the little return man with the big wheels. ... And to get your week off to a good start, I report to you that Sunday's punt return men were, in order, Willie Reid, Cedrick Wilson, Sheldon, Santonio Holmes, and Jovon Johnson. Ricardo Colclough was not involved.



This one has to be a quick one because that new coach, that Mike Tomlin, he's crazy, man. There's another practice going on right now. They're probably stretching, so I have a few minutes to blog, since I already did my jog, but today's not one of those wimpy special teams practices that they had yesterday morning, when the coaches were so bored they played hit-the-can with the quarterbacks. Heck, today they may fire out of the gate with a goal-line drill this morning, knowing this crazy coach. … Seriously, I really like what Tomlin's doing. Even though the special-teams drills are a waste of time – and I know you fans think I'M the crazy one since their special teams have stunk the past few years – but these in-between, faux morning practices serve a great purpose: They get the players up and into their pads and into a routine. Go to bed, get up and practice twice, meet at night, and go back to bed. I do think Tomlin will take a page out of the Bill Cowher playbook and cancel Saturday morning's practice. He'll do it just like Cowher did it: after the night practice at Latrobe. The players will all yip and run like Super Bowl champs out of Latrobe Stadium and they'll be in a great mood for a tough Saturday afternoon workout. … Speaking of Latrobe Stadium, Zambelli fireworks will go off after that practice, thus keeping the hordes at the park while I sneak off on the wide-open, single-lane road back to campus. Hah. Good for me. … Here's another reason I'm taking to Tomlin: He told two reporters their dumb questions yesterday weren't newsworthy. That deserves a triple exclamation point!!! See, when we all mob the coach after practice, it's an embarrassing situation. The poor guy can hardly breathe with all of the microphones in his face. The cameramen are jostling with the writers for space. And of course the bellicose TV reporters want the coach to think they're cute, or smart, or something. Cowher used to answer these guys, at length, and then sneer at those of us who wanted to know when the hell he's going to put Sean Mahan at center. Tomlin, like any man with half a brain, is doing the opposite: He's showing contempt for the grandstanders and showing respect for the football questions that have to be asked. Now, Mike, you're almost a hero in my book, so just please win, baby. Show everyone that people with half a brain can succeed in this league. … Okay, off the soapbox and back to the center position. I know readers want updates of all the players right now, but first of all I'm not that smart and second of all I don't get to watch film. We're field level and I like to focus on one player, or a pair of players who play next to each other or cover one another, per play. My focus has been mainly on the two rookie linebackers and the center position. What I see at the center position is Okobi being stood up consistently by Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. Okobi is giving 100 percent, and flashes some nice downfield mobility, but from my half a brain I can't see him holding up to the rigors of the run game. I just presume Mahan will do a better job. So, Mike, let's get to it. … As for the rookie linebackers, LaMarr Woodley's display of power on the first day diminishes, in my mind, the flaws in his downfield work. That was to be expected, and one play yesterday showed the difference between Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. A running back caught a pass in the middle of the field and cut to the sideline to where Woodley had dropped. Yes, he's instinctive enough to do the right thing and get down the field and be in the proper position, but he had no chance when he lumbered to turn that big body around and make a play on the back who ran past him. Timmons, with that fantastic change-of-direction ability, would've given the team a chance to stop that big play. However, at the point of attack, Timmons is getting rag-dolled, and that was to be expected. He's 238 pounds and he said that's where he wants to stay. In time, he'll learn enough technique to stay stout at the point, but right now his game is quickness, whether that be in coverage or in getting after the quarterback. … Remember, these are preliminary reports from a MEDIA GUY. Take them for what they're worth. We'll be getting the word from the smart people in the film room soon enough. … James Harrison seems to be lowering his guard around me a bit. I wasn't so sure. I'd heard the story of how he had to transfer high schools. The report alleged that he'd shot a teammate in the butt with a bb gun. So when I looked up while pouring my Raisin Bran into my bowl in the cafeteria, I thought of that as I noticed James staring at me. I'd just finished jogging and was all sweaty and he was the last player in the cafeteria. (Did I mention they have another practice?) So he says, \"Were you a wrestler?\" I forgot I was wearing my \"Hempfield Wrestling\" shirt. I told him, no, this was a gift from the Hempfield coach – Vince DeAugustine – one of the great American Legion catchers that I had coached at Jeannette. James nodded. I asked him if he was a wrestler. He said, \"No, but people think that I was. I don't know why.\" He smiled and left. He knows his Cleveland Slam is the stuff of which wrestling legends are made. It took me a while to figure it out because I was just happy that he had smiled. It's better than a cap in the ass, wouldn't you say? … We'll have much more later. I thought of a ton of stuff to write, but I don't want to miss this morning goal-line drill. We'll report back all day. And, hopefully tomorrow, instead of going down to watch that slappy special-teams practice with all of its toys, I'll sit in my room and reflect on the wonders of nature … and Pittsburgh Steelers football.

Finally, a chance to take a breath. It's been full go since the minute I arrived here and I apologize for just now getting around to putting my thoughts down on paper. So many writers up here, it's mind-buh-logging. Every paper has sent one, two, maybe three, and even the beat writers are blogging. It'll be interesting to see if they figure out that there's a fine line to walk. Most beat reporters keep their opinions to themselves so that they don't sacrifice the information flow. You can't rip the quarterback and then expect him to give you some good behind-the-scenes stuff later ... at least that's the thinking at metro papers where the beat reporters report on the team and the columnists hack away in attempt at insight. As I said, it's a fine line for those of us who do both, and the horde that's descended on St. Vincent will learn what's taken me 13 years on the beat to learn. … Funny, editors seem to think that any old body in their newsroom can come up and blog, but what they don't understand is that it takes years to cultivate sources. For example, the story at ProFootballTalk.com about Aaron Brooks forced me to ask a trusting source for confirmation. And, yes, said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers did bring the former New Orleans playoff quarterback in for a workout last week. Colbert said that it wasn't so much Mike Tomlin's Virginia ties that led to the workout, but that the Steelers were simply \"interested in a veteran quarterback who's available.\" But Brooks \"wanted to explore his options\" and didn't take the Steelers up on their offer to join the team at training camp. Now, it's too late. \"We're rolling now,\" Colbert said. \"It's dead.\" ... I still say Charlie Batch is a better quarterback than Brooks, who has some butt-ugly mechanics. Brian St. Pierre could become a serviceable No. 3 quarterback, considering that he played with better confidence at minicamp. If the Steelers choose to go with only two quarterbacks (St. Pierre is out of practice-squad eligibility), the fourth quarterback, Bryan Randall, isn't a bad option for the practice squad. ... Two radio shows on the first two nights have put a crimp in my writing, but here are some of the nuggets unveiled on our Fox 970 AM shows (7-9 p.m.): Dan Rooney Jr., the part-owner, part-scout, otherwise known as The Guy Who Discovered Fast Willie Parker (T.G.W.D.FWP), thinks this year's FWP could be undrafted center Darnell Stapleton out of Rutgers. I did notice Stapleton playing center yesterday with the third line, with center Marvin Philip playing left guard next to him. That's a change from minicamp, when Stapleton was used only as the 7-on-7 center. The key here, I think, is that the team wants Philip to learn guard. Taking it a step further, I think the team is preparing him for a career as a center-guard backup, something Chukky Okobi can't provide, and yet another sign that the future for Okobi is probably not in Pittsburgh. ... We've beat the Eric Fowler watch to death, but his teammate at Grand Valley State, defensive lineman Derrick Jones (6-4, 282), has impressed DL coach John Mitchell. Mitch believes \"a year on scholarship\" will help Jones make the team by the 2008 season. It's those late-round and undrafted rookie linemen who consistently do well in Mitchell's no-glory three-man front, and it doesn't take a psychologist to understand why. Mitch also thinks fourth-round pick Ryan McBean will make it over the long haul. Mitch was pretty hard on the confused McBean this spring, but \"tough love\" was Mitchell's plan for McBean all along. ... Levon Kirkland is still the man. A couple of us called him over at lunch yesterday for some quotes about the tough first practice. He was as helpful as ever, and then the other reporter asked him about his weight. Kirkland, who appears to weigh over 300 pounds, boasted that he'd lost 52 pounds since the Steelers' Super Bowl. I said to Kirk: Even after all these years reporters are still asking about your weight. \"Yes, but I don't take it personally like I used to,\" he said, and then he winked and was gone. I'd like to see Captain Kirk stick with the team in the scouting department, just to have him around. He's another in a long line of class acts that have trod the pathways of SVC. 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