In the recent past, the Steelers' 4-man defensive line has been used in the dime defense and what was called "the big nickel" last season. The Steelers have rarely, if ever, used a 4-3 base alignment under coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Of course, the Steelers are lining up in their 3-4 on most base alignments this week, but when the Steelers have worked on their 4-3 it's been with LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and James Harrison at linebacker.
Sean Mahan missed practice and for the second consecutive day Jason Hartwig was the first-team center, ahead of second-teamer Darnell Stapleton. Hartwig, by the way, was honored by Hank Williams Jr. at Saturday night's concert in town. Hank wore Hartwig's No. 62. The two know each other from Hartwig's days with the Carolina Panthers. Hank is also a long-time and obviously savvy Steelers fan.
Nate Washington returned to practice and started opposite Hines Ward, who's far from 100 percent. Ward is working gingerly as he returns from offseason knee surgery. Limas Sweed replaced Dallas Baker in the 4-wide set. Sweed beat cornerback Travis Williams – or was given free release without (wrongly) expected safety help – but quarterback Dennis Dixon didn't see Sweed standing alone downfield. Dixon instead flipped a short pass to fullback Billy Latsko. The next time the two rookies were on the field together, Dixon looked for Sweed deep, saw he was running with another receiver (Jeremy Bloom) and two defensive backs, and quickly dumped the ball short. Foote dropped the interception.
Dixon, hopefully, will look back on this day as an example of being an overwhelmed rookie. He couldn't get a snap off for some reason as the coaches bellowed to "get back in the huddle." On another play, Dixon turned the wrong way and missed a handoff to Gary Russell. Dixon did display a fluid, buggy-whip arm motion on another short pass.
In special teams work, the punt returners were, in order, Willie Reid, Bloom, Kevin Marion, and Williams. Rookie Julian Rauch shanked half of his punts. James Harrison and Ryan Clark were the only two starters being used on the punt-coverage unit. Clark was the personal protector, or fullback. Lawrence Timmons and Carey Davis were the wings off the offensive line. It's not hard to believe that those four players are being groomed to become Mike Tomlin's desired core players on special teams. Also, rookie Ryan Mundy was being taught the personal protector position.
A couple of observations: 1.) New halfback Mewelde Moore is stockier than I expected, but he still drew the notation "quick-quick" in my notebook. That means he's quicker than "quick" but not quite "beep-beep." And, 2.) Young QB Jared Zabransky, the best leader right now of QBs 3-5, just hasn't shown the arm to throw an NFL out. He'll have to make the team on grit and savvy and knowledge.
Missing practice: Santonio Holmes, Najeh Davenport, Chris Kemoeatu, Ryan McBean, Mahan, Rashard Mendenhall, Bruce Davis, Roy Lewis, Matt Trannon. (Colleague Dale Lolley pointed out that Trannon was wearing a cast in the cafeteria on Tuesday.) Davis and Lewis, of course, are prohibited by the NFL/NCAA graduating class rule.