The interesting part was the replacement. The next free safety was not Anthony Smith – who started nine games and then the playoff game at the position last season -- nor was it rookie free safety Ryan Mundy, a sixth-round draft pick. Rule out veteran cornerback Deshea Townsend, and the practice-squad duo of Mike Lorello and Grant Mason, and you're left with – drum roll, please – second-year cornerback William Gay.
Of course, Gay merely added to his "position flexibility" in a May practice. The surprise, really, is that Smith played strong safety with the second team behind Tyrone Carter. It could be an indication that Smith is now being groomed as a versatile backup in only his third season in the league.
"People saw the splash plays from him last season," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But he has to become more consistent. It's a must."
Tomlin said that Smith is not being moved to strong safety, just that he's adding versatility to his game. Yet, strong safety has been cited as perhaps the position that better suits Smith because of his physical style and aggressive nature, particularly after New England burned him twice at free safety last season. But Tomlin said the old stereotypes at safety – that a free safety must cover deep and a strong safety must play in the box – are out the window.
"In today's game," Tomlin said, "both safeties have to be able to do both jobs. It's more of a left and right thing these days and both of them have to cover and come up to play the run."
Gay proved that by shooting into the box yesterday to "tab" Gary Russell on a draw play. Smith, meanwhile, wasn't taking Thursday's development as a career setback.
"They want me to learn both positions," he said with a shrug. "They're kind of moving everybody around."
Gay, a dime back last season, is one young player who needs to be on the field with the first team whenever possible. But Smith was the only other player moved yesterday. He was asked about playing strong safety.
"The strong safety is more in the box, more run support," he said. "I can do both. I'm a big hitter and I can cover a lot of ground. I can play either one of them, but I'm more comfortable at free safety. I've been there all my life. I've never been a strong safety."
I asked one of my sources about Tony Hills, the rookie left tackle. The source was complimentary, but said Hills needs work on his techniques and probably won't help the team until 2009.
"The guy who'll amaze you," the source said, "is Jason Capizzi."
Capizzi is the 6-foot-9 tackle from IUP who played well at training camp last year as an undrafted rookie, but was cut, drifted to a couple of different practice squads, and was reclaimed by the Steelers late in the season. My source said that the year has helped Capizzi with his understanding of his assignments. But I asked the source to expound on the "amaze you" part of the statement.
"Let me put it this way," he said, "he might never play in this league, (pronounced pause) but he might."
* Sean Mahan returned to practice, but Marvel Smith, home with his wife for the birth of their first child, did not. And with Chris Kemoeatu and Kendall Simmons still nursing injuries, the first line, from left to right, was: Max Starks, Mahan, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, and Willie Colon.
* The offense struggled in the red-zone drill Thursday. Tyrone Carter broke up a touchdown pass intended for Hines Ward and Anthony Madison broke up a touchdown pass intended for Nate Washington. Ben Roethlisberger never did get the offense in the end zone, but Dennis Dixon did. On his only rep, the last of the session, Dixon floated a fade pass to rookie Kevin Marion, who was wide open for the score. The cornerback was Bryant McFadden and the safety was Carter. I'm not sure which player was responsible for the bust.
* Madison had a strong practice. He covered tight end Matt Spaeth on a delayed wheel route down the sideline and the quarterback was forced to dump a short pass.
* Dixon had a much better practice than the previous day. He threw a bootleg pass to tight end Dezmond Sherrod and also hit Sherrod with a laser beam over the middle. But Dixon's release point is still too low.
* There weren't many Catch of the Day candidates. Willie Reid snared a high pass over the middle, but today we'll go with third-down back Mewelde Moore, just because he flashed mad run-after-catch skills on several screen passes.
* Willie Colon looked so good pulling right on one sweep that I had to watch the next rep closely just to see if he was playing guard. Nope. Colon was still at right tackle. He said he hasn't played any guard this spring. He should.
* Oh, and while I was watching Colon on the aforementioned play, the offense erupted over a catch made by Nate Washington in the end zone. Could've been Catch of the Day, but I wasn't watching. Better luck next week, Nate.