TUESDAY, AUG. 19
Let me start on this wrap-up morning by telling you a personal story. I'd torn/ripped/pulled my hamstring while lifting weights about 10 years ago. I was doing stiff-legged deadlifts and popped it. I dropped the bar on my foot, too, so I was a real sight limping out of that gym. The injury knocked me out of Sunday softball action for about a month. The muscle was still black-and-blue but I could walk fine, even jog, coach third, hit grounders, so one of the players started grumbling about me faking it or something. That made me try to play earlier than I should have, and I re-tore/ripped/pulled the thing on my first swing. I never got out of the batter's box, just groaned. So I told this to Troy Polamalu as he considered playing in the end-of-camp softball game Sunday. He shrugged it off. After all, he and his wife, by just playing catch one end-of-camp evening, had started what's become the annual Offense vs. Defense game. He felt obligated to play, and I felt obligated to tell him to watch that swing. Well, his first time up Sunday, Troy took a mighty swing. He bounced a dribbler and let out a groan and he didn't run. I was worried that he'd re-injured the hamstring not on the football field, but on the St. Vincent baseball field. He went out to play shortstop and moved gingerly. His next few at-bats, though, calmed my worry. He took several mighty swings and seems fine. Mike Tomlin was there. He was the umpire, so all must be well. We'll find out today when Troy is supposed to be activated, and it's very important because anyone who saw the last preseason game realizes what Troy and Lawrence Timmons will bring to a defense that was embarrassed by the Buffalo Bills. I do not understand why most fans and media are ripping the front seven because the Bills for the most part passed on first down and ran on pass downs. This passing flurry exposed the slow-moving troika of Larry Foote, Ty Carter and Ryan Clark. The last guy, Clark, can get away with a lack of quickness, but Timmons and Polamalu will soon replace the other two and make this a tremendous defense. My guess is that once they move into the lineup, no one will ever mention the second preseason game again. ... As for the softball game, the Defense blew a late 1-0 lead to remain winless against the Offense. Ben Roethlisberger got things going for the Offense in the bottom of the seventh. He stroked a line drive to left center that Timmons appeared to have a bead on. But Timmons fell down, and the walking Roethlisberger turned on the speed to get to second. Hines Ward's single to a shallow Ike Taylor in right center drove in the tying run when Taylor held the ball too long and dared Roethlisberger. Ward made it to third and scored the game-winner on Santonio Holmes' sacrifice fly. ... In spite of the big error, Timmons was a surprise star for the Defense. At least I was surprised because his parents both told me he wasn't much of a baseball player. Also, both were disappointed he never became a basketball player – his dad played at Duquesne with Norm Nixon – but they both got the gleam in their eyes when they talked about his special skill as a boy: hitting ballcarriers. "You would've loved watching him as a kid," his dad said. I'll post the excerpt from the road-trip book Steeler Nation when it comes out in a couple of weeks. ... Another star on the Defense's softball team was third baseman Martavius Prince, the undrafted rookie lineman from Southern Mississippi. "He has a baseball background," Tomlin told me. I also wonder whether "playing well with others," as they used to grade us on in kindergarten, is a tiebreaker for those rated as even for practice squad duties, because this game was a barometer. ... For the Offense, Roethlisberger made some stunning plays at shortstop, but he also booted a double-play ball with men on first and third with one out that would've stopped Anthony Smith from scoring the Defense's only run. Ward played well at third base and Heath Miller did the same at second base. Miller may have had the best bat in this mush-ball game, and his arm, speed and glove should've been used at left-center or even shortstop. ... OK, on to football. I just picked the Steelers to win the Super Bowl in my preview for Pro Football Weekly. I know, call me a homer, but I see a contender in this team, and as I looked around at the Patriots, Chargers, Colts and Jaguars, I see teams that are beatable for one reason or another. So, why not? The question, of course, is the offensive line, but the coaching staff has a real quiet confidence about the group. Most believe Chris Kemoeatu will play very well in place of Alan Faneca, and that Justin Hartwig will be an upgrade at center. Marvel Smith is back to his early 2007 self. The right side remains a question mark since they refuse to move road-grader Willie Colon to guard, where rooting out huge tackles is a bigger problem than finding a way to get Kendall Simmons out into space to lead a screen or sweep. It's overcoaching, in my humble opinion. But Darnell Stapleton, Trai Essex and Max Starks provide the line depth that is lacking on the defensive line. Starks, in fact, may not be active on game day, since they usually only dress seven and Starks doesn't provide "position flexibility." Let everyone whine about Starks' salary, but that's old news. They're under the cap and have two pro-ready tackles in reserve. ... The word on rookie tackle Tony Hills is that he would've been cut two weeks ago, but has made strides and could be the 53rd player kept. He was given the nickname "Beetlejuice" by one of the reporters because of his tiny head, and I've since learned that was his nickname in college as well. ... While Hills' stock has risen, another rookie, Limas Sweed, was dropping every other pass in the final practices. No one on the coaching staff was alarmed, since they believe he's "a year or two away" from becoming a polished pro receiver anyway. The coaches do believe his work ethic and attitude make him a lock for success, but right now the team has depth problems at receiver. Dallas Baker is making a late charge for that No. 5 spot, by the way.
MONDAY, AUGUST 11
Sunday practices are the best of the week because the hordes of reporters we see during the week take the day off, so it's a very relaxed atmosphere. A few of us had a chance to chat with team chairman Dan Rooney on the sideline during practice. This was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and I asked him how many quarterbacks the team had signed that day. "We signed five," he deadpanned. Rooney had obviously heard of the reports that his team had signed two quarterbacks and was just having fun. I asked him if he had signed one. "We better have," he said. It was obvious then that, even though Byron Leftwich is a high-profile player, his contract is small enough not to have needed the boss's approval. ... Word from those who were part of the workout at Latrobe Memorial Stadium yesterday is that both Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper were better than Charlie Batch, and Mike Tomlin verified that with his hedge on Batch's status. After the game Friday, Tomlin said he wouldn't put Batch on IR, but he said nothing about the roster. So, it's possible Batch could be cut and Leftwich kept throughout the season. It's also possible that Tomlin could apologize for jumping the gun on his prognosis of Batch, because the oft-injured backup QB is headed for surgery (and possibly IR), something that's not normally necessary with a broken collarbone. The guess here is that the Steelers will save the cap money and release Batch, who would likely remain available to the team in case of a future emergency. ... Yes, how quickly they – we – forget. ... I asked a source how the young defensive linemen looked on tape. I was told they all played well. Then there was a pause. "Even MacBean." Ryan McBean did look athletic on tape. In camp, when you're up close, he's not nearly as impressive, but he did look like an athletic prospect in the game. This was pointed out to the source, who said, "Look, if I'm still saying this after the third (preseason) game, then I'll be excited." ... More fun with the anonymous source who shouted the line of camp, "Are you out of your g-------d mind!?" after Anthony Smith decked Hines Ward late during a non-contact passing drill. The source said the only reason he asked that question was because he thought it was rookie Roy Lewis who had hit Ward. He said he wasn't sure whether Lewis was crazy or not. He said if he'd have known for sure it was Smith who hit Ward, he wouldn't have had to ask the question. ... OK, third anonymous source (and I apologize, but with the new clampdown on the media here I don't want to get anyone in trouble). I asked him if the line assignments have been made simpler for Chris Kemoeatu this season. If you remember, Chris – or "Juicy" as he's called, because Alan Faneca thought he looked like the Hi-C cartoon pitcher – said on his first day off the PUP list, "It's changed a lot. It's real easy for me now." The source said that nothing was dummied down for Faneca's replacement at left guard. I told the source that Juicy also said this: "Some stuff is still confusing, like week to week with different teams," and the source said, "I get confused from week to week, too. On Mondays and Tuesdays you never think you're going to get it all down, but by Thursdays and Fridays you're always sleeping a little better." ... Some of the guys here like to joke with me about Lawrence Timmons because of this column I penned after the 2007 draft, in which I criticized the pick. Now, I've been determined to not let my reporting of Timmons be clouded by my initial assessment. I even stopped in Florence, S.C., and confessed my sin to his parents, who didn't seem to mind in the least. So I take the criticisms from my Steelers sources with a smile and admit my guilt. And, hey, I'm happy he's looking like such a sudden and explosive linebacker these days, and I told one scout that the play that first made me think I was wrong was Timmons' fumble recovery against Miami last year, when Timmons went after the ball like a hungry animal. It was the play during which he stepped on Ricky Williams' back to get to the loose ball. The scout understood exactly what that play did for me. "When I scouted Alan Faneca," he said, "I saw him get up from the ground once by pushing down on another player's face. It's one of the nastiest things you can do on the field. It's a sign that you just don't give a ----. I never got that image out of my head." ... Of course, Timmons looked great again the other night in the preseason opener. I've already written twice about his performance, so allow me to move on to other notes: The Steelers picked up an 8-man blitz (the MLB blitzed initially but dropped off as the other 7 continued) with the help of RB Mewelde Moore, but the key was the quick read by Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. The new camp drill – "pass under pressure" – is paying off. The entire offense will be in far better sync this season. It's exciting to see it pay off so quickly. ... DE Brett Keisel, the team leader in QB pressures last season, had another one early on Donovan McNabb. One of the top scouts here thinks Keisel's a tremendous asset to the defense, that he's another guy with speed, and thinks he's going to have a great year. ... Keyaron Fox played well as the backup buck linebacker, but his main job will be on special teams. He was the first player down the field on the Steelers' first punt. ... Ryan Mundy made a couple of solid, open-field tackles before making a hard hit on Lorenzo Booker a few seconds before a crazed Eagles lineman barreled into the pile and injured Mundy. We may not see him for a while, but the rookie safety left a great tape. ... Roy Lewis, the undrafted rookie corner, replaced Mundy and wasn't fooled by Donovan McNabb's scramble on first-and-goal from the 9. McNabb looked over the middle first, but Timmons had dropped to choke off the passing lane. McNabb, under pressure from LaMarr Woodley, rolled right to throw to a WR in the corner of the end zone, but Lewis had him shadowed, so McNabb threw incomplete to a RB, who was covered by William Gay. Nice quartet of young names there. ... Lewis impressed me during an interview prior to the game. He's not some gee-whiz kid, but a young guy on a mission. Word is he was an exceptional special-teams player at the University of Washington. ... The play on which Batch was injured appeared to be a draw. It appeared that Moore was at fault for the mix-up, but no one up here's about to confirm that, which is fine. ... Gary Russell threw a great block on Dennis Dixon's first pass. Russell also ran with power, and finished better than first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. But Russell doesn't have Mendenhall's upside. I compare Russell to Frank Pollard, and that's no slight. I liked Pollard and I like Russell. I just don't want to get too excited and say he has a better future than Mendenhall, who needs to get lower or he's going to get himself hurt. ... The question came on the screen – and I do want to compliment Bob Pompeani's work as play-by-play man; he's not forcing his info this year and the result was an enjoyable listen – about the defense: What do you think of the first-team defense? Well, I, for one, am very impressed. With Timmons and then Troy Polamalu, we're talking about some scary speed. Woodley of course will be an upgrade at one end, and Bruce Davis adds some speed off the bench. Gay will be much better this season as a fourth DB and even MacBean and Nick Eason flashed. My hopes are high and getting higher. ... And Fox just thumped somebody up the middle. The guy's not supposed to be able to do that. Oh, and now he's breaking up a pass in coverage. The guy looks like a solid pickup. ... Speaking of Davis, he just got down the field first to cover a punt, the second time he's done that this game. ... Fox just stopped Booker in the open field for a 3-yard gain on a draw play. ... Undrafted rookie corner Travis Williams did a great job in the open field holding the dangerous Desean Jackson to no yardage after an 8-yard pass. ... Reserve linebacker Arnold Harrison put three plays together to force the Eagles to punt on their first possession of the second half. He stopped Tony Hunt for a short gain, deflected a pass high in the air that could've been intercepted, and pressured Kevin Kolb into a third-down incompletion. Even guys on the bubble, like Harrison and Andre Frazier, are in their physical primes and understand the defense. ... Rookie LT Tony Hills struggled against the Eagles' second team a bit, but he dominated fellow rookie Bryan Smith in the fourth quarter. Dominated him. ... Undrafted OLB Patrick Bailey flashed a few times in the fourth quarter. ... Lewis just made another hard hit. ... There's a timeout on the field and Hines Ward is flashing the peace sign to the camera. He's flanked by James Harrison, who's mugging it up a bit, and Santonio Holmes and Troy Polamalu, in street clothes, are standing at the front of the group. With the attention on Ward and Harrison, Polamalu hands Holmes a container filled with water, and Polamalu begins stepping back. Throw the TiVo into slow motion and you see Harrison's and Ward's eyes move immediately to Holmes, who attempted to drink from the container, but the lid was unsecured and fell off as all the water poured onto his face. The group howled. Troy, the silent assassin. ... If Mike Tomlin can change his mind from one Sunday to the next, as he did with Casey Hampton yesterday, so can I. This team is really taking on the look of a contender. I completely understand why Leftwich told a reporter why he signed with the Steelers: "They have a chance to win it all."
TUESDAY, AUGUST 5
"Here comes yet another day, creeping through my window ..." I'm certain no one recognizes that Kinks song, but the sun's coming up any minute. I wanted to watch it from the statue of "First Down Vincent" over at the Basilica, but I need to knock this column out first. ... Now, that's just our nickname for the statue that's not of Vincent, nor of him indicating first down. That's just what we call it up here. Rashard Mendenhall told me he sat there and meditated early in camp. The view takes in the rising sun over the mountain range. Mendenhall said he loves chilling out with nature, and that's what he was doing that night in Chicago when he was robbed at gunpoint. He was checking out Lake Michigan with a friend. But he said he really loves it here in Western Pa, and we love him, too, even if he didn't score in the goal-line drill. ... Remember, it's just a story. I don't see too many reporters commenting unfavorably, just reporting what happened. Mendenhall isn't the power back everyone wants to make him out to be, but he'll be fine at the goal line. He's just not Marion Motley, that's all. He looked great Monday out in the open field, perhaps motivated a bit by Sunday night's practice and his coach. ... Funny thing, after the defense stuffed the offense Sunday night, all reporters wanted to talk about Monday was Casey Hampton, as in "When's he coming back?" Frankly, I don't see a problem because Chris Hoke is doing the job. The Steelers, in fact, are 12-2 when Hoke starts at NT. The losses were to the Raiders (with their 95 yards of offense) and New England in the 2004 AFC title game. Casey still looks too big, so Tomlin is making the right call. ... I saw Aaron Smith yesterday. I said, "Aaron, they ran right at you in goal line." And he said without blinking, "How'd they do?" I remember when Aaron was a skinny, quiet rookie just looking around the locker room at the surrounding madness. He was always quiet, but always alert. Now he's the man and he's finally getting his due, real due, from Steelers fans, who are chanting his name after practice. ... So on Friday the offense was completely blanked in red-zone work. The only close calls were Ben Roethlisberger's overthrown pass to Limas Sweed (that was tipped and caught by a surprised Merril Hoge just behind the goal post); Charlie Batch's pass to a route-challenged Willie Reid at the 1; and Dennis Dixon's sinker off a rollout to Heath Miller that was broken up by a diving Ryan Mundy. That's the first time I noticed Mundy this camp. Not that I've been watching too closely. ... Then, the offense was stuffed at the goal line on Sunday. Only Gary Russell scored a sure touchdown, with the TD by Justin Vincent being disputed. In fact, Tomlin had a chaplain spotting the ball and the first-team defense exploded at him when he ruled Vincent had scored. James Harrison in particular was hot. I worried for the chaplain there for a minute. ... We all loved the quote by Mendenhall after the goal-line drill. He was asked if he'd ever experienced anything like it and he spoke in a hushed tone about Harrison. Well, Dennis Dixon said the same thing. I asked him about any scary pass-rushers in particular, and he used the same awed and hushed chuckle that Mendenhall used. ... After my tour of Steeler Nation, in which I got to know many of the player's families, it's been easy for me to strike up a conversation with them. Except for one. Harrison accidentally walked out of the cafeteria with me yesterday and I said "What's up?" No response. So I asked, "James, how are your mom and dad?" "Good," he said without looking as he bounced up the stairs to get away from me. Still the same old James. All is well here at St. Vincent. ... Back to Dixon. Since he was a former baseball prospect, I joked that he was only drafted to be a ringer at the end-of-camp softball game. He said he can't wait to play, that he'll "gun down a few from right field." I said, "Like Roberto?" And he said, "That's my idol. Vladimir and Roberto." He explained that after Pittsburgh drafted him he looked into the city's baseball past and was shocked by old film of Clemente throwing. I still get shocked, and I've seen it many times. ... Funny moment on Saturday: Roethlisberger wasn't in a real good mood, probably because of the nagging groin and probably because a couple guys dropped passes in the 2-on-2 red-zone drill. So then he really started humming the ball around. One of the other QBs threw a fade and overshot his target. It instead went to a red-haired fan who dropped the easy pass in front of his son. The guy acted a little cocky, so maybe that's why on Roethlisberger's next attempt he threw the ball about a hundred miles an hour over the WR's head and right into the same guy's chest, who, of course, dropped it. Little nasty from the big guy. I chuckled. ... Eddie Drummond looked a bit quicker the other day, so maybe they will keep him just to return kicks. My first instinct is that the safety position will pay the price, particularly since Deshea Townsend and maybe William Gay could move there in an emergency. I noticed DB coach Ray Horton moved undrafted rookie Roy Lewis to strong safety for a few reps Monday morning, and Lewis moved up into the box to play the run, but instead had to run with Heath Miller downfield, and he dove to break up the pass. After practice, Tomlin told a reporter that Lewis is one of the top sleeper prospects on the team. He missed OTAs because of school, but did stand out a bit at minicamp.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 1
There's something that's not happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear, but something's not clicking here in the "team building" department. I know good chemistry when I see it and I'm not seeing it. Examples? Well, it just seems as if there's a lot of grumbling and individualism and too much will depend on youngsters who are just feeling their way into the NFL. I guess one example is Casey Hampton. This is a guy who's at the heart of leadership. He's a team favorite, a guy the rest enjoy clowning with, and a guy who's always turned from teddy bear to grizzly bear on the field. However, I worried late last year that he wasn't turning to grizzly bear anymore. But I believe he's just a microcosm of a larger set, and it's inevitable of a Super Bowl team in a town that treats winning players like rock stars. I'm feeling the same way about Max Starks, Deshea Townsend, Brett Keisel, James Farrior, good players, great guys, but guys who, for lack of a better description, are part of the old guard. They set the tone for a title and are now part-celebrity, part-happy camper. Or maybe it's just my imagination. But there's a big positive going on and it's Mike Tomlin. Maybe he sensed this old wave becoming more satisfied as their careers wind down. Maybe that's why Tomlin reached in and struck at the heart of leadership when he turned Hampton's smile upside down. Remember that first day, after Tomlin placed him on PUP for conditioning when Hampton was telling reporters, "What? Me worry?" Well, that attitude changed by the next day when he was reporting to Tomlin with nary a hint of a smile, and Tomlin began the process of building his humiliated nose tackle back up. In Tomlin, I have faith. This guy's a powderkeg who's perfect for these post-championship times. Now, Bill Cowher was also a powderkeg, but I didn't sense half the intelligence in him that I do in Tomlin. Not that that's always a good thing in football. Cowher knew what football buttons to push. If it meant mocking a punter in front of his player/gang, so be it. That was his idea of team building, and it worked – to a degree. That he won a Super Bowl makes any contrary argument about Cowher's coaching skills moot. But, dang, I'm impressed by Tomlin's scope, his range of intelligence. He sees everything. And perhaps he sees and wants to take in too much. Access for reporters has been stymied – all requests must be presented to Tomlin after practice where he processes "Wexell wants to talk to Fichtner" and actually makes a decision while Art II is standing there with an ownership update and Colbert's standing there with info on a punter from Shepherd U. It might be too much, but if anyone can process all the info and not have "everyone pee in his pool," as Chuck Noll used to say, it's Tomlin. He's bringing along the kids – the James Harrisons, the Santonio Holmeses, the Willie Colons, the LaMarr Woodleys, the Lawrence Timmonses, the Rashard Mendenhalls – who don't seem to fit in with the old guard, but are potentially budding leaders with similar personality traits. You don't see them clowning with Hines or Deshea or Farrior or Big Hamp. Those are the guys who've won titles and just might be a little too happy. Those are the guys who are – and naturally so – a bit resistant to buying in big time with the new guy. My uneasiness probably stems from the young guard never having won anything, that they've yet to prove their character in a prime-time way. But my optimistic side says that Tomlin's bringing the necessary fire which will promote change. And, my goodness, he's assertive this camp. He's almost ruthless. And with that intelligence inside of him, the combination could make him a big-time winner. ... Aaron Smith never fits in with any clique because his clique is his family, so he's both old and new guard, just a player who knows what it takes to win. What he is to D-line coach John Mitchell is an example. Mitch is the guy who makes me laugh out loud with his coaching one-liners ("Son, if you can't move your hands any faster than that by the time Dermontti Dawson gets here, you're going to find yourself hanging from that snow fence over there."), and he did so again the other day. He's not so much clever as brutally funny. Since this is a family blog, I won't get too graphic, but Mitch had Aaron show the rest of the line how he gets those big arms up and extended in order to use O-lineman as his personal shield while he moves laterally to the ball. "Now you, you, you and you," Mitch said, pointing to some of the young guys, "if you -------s can't do that, you may as well go home right now. Come here -------s and line up." ... Another cross-generational player is Chris Hoke. In one of the sports magazines out there Willie Colon said Hoke is the biggest butt-kisser on the team. He said that wouldn't bother Hoke, and it's true. Hoke does whatever's necessary to stay on the team, first, and get on the field, second, and he doesn't care what anyone else but his wife thinks. It adds up to a non-clique guy who's a winning player. So Hoke stepping in for Hampton has been a boon for the team. When I watch the centers – Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig – I can't tell which one's better. Each will do something well or something poorly from series to series. But Hoke seems to own Hartwig. Casey doesn't practice nearly as hard as Hoke, and Jeff Hartings used to say that that was a blessing. Not that Hampton's lazy, but Hoke just gives everything all day long like no one else on the team (pre-Limas Sweed). So Hoke's repeated scaldings of Hartwig could turn out for the best in the long run. Either it will reveal a fatal flaw or motivate the new center into becoming a winning player. ... I saw one of the Internet bloggers had written a long, informative report with several details from a day spent at camp. We used to get that kind of report over at the RealPittsburgh.com board. Problem is, the opinions come too quickly. Too often a bad practice day turns into a label that misidentifies what the player can consistently do over the long haul. That's why I was hesitant to rave about backup defensive end Ryan McBean the other day. He thrashed Matt Lentz in the one-on-one drill, and Tomlin called out for McBean to go up against Darnell Stapleton, who lunged and whiffed badly. Tomlin called for a reload and Stapleton stopped McBean initially, but McBean powered through with his secondary move. Tomlin left. He'd seen what he wanted to see. Great for McBean. But the next day, McBean was slapped around by Jeremy Parquet. Then Parquet got in an extra punch up high and McBean, already embarrassed, wanted to fight. It was a typical sequence for a losing player. So up and down we go. Where it stops, neither Ryan nor Steely McBeam knows. ... Tomlin's paying particularly close attention to Bruce Davis, and he likes to match him up with rookie LT Tony Hills. Davis shows an array of rush moves and has great quickness. But Hills is showing surprisingly quick feet. He can keep up with Davis, who sometimes makes a secondary move to come clean, and sometimes doesn't. Davis definitely needs more strength and Hills definitely needs to improve with his hands, but they're both athletic, hard-working rookies. When I see Hills and his athletic build and raw skills, I think of John Jackson, who blossomed into a championship-caliber player after a few years. I also like the fact that Tomlin's interested in the right guys: McBean, Davis and Hills are potential building blocks who are at a critical juncture. Mendenhall and Sweed are building blocks, but no need to hover over them because it's obvious that they're players. Tomlin instead is working on the second-level players he'll need in a future title drive. … A new drill came up yesterday, a linebacker coverage drill. They were isolated on backs and tight ends, and it's obvious that old man Farrior is still the team's best coverage backer. Larry Foote struggles, but is a wily vet who can get away with a hold at the right time and place. Lawrence Timmons has all the skills, but was beaten badly by Heath Miller, who beats many people badly. Rookie Mike Humpal is showing surprising athleticism, but was beaten by a sharp move by Jon Dekker. Justin Vincent beat LaMarr Woodley for a long gain and Bruce Davis looked like the typical college DE struggling as a 3-4 OLB in coverage, so I don't think it's anything to worry about. He'll learn. He already has the speed, and that's the important part. ... I know this is running long, and I apologize. I wanted to write the previous morning, but loud music was blasting from the scouts' rooms upstairs and it had me up till 5 in the morning. I asked one of the scouts the next day if they could turn their speed rap/metal down a bit after 3 a.m. He said he would if it was his choice, but it was Kevin Colbert's party. When I confronted the GM about it, he just said, "That wasn't speed rap/metal, Jim, that was James Brown." I told him I'd try to listen more quietly next time, and he said, "Good because we have work to do around here." ... I can joke around with Kevin. I even give him tips on players from time to time. He never listens, just smiles as he shakes his head and walks away. "Jim, Jim, Jim," he'll say. Well, he listened pretty intently yesterday when I told him I had a tip on a punter. I got the tip from one of the informed readers we have on board. The punter's the No. 2 guy in San Fran. Keep an eye on him. ... Speaking of effective journalism, I overheard a conversation someone else was having with one of the reporters up here who has a Hall of Fame vote. Kevin Greene wanted to sit down and talk to that reporter about his chances, but the voter said, "Hey, I have my plate full with Dermontti Dawson." That voter later asked me to give him the stats on Dawson that I'd presented in my latest notes column. ... Yep, punters and Hall of Fame centers. That's my new gig. Have a great weekend.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 30
Mike Tomlin is reigning in reporters' access to assistant coaches for one big reason: He doesn't want the assistants to set or report on the depth chart. Well, offensive line coach Larry Zierlein did just that today when he told reporters that, except for the center position, the offensive line is set. That would indicate that Willie Colon has won the right tackle competition against Max Starks.
It makes sense for a couple of reasons: 1. Colon has been more explosive off the ball early in camp; 2. Starks is in the final year of his contract and could leave after the season, meaning the development of the younger Colon would be disrupted for only short-term gain; and 3. If Colon were moved to guard, there's a good chance he'd have to be moved back to tackle if/when Starks leaves. That's just not the way to develop a young player.
Today's a very hectic day, but I've already bagged interviews with Dick LeBeau and Ryan Clark. Also tommorrow, I hope to report here about the progess being made by players such as Ryan McBean, Mike Humpal, Tony Hills and Bruce Davis. Humpal in particular had an outstanding morning practice. He looks like a keeper.
TUESDAY, JULY 29
Ever hear of Roy Lewis? No? Well, how about Marvin Allen? Didn't think so. Well, the first is an undrafted rookie cornerback who missed spring drills because of the NFL's graduation rules, and the latter is the team's lone international roster exemption. I think I can safely say that neither has much of a chance of making the team and that's probably why they laid out and dove into the tackling dummy every turn during the special-teams gunner drill. The only reason I mention this is because Limas Sweed was the only other player I noticed doing the same thing. The rest of the players just hit the bag, which was a substitute for the actual punt returner. Lewis and Allen dove because it's their only chance to make the team. Sweed dove – repeatedly – because that's the way he's wired. The big second-round pick will make the team even if he drops every pass thrown to him, but he can't help but go all out on the simplest of drills. Now, Sweed didn't stand out during any of the pass-catching drills. Early in practice I watched him closely – he and fellow big WR Micah Rucker – and both showed soft hands. That's all I needed to see. But I was told later that Sweed dropped several balls during one-on-one drills with cornerbacks. I couldn't say for sure since I was at the other field watching the run game. I did turn once when I heard footsteps. It was Sweed and his cover man racing deep for a long pass. The ball was well overthrown, but Sweed dove anyway, and he came close. And it looked painful. He'll have the scrapes to prove it for the next few days. My point is that we shouldn't expect Limas Sweed to crack the lineup early because he has so much to learn. But with that work ethic, there's a good chance that some day he'll be great. ... The other top draft pick, Rashard Mendenhall, has IT. We reported on his blocking skills last night, but two other plays stood out. Mendenhall caught a pass in the flat with only Deshea Townsend on that side of the field. The veteran cornerback moved in for the kill (or touch, as sane men will do during practice), and Mendenhall put a nifty move on him and Deshea swatted at air as Rashard chugged down the sideline for what in a game would've been an 80-yard touchdown. The first-round draft pick used the same move to change holes during the 9-on-7 run game. He picked up fullback Matt Spaeth through an opening and made what would've been another long run in a game. ... The bit about "sane men" was meant as a shot at Anthony Smith, who blew up Willie Reid during a non-contact drill in morning drills. I didn't get a good view, but another reporter told me that after the play Smith waved off defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The reporter was furious, saying that Smith "showed him up" as he had in Carolina a few years ago. Last year, Smith lit up a few receivers in camp and word from his hometown is that Coach Mike Tomlin secretly encouraged Smith to "do it again." But I have a feeling Tomlin's not encouraging wild and reckless behavior from his third-year safety this time around. And if it's true that Smith did show up LeBeau, that puts him at the head of the "Don't Be Surprised If He's Cut" list. ... Casey Hampton won't be cut, of course, but he has a long road to get back in shape. He weighed in at 360 pounds, 25 over the weight that would've netted him a six-figure bonus, and 35 over his listed playing weight. No one in the chain of command is happy, or believes that Tomlin has overreacted. Putting Big Hamp on the PUP list was a necessary move for a guy who's never been considered lazy in his life. But the big guy did need the wake-up call, and at least he's away from his new bride, who, word has it, can really cook. ... If you've ever tried to quit smoking, and couldn't, no one should tell you that "you don't care." That's the circumstance with Casey. As Tomlin put it, everyone has a weakness and this is Casey's. ... It's only been one practice, I know, but new center Justin Hartwig is less than impressive. Chris Hoke had his way with him, but understand that Hoke just might be the best practice player on the squad. Here's how a source put it: "Hartwig gets better leverage than (Sean) Mahan, but Mahan is probably smarter. It really will be hotly contested." The last line is the way Tomlin described the center competition before camp. Of course, it's only been one day. We'll keep you posted. ... Trai Essex didn't strike me as being in great shape, but I watched him closely on a few reps and, yes, he's far more explosive this camp. Tomlin wasn't feeding us any lines when he praised Essex's first-day performance. ... RT Willie Colon showed far more explosiveness than did Max Starks yesterday. Starks may have lost a lot of weight, but his first day performance, as supported by a source, was sluggish. ... Mewelde Moore finally went back to return some punts with the injury to undrafted rookie Kevin Marion, who, by the way, was impressive in receiving drills. ... One more note before my closing: fan attendance was surprisingly low. ... OK, here's the closer: I passed Dan Rooney in the hallway the first day here and he was genuinely happy to see me – me, a peon sportswriter who couldn't help him in any way, shape or form. The point is, he just likes people. There's nothing phony about him. Now, if he loses control of the team it will be a shame, but if he doesn't lose control of the team, it will still be a shame because some day he's going to leave. It's a fact of life. My point is that no one will be able to replace him. I've come to the conclusion that it's not so much a Rooney family thing I'd miss as much as it will be a Dan Rooney thing. He's truly a special person.