"He's been productive," Coach Mike Tomlin explained. "You look at his production last preseason and it was next to nothing. (This preseason) he caught balls, critical balls, caught a variety of balls, showed he was capable of playing the slot, moving the chains on third downs, making significant plays."
After catching one pass last preseason for five yards, Baker was put on the practice squad and stayed there all season. This preseason, the 6-foot-3 receiver caught eight passes for a team-high 115 yards. His experience makes him more palatable to the coaching staff for opening-day action.
"Dallas had a real good preseason and a real good camp," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "Some days he struggled, but if he's out there I have no questions in his ability."
BEN'S OLD FRIEND
If Baker performs poorly Sunday, he could lose his job entirely to Ben Roethlisberger's favorite college target, Martin Nance.
The 6-3, 212-pound receiver out of Miami (Ohio) worked out for the Steelers on Thursday. They didn't sign him, but made clear that they like him.
"I didn't see the workout, but he was pretty impressive on that field a couple weeks ago," said Arians. "He had a real good preseason – a real good preseason."
Nance spent the last two seasons with the Vikings and was second on the team this preseason with eight catches for 144 yards. He caught two passes for 25 yards against the Steelers.
Nance was Roethlisberger's go-to receiver in 2003, when he caught 90 passes for 1,498 yards and was the Offensive MVP in the GMAC Bowl. But Nance injured his knee in the middle of the 2004 season and it cost him the 2005 season, and possibly a slot in the 2006 draft. He signed with Buffalo after the draft, but was released and signed with Minnesota. Roethlisberger wanted the Steelers to draft Nance in 2006, and appealed to the front office.
"He's a friend," Roethlisberger said. "But that wasn't the reason I went to the front office. I was trying to help the team out."
Roethlisberger said he didn't have anything to do with Nance's workout Thursday.
"Coach knew him from Minnesota," Roethlisberger said. "He was on the practice squad and went against his defense every day."
Nance played only one game with the Vikings, the 2006 finale, and caught four passes for 33 yards.
RUNNING BACK ROLES
Mendenhall, who never fumbled in college, fumbled three times this preseason, but Arians won't be reluctant to use him.
"Not at all," Arians said. "I've coached running backs too long. I don't worry about that. I don't worry about that at all. You play football, and when you run it, hold onto it."
Arians said the short-yardage back will be "whoever's in the game."
Newly acquired tight end Sean McHugh missed his second practice with an ankle injury and won't play Sunday.
Linebacker James Harrison once again sat out the last half hour of practice. The reason listed Wednesday was "coach's decision" and Thursday it was "not injury related."
Tomlin on Thursday's practice: "We had a great practice today. It may not have any bearing on how we perform on Sunday, but it was a very sharp practice. The tempo was excellent and we got quality looks from our look squad. This time of year it's very important that we follow the Iron-Sharpens-Iron principle, and we got guys on the looks quad giving us quality looks, from Dezmond Sherrod to Orpheus Roye. It runs the spectrum, and that's what made practice great today."
Charlie Daniels will sing the national anthem before Sunday's 1 p.m. opener. The Steelers will also honor three members of their "family" who passed away this year: former defensive linemen Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, and former broadcaster Myron Cope. The Steelers are asking fans to arrive early to participate in the ceremony.