Defending champs in great shape

Little wonder Mike Tomlin was pleased with his team after O.T.A. drills came to a close Thursday. The coach of the Steelers oversaw a healthy, happy and motivated group this spring, a group that didn't show a hint of Super Bowl hangover.

Attendance was up and distractions were down, so down that a missed practice period by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made as many headlines as James Harrison's snub of the White House. Tame stuff for a reigning champ, and it only followed that the performance on the field proved satisfactory.

A few players missed, but at positions where depth must be groomed. Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu and Tyrone Carter gave way to Ryan Mundy, the second-year safety who'll step in for Anthony Smith as the backup to Clark, a player with his own health issues.

"From an evaluation standpoint at this point, he's verbal, which is a good sign," Tomlin said of Mundy. "It's a requirement that comes with that position. He communicates pre-snap very well. That displays understanding to me. He's generally in the right place at the right time after the ball is snapped, and of course that's a prerequisite for that position. Whether he finishes plays will ultimately determine what type of player he is and what he can do for us. That'll unfold in August."

Like Clark, Hines Ward rehabbed a shoulder injury and played mentor this spring. It allowed Tomlin a better look at the group vying to replace Nate Washington as the No. 3 wide receiver. Limas Sweed flashed spectacularly at times but dropped his share of passes. Free agent acquisition Shaun McDonald was a favorite of Mike Martz's in St. Louis and Detroit, and his stocked dropped last season after Martz left. The Steelers believe they found a gem, and McDonald appears to be a veteran slot receiver in the Cedrick Wilson mold. A wild card for the No. 3 job is rookie speedster Mike Wallace, who worked more on inside routes this spring and is the frontrunner to win the kickoff return job.

"We have some flexibility with (Ward and Santonio Holmes), so we have an opportunity to pick the guy who will help us win in that spot." Tomlin said. "We'll legitimately look at all these guys and determine who has the most complete, well-rounded game and consistently can provide winning performance and play for us."

The running back position should be much improved this season. Rashard Mendenhall is healthy and motivated. In turn, Willie Parker showed up for the challenge down a few pounds and running hard. Parker showed he still has blazing speed by crowning Stefan Logan -- the diminutive jitterbug and former CFL star -- in a challenge race after one practice. Mewelde Moore, plow-horse rookie Frank "The Tank" Summers, and two-year practice squadder Justin Vincent round out the deep tailback corps.

The main roster weakness – offensive line depth – was addressed with draft picks Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley and the best of the undrafted free agents, Ramon Foster. Second-year men Tony Hills and Jason Capizzi are more confident in their play and are in position to help the team.

The loss of Larry Foote at mack inside linebacker opened the door for the team's next defensive superstar, Lawrence Timmons. The former first-round pick has his weight up to 245 (from 236 at the Super Bowl) and he carried it like a future All-Pro this spring.

Will Gay moves into Bryant McFadden's cornerback spot, with Deshea Townsend telling reporters not to count him out. A new No. 4 CB must be developed, and third-round pick Keenan Lewis showed plenty of promise. The 6-1, 200-pounder flashed that size along with speed and a physical nature this spring; however, Lewis may have to give way on the game-day active list to fifth-round pick Joe Burnett, the coaching staff's frontrunner for the punt return job.

First-round pick Ziggy Hood showed off his athleticism as an inside defensive lineman, but had to fight for reps with a group of proud veterans who turned out en masse to show they're not as old and decrepit as some have been saying.

On another positive note, Roethlisberger showed little ego for a 27-year-old quarterback with two rings. He reported every day but the last, and with Ward out his growing chemistry with Holmes became apparent. They should be quite the connection once training camp starts on July 31.

"One thing I'm certain of," Tomlin said in summation, "Nothing stays the same in this business. Somebody's going to surprise us and be on the rise; somebody's going to surprise us and be on the decline. I make a conscious effort to remain open to those possibilities. I'm looking forward to watching our team report to training camp individually and collectively, and I'm going to let the dust settle where it settles."


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