Prisuta: Fourth & Goal

In today's Fourth & Goal, reporter Mike Prisuta takes a look at the little things that kept the Steelers from victory in Chicago.

THURSDAY, SEPT. 24

Little things make all the difference

Big Ben wants to be "deadly." Big Ben wants an offense "that teams fear," one that tries to "score on every possession."

Better still, Big Ben has a handle on how such combustibility can be achieved.

"We need to stay focused on executing," Roethlisberger said. "Sometimes, it's just the little things. We need to not take anything for granted, every play focus on the little things and good things will happen."

When applied to the specifics of the Steelers' 17-14 loss in Chicago, the message is as on target as Roethlisberger's standard array of rainbow launches in yet another spirited game of locker-room trash-can basketball.

Little things ...

Such as offensive tackle Max Starks getting beat inside by defensive end Alex Brown on 1st-and-10 from the Bears' 38-yard line, which resulted in Roethlisberger getting hit and being intercepted.

If Starks gets beat outside rather than inside, running back Willie Parker is in position to help out with a chip-block and Roethlisberger likely hits a wide-open Mike Wallace for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

"We got beat inside, which is unforgivable when you have chip-help," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.

Little things ...

Wallace basically takes himself out of bounds after catching a pass on 2nd-and-12 from the Bears' 35 late in the fourth quarter rather than attempt to fight his way through recovering cornerback Charles Tillman and gain the 2 yards needed to move the chains. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes fails to catch a perfectly thrown Roethlisberger fade to the end zone on the next play and kicker Jeff Reed misses a 43-yard field goal that would have given the Steelers a 17-14 lead with 3:23 remaining on the play after that.

Coach Mike Tomlin declined to publicly chastise Wallace, a rookie. "He got what he could get," Tomlin said.

The next time, Wallace needs to at least try to get a little more than he got.

It wasn't just the offense that too often took a little too much for granted. Strong safety Tyrone Carter wondered just before a 3rd-and-goal snap from the Steelers' 7 whether his bruised thigh would allow him to cover wide receiver Johnny Knox one-one-one on a blitz Carter knew was coming. But if Carter had at least taken away the slant and forced a more difficult attempt to the corner of the end zone, the Bears might not have tied the game with 6:25 to go in the fourth quarter.

Little things ...

They added up big last season, when the Steelers produced the points that ultimately won a game inside the two-minute warning or in overtime five times in the regular season, and then did so again in Super Bowl XLIII.

Upon their arrival at St. Vincent College this summer, Tomlin said these Steelers wouldn't approach the upcoming season with a sense of "entitlement." Their lack of attention to detail against the Bears suggested otherwise.

That needs to change in Cincinnati.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 23

J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets!

That wasn't September football the Jets were playing against the Patriots; it was a statement game.

And while it's too early to anoint New York after what happened against New England, it isn't too soon to begin including the Jets in the conversation with the Steelers, Chargers and Patriots whenever the team to beat in the AFC are discussed.

We knew the Jets were going to go Baltimore under Rex Ryan. What wasn't revealed until Sunday was just how effectively the Jets' new philosophy could be incorporated against one of the AFC's perceived elite.

The Patriots still have some issues to sort through, so it's not as if the Jets dismantled the defending champs. But it became more apparent every time Tom Brady dropped back into the pocket and then threw off his back foot while turning away that these Jets are really going to be a pain in the ass to play against.

Brady was never sacked but he was never Tom Brady, either. Not with a passer rating of 53.1.

The Jets saw to that and will continue doing their best to see to it that opposing QBs have to get moving in the pocket and get the ball out of there as quickly as possible. They're going to overload the middle or they're going to overload one side and they're going to be coming. And they might just get away with it thanks to the emergence of Darrelle Revis as a guy who is being recognized in league circles as the NFL's best corner after holding Andre Johnson and Randy Moss to a combined eight catches and 59 receiving yards in the Jets' first two games.

Revis takes away the Moss Du Juor and everyone else attacks or covers the flats and the slants and the screens. You can try to throw deep against that, but you have to keep your QB upright long enough to do it. That'll involve committing backs and tight ends, but it could take weeks rather than quarters to figure out.

And even if you accomplish that, you'll still have Revis to deal with down the field. It appears as if Fireman Ed finally has something to shout about.

Mark Sanchez isn't about to light anyone up any time soon, but with that defense and that scheme the Jets have a chance to coax just enough from their rookie QB, the way the Ravens did a year ago with Joe Flacco.

Revis has size, toughness, and ball skills and can cover the likes of Moss, Johnson, Terrell Owens and, we dare say, even the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald down the field.

Bart Scott is Bart Scott.

David Harris is an instinctive, tough, physical linebacker who plays downhill, a perfect complement to Scott inside and an under-rated player in all of this.

And the Jets are getting stronger.

Defensive end Shaun Ellis returned from a one-game suspension against the Patriots and under-rated outside linebacker Calvin Pace is due back from a four-game suspension on Oct. 12 at Miami.

The New England beating, while guaranteeing only a 2-0 start for the Jets, suggests anything's possible the rest of the way.

TUESDAY, SEPT. 22

Best Defense is a Good Offense

The Bears took what the Steelers gave them in Chicago, which wasn't much but turned out to be just enough.

That was almost the case in the regular-season opener against Tennessee, as well.

Dink, dink, dink.

Dunk, dunk, dunk.

Nickel-and-dime, punt.

Repeat as necessary.

Anyone else sensing a trend?

Opposing offenses, at least the first two opposing offenses, have seemingly grasped the futility of trying to drop back into the pocket and throw the ball down the field against these Steelers. There's no percentage in it. You risk either throwing into coverage or getting your quarterback killed, so why bother if you don't absolutely have to? Better to keep running into a brick wall and complement that with a seemingly endless succession of outs, slants, screens and check-downs into the flat.

Bore 'em to death until the fourth quarter, and then figure something out or get lucky.

The Bears did both, all but ensuring that subsequent opponents will hope for more of the same.

The Steelers won't counter by over-playing the underneath stuff because that's not their style. They'll continue to deny the big play at all cost and dare opposing offenses to beat them with a succession of little ones.

The Bears got away with that because they were amazingly patient and disciplined on offense. In fact, Lovie Smith became an early candidate for Coach of the Year for turning gunslinger Jay Cutler into a game manager. So they were able to hang around until the game's later stages and then make a few plays. Chalk up one for Chicago.

But had the Steelers ever been able to make Sunday's game a two-score affair, the landscape would have changed dramatically. And the floodgates to potential sacks, turnovers and all of that other big-play damage the Steelers' defense loves to inflict would have been opened.

This type of scenario will unfold again. Maybe not against Carson Palmer or Philip "Whiskey" Rivers, but it's coming. And it'll be incumbent upon the Steelers' offense or special teams to force opponents to open up.

One fewer defensive penalty or missed tackle might have accomplished as much in Chicago, but so might one fewer dropped pass, overthrow, interception or missed field goal.

Case in point: If Jeff Reed makes it 17-7 from 38 yards away with 11:42 left in the fourth quarter the game is probably over right there. Or, if a promising second possession results in points rather than an interception, after achieving a first-and-10 at the Chicago 38-yard line, that potentially-decisive two-score advantage would have been achieved early.

As it was the Steelers were still a play or three from winning the game even though they wound up playing the Bears' game. A little more timely offense, something the Steelers ought to be capable of, warts and all, can deter subsequent opponents from dragging the game down to their level.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 16

See How They (Can't) Run

If it was just one thing they could and would fix it.

But the problems the Steelers experienced trying to run the ball against Tennessee are attributable to enough varied factors that they don't figure to be fixable quickly.

Consider:

* Second-and-5 from the Steelers' 47-yard line (second offensive snap of the game) -- LG Chris Kemoeatu stumbles backwards and down while attempting to pull, FB Frank Summers whiffs on his block, and RB Willie Parker loses 3 yards while attempting to beat two unblocked defenders.

* Second-and-2 from the Steelers' 13 (second quarter): The Steelers try two tight ends and five offensive linemen against nine in the box. CB Nick Harper comes clean and DE Jevon Kearse gets off TE Matt Spaeth's block and Parker gets turned inside for no gain.

* Second-and-1, Steelers' 30 (second quarter): The Steelers get a hat on a hat, Parker correctly diagnoses the hole and hits it for a 10-yard gain. Except the hole was created in part to a hold by WR Hines Ward. Parker ends up being credited with a 5-yard gain but the Steelers wind up losing 5 on the play.

Three plays, three different problems. And that doesn't even begin to consider the disastrous short-yardage approach (see "Summers whiffs on his block" in paragraph four above). Occasionally, it works the way it's supposed to, but only occasionally.

Consider:

* First-and-10, Steelers' 46 (first offensive snap of the third quarter): RG Trai Essex pulls and takes out DE Kyle Vanden Bosch while TE Heath Miller seals off S Michael Griffin. Parker slides between the two blocks for a gain of 8 (his long run of the night).

If only it would happen with more regularity. If only Parker could still get outside. If only Parker went down on first contact less frequently. If, if, if ...

A No. 23 ranking in rushing offense has never looked so good.

Neither has RB Mewelde Moore.

Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians may admittedly be "hard-headed" as it relates to running the football. But something tells me he'll grow tired of the headache long before the running game evolves into something more preferable than beating one's head against a wall.

LEBEAU KNOWS DEFENSE: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau blitzed Kerry Collins seven times on 21 first-half passing attempts. The Steelers came at Collins with numbers nine times on 14 second-half passes, including a seven-man jailbreak and three consecutive blitzes on a Titans possession that began at the Tennessee 18 with 2:50 remaining in regulation.

"The game was on the line," LeBeau explained.

The first of LeBeau's three consecutive blitzes surrendered a 12-yard gain. The subsequent two produced incomplete passes, as did the four-man rush that followed on third-and-10 from the Titans' 30.

"Our guys did a great job of applying pressure," LeBeau said. "It's not what you call; it's what they do."

LeBeau's humility aside, the calls matter at least as much.

ANOTHER REASON TO LOVE HEATH: When CB Cortland Finnegan settled under Ben Roethlisberger's "Hail Mary" on the Tennessee goal line and headed up field, Miller was in the vicinity of the Titans' 23.

When Finnegan was finally hauled down and shoved out of bounds at the Steelers' 20, Miller was in on the tackle.

That's a pursuit of almost 60 yards, just in case.

FRIDAY, SEPT. 11

Huddles Are Overrated

The statistics were ridiculous, but also revealing:

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 363 yards. Santonio Holmes (131) and Hines Ward (103) each surpassed 100 yards receiving. And Heath Miller caught all eight balls launched in his direction.

Given all of the above you'd suspect the Steelers would have produced more offensive fireworks than what had been launched off the barges in the rivers prior to Thursday night's NFL opener.

Instead, they managed 13 points, with the final three of those being achieved in overtime.

And as it turned out they were lucky to get that many, and lucky to beat the Tennessee Titans, 13-10, in OT.

But the Steelers were also resourceful in eventually stumbling upon a three-receivers, one-back, one-tight end set coupled with a no-huddle approach that produced results when the Steelers absolutely had to have them.

"It saved us," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.

The question now is, has last season's no-huddle package emerged as the Steelers' only viable option on offense, given the state of the offense line, the running backs not named Mewelde Moore and the running game?

With Moore at running back, Miller at tight end and Holmes, Ward and Mike Wallace operating from the wide receiver positions the vast majority of the time, the Steelers generated 173 yards on their final three possessions against Tennessee, drives that ended with the game-tying field goal, Ward's fumble inside the Tennessee 5-yard line, and the game-winning field goal in OT.

The previous 10 possessions generated 184 yards.

"That package gives us an ability to stretch the whole field," Arians said. "And Mo's a fifth wide receiver and a hell of a runner.

"Ben did a good job with it."

The approach carved up Tennessee's zones.

Against a team that favors the blitz -- something Tennessee clearly isn't -- it might also turn draws, slants and yes, even screens into big plays, or at least drive-sustaining plays.

The alternative is apparently what we saw for three-and-a-half quarters against the Titans, which was as painful as it was ineffective.

Given that, putting the ball and the offense in Roethlisberger's hands sounds like a plan the Steelers will resort to again eventually if not immediately.

"I'd still like to try to run it a little bit," Arians said. "I'm hard-headed."

That must account for what took them so long to get desperate against Tennessee. Once the Steelers shifted gears, Tennessee's 4-2-5 alignment was basically powerless to stop the Steelers, other than safety Michael Griffin's strip of Ward which, as it turned out, only delayed the inevitable.

"We really wanted to try to utilize the guys inside," Roethlisberger said. "Utilize Heath over the ball against a linebacker, Mewelde getting out of the backfield against a linebacker, Hines on a nickel guy but moving into zones where he can make plays.

"It wasn't necessarily anything in particular we saw against them as much as just utilizing our weapons."

But can that work for an entire game, or, failing that, for the bulk of one?

"We have so many plays in the no-huddle it's not necessarily something teams could pick up on, I don't think," Roethlisberger said.

His conclusion?

"Maybe."

SUNDAY, Aug. 30

Charles in Charge ... Again

It was supposed to be about featuring RB Rashard Mendenhall, and it was. But the Steelers' 17-0 victory over Buffalo also provided more confirmation that QB Charlie Batch is indeed back as Ben Roethlisberger's backup.

Three plays from Batch's first series, a third-quarter drive that ended with a missed field goal, told the tale:

* First-and-10 from the Bills' 47-yard line: Batch ducks away from DE Bryan Copeland, repositions himself in the pocket and finds TE Dezmond Sherrod for a completion that goes for 21 yards.

* Third-and-6 from the Bills' 28: Batch gets plastered by DE Aaron Maybin but hangs in there long enough to get the ball to WR Shaun McDonald for a gain of 9 before absorbing the blow from Maybin.

* Third-and-13 from the Bills' 22: Batch delivers a perfect strike to the end zone that would have gone for a touchdown had it only been caught by WR Dallas Baker.

Three plays on which Batch demonstrated mobility, toughness and accuracy.

A subsequent drop by WR Brandon Williams in the fourth quarter also conspired to cost Batch another big play on the way to what should have been a perfect night passing. As it was, he finished 7-for-9 for 79 yards and had a passer rating of 103.2.

HOW SWEED IT IS: WR Limas Sweed was at it again against the Bills, bobbling a ball and then coming down out of bounds once he managed to secure it. But the degree of difficulty associated with the four passes Sweed caught that resulted 34 yards was all Roethlisberger needed to see.

"At one point I told him ‘Welcome to the big leagues,' because he made a big splash," Roethlisberger said.

Sweed thought at first that the remark might have been an acknowledgement of his second-year status. It was suggested to Sweed that it might well have meant that Roethlisberger believes Sweed has become one of the big boys, as opposed to a guy who has merely begun to play among them.

"Maybe he did," Sweed said. "I'm pretty sure he did. He probably he did. If that's what he meant then that definitely puts a smile on my face."

DEE-FENSE: The Steelers' first-team defense could have hardly been better against Buffalo.

Then again, the deck could have hardly been more stacked in the Steelers' favor given the presence of No. 1 pick Eric Wood and second-round selection Andy Levitre in the Bills' starting lineup at the guard positions.

"I like my chances against rookies with our defense," Steelers LB James Farrior said. "I think we have a lot of good athletes, people that can take advantage of rookie mistakes."

Farrior wasn't sure at first blush whether rookie mistakes were a big part of what the Bills did wrong. But he loved the way the Steelers went about their business.

"I think our D-line played a great game," he said. "We dominated up front. We controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball."

When that happens 17-0 has a 44-0 type of feel.

MONDAY, Aug. 24

Blocking and tackling inside the Beltway

The first live goal-line drill of the preseason was won by the Steelers' defense, in no small part thanks to LB Keyaron Fox.

Unlike the Arizona Cardinals, who attempted to throw the ball over the goal line the two times they penetrated the Steelers' 10-yard line on Aug. 13, the Washington Redskins opted for a little Powerball during their game-opening drive on Saturday night.

On second-and-2 from the Steelers' 3, the Redskins tried RB Ladell Betts and managed 1 yard (LB Lawrence Timmons and DE Nick Eason were credited with the stop).

On third-and-1 from the Steelers' 2, the Redskins ran Betts again. This time, Fox ran through the lead block of FB Mike Sellers and dropped Betts for a loss of 1.

The play was significant because the Steelers are anticipating Fox to be a reliable, the-standard-doesn't-change replacement for either James Farrior or Timmons inside if needed this season, as well as a special-teams demon.

The employment of Fox on the first-team goal-line defense suggests he's measuring up this preseason.

Also included in that group in that particular instance against the Redskins were DL Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke (in addition to Eason), LBs LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and James Harrison (in addition to Fox and Timmons), and DBs Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

The Steelers surrendered seven rushing touchdowns in 2008, tied with Philadelphia and second only to Baltimore's four.

* FB Carey Davis was an obvious contributor on RB Willie Parker's 3-yard touchdown run, leading Parker into the end zone by driving CB DeAngelo Hall out of the end zone.

Davis was quick to point out afterward that WR Hines Ward had a key block, as well (on LB Rocky McIntosh). WR Limas Sweed got one, too (on DE Rob Jackson).

* OT Tony Hills looked bad again against the Redskins, which no doubt makes it difficult for fans who only see the games to comprehend how certain reporters -- guilty as charged -- could have possibly been talking about the genuine progress Hills has displayed in year two.

But understand two things:

One, there has been a general recognition of improvement on Hills' part among talent evaluators whose job isn't to blat away on the radio or blog.

And, two, Hills was somewhat a victim of circumstances.

Both the false start penalty and the illegal formation call against Hills, which occurred on the same drive late in the second quarter, resulted at least in part from Hills having to line up in the vicinity of Redskins pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, the No. 13 overall pick in the draft.

This just in: Orakpo is an absolute beast. He's going to cause a lot of laundry to be thrown in the direction of guys trying to block him this season.

* Hills had no such excuse for almost getting QB Mike Reilly decapitated by LB/DE Chris Wilson.

* Speaking of the Redskins' defensive talent, the addition of DT Albert Haynesworth has made an impressive defensive line downright fearsome.

Joe Theismann, who is doing local TV in the D.C area this preseason, said the Redskins are 10 deep along the defensive line. Theismann has been known to exaggerate, but that depth of talent is apparent to the extent that it's attention-getting. Respecting that makes it much easier to appreciate the job QB Charlie Batch did recognizing pressure, navigating the pocket to avoid it, and getting his passes off under duress.

Batch might not be able to hang in there and absorb the pounding QB Ben Roethlisberger does in his never-ending quest for the big play, but Batch can run the offense and move the team. Could you realistically ask for more in a backup QB?

* Davis, LB Andre Frazier, LB Patrick Bailey and Fox were the guys who played on all four major special teams before the mass-substituting started against Washington.

Dixon 'all right'

LANDOVER, Md. -- Steelers third-team QB Dennis Dixon suffered a shoulder injury on Saturday night against the Redskins, the details of which had not been passed along to Coach Mike Tomlin in the aftermath of the Steelers' 17-13 preseason loss.

"Looks like an AC joint," Tomlin said. "Don't know the extent. We'll see."

Dixon was 8-for-16 passing for 68 yards and rushed three times for 20 yards.

He spent quite a while in the training room after the game and appeared to have some difficulty putting his shirt on.

"I'm feeling good," Dixon said. "It's all right. I talked to a couple of doctors and stuff like that. I'll let Mike Tomlin talk about it."

As for his overall performance, Dixon called it a "good step. You gotta take those things and attack it next week," he said.

Dixon's best play might have been a 17-yard completion to WR Limas Sweed on third-and-9 from the Redskins' 48-yard line with 1:33 left in the first half.

Dixon scrambled to his right on the play and then found Sweed from out of the wing with a low pass that only Sweed could catch.

Dixon scrambled again on the next snap and kept running this time, gaining 17 more yards. "As a quarterback you want to throw the ball," Dixon said. "I use my God-given talent when I need to. But I have my eyes downfield ready to throw the ball."

His injury aside, Dixon is feeling comfortable enough with himself and his understanding of the offense that he feels ready to play if needed.

"If it comes, so be it," he said. "This offense is great to me. I have a lot of good people out there helping me out, as well, so it's making my life easier."

SUNDAY, Aug. 23

Logan's run

LANDOVER, Md. -- Turns out when he catches kickoffs and punts, Stefan Logan knows what to do with them.

Well enough that he ought to be on the club after his return-game performance in Saturday night's 17-13 preseason loss to the Redskins.

But where?

Somewhere, anywhere, wherever. That's where.

If Logan has to take the No. 5 receiver spot from Shaun McDonald, so be it.

If the Steelers have to go with six defensive linemen and jettison either Travis Kirschke or Nick Eason, then do that.

Or, if it means OT Tony Hills winds up on the practice squad, then that's a chance the Steelers have to take.

Logan's listed as a running back but works out with the wide receivers during position drills. Even he's not sure if he has an actual position, but after averaging 12.0 yards on four punt returns and 39.3 yards on four kickoff returns against the Redskins, he's not sure that ought to matter.

"Right now I'm focusing on returns," Logan said. "Once you make the 53, then they'll start throwing you a few other things, throw in a few wrinkles.

"Once I make the 53, then I'll worry about playing running back, playing receiver, anything like that."

Logan was electric on returns against the Redskins, to the extent that he might be all we're thinking about and talking about today had it not been for a shoestring tackle on one kickoff return, and for Logan apparently getting his feet tangled up with RB Justin Vincent on a subsequent 60-yard effort that probably would have otherwise gone for a touchdown.

The return game can change field position and change games. And if you're willing to acknowledge the importance of special teams by keeping players who are trusted only on special teams (Chidi Iwuoma, Sean Morey, Anthony Madison and Patrick Bailey fall into that category), return guys ought to get at least as much consideration as cover guys.

Coach Mike Tomlin was asked late Saturday night if Logan might qualify as such a guy.

"It's a possibility," Tomlin said. "He got our attention a little bit."

As Logan was repeatedly doing his thing, he had RB Willie Parker's attention, as well. Parker kept thinking the same thing.

"He's going to take one to the house this game," Parker said. "I don't think he has his feet up under him right now. Once he gets in playing shape he's going to be deadly."

Parker acknowledged having raced Logan in a 40-yard dash in minicamp.

"You know I won," Parker said. "But the thing about it was, if we would have raced like 5 more yards; he was blowing past me, anyway, and he was coming real strong. He would have had me in 50 (yards). He would have had me in 45."

Logan, 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, was likened by a staff member to San Diego's Darren Sproles in the early days of training camp. Parker elaborated along those lines after the Redskins game.

"He's so quick and so small and that's real dangerous. He has a low center of gravity and when he runs he looks like he's moving faster than he really is.

"And he's really fast."

SUNDAY, Aug. 16

Fast times at Heinz Field

How fast is WR Mike Wallace?

Fast enough to have QB Charlie Batch second-guessing himself after seeing tape of a 45-yard gain.

Batch hooked up with WR Limas Sweed for 45 yards in the second quarter of the preseason opener against Arizona. One of the reasons Batch went to Sweed in the first place was the mis-match against 5-foot-8 CB Michael Adams. Another was that Batch noticed the cornerback on the other side of the field opposite Wallace was playing not to get beat deep.

"The corner was kind of in retreat mode on Mike and Mike ran past him, which was amazing," Batch said. "When you watch the film you're like ‘wow.' (Wallace) actually did a good job of getting around him to the point where, if you complete that ball (to Wallace) it might have gone for a touchdown."

The same thing happened when QB Dennis Dixon tried to find Sweed deep and threw incomplete.

"Mike ran past him again on the left side, just flat out ran past him," Batch said. "That could have possibly gone for a touchdown."

Batch was asked if such occurrences were an example of Wallace learning how to read coverages and set up defenders. Turns out it was merely physics.

"Speed," Batch said. "Speed, speed, speed."

* If you're putting pen to paper and cutting the roster to 53, don't forget to factor in Arnold Harrison for consideration among the linebackers.

"The thing to his benefit is he knows four positions and he can play those positions," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "And knowing those four positions he can help us run the defense. That's not just a throw-away asset that he has."

Harrison took the field when the second-team defense did against Arizona. He was joined at linebacker by Andre Frazier, Keyaron Fox and Donovan Woods.

Bruce Davis, a third-round pick in 2008, is running with the third team.

"That's the way it stands until he shows us something different," Butler said.

* Cornerbacks Deshea Townsend, Keiwan Ratliff, William Gay and Joe Burnett played the nickel against Arizona, an indication that depth at cornerback and safety shouldn't be a concern this season.

"Three of them are playing safety and Joe will (eventually)," defensive backs coach Ray Horton said.

* LB James Farrior isn't concerned in the least about LB Lawrence Timmons holding up against the run, as LB Larry Foote did.

"I think he's bigger and stronger than Larry," Farrior said of Timmons. "He's more athletic."

It's savvy rather than strength that will dictate how quickly Timmons transitions into an effective three-down player.

"(Foote) was a smart player," Farrior said. "He knew where to be. He knew where the ball was going. He was a very instinctive player."

Such instincts come with experience.

It's a matter of time for Timmons.

SATURDAY, Aug. 15

More to follow

It was only the first defensive play of the preseason but it was as potentially revealing as any. On first-and-10 from the Arizona 15-yard line, Cardinals QB Kurt Warner threw a quick slant to WR Anquan Boldin. Steelers CB William Gay successfully defended the play with just the right combination of recognition, athleticism and technique.

The Steelers' defense in general and the Steelers' cornerbacks in particular are going to be asked to do a lot of that type of thing this season.

When these two teams last met, on Feb. 1, in Tampa, Fla., the Steelers prevailed, as they did in Thursday night's preseason opener. But the victory in Super Bowl XLIII wasn't secured until the Cardinals had piled up 374 passing yards and 407 total yards against a defense that had previously seemed all but impenetrable.

How'd that happen?

A perfect storm of sorts. The Cardinals came at them with an experienced QB, one adept at reading defenses and getting rid of the ball quickly; a trio of receivers with a 1,000-yard pedigree; and a determination to throw the ball to the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald when necessary, whether Fitzgerald was covered or not.

The Steelers' defense still had its moments. James Harrison's interception return and the LaMarr Woodley-Brett Keisel sack-fumble recovery were critical elements. But for a defense that hadn't given up 300 total yards until Dec. 21, and hadn't given up 300 passing yards all season, what transpired was as surprising as it is likely to be repeated, at least in terms of approach.

Of course, not all teams can duplicate the "Arizona Effect." If you're the Titans or the Ravens, you're still going to run the ball against the Steelers because you believe in all your heart that you can. But if you're anybody else, you're going to have to ask yourself just one question when confronting the Steelers defense, and it isn't "Do I feel lucky today?"

It's, "Do we want to risk having our quarterback pounded by Harrison and Woodley, and the subsequent turnovers that may follow, or do we want to get rid of the ball quickly and attack the corners?"

You need not be Bill Walsh to grasp the answer that's obvious.

There's only one Fitzgerald, but there are multiple teams that have gone with the four-receivers, spread-'em-out approach against the Steelers and lived to tell about it. New England is such a team when Tom Brady is the QB, and Brady's back this season.

One other play lingers in the cranium in the wake of the preseason opener:

On the first play of the second quarter, the Cardinals faced a third-and-2 from the Arizona 29.

The Cardinals lined up in a four-wide receivers set and then ran RB Tim Hightower against the Steelers' nickel. Hightower gained 4 yards and moved the chains.

Opposing OCs studying the video might also come to the conclusion that, if you're going to attempt to run against these Steelers, it's preferable to do so when NT Casey Hampton isn't in the game.

TUESDAY, Aug. 11

They dropped what?

What's been happening and what's been said about it at Saint Vincent College: -- The highlight of this week was Sunday's goal-line drill, an exercise dominated by the first-team defense and one in which the offense was able to save some face late thanks to one touchdown scored by RB Frank Summers and two produced by RB Isaac Redman.

OT Willie Colon was impressed.

"They stepped up and dropped their nuts and they were able to score," he said.

Glad that's out of the way in advance of Arizona.

-- Assistant head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell, who has as unique and effective a grasp of practice-field education and inspiration as anyone, has offered the following to his troops:

"Don't give 'em nothin' but a headache."

From Mitch's mouth to the offense's ringing ears.

-- QB Ben Roethlisberger dropped back on Monday and cranked it up with what appeared to be the intention of unleashing a deep ball to WR Hines Ward, only to have a soft pass float out of his hand, over a befuddled linebacker and into the grasp of TE Matt Spaeth.

"Just tried to get the linebacker to bite and think I was throwing it deep," Roethlisberger said.

So now he's got a fastball and a change-up.

If Big Ben adds a slider before September the pennant is in the bag.

-- Among those impressed by the crowd of 15,000-plus at Latrobe's Memorial Stadium for a night practice last Friday night was Joe Greene.

Training camp 2009 marks the 40th anniversary since the Big Man joined the band. "Six Super Bowls, countless AFC Championship Games, and arguably the best franchise in football," Greene said.

"Back then, if you said we were going to be .500 they'd have thought you were crazy."

-- Roethlisberger's adding the change-up to his repertoire wasn't the only significant development on Monday. The offense recognized the need to pick it up tempo- and efficiency-wise and did something about it.

"I don't know if we've practiced as well as we needed to and as well as we should," Roethlisberger said following an afternoon session he characterized as "much better" in a post-workout address to the offense.

"It was time for us to match the defense's intensity."

If that keeps up, good things are bound to follow.

-- S Tyrone Carter has been noticeable and audible. You hear Carter periodically popping receivers and approaching that fine line of practice-field etiquette as it relates to what can and can't be done in the secondary.

And sometimes crossing it.

"In practice sometimes when the receivers make us mad we tend to be a little bit more aggressive," Carter said. "Coach doesn't like the open-field hits. As long as it's close quarters he doesn't get mad with that, when it's inside-the-box, thuddin' up the guys. A guy coming over the middle, you're not supposed to light him up."

Still, it's happened and it will continue to happen.

"When you're being competitive, when you're trying to fly around the ball and make things happen, sometimes you're natural instinct can't hold you back," Carter said.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, as long as Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes aren't the targets.

-- Pitt basketball Coach Jamie Dixon visited St. Vincent College this week and recalled arriving in Pittsburgh as an assistant to Ben Howland 11 years ago.

Dixon's initial responsibilities included mining Ohio, and he recalled receiving a recruiting list that contained the name "Roethlisberger" and the designation "has chosen football."

Dixon maintains Roethlisberger would have received mid-major interest as a basketball prospect.

"I think he made the right choice," Dixon said.

SATURDAY, Aug. 8

Saturday morning snapshot

The practice field was almost deserted, except for SS Troy Polamalu, a reporter and a couple of defensive linemen working the blocking sled.

As Polamalu spoke, his responses were periodically interrupted by a series of thumps from the sled.

The thumps came courtesy of No. 1 pick Ziggy Hood, who was putting in a little OT.

Polamalu was discussing, among other things, how Steelers veterans mentor and educate Steelers rookies and Steelers yet-to-be-established players because that's how the Steelers operate.

"Tutorship," Polamalu called it.

"Thump ... thump ... thump," went the sled.

Polamalu cited how helpful former S Mike Logan had been during Polamalu's rookie season. He maintained WR Hines Ward hasn't gotten the credit he deserves for his work with then-blossoming WRs such as Plaxico Burress, Nate Washington and Santonio Holmes, and for the watchful eye he's keeping over WRs Limas Sweed and Mike Wallace at present. And Polamalu remembered DE Kimo von Oelhoffen as a guy who was always there for a young Aaron Smith and a young Brett Keisel.

"Like that," Polamalu said, pointing to the sled.

About then Hood hit it again, under the watchful eye of Smith.

"Out of respect for the game, I think," Smith said, when asked why he chose to devote part of his Saturday morning delivering a little one-on-one instruction.

"There's no reason for me not to help him. I want to see him succeed. I want to see everyone on this team succeed."

That's how it goes with this franchise, starting in Latrobe.

"I think that's what makes this team unique," Smith said. "Everybody puts the team before themselves.

"That's not to say we're not guys that want to be successful and go out there and compete. But I think we also understand that we want the team to be the best team it can possibly be every day."

FRIDAY, Aug. 7

After further review

An annual briefing by visiting NFL Officials on Friday afternoon, designed to update the media on rules changes/points of emphasis for the upcoming season, turned into an enthusiastic discussion regarding officiating that seemingly lacked only one critical element.

"Can we get a round that somebody can grab?" asked referee Gene Steratore.

This feeling of fellowship came about perhaps because Steratore, line judge Jeff Bergman and back judge Tony Steratore are all Pittsburgh-area guys.

Or perhaps it was because the Pittsburgh media is just that creative in its questioning.

Whatever the reason, Gene Steratore's call was the correct one. This would have been a fantastic bar argument, one that would have dragged on well into the night (and perhaps into an after-hours club).

As it was, the discussion was informative, good-natured, and often humorous. Some of the highlights included the following topics and responses:

-- Hines Ward's hit last Oct. 19 in Cincinnati, as the rules were written then:

Tony Steratore: "That was a legal block."

-- Ryan Clark's helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore's Willis McGahee in the AFC Championship Game:

Tony Steratore: "It's not a foul because the player who was hit was a runner, not a defenseless receiver."

-- Working intense games with an eye toward potential personal fouls:

Bergman: "You get put into a game like a Pittsburgh-Baltimore game where they're going to get in a fistfight during the national anthem. There's a lot of dead-ball officiating where you're in talking to the guys, breaking up things. You have to have your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening.

"Those games, it seems like you're working from the time you arrive in that city on Saturday until you're at the airport going home. You know you're going to have your hands full, talking to the players before every play, after every down."

-- A player potentially celebrating excessively by diving into the end zone:

Gene Steratore: "If he wants to try the stand-up (Shawne) Merriman flip in the end zone, he's gotta stick it. If he doesn't stick it ... (Bergman) we're going to the Russian judge."

-Holding, and if James Harrison is being held on most plays:

Gene Steratore: "There are so many parameters with holding. I hear it, ‘they're holding on every play.' They're not. You need to study what those parameters are."

-- Replay challenges and coaches requesting of them:

Tony Steratore: "You get to the sideline and you can get right away, ‘You guys blew it.'

‘What would you like to challenge?'

‘It's our ball.'"

Gene Steratore: "What I'll do is say, ‘Coach, you want to challenge the ruling on the field that the runner was down by contact?'

‘Yeah.'

‘Very good, Coach, I knew that's what you wanted.' There is an element of that."

-- On the picking up of penalty flags and the announcement that "There was no foul on the play."

Gene Steratore: "I think that's good officiating. There are situations where you pull the trigger and somebody (else on the crew) says ‘What do you have?' And you say, ‘Well, I have this,' and they say, ‘No, that was a good play.'

"If I come to you (to pick up a flag), I'm not coming to you with 93 percent. I'm coming to you at 100 percent. So if I'm coming to you I think it would probably be in your best interest to go with what I'm saying.

"I can't remember a time where there was a flag picked up and I went back and looked at it and thought we should have kept it down."

-- The Santonio Holmes break-the-plane touchdown last Dec. 14 in Baltimore:

Gene Steratore: "That would have been a tough one to explain in Baltimore. There are times when you're home and your game is over and you're watching at night and you think ‘I'm kind of glad I'm here. I can get this one right in the living room after seven or eight takes but I don't know if I'd want to be in that heated atmosphere for that moment in time.'"

-- The quality of analysis on game broadcasts as it relates to officiating:

Red Cashion (a former NFL referee who now trains officials): "Most of these jocks that are up on the television didn't know the rules too well when they played. And they sure don't know 'em now."

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 5

Four of a kind Wednesday was another big day at Steelers training camp. The practice agenda included what NT Chris Hoke described as "head buttin', helmet-crackin' Steeler football."

That was on display during 9-on-7 running-game drill that highlighted what Hoke said Coach Mike Tomlin had characterized as a "No Bones Wednesday" the night before.

Saturday will be another big day in Steeler Nation. Rod Woodson will take his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he'll do so having no problem whatsoever with anyone who identifies and defines him as a Steeler, even though he also played with the 49ers, Ravens and Raiders, winning his only Super Bowl with Baltimore.

The organization's history is rich with such days, days of competition, contact and conquest.

Woodson will be the 20th enshrinee claimed by the Steelers, and 13th since 1987, when Joe Greene and John Henry Johnson arrived in Canton.

Greene is on hand again this summer at Saint Vincent College, evaluating players as part of his duties as special assistant/college and pro personnel. He remains in the eyes of many, from yours truly to some of those deeply embedded in the organization, the greatest player the Steelers have ever had.

Woodson is the greatest player I've ever covered in a career that's included chronicling the Steelers ever since the final three games of the 1986 season.

That goes for body and spirit. For all of his incredible exploits on the field, what I'll remember most about Woodson is that in 1995 he became the only player to suffer a torn ACL and return to play in the same season. The injury occurred in the opener against Detroit. Woodson's comeback was completed in the Super Bowl against Dallas. Bill Cowher kept a roster spot open for Woodson and the rest is history.

Dermontti Dawson is here at training camp as well, working a scouting internship and helping to coach the offensive line. Dawson should be in the Hall of Fame, but understands that he isn't because the Hall's board of selectors has grown weary of enshrining Steelers. He'll have to wait them out.

Dawson is the greatest offensive lineman the Steelers have ever had. That, at least, is an opinion shared by some of those who had a close working relationship with Dawson's predecessor, Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster, and then watched Dawson's remarkable athleticism re-define the position.

And then there's the day coming, I believe, for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whose Hall-of-Fame wait may be almost over thanks to a groundswell of support in the selectors' sub-committee that nominates overlooked veterans such as LeBeau.

If his 62 career interceptions for some reason weren't enough, LeBeau's re-invention of the defensive wheel, the zone-blitz, ought to be.

If and when he gets there, LeBeau will arrive as a Lion, but based on all he's contributed as an assistant coach since the Cowher-led Steelers Renaissance began in 1992, that'll be still another day of days.

MONDAY, Aug. 3

Repeat as necessary

It's a storyline that isn't going away any time soon, one that seems to have plenty of shelf life even as another storyline that threatened to never go away, the Ben Roethlisberger Nevada Saga, thankfully fades from day-to-day significance.

The true storyline: Can the Steelers repeat?

Others might ask more specifically: Can they avoid the mistakes that were made that prevented them from repeating the last time?

I'll do my best to put that nonsense to bed by blasting into the premise the way CB William Gay and LB Lawrence Timmons have been hurling themselves into rookie RB Frank "The Tank" Summers at Saint Vincent College.

It's a matter of record that the Steelers went 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs in 2006 after going 11-5 and then winning Super Bowl XL to cap 2005.

But the reason for such a profound backslide has much less to do with Bill Cowher's perceived lame-duck status, a lack of focus or preparation on the part of the players, or an overall lack of hunger or a championship hangover than it does an irrefutable absolute of the game: They didn't stay healthy.

Specifically, Roethlisberger overcame his offseason motorcycle accident only to undergo and emergency appendectomy and ultimately become concussed.

As a result, the Steelers lost a game in overtime that they probably would have won in Atlanta and lost a game they had no business losing in Oakland, and what could have easily been 10-6 degenerated into 8-8.

"In my 11 years what I've come to realize is injuries play a huge part," said DE Aaron Smith. "The biggest thing in this business is staying healthy. If your team stays healthy you have a chance to make a run for it.

"That's what we did last year. We stayed relatively healthy and were able to get some luck and win some games."

I promise to quote people other than Smith as this season progresses.

Still, when he's right he's right, even if it means all the hindsight regarding 2006 isn't worth the paper it used to be printed on before blogs took over the world.

The Steelers, likewise, have no better handle on how to repeat after having failed to do so the last time, unless someone among their ranks can ensure Roethlisberger will remain upright and fully functioning.

Failing that, Mike Tomlin has established a begin-again-anew tone that's resonated among those who recognize such things.

Consider the assessment of former Raiders and Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan at the conclusion of his three-day visit to Steelers camp.

"There are so many things that you like," Shanahan said. "They're very well organized. They have good, crisp practices. They've got contact but they protect each other.

"You can see why they've won for a lot of years."

One other Shanahan observation that relates to getting from one Super Bowl to the next, as his Broncos did at the conclusion of the 1997 and 1998 seasons:

"I'm very impressed because there are no signs about ‘Super Bowl Champions.' That's where it starts. You can see that they're intent on getting better each practice. That gives you a chance to do something special."

Talk about Mike's column here on our message board.

SATURDAY, Aug. 1

What, me distracted? Not Big Ben or the Steelers

I'm Mike Prisuta, for DVE Sports.

And I'm Mike Prisuta, for Steel City Sports.

Locals might recognize the name from the DVE Morning Show.

Those in outposts unfamiliar with Pittsburgh morning radio might be interested to know my association with Jim Wexell on the Steelers beat dates back to Super Bowl XXX.

Wex also did the hard driving years ago on a trip to Cleveland to see The Who's "Quadrophenia."

We're teaming up again at a Steelers training camp that has opened with, among other assorted events, LB James Harrison showing up in a Smart car and a staffer cracking, "That's an oxy-moron, a Smart car driven by an idiot."

That staffer maintains he's quite close to Harrison.

Close enough to call Harrison an idiot every day.

Yeah, the boys are pretty loose in the early days at St. Vincent.

A more serious matter - at least as far as many of those behind the microphones and in front of the cameras would have you believe - is the potential distraction that is the civil suit that has been filed against QB Ben Roethlisberger in Nevada.

Roethlisberger has vehemently vowed not to let off-field concerns or complications interfere with his title defense and his teammates, predictably, are to-a-man unconcerned about such a development.

Head coach Mike Tomlin weighed in on the subject Friday night with an eyebrows-raising suggestion that such scenarios, while perhaps not commonplace, are hardly the potential distraction many might perceive them to be.

"I would imagine that he's not the only guy on our football team that has a civil proceeding of some kind going on in their life," Tomlin said. "We're just going to focus on football."

That's what NFL types do.

But don't take my word for it, or Tomlin's or Roethlisberger's.

Instead, ask DE Aaron Smith about dealing with potential distractions.

His came late last October when he was informed his then-4-year-old son Elijah had been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

"The biggest thing is, and it's not always easy, but I would say wherever you are deal with that at that time," Smith said. "Be all there, and then deal with whatever else is going on when you're somewhere else.

"As far as for me, I couldn't let other thoughts creep in when I was at work. Unless something arose, I couldn't let my mind wander. I stayed focused on football.

"You just have to commit to it. And as a man, you can compartmentalize. We have a lot easier time with it than most other people. You can separate from stuff. You can detach yourself."

"It's the same thing with a game. Sometimes things don't go the way you want but you gotta just detach and move on and keep going."

Elijah is doing just fine these days, as are the Steelers and their QB.

They might not repeat, but if they don't it won't be because anyone got distracted.


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