OTA No. 7

SCI.com publisher Jim Wexell gives his thoughts and makes some notes on each of the Steelers' OTAs this spring. Here's the seventh installment:

Dick LeBeau wore James Harrison's No. 92 today, perhaps to mark the linebacker's return to the field. Aaron Smith missed his second consecutive practice. He was again replaced at left defensive end by Ziggy Hood. Someone told me that Hood is the back-up on Smith's side not so much for any tactical reason but out of the common sense that Smith is probably closer to retirement than is Brett Keisel.

A couple of pairs of players drew my attention today, if only because they're so similar in size that I often confuse them.

First, there's last year's seventh-round pick David Johnson and first-year player Eugene Bright, who joined the Steelers' practice squad late last season. Both are similarly sized tight ends, with Bright appearing to have more jiggle (or fat, to be honest). But as Johnson dropped another pass and Bright simultaneously pulled one in rather smoothly, I wondered whether Bright might give Johnson a run for his roster spot this August.

In talking with a coach, Bright's name came up with bubbly enthusiasm. The coach told me how much he likes Bright, how hard of a worker he is, and how the team investigated the status of his notorious younger brother, former prep phenom Callahan Bright, only because of how much they like Eugene. The Steelers didn't sign the younger Bright after he weighed in at over 340 pounds, but it was made clear to me that Eugene Bright, a converted defensive end from Purdue, has a chance. And, really, the only clear edge for Johnson is his experience at fullback.

The other pair of "twins" I put under the scope was the rookie receiving combo of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.

Sanders appears so polished and poised that he looks like he's been here a couple of years. Sanders also ripped off a long punt return with quick cuts into the middle and then back down the right sideline.

Brown, the well-regarded sixth-round pick, matched Sanders' performance both as a receiver and a returner. In fact, Brown took the same path as Sanders for a long punt return. Brown isn't quite as polished, explosive or confident as Sanders, but he's not all that far behind the third-rounder either.

I also focused on No. 47, 5c pick Stevenson Sylvester, a backup mack inside linebacker. He's rangy, and has a bit more stiffness than I remember from watching film of him at Utah, but he's always around the ball and wasn't beaten in coverage at any point Wednesday. It's difficult to get much of a look in the spring without the contact, but Mike Tomlin is high on Sylvester, as he is with most of his second-day draft picks.

Some of the interesting plays of the day:

* Strong safety Will Allen converged on 273-pound rookie fullback Demetrius Taylor and tabbed him quickly after a catch to the praise of DBs coach Ray Horton. But the distinct size differential made me wonder whether Allen really would've been celebrating had there actually been a collision.

* On the first play of red-zone work, Byron Leftwich threw an easy touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on an inside curl over Bryant McFadden. More – much more – on Wallace tomorrow.

* Rashard Mendenhall took a middle screen pass inside the 15 and ran untouched into the end zone as the left side of the line provided the escort.

* Counting a disputed touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle El (whom William Gay may or may not have tabbed a half yard away from the pylon), the first team under Leftwich scored three times in five plays.

* Dennis Dixon quarterbacked the second team and his wide pass to Emmanuel Sanders on the left sideline of the end zone was broken up by Gay. Sanders, the rookie, was told to use his "good hands" by injured receiver Hines Ward and healthy free safety Ryan Clark.

* Speaking of sidelined veterans, Doug Legursky shouted instruction to Maurkice Pouncey after one particular play. And, speaking of Pouncey, he supposedly had his toe stepped on by Trai Essex, necessitating medical attention. I did not see this and expect the news is probably being overblown.

* In seven-on-seven red-zone work, Leftwich tried again to open up with a touchdown pass to Wallace on the first play, but McFadden broke it up in the back of the end zone.

* Heath Miller made the catch of the day by going up over Ike Taylor in the corner of the end zone. Taylor shouted in frustration after Miller came down with Leftwich's pass.

* Leftwich did end the session with a TD strike to Wallace coming through the middle between Taylor and Clark.

* For the second team, Tyler Grisham made a terrific sliding catch of a Dennis Dixon pass. Grisham will be "a tough out" at training camp because he's clearly playing with more confidence than last year, when he made the practice squad and then played late in the season.

* Charlie Batch threw 7-on-7 TD passes to Antonio Brown, who cut sharply up the middle at about the 10, and Matt Spaeth, who beat Joe Burnett over the middle.

* In the third and final team session, Leftwich threw a bullet to Antwaan Randle El off a one-step drop, and Randle El showed me a burst for the first time this spring. Randle El reappeared deep downfield a few plays later when Leftwich sidestepped the rush and found the veteran slot receiver along the opposite sideline.

* In the run game, Rashard Mendenhall – still looking quicker than ever – took an inside handoff and broke off a big gain when Burnett and rookie safety Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith collided while converging in the hole.

* Cromartie-Smith's running mate on the third-team deep patrol, Justin Thornton, broke up what would've been a sensational leaping catch in the end zone by Jason Chery off a Batch pass.


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