OTA No. 11: Has Ben lost his swagger?

SCI.com publisher Jim Wexell gives his thoughts and makes some notes on each of the Steelers' OTA workouts spring. Here's the 11th installment:

PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger spoke to the media Thursday and he struck me as a bit nervous.

Yes, he came off as calm and collected in the various podcasts shown throughout the net, but he was clearly eager to please, and that's a departure for a player who's been more of a let's-get-this-done kind of guy in the past.

Of course, nerves were to be expected his first time out in front of a mob of reporters armed to the teeth with questions, but I bring it up because his performance in front of the press was similar to his performance on the field that day. It was another rusty showing, and there was far more hesitancy in Roethlisberger's game than usual. For instance, he'd drop back, look left and, when pressured, hurriedly dump the ball right like a flustered rookie. One fell to the ground without anyone nearby; another bounced off a lineman's shoulder pad and through the hands of a second defender in what should've been an interception. Roethlisberger also threw a checkdown that would've gotten his receiver's head taken off by a safety during live action.

It's early, and understandable, but it's clear that at this point in June Roethlisberger has lost his swagger. That should please the NFL, but Steelers fans obviously want to see a return of the cocky Roethlisberger on the field. You assume his confidence will return with time, but it's something to monitor at training camp.

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Mike Tomlin is having fun with the media this spring, and Thursday, while the players were still working individually within their position groupings, he approached us with a smile and told us he had a "newsflash" for us, that Lawrence Timmons would be playing outside linebacker in scrimmages.

"I thought I'd throw you guys a bone," he said excitedly.

But if he really wanted to throw us a bone, he'd tell us why James Harrison, the hardest working man in football, has missed so many spring workouts. Harrison missed again Thursday, along with LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark, while Dick LeBeau, as promised, wore Chris Hoke's No. 76.

The Steelers worked on their two-minute drill during the first scrimmage and that brought second-round pick Jason Worilds onto the field as a defensive end in the 4-2-5 nickel. Worilds will be an exciting player to watch when the pads come on at training camp, but there's not much to glean from the pass-rushers during non-contact drills.

Offensively, the first unit with Roethlisberger struggled until an offsides penalty on 4th-and-10 set up a short slant to Mike Wallace for a first down. Roethlisberger then found Arnaz Battle wide open on the sideline behind William Gay for a completion at the 9. On second down, Roethlisberger looked left and threw back right in perfect timing with a charging Isaac Redman out of the backfield. From the 3, Roethlisberger badly overthrew Heath Miller in the back of the end zone and, on fourth down, overthrew Wallace, who was smothered in the back of the end zone by Bryant McFadden.

The second team in the hurry-up was quarterbacked by Dennis Dixon, who overcame a Ziggy Hood sack with a pass to Antonio Brown over Keenan Lewis for a first down. The drive stalled when Lewis came off his coverage of Brown to break up a touchdown pass to wide-open Tyler Grisham, the inside receiver on the play.

Highlighting the 7-on-7 passing drill was the Byron Leftwich-Emmanuel Sanders combination. Sanders dove to catch a short pass over the middle and then beat safety Tuff Harris deep to catch a bomb.

Also of note in this 7-on-7 session were the back-to-back catches by tight end David Johnson. Aware of Johnson's pass-catching struggles this spring, another reporter suggested that I "tweet" to commemorate this "highlight," but I passed.

In another note, the Steelers will go bowling on Tuesday and then work out Wednesday at Heinz Field, which in the past has been closed to reporters. The last practice on Thursday could be cancelled or shortened, per tradition, so this could possibly be the final comprehensive practice report of the spring.

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After Thursday's workout, and after the huddle with Roethlisberger, I watched Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders – the nearly identical rookie receivers – again stay late to play one-handed catch with the tennis-ball machine.

After each completed his session, each sat down with me for a story that'll appear in a few days. Both players are loquacious, but in a different way: Sanders is more easygoing and quicker to smile, while Brown took the interview as seriously as if he were running routes against Keenan Lewis. In fact, I asked Brown about his post-play fracas with Lewis earlier in the week.

"I understand it," Brown started, "Keenan is a second-string DB and I've been catching a lot of balls on him. I'm a rookie, you know, and I'm sure other guys were ragging on him about me making plays on him, so I'm sure he don't want a young guy coming in and exposing him."

Antonio, are you sure you want Keenan reading that kind of comment?

"Me and Keenan are really tight," Brown responded. "We're really close. I sit by him in special-teams meetings and we talk a lot. It's not like I just met him. We're really close. I always say I'm going to get him and he always says he's going to mess me up. It's a team thing, a competitive thing, something that us football players understand. At the end of the day, he loves me and wants the best for me, just like I want the best for him."


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