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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tuesday news and notes

The Steelers held yet another feisty practice today, highlighted by a drill I had not seen them run before - something head coach Mike Tomlin called "wide receivers stalk blocking DBs."

The drill consisted of a player running with the ball toward an imaginary edge and the receiver firing out and blocking - or attempting to block - the defensive back in front of him.

Things got very heated in the competition, with wideout Derrick Williams getting into it with rookie corner Andre Freeman in a fight that brought in several teammates, including safety Ryan Clark.

Moments later, Ike Taylor or Antonio Brown got into a little pushing match.

At the completion of it all, the coaching staff brought both groups together - presumably to remind them that they are all on the same team.'

@ Every day the Mike Wallace holdout continues is one day closer to Plaxico Burress returning to Pittsburgh.

That's not a misprint.

Burress is definitely on the team's radar, and at some point, the Steelers are going to have to move on without Wallace.

Burress would be an immediate help to this team in the red zone.

@ LaMarr Woodley continues to dominate the backers on tight end blocking drill, regardless of who the Steelers put in front of him.

Don't know if that is because he's that good, the Steelers' tight ends behind Heath Miller aren't that strong or both. I'm leaning toward a little bit of both.

Tuesday, it was Woodley again completely rag-dolling David Johnson on three consecutive runs through the drill. Woodley looks primed for a big year.

@ The Steelers have been giving both Mortty Ivy and Stevenson Sylvester some work at outside linebacker in an attempt to find some position flexibility there.

Ivy didn't look all that strong at the point matching up against Jamie McCoy, who might be the most consistent blocker of all the tight ends behind Miller.

@ Miller, by the way, returned to practice on a limited basis today and looked good catching the ball.

Keenan Lewis, who was thought to be out for at least a couple of days with a shoulder injury, went through a full practice.

A little competition goes a long way.

@ First-year quarterback Jerrod Johnson made back-to-back perfect throws in the final team session, making a beautiful sideline throw to Marquis Maze down one sideline. Maze had a nice diving catch on the play.

Johnson then dropped a ball in perfectly to Tyler Beiler over Freeman.

Johnson is a big kid (6-5, 251) but shows good mobility in the pocket. He could push Charlie Batch off the roster.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Steelers July 29th notes

I finally got to sit and watch - OK, stand and watch - an entire practice Sunday for the first time at this camp without having to hustle somewhere else or have things abbreviated by the threat of rain.

I saw some pretty good things out there.

Second-year linebacker Chris Carter looks physically bigger on the field and his functional strength is improved. Once just a guy who could beat you with his quick first step, Carter can now lock onto somebody and force them where he wants to go instead of the other way around.

He did this in the backs on tight ends drills against David Johnson, then handled Leonard Pope.

Carter told me after practice that he's added eight to 10 pounds of muscle.

Being that he's starting opposite LaMarr Woodley with both James Harrison and Jason Worilds on the PUP list, it was a good move for Carter.

@ The Steelers had a physical pads practice and had some players dinged up at times.

Starting running back Isaac Redman took a shot early and sat out a few plays, but the most serious injury was to cornerback Keenan Lewis, who suffered an injury to the AC joint in his right shoulder during a sideline collision.

He could be sidelined a while, with Cortez Allen moving into his starting spot.

Offensive linemen Trai Essex and David DeCastro also suffered minor ankle sprains, but are not expected to miss any time.

Tight end Heath Miller (ankle) and punter Jeremy Kapinos (back) were joined on the sidelines Sunday by wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was given the day off by head coach Mike Tomlin rather than have him practice on field turf.

As for good news on the injury front, safety Damon Cromartie-Smith is expected to be activated from the PUP list on Wednesday. He has been out with a shoulder injury.

@ Funny moment of the day came when offensive tackle Max Starks was working with the other PUP list players on his conditioning.

After running back Rashard Mendenhall completed a cone drill with the ball in his hands, Starks did the same.

I told the guy next to me that if Starks had the ball in his hands on a play, something had gone terribly wrong.

Starks came to his senses on the next drill and declined the ball when Mendenhall offered it to him.

@ The catch of the day belonged to first-year receiver Jimmy Young.

Working against Ike Taylor, Young went to the ground down the sideline on the final play of practice to snare a perfect pass from Byron Leftwich, hanging onto the ball as his helmet popped off upon contact with the ground.

@ While Carter looked improved, both Johnson and Leonard Pope disappointed in the backs on tight ends drill.

The clear star was LaMarr Woodley, which is why they are paying him the big bucks. Woodley whipped everyone in sight.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What the Brown signing means

After having Mike Wallace spurn a similar offer, the Steelers signed wide receiver Antonio Brown to a five-year, $42-million contract extension on Friday.

What does this mean for Wallace?

It means that his days with the Steelers are numbered.

After giving Brown a big deal, the Steelers aren't likely to hand out another one at the same position.

So his options now are to report to camp, sign his tender and hope he has another big season, or hold out until there are six games left in the season, report, and become a free agent at the end of the year, hoping that somebody will make him a big offer.

He's got a much better chance of getting a big deal next season if he goes out and tears it up this season than he does if he doesn't play.

Brown's contract also likely means that the Steelers won't use the franchise tag on Wallace, either.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Steelers complete first practices

Heath Miller left the Steelers practice this afternoon with a sprained left ankle. It's not considered serious.

Alameda Ta'amu also left with a foot injury. It, too, is not considered serious.

Other than that, the Steelers' practices today weren't a whole lot different than the OTAs. There's still a lot of learning to do with the new offense, which features more throws to the running backs on swing passes and screens than I have seen in my 20 years of covering this team.

Fans should be happy with that.

@ Fans will get their first look at the Steelers Friday afternoon when the team's practice is open to the public. I expect the team to be a little more spirited in that workout. The players seem to feed off the energy of the crowd.

@ Troy Polamalu looks a little heavier than usual. He's doing his usual work after practice and such, but he's starting to fight father time and genetics.

I still expect Polamalu to be a difference maker, however.

@ Don't be surprised if the Steelers bring in a veteran wide receiver or two for workouts in an effort to scare Mike Wallace into camp - Plaxico Burress anyone?

The team could also open negotiations with the agent of wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Steelers open camp

Mike Wallace was the only no-show for the Steelers as they opened training camp at Saint Vincent College Wednesday.

At this point, Emmanuel Sanders will assume Wallace's starting role and the Steelers will move on.

Traditionally, the team has not negotiated with players who are holding out while under contract, but this situation is a little different.

Wallace has yet to sign his one-year tender offer with the team and is thus not under contract at this time meaning, technically, he's not a holdout.

But he's not a free agent any longer, either, leaving him and the Steelers at an impasse.

His teammates expect Wallace to come into camp no later than the start of next week. We'll see.

At this point, he's really not missing anything. But once the weekend begins, he'll have to play catch up.

@ Six players will open camp on the PUP list, including linebacker James Harrison, who is resting a sore knee.

The other players who will sit out practices early are running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee), nose tackle Casey Hampton (knee), offensive tackle Max Starks (knee), linebacker Jason Worilds (hand) and safety Damon Cromartie-Smith.

Despite being down two outside linebackers - at least for a few days - head coach Mike Tomlin said the team won't sign anyone for depth at the position.

Tomlin said it will be an opportunity for Chris Carter to get more reps.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Steelers extend Tomlin

The Steelers haven't gotten a new deal done with wide receiver Mike Wallace yet, but they did manage to extend the contract of head coach Mike Tomlin through 2016.

At 40, Tomlin is entering his sixth season with the Steelers. The Steelers have gone to the playoffs in four of Tomlin's first five seasons, while also advancing to the Super Bowl twice, winning once.

“We are pleased to announce that Mike Tomlin will remain with the Steelers for at least five more years,” said Steelers’ President Art Rooney II. “Mike is one of the top head coaches in the National Football League and we are thrilled he will continue to lead our team as we pursue another Super Bowl title.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Steelers get deal done with DeCastro

The Steelers got their final draft pick signed, agreeing to terms with first-round pick David DeCastro on a four-year deal worth just over $7.8 million.

The deal includes a team option for a fifth season.

Getting the deal finished with DeCastro prior to the opening of training camp Wednesday was important for the Steelers, who expect the former Stanford All-America guard to compete for a starting spot this season.

His signing leaves Mike Wallace as the only player not currently under contract. Wallace still has a $2.7 offer on the table as a restricted free agent, but has yet to sign it.

Negotiations are ongoing.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Back from my last vacation and ready for camp

I'm back from my last week away and am ready to gear things up for training camp.

There was, however, some interesting news while I was away in Virginia.

First, the Steelers re-signed offensive tackle Max Starks to a one-year deal. The next day, they released offensive tackle Jonathan Scott, even though they had room on their roster to keep him around.

The signing of Starks was not surprising. He showed them last year just how valuable he can be when the Steelers played their first few games without him and struggled - with Scott at left tackle.

Starks suffered a knee injury at the end of the season, but is rehabbed and back in shape. His signing allows the team to ease rookie Mike Adams along while learning from a veteran how to play in the NFL.

That will be good for Adams in the long-term.

As for Scott, the Steelers had to keep him around until they were sure Starks would be ready to go.

Once that happened, the Steelers did the honorable thing and released him now, giving him a better chance to hook on with another team.

That's why players respect the team's front office so much.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Top 100 thoughts

The NFL Network recently completed its top 100 list. I'm not a big fan of such lists, but the network has to come up with something to fill its airwaves during the NFL dog days of June and July before camps open.

The Steelers were well represented on the list once again, with six players, led by safety Troy Polamalu at No. 19.

Interestingly enough, Polamalu's spot on the list was one ahead of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and three behind Ravens safety Ed Reed.

James Harrison was the second Steelers player listed, coming in at 29th. That's not bad for a player who fought through an injury-plagued 2011 season and also missed a game due to suspension.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was ranked 30th, which sounds low until you consider he was the fourth quarterback on the list. Roethlisberger was ranked below Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, and one spot ahead of Eli Manning. It's tough to argue with that pecking order.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace came in at 47th, which some people likely have a problem with. I don't. Wallace is a special talent and ranking him as the fourth-best player on the Steelers' roster is a nod to that.

Center Maurkice Pouncey ranked 49th despite coming off what I considered a so-so year for him. I thought Pouncey was better as a rookie than he was last year, but the fact that he has already stepped into a leadership role shows how he is thought of by his teammates and peers.

Finally, despite playing just half a season in 2011, linebacker LaMarr Woodley ranked 63rd on the top 100. Woodley was well on his way to earning a spot higher last season and could be primed to put up a monster season in 2012.

@ Longtime O-R sports writer Mike Kovak is leaving after 13 years here to head off to Johnstown.

For several years, Mike was the second guy with me at Steelers games. In fact, we covered the playoff game in Tennessee in 2002 together.

On the drive back, we decided to stop at a Shoney's in Kentucky. As I was at the breakfast bar, I noticed two guys with hooks for hands.

I made mention of this when I got back to the table. Lo and behold, there was another guy sitting near us that also had a hook for a hand. There were three in one spot. Don't know if it was "Hook for a Hand" day at Shoney's or what.

Maybe they got a discount for thresher accidents.

But Mike will be missed.