AFC North: Stefan Logan
Biggest surprise: Although it was somewhat expected this week, Justin Hartwig's release is the biggest for the Steelers. There is no doubt Hartwig was one of the team’s top 53 players, but he was released after losing his job to first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey. Hartwig also made starter money, an estimated $2 million. Kick returner Stefan Logan was solid last year, but his lack of versatility made him expendable. Pittsburgh will be looking for a new kick returner as a result. Both rookie receivers, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, made the team. Most projected Pittsburgh would only keep one and try to get the other on the practice squad.
No-brainers: Running back Justin Vincent showed a few flashes, particularly early in the preseason. But a crowded group of running backs in Pittsburgh made Vincent expendable. There were also a pair of recent draft picks who never panned out in cornerback Joe Burnett and offensive guard Kraig Urbik. Because of need, both players had chances to contribute to their respective positions but never developed. Rookie defensive lineman Doug Worthington is considered a project, and he’s a candidate for the practice squad.
What’s next: Pittsburgh’s veteran-laden roster is pretty much set. It doesn’t appear the team will make any major moves at quarterback following Byron Leftwich's injury. But the team could search the waiver wire for depth on the offensive line, which was inconsistent this preseason. With Frank Summers’ release, the team may also be in search for a fullback.
Joe from Indiana, Pa., wants to know if the Pittsburgh Steelers will draft Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
James Walker: Joe, I'm already on record saying that Tebow will not be a quality NFL quarterback. So if the Steelers draft him with that intention, it will be a mistake. But I don't see Tebow fitting in the AFC North, despite all of the hype and speculation surrounding him. Pittsburgh in particular doesn't run a Wildcat, and even if it did, backup quarterback Dennis Dixon is more athletic.
Raef Cogan from New York, N.Y., writes: Is there another reason for the Pittsburgh Steelers signing Antwaan Randle El than for the occasional trick play?
Walker: Yes, Raef. Randle El also was brought in to add depth to the receiver position. Behind starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, the Steelers also have Mike Wallace, Randle El, Arnaz Battle and Limas Sweed. There is a chance that not everyone makes the final roster, but it's a deep unit going into training camp.
Joel from Kansas City, Mo., writes: What is the status of Stefan Logan. He was the main return guy last year. How will work with the signing of Randle El?
Walker: This is something that will develop during offseason camps, Joel. Randle El can contribute more as a punt returner than a kick returner. So there is a decent chance the two could split return duties. But the coaches will look into this over the next several months.
Steve from Dubois, Pa., writes: Do you think the Steelers might jump up in the draft to get Florida cornerback Joe Haden?
Walker: If the Steelers move up, it won't be into the top 10. That would be too costly. Haden ran better 40 times during his personal workout, which erased some questions and likely placed him back in the top 10. But in the event Haden falls to the teens, the likelihood would increase. I think Haden would be a great (albeit unlikely) fit in Pittsburgh.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers lead the San Diego Chargers 21-0 at intermission of Sunday’s night’s game.
Here are some halftime notes:
- This is as good as I’ve seen Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall run in his year-plus in Pittsburgh. The 2008 first-round pick is seeing the holes really well and putting his shoulder down to gain the tough yards. Mendenhall has 16 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He also put a big block on blitzing Chargers linebacker Kevin Burnett in the second quarter that was impressive.
- Pittsburgh’s offense was dominant right off the bat in the first quarter. The Steelers recorded 144 yards on their first two drives which resulted in 14 early points. Pittsburgh also had nine first downs in the game before the Chargers were able to get their first late in the opening period.
- San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie is having a tough game so far. The Steelers are throwing a lot in his direction, and he was called for holding receivers on two separate occasions to extend drives. Cromartie was one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL two years ago but struggled mightily in 2008.
- This is Pittsburgh’s biggest lead of the season, halftime or otherwise. The Steelers have blown back-to-back leads the past two weeks against the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals on the road. But Pittsburgh is playing extremely well in front of its home fans, which appears to be making a difference.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- With Troy Polamalu’s knee injury and the Steelers’ overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans, there were several things I was unable to get to late Thursday night.
So now that I’ve had more time to reflect on the game, here are several additional observations on the Steelers:
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Santonio Holmes was a reliable target Thursday night, hauling in nine passes for 131 yards.|
- Let’s start with the good: Santonio Holmes looks primed for a 1,000-yard season. Against the Titans he had nine receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown -- the same total from his Super Bowl MVP performance. The difference I’m seeing now from Holmes is he’s making all the routine plays in addition to the spectacular ones. Holmes didn’t leave any opportunities on the field Thursday. He was thrown to 11 times and nine were receptions. The other two were uncatchable balls by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, including one interception. The Steelers won’t pass 43 times every week (at least I don’t think they will). But it’s clear Holmes is capable of putting up big numbers when needed.
- As indicated in the preseason, the Steelers were much improved on special teams against the Titans. In a field-position battle, punter Daniel Sepulveda turned out to be one of Pittsburgh’s most important players. He punted seven times for an average of 42.7 yards per punt. But most importantly, he placed four kicks inside the 20. Stefan Logan added 127 yards in returns and a blocked field goal by defensive end Aaron Smith made a huge difference in a close game. Veteran Jeff Reed also made two clutch kicks in the fourth quarter and overtime to seal the victory, capping a banner night for Pittsburgh's third phase of the game.
- The Steelers really needed this win over Tennessee. Pittsburgh goes on the road two straight weeks, against the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, and doesn’t return to Heinz Field until October. Playing the next three to six weeks without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu also will be a challenge for the Steelers. But it’s a little easier when you’re the first NFL team to get in the win column this season.
- Now for the bad: Loyal readers of the AFC North blog know I’ve been skeptical of Pittsburgh’s offensive line entering the season and Thursday’s performance confirmed my skepticism. Roethlisberger was sacked four times by the Titans. By my account, two were on Roethlisberger for holding the football and scrambling too long, and two were from lack of protection. But what jumped out most Thursday was the run blocking. The Steelers weren’t physical and couldn’t hold their blocks very long. They have nine days to straighten out those issues. Of Pittsburgh's five up linemen, I thought starting guard Trai Essex had the most problems against Tennessee.
- Finally, I’m going to offer the Steelers some free advice: Call up Isaac Redman from the practice squad. After watching Pittsburgh’s running backs get stuffed at the line of scrimmage time after time, I’m convinced “Redzone” is the best short-yardage option the team has. It’s not the end of the world to carry four tailbacks, and Redman rightfully won’t be the primary option. But even if he gets two carries a game that result in two first downs, he's worth the roster spot. The Steelers cannot expect to win every week going 4 of 14 on third-down conversions.
Let’s see what’s in the AFC North mailbag this week.
Hung Phan from Fort Worth, TX wants to know why Cleveland Browns rookie James Davis fell to the sixth round of the NFL draft.
James Walker: There were a few reasons Davis got lost in the mix, Hung. Davis was a potential first-day pick after the 2007 season, but C.J. Spiller’s emergence last year (1,770 all-purpose yards) took reps and carries away from Davis to the point where scouts didn’t pay attention to Clemson’s second-string tailback. When the Tigers had a disappointed season it further forced scouts to look in the other direction. Davis’ speed and 40-time also isn’t something that jumps out at combines, and those factors all contributed to him being a sixth-round pick. But Davis is proving to be a “football player,” which is what matters most.
Craig Myers from Columbus, Ohio wants to know why his city doesn’t cover the Pittsburgh Steelers when “there are 100 times more people…following the Steelers than the Bengals.”
James Walker: Craig, I lived in Columbus for several years and always thought it was an interesting city when it comes to NFL fans. To my understanding, the Browns always had the edge, while the Bengals were a solid or not-so-solid No. 2 depending on how the team performed. There are not “100 times more people following the Steelers” in Columbus. There are plenty of Bengals fans in Columbus, but mostly they’re fringe Bengals fans. By that I mean they’re proud to wear their gear and come out in droves when the team is winning. But you wouldn’t know there were any Bengals fans in Columbus when the team is losing, which is currently the case. It’s easy to hide fandom when you don’t live in the actual city. To your credit, Craig, there are a good number of Steelers fans in Columbus, as well, because it’s one of the few transient and growing cities in Ohio. But it’s not enough to overtake the Browns or Bengals in terms of pure numbers.
Gary from Toledo, Ohio writes: I read the article where Paul Kuharsky "raced" some speedsters from the AFC South. How much of a head start would you need to beat "Fast" Willie Parker, Andre Caldwell, and the other fast guys from the AFC North? Do you think you could take down Kuharsky?
James Walker: Gary, rest assured the AFC North has, by far, the speediest blogger at ESPN.com. If Kuharsky, “Iron” Mike Sando, Matt Mosley or any other divisional blogger want to challenge that claim, they can pick a time and a date. I’m also the youngest so that plays into it. But as far as racing against NFL players, I obviously need a head start but may be able to beat some linemen in a race straight up. I wasn’t a blazer, but I had good enough speed to play four years at cornerback in high school.
Eric from Pacifica, Ca. has high hopes for kick returner Stefan Logan this year and wants my thoughts.
James Walker: If the Steelers put together a stellar return game this year that would be scary. The only glaring weakness I see left on this team is depth on the offensive line.
Troy from York, Pa. wants to know if Kelley Washington would be an upgrade over Demetrius Williams for the No. 3 receiver spot with the Baltimore Ravens.
James Walker: Washington has done well this preseason and should contribute. But Washington’s ceiling as a receiver is not as high as Williams’ is. Athletically, Williams is a better fit as the third receiver for Baltimore with his speed and ability to stretch the field. The coaching staff has confidence in Williams. But what he lacks is avoiding injuries and consistency.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Three quick hits on the Pittsburgh Steelers:
1. For the past few seasons, the offensive line has been the biggest question in Pittsburgh and that remains so this year. Statistically, the Steelers’ pass protection has ranked among the league’s worst in allowing sacks. Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding the ball too long has contributed to those numbers, but the offensive line certainly isn’t without blame. The coaching staff feels this unit will improve with another year together, but that remains to be seen. The loss of guard Darnell Stapleton (knee), who was put on injured reserve, hurts the team’s depth.
2. If the preseason is any indication, Pittsburgh’s special teams will be better. Kicker Jeff Reed and the coverage teams were solid a year ago, but the return game and punting were horrible most weeks. A healthy Daniel Sepulveda is a significant upgrade at punter, and after bringing in a host of returners via the draft and free agency, CFL import Stefan Logan proved to be the best of the lot. Logan has been electric returning kicks this preseason and should help Pittsburgh win the field-position battle.
3. The Steelers must figure who their short-yardage and goal-line tailback will be. Running backs Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore and Frank “The Tank” Summers are vying for that role. A case can be made that Pittsburgh’s best short-yardage option might be on the practice squad in Isaac Redman, who was successful in getting tough yards in the preseason. But with Redman inactive, the coaching staff must hope someone emerges.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers safety Ryan Clark got a good chuckle at the sudden media attention his newest teammate, Stefan Logan, received in the locker room recently, which included a certain reporter in attendance.
|Bob Donnan/US Presswire|
|Pittsburgh’s Stefan Logan won’t be an unknown for long.|
“That’s going to be all over ESPN’s AFC North blog,” Clark said smiling.
At the moment Logan, a 5-foot-7 CFL import, is enjoying life as Pittsburgh’s best-kept secret. But as Clark warned, it may not last for long.
Logan has been electric in returning kicks in the preseason for the reigning champs. He will get several opportunities to impact Thursday’s primetime season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
“I want to be a best-kept secret,” Logan said. “That’s fine with me. I know guys are going to be game-planning to try and stop the special teams, but we’re going to game-plan, too.”
Pittsburgh’s special teams were average last season. The coverage units and kicker Jeff Reed did their part, but the punting and both returns were glaring weaknesses.
Although it didn’t impact the Steelers’ Super Bowl run, they still addressed those holes in the offseason with a healthy return of punter Daniel Sepulveda from a knee injury and adding a host of return prospects via the draft and free agency.
In the end, Logan stood out most among the group.
“Every time he catches the ball I hold me breath,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You don’t know what he’s going to do, and it’s a great feeling.”
After making the team, Logan changed his number from 41 to 11 to fit more with Pittsburgh’s receivers. That’s fine with Logan, who started training camp as a long shot and played his way on the Steelers' 53-man roster.
“It’s a blessing for me to be here with the Super Bowl champs,” a happy Logan said. “When I found out that I made the roster, it was kind of a touching moment.”
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
With AFC North starters not playing much -- or at all in some cases -- here are some notes from the final slate of preseason games:
- We will start with a personal observation: I think it’s safe to say Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs is ready for the regular season. Suggs, who missed a full month with a heel injury, wanted to test himself for the first time this preseason and quickly recorded three tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss in limited action against the Atlanta Falcons. Suggs has routinely missed training camp for various reasons the past few years, and it has always helped him with fresh legs. This year appears to be no different.
- A player who flashed Thursday night and needed it was reserve receiver Demetrius Williams. He led the Ravens with four catches for 77 yards, including a 39-yard reception. Baltimore’s coaching staff like Williams’ ability but needs to see him stay healthy and show more consistency. Perhaps this performance will give Williams some momentum heading into the regular season.
- Neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Anderson started or played for the Cleveland Browns Thursday night against the Chicago Bears. A lot of teams didn’t play their starting quarterback, but it was a very interesting move by Browns coach Eric Mangini not to play his top two quarterbacks. It furthers his goal to create intrigue, uncertainty and keep people guessing. Most likely, the Browns will not name a starter until we get closer to the Sept. 13 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
- If there was any remaining doubt that Stefan Logan would make the Pittsburgh Steelers’ final 53-man roster, the return specialist erased it with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in a victory over the Carolina Panthers. Logan, a CFL import, has been opening eyes in Pittsburgh all summer and won the return duties with an impressive preseason.
- If the competition was even between Cincinnati Bengals running backs Brian Leonard and DeDe Dorsey, I don’t know how the team can separate the two after Thursday’s preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts. Cincinnati ran the football well all night, and Dorsey and Leonard were the team’s leading rushers with 68 and 64 yards, respectively. Cincinnati likely will have to choose between Leonard and Dorsey Saturday, making for one of the toughest roster decisions in the AFC North this weekend.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
In addition to the Cleveland Browns, a pair of AFC North powerhouses also saw action Saturday night in the preseason.
- Saturday was a great night for AFC North quarterbacks because Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore's Joe Flacco both brought their "A" game. Flacco had a near-perfect night, completing 23 of 28 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown in a 17-13 win over the Carolina Panthers. Roethlisberger was 15-of-19 for 168 yards in a 17-0 shutout win over the Buffalo Bills. Since both performed very well in the third and most important preseason game, it's safe to say the two quarterbacks are ready to start the regular season.
- Baltimore's starting defense cleaned up its leaks in the run defense from the previous week. The Ravens' first team only allowed three points in the first half, and as a team allowed just 78 yards on 20 carries (3.9 yard average).
- Pittsburgh's defense also was its dominant self against the Bills. Not only did the starters dominate the first half, but middle linebacker and team captain James Farrior put points on the board with a 22-yard interception return. The longest play the Steelers gave up to Buffalo Saturday was a 17-yard passing play.
- Ravens veteran receiver Derrick Mason looks all the way back following shoulder surgery and a brief retirement. Mason and Flacco quickly developed chemistry during Flacco's rookie year in a 2008, and after Mason missed the start of training camp, it appears the two have it going again. Mason caught six passes for 71 yards, which is a lot for a preseason game. In the past two games, Mason has nine receptions for 139 yards.
- I'm convinced that Pittsburgh's Stefan Logan is a natural kick returner. He fielded four punts against Buffalo and averaged 15.8 yards per return, which has been consistent with the rest of his preseason. Most NFL special teams coaches believe if a punt returner can get a first down (10 yards or more), then that player did his job. But Logan is exceeding that on most attempts.
- Both teams have a short week upcoming. The Ravens travel to play the Atlanta Falcons Thursday. The Steelers play at Carolina on the same day. Don't expect the starters to play much as both teams proved this weekend they are ready for the regular season.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
- According to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Browns fans want a winner and a team as passionate about football as they are.
Morning take: Browns fans are an interesting bunch. They have been extremely quiet in this blog, especially compared to last season, which leads me to believe they don't have much optimism about this year's team.
- Return specialist Stefan Logan is making his mark for the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Scott Brown of the Tribune-Review.
Morning take: I ran into a CFL coach recently and asked about Logan's abilities. On cue the coach predicted Logan will make a strong push in Pittsburgh for a roster spot based on his natural return abilities.
- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer (ankle) is questionable for Thursday's preseason game against the St. Louis Rams.
Morning take: When it comes to Palmer's health, it's always best to be cautious. But the lack of reps could impact his early-season performance.
- Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun writes the Ravens understand their identity this season.
Morning take: I got a very good vibe from my time in Ravens camp last week. Could this be the year the power shifts to Baltimore in the AFC North?
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Half of the AFC North division saw action Saturday night in the preseason.
- The Steelers were wise to take precaution in sitting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Achilles) in a 17-13 exhibition loss to the Washington Redskins. In fact, I said on ESPN radio Saturday night that I wouldn't be surprised if Pittsburgh sits "Big Ben" the following week as well. In my time with the Steelers this summer, I came away feeling one of their biggest priorities was making it through training camp and the preseason with as few injuries as possible. So the Roethlisberger injury Thursday had to give the team a scare. The Steelers already have well-defined roles, and besides a few backup jobs and bringing along rookies, Pittsburgh doesn't have as much use for the preseason as most teams.
- The first-team offense minus Roethlisberger did not look sharp in the first quarter. Starting left tackle Max Starks was called for holding on the first offensive play, fullback Carey Davis had a false start and quarterback Charlie Batch also contributed an intentional grounding penalty all within the first two drives. The unit still produced a touchdown with Willie Parker's 3-yard run, but there are some minor procedural things offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will want to clean up after he watches the tape.
- This week was Stefan Logan's turn to return kicks and he looked impressive. He had the longest kickoff return in the game (60 yards), in addition to averaging a solid 12 yards per punt return. The Steelers are looking to boost their special teams and have turned over every rock this offseason to do so. The team signed Logan from the CFL, and his best chance to make the roster is to become the best returner.
- Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson responded in what was a make-or-break game for him in Saturday's 27-10 win over the Detroit Lions. Anderson completed 8 of 13 passes for 130 yards and a interception as he moved the offense well. The performance likely evened the competition with Brady Quinn, who outperformed Anderson in the first preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Expect this competition to go down to the wire.
- Josh Cribbs is doing all he can to prove that the new regime in Cleveland should give him a new contract. The special-team's ace returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown and had another return to start the game called back. Cribbs, who is also competing for the No. 2 receiver job, has been impressive in both preseason games. But Cribbs says he is undecided if he will play in the regular season without a new deal.
- Rookie tailback James Davis provided the big play Cleveland is looking for from its backfield this season. Davis, a sixth-round pick who has been a pleasant surprise, broke through for an 81-yard touchdown run against the Lions. The Browns are looking for a change-of-pace tailback to pair with Jamal Lewis, and big plays like that will earn the trust of Browns coach Eric Mangini.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|Veteran receiver Hines Ward promises the Steelers will stay focused this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
LATROBE, Pa. -- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari knows a title contender when he sees one.
"They are a championship organization because of the people," said Calipari, a native of suburban Pittsburgh. "That means the people that own it, the people that manage it and the people that coach it. They make sure the players are quality people and they take care of everybody. That's why they are what they are."After returning 20 of 22 starters, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to become the first group since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. But it won't be easy.
They have a shot if they can answer "yes" to these key questions.
1. Will the offensive line improve in 2009?
The knee injury this week to guard Darnell Stapleton already hurts the depth of a unit that has struggled in recent years. Stapleton, who started in the Super Bowl, will have arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and will miss a good portion of the preseason.
Pittsburgh's offensive line remains one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Steelers have allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked an astounding 139 times the past three seasons. The running game, normally a Steelers staple, stalled in 2008.
Knowing that Roethlisberger cannot continue to take a pounding at this clip, the Steelers have been working on improving pass protection this summer. Although Stapleton is injured, the Steelers return all five starters from the Super Bowl and hope another year together improves chemistry and helps the line's overall performance.
Pittsburgh also has backups who have the potential to contribute, including versatile guard/tackle Trai Essex and rookies Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley, who were taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively.
2. Can Pittsburgh handle distractions?
In terms of distractions, the Steelers did not get off to a glowing start. About a week before camp opened, Roethlisberger was hit with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault in Nevada. Pittsburgh's offseason was relatively quiet up until that point, and Roethlisberger apologized to his teammates and the organization last week for shifting the attention from football.
Whether the Steelers learned anything from 2006 remains to be seen. That was the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the wheels came off quickly and completely as distractions, injuries and poor play led to a 2-6 start and an 8-8 finish.
But this group seems very business-like in its approach. Key veterans such as receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu were also on that disappointing team in 2006 and claim to have learned from that humbling experience. Training camp practices have been crisp and players, including Roethlisberger, appear focused.
3. Will the special teams be good?
The Steelers don't have many holes, so we're just nitpicking. But Pittsburgh's special teams were the weakest of the three units (offense, defense, special teams) last season.
Kicker Jeff Reed, in the final year of his contract, is solid. But beyond that, Pittsburgh's special teams were weak.
The Steelers are trying to find a boost in the return game. In camp, Pittsburgh is working out several new players at returning kicks, including former CFL running back Stefan Logan and receiver Shaun McDonald. The goal this year is to take every-down players such as Santonio Holmes off special teams to help the offense.
Perhaps the biggest addition to special teams will be the return of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL in his knee. Pittsburgh's punting was one of the league's worst last year and Sepulveda should change that. The team also is giving Sepulveda an occasional day off from punting in camp to make sure he doesn't rush back.
Second-year receiver Limas Sweed was an enigma last season. First, he couldn't find his way on the field. Then when his number was called late in the year, Sweed wasn't ready.
But last season's disappointment led to Sweed become one of the hardest-working players on the team this offseason. In camp, the former second-round pick looks more confident and continues to make plays.
Sweed has the inside track to open the season as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver and knows his number will be called early if he holds onto the job. This time Sweed believes he's prepared to produce.
|AP Photo/Michael Conroy|
|Rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood should have time to prove himself this season.|
Newcomer to watch
The Steelers do not often take defensive linemen high in the draft, but they broke that mold with first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Pittsburgh likes Hood's motor and versatility. He is expected to spell both starters at defensive end and possibly play some nose tackle.
The three starting defensive linemen for the Steelers are all over 30, so it will be vital for Hood to provide depth and inject some youthful exuberance. The fact that he's not expected to start puts him in a good spot to produce without the normal pressures of a first-round pick.
Roethlisberger is struggling with his arm strength early in camp. After taking a pounding and playing so deep into the postseason, Roethlisberger didn't do any throwing independently away from the Steelers this offseason, choosing to rest instead. But many of his deep throws are coming up short and intercepted. With the preseason starting next week, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Roethlisberger to regain his form. ... Tailback Rashard Mendenhall appears to have recovered from his season-ending shoulder injury. The former first-round pick lost significant weight in his upper body last year because he was unable to lift weights after surgery. But he has regained his bulk and looks more sure of himself in his second training camp. ...Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is using inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in a variety of ways now that the former first-round pick is a full-time starter. Timmons has great range to patrol the middle of the field. But LeBeau also likes Timmons' skills as a pass-rusher and has been turning him loose in pressure packages. ...Look out for rookie receiver Mike Wallace. The third-round pick from Mississippi is making a good impression in camp. Teammates are already calling him one of the fastest players on the team.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
LATROBE, Pa. -- The AFC North blog spent its first day with the Pittsburgh Steelers for training camp.
Here are some notes and observations from Thursday's practice:
- Starting with some injury news, starting offensive guard Darnell Stapleton is going to have arthroscopic knee surgery on Friday. Depending on the severity, "scopes" can hold a player out anywhere between two to six weeks. The Steelers said they would have more of an update after surgery. But at the very least, Stapleton likely will miss a good portion of training camp and the preseason, which could hurt chemistry on the offensive line. Backup Trai Essex is getting work in Stapleton's place at guard.
- Both receivers Mike Wallace and Limas Sweed looked good in practice Thursday. Sweed used his big body to shield defenders for several catches in team and 7-on-7 drills, and the lightning-quick Wallace looks more polished than I expected for a first-year player.
- University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was at practice and it turns out he's a big Steelers fan. Players such as Ben Roethlisberger, William Gay and Deshea Townsend all seemed to get a kick out of talking to one of the top college hoops coaches before practice.
- It only took one practice to notice the Steelers are not holding back Lawrence Timmons. Despite playing him at inside linebacker, Timmons was turned loose several times with nice pressures on the quarterback, which is something Pittsburgh didn't do much of last season with Larry Foote.
- Fielding punts Thursday were running back Stefan Logan and receivers Santonio Holmes and Shaun McDonald. All three looked pretty natural.
- Here is some minor but useful info: I asked one of the referees after practice what's the hardest call to make in the NFL. The ref said offensive pass interference. "It does happen, but sometimes it's just too difficult to call," the ref said.
- Backup tailback Rashard Mendenhall seems to have gained his bulk back. After last year's shoulder injury he lost some weight, particularly in his upper body. But Mendenhall looked strong physically and still has his good feet in open space.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers continued their full-squad, mandatory minicamp Saturday to kick off the 2009 football season.
Here are some notes and observations from Day 2:
- I'm pleasantly surprised with the way second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon is throwing the football this weekend. In the four practices the past two days, Dixon's ball has been a tight spiral more often than not and his accuracy has been solid. Saturday Dixon placed a ball over the middle through three defenders to hit receiver Brandon Williams in one of the best throws of minicamp thus far.
- Linebacker Lawrence Timmons looks ready for a breakout year. He's always been one of the best athletes on the team. But in his third year it looks like he "gets it," in terms of his assignments and Pittsburgh's complicated defensive scheme. Timmons has looked fluid and confident all weekend. He also has little wasted motion when getting to his spots and chasing the ball carriers.
- Veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff believes he can contribute in Pittsburgh this year. Ratliff was with the Indianapolis Colts last season and played a lot of Cover 2 defense, which is a strong point of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Ratliff says knowing the coverage scheme well will help the transition with his new team.
- It what seems to be a daily occurrence at Steelers camp, the funny play for Saturday involved nose tackle Chris Hoke. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing 302 pounds, Hoke was caught covering speedy, 5-feet-7 scat back Stephan Logan in the flat. The quarterback read the play correctly and quickly threw the ball to Logan, who put a juke move on Hoke that nearly caused him to completely flip over himself. The team went nuts and even congratulated Hoke for selling out and trying to make the play, despite the obvious mismatch.
- Receiver Dallas Baker once again flashed some potential Saturday. Baker made four quality catches in the second practice, many of them in traffic, to complete a good day of work. Baker has quietly made plays in camp for the Steelers the past few seasons. This year he is competing again for one of the final roster spots at receiver.