There’s a purple sunrise over the mountain's majesty to the east of St. Vincent College this morning. It nearly matches the photo taken by John Sterling, which we’ve used to stamp this blog the last five years or so. I normally see the sunrise here while I’m out jogging, but I wasn’t jogging this morning; I was sitting outside my dormitory pod drinking coffee, locked out of my room because in the dark I had put my field pass around my neck instead of my pass key and the door locked behind me. I didn’t even have my phone, so I couldn’t twitter for help. I just sat there drinking coffee until Mike Prisuta arose to do the WDVE Morning Show.
“I would’ve gotten up earlier if I had read your ‘tweets’ for help,” he cracked.
Everyone has a twitter joke for me, and I have to tell you I almost missed one of the key plays at yesterday’s practice because I was standing on the sideline twittering like a fool.
Ryan Clark had just scolded the crowd sitting in the stands behind me for not applauding the defense. “Did y’all forget last year already?” he asked.
The crowd had just finished roaring over a great catch made by Willie Parker with Lawrence Timmons draped all over him in coverage. Willie doesn’t have the greatest hands, but he’s been working hard on them this year and the crowd was showing its appreciation. But, now, after hearing Clark’s plea, the crowd started up the loud and familiar chant for “Defense! Defense! Defense!” This amused me so much that I set out on a two-part tweet to tell the story. Just as I pushed send, I looked up to see Rashard Mendenhall knifing through a hole in the middle of the Steelers’ line. He then put a move on a linebacker and was into the secondary. It’s the kind of run for which the Steelers’ coaching staff has been looking.
While Mendenhall can get his 230 or so pounds outside and turn the corner, the Steelers desperately need a runner who can chew up yards between the tackles. Jerome Bettis is a distant memory, but one that flashes through the collective mind of Steelers Nation every time the Steelers attempt to salt a game away with two futile inside runs by Parker and a third-and-long pass attempt. The Steelers need an inside runner, and fifth-round pick Frank “The Tank” Summers is light years away from viability in that role.
“Tank runs too tall,” a source was telling me seconds after Timmons had just blown the rookie up. “That’s why you’re always hearing (RB coach) Kirby (Wilson) yelling at him to get his pads lower.”
And, just then, at the morning practice, Mendenhall took a handoff, missed seeing the wide open lane to his left, and slammed into a massive pile of rear ends for a one-yard loss.
The worry is that Mendenhall doesn’t have enough vision inside, that the scouting report was muddied by his work in the power spread offense at Illinois, where the cutback lanes were always bigger and better and nearly impossible to miss. The Steelers and everyone else knows what Mendenhall can do in the open field with his power and speed. Now they want to see him pick the right hole between the tackles. Thankfully, I stopped twittering just in time to see him do that later in the afternoon.
* I missed the one-on-one line drills yesterday in order to watch 7-on-7 passing drills, where safety Tyrone Carter drilled rookie receiver Mike Wallace over the middle a la Anthony Smith v. Willie Reid. No one came to Wallace’s defense because he held on to the ball and got up to run. He never complained, and Carter even came over to pat him on the butt and tell him no hard feelings.
It was an informational choice I’d made, but I had to know how the line drills went, so I asked Mark Kaboly, a writer for the McKeesport Daily News and contributor to our site. He’s an O-line aficionado, so I sought his take. I asked him how Tony Hills performed.
“Who’s Tony Hills?” he responded with a smirk.
“OK,” I paused, “How was Kraig Urbik?”
“He was a little better.”
“Did any of the young guys impress you, Mark?”
“Yeah,” Kaboly said, “Ziggy looked very good. Very good.”
Chalk up another fan for first-round pick Ziggy Hood. Earlier in the day, I’d asked Aaron Smith about the young defensive end. Aaron has seen young linemen come and go. His brother told me, during an interview for my book Steeler Nation, that Aaron can tell within one or two practices whether a young, hotshot lineman is going to put in the necessary work to contribute to the Steelers’ three-man line. So I asked Aaron about Ziggy’s work ethic.
“I really like him,” said Smith. “I like him as a player. I like him as a person. I love his heart. He’s going to be a good one, trust me.”
I do, Aaron. Thanks.
* Back to the young offensive linemen. I asked line coach Larry Zierlein about undrafted free agent Ramon Foster.
“He’s doing some good things,” Zierlein said. “I like him. I think he has a chance.”
Well, he’d better, I told Zierlein, whose facial expression became puzzled. I responded that with second-year man Tony Hills being such a disappointment, the team needs depth in the worst way.
“I don’t agree with you on that,” Zierlein said. “Tony’s playing better than he ever has with the team.”
But he’s been so bad in one-on-one drills.
“You can’t judge a player on those drills. There’s a lot more to it than that,” Zierlein said in conclusion.
Another source told me that Hills does some good things, "but then takes two steps back.” The source also said that depth at tackle isn’t as bad as I want to make it out to be, because, he said, Jason Capizzi is showing great improvement. I’d been worried since Capizzi hasn’t received many reps in the one-on-one drills.
“No, we like what Jason’s showing us so far,” the source said.
Inside, Trai Essex has impressed the Steelers at right guard, but, even if Darnell Stapleton stays healthy, the source said, the Steelers don’t expect him to replace Justin Hartwig at center if Essex wins the job at guard.
* One more note on the offensive line: The Post-Gazette published a story Monday in which Bruce Arians was quoted as saying, “Willie Colon is as good a right tackle as there is in the league.”
I, being a fan of Colon’s potential, was pleased to hear that, but since the Steelers aren’t taking the collapsing CBA into account when extending contracts, I wondered why the team isn’t looking to negotiate with the 26-year-old Colon. So I went to see my good friend The Answer Man.
“Remember the disconnect between the coaching staff and the front office on Max Starks?” he questioned by way of an answer.
And, yes, I remember. The coaching staff didn’t think Starks was worthy of a starting position; yet, the front office – rightly so, in retrospect – slapped the franchise tag on Starks, who eventually became the left tackle during a championship run. The point my most reliable source was making is that it appears the coaches and the front office don’t so much have a failure to communicate as they’ve once again agreed to disagree.