PITTSBURGH -- This is the first of what I would like to be a weekly notebook during the upcoming Pittsburgh Steelers season, but with the completion of the second week of organized team activities (OTAs) I believed that this was a good time to get started. I also will write one after the final two weeks of spring practice as well, culminating with mini-camp June 11-13.
The second week was highlighted by Sean Spence's appearance. The same could be said about tight end Heath Miller during the initial week. While Miller wasn't as optimistic as Spence, he's more of a soft-spoken, reserved, even-keel type of guy, I expect him to return and be as good as ever this season. The Steelers clearly feel he same way, because they did not draft a tight end and only attempted to improve depth at the position by bringing back Matt Spaeth.
Where's The Beef?
That would be in the center of the Steelers' defensive line. Sure, super-sized Casey Hampton is gone, but there's plenty of bulk remaining. Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon weighs about 310 pounds, the same for Al Woods, while Hebron (Soni) Fangupo checks in at 324 pounds. Lest you believe neither stacks up to Big Snack Hampton, I present Alameda Ta'amu, who tips the scales at 348 pounds and appears to be every bit of that.
While Ta'amu appears to be on the straight and narrow so far this year, he has not been pushing McLendon for playing time. Woods, who also gets reps at both end spots, said he is getting second-team reps behind McLendon.
I wouldn't worry about that spot. It's the ends who need to pick up their games, specifically first-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. They are due.
With all the hubbub surrounding the Steelers' locker room and leadership issues last season, it's a wonder that strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor did not show up during the second week of OTAs. Not that it's mandatory for players to participate, but these are two veteran guys -- leaders on the defense -- and they should be in attendance.
This is par for the course for Polamalu, who rarely attends spring practices -- although last year was an exception -- but Taylor's absence is unknown.
In his absence, veteran William Gay has gotten a lot of playing time in his vacant starting spot, opposite Cortez Allen. Gay also has practiced at Polamalu's safety position, which automatically improved the depth at safety. As far as Allen goes, don't worry about him replacing Keenan Lewis. The Steelers certainly aren't concerned, or they would have given Lewis an offer.
The fact that they didn't even consider it speaks volumes about their faith in Allen. And after a couple weeks of practice, it's easy to understand why. He has excellent ball skills in single coverage and strong enough to come up to make a stop in the running game. While he isn't as fast as Lewis, Allen is a better tackler and has better technique. He's going to be a good one.
Moving Up In The World
Throughout four years at the University of Pittsburgh, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling had to park his car in the lot before the indoor practice facility and walk through the building and next lot to get to the team's offices and practice fields, just like his teammates and media members.
Now that he has been signed by the Steelers after opening his NFL career playing four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, things have changed.
"I finally get to park in the big lot,'' Stephens-Howling said. "I walked by all those big SUVs and fancy cars for four years, but now I pull into that lot and park with no questions asked.''
It shouldn't take Stephens-Howling long to prove that he belongs. He proved to be a talented kickoff returner with the Cardinals and slick pass-catcher. He also has the speed to get outside in a ball-carrying situation as well.
The final not isn't football related, but the Steelers were involved Thursday when Pitt basketball coaches Barry Rohrssen and Brandin Knight attended the practice with a recruiting prospect. Alabama native Trevor Lacey, a five-star guard who played two seasons for the Crimson Tide, is considering a transfer to the Panthers. The kid appeared to enjoy himself and certainly would be a good pickup for the Pitt hoopsters.
Dale Grdnic is the author of Pittsburgh Steelers Glory Days and a freelance writer. Look for more of his columns on Behind The Steel Curtain this summer