By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It was a rather inauspicious beginning for the three Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks attempting to replace suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the starting lineup.
Neither opening-practice starter Byron Leftwich, nor third-year pro Dennis Dixon nor veteran Charlie Batch looked too sharp during the 11-on-11 team portion of the two-hour practice.
Their short passing game wasn’t bad, but from mid-range to deeper down the field it got a little bit shaky. Leftwich fired a bullet across the middle that was behind wideout Antwaan Randle El. It caromed off him and was picked off by safety Will Allen.
Leftwich also was intercepted by cornerback Bryant McFadden and should have been picked off by cornerback Keenan Lewis. Leftwich tried to connect with speedster Mike Wallace on a streak pattern down the right sideline, but under-threw it a bit. Lewis had tight coverage and knocked the ball away.
“The playbook isn’t much different from when I left here, and it’s not that hard to pick up,” Leftwich said. “It just takes time to go through it again. When you take a year off from something and then try to get back to it, it takes a while to get back into it. And when you like an offense, you’re never going to forget it.
“And I always liked this offense. I always liked B.A.’s offense. And I never forgot this. To be honest with you, I tried to get some of this offense to be used down in Tampa. So, I never really forgot it, but I just had to start doing it again. (And) the last time I came here, the guys welcomed me with open arms. The same thing happened today. So, that makes it a lot of fun.
“I had the most fun I’ve ever had in my career the last time I was here,” Leftwich added. “And that’s not just because we won the Super Bowl. Just being in this locker room with all the veteran guys, guys who know what it’s all about. We all have just one goal, and that’s to win football games.”
Justin Thornton, a 6-foot-1, 213-pound rookie safety from Kansas intercepted Batch. Dixon didn’t throw a pick, but he had a couple near misses and overthrew open wideout Arnaz Battle on a post pattern. A little more air under the ball would have been better.
Who’s In, Who’s Out
Along with Roethlisberger, outside linebacker James Harrison did not attend the mandatory practice. He had an excused absence due to a depth in his family. Sixth-year pro Andre Frazier started for Harrison.
Trai Essex, also in his sixth season with the Steelers, started at right offensive guard. Rookie No. 1 draft pick Maurkice Pouncey was a backup.
“I just have to learn all the plays in the playbook,” Pouncey said. “That’s the biggest thing for me right now. I don’t know all the plays yet, but once I learn them I’ll be all right. And it’s not too tough. I learned a lot already, but there’s a lot more to learn for me to play on the offensive line here.”
William Gay started opposite Ike Taylor at cornerback, but Bryant McFadden replaced him a short time later. McFadden got his old No. 20 back from Keenan Lewis, who changed to No. 23.
There also was a roster casualty. Rookie A.J. Trump, a 6-3, 300-pound center-guard from Miami, Fla., left the team.
Mini-camp resumes with two practices Saturday and one Sunday at the UPMC Sports Complex. The Organized Team Activities (OTAs) resume Tuesday, May 18, and will run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for four straight weeks until June 10.
Speaking Of Changes
Third-year wideout Limas Sweed is attempting to put his opening two NFL seasons far behind him, so he changed to No. 80 for a new beginning.
Sweed looked all right during the practice, and he was quite talkative afterward.
“It feels good,” Sweed said. “I feel like a kid again. I’ve been playing this game for a long time, so it’s good to be back. It’s good to be around the guys, and it’s good to be playing.”
Sweed, however, would not say why he left the team at the end of last season.
“Nothing happened,” Sweed said. “There were just some personal things that I went through in my life, but my family and the Steelers helped me get through it. So, it’s water under the bridge. I’ve been working my butt off, and now I’m glad to be back out there playing.
“It was nothing, and it’s water under the bridge. So, I’m out here working my tail off to be part of this team. And I’m having a lot of fun. There’s no question there’s a lot of competition, but this is the NFL. And you have to work hard to get some place in this league.”
Sweed noted that it was a mutual agreement between he and the team to take the leave of absence.
“The Steelers were very supportive,” Sweed said. “My family was very supportive, and the Steelers were, too. But we worked through it, and now I’m out there working hard to prepare for the season. I just want to play football and have fun. You can’t have too many expectations.
“This is the same game we’ve been playing all of our lives, so whatever happens, happens. I always try to take advantage of every opportunity. (But) with Santonio not out there, it definitely opens up a spot. So, I’m going to work hard to try to get into a spot.”
Nose tackle Casey Hampton is thrilled to have a long-term contract with the Steelers and even happier to get a chance to end his career with the same team that drafted him.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know what would happen,” Hampton said. “But anytime you can start and finish your career in the same place, it’s always a plus. I definitely am glad we got it done, and I’ll be here as long as they keep cutting checks for me.”
Hines Ward, on the other hand, could be at the end of his Hall of Fame career.
“Every year I get asked how long I’m going to play, but this is my escape,” Ward said. “I like the camaraderie between the guys. I love to come out here and compete, but as I get older my main job is to stay up on my game.
“Guys are coming in here younger and faster or whatever, and my job is to try to hand over the experience and knowledge I have to them. And then keep working on the fundamentals to stay up on my game as well.”
But would he go out like Jerome Bettis if the Steelers win the Super Bowl?
“That would be ideal,” Ward said. “If it happens that way, it would be a great way to end it. I don’t know if it will happen, but it’d be a great way to go out.”
Ward is the longest-tenured Steelers player in his 13th season with the club. James Farrior is in his 14th NFL season, but he originally played for the New York Jets before signing a free-agent contract with the Steelers in 2002.