By Dale Grdnic
Photo: David Hague — Inside Pittsburgh Sports
LATROBE, Pa. — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin highlighted Monday afternoon’s practice with a third-down session with alternating distances.
Ben Roethlisberger opened the drill at quarterback. Starting halfback Rashard Mendenhall got the call on third-and-three and rammed for the first down. On third-and-five, a wideout screen to Antwaan Randle El did not appear to make the required distance.
Then, it was third-and-seven, and Roethlisberger dropped back. The pocket broke down, so Roethlisberger had to scramble for the first down. The distance increased to third-and-nine, and Roethlisberger looked for Hines Ward. The veteran wideout crossed the middle, and Roethlisberger gunned a pass that sailed a little high. Will Allen and Joe Burnett were in coverage, but only Ward got his hands on the ball and pulled it down.
Roethlisberger threw incomplete on another third-and-nine play and finished with a 3-for-5 conversion rate (60 percent).
Dennis Dixon took the reigns…..
and immediately slowed things down. Every play took the full time allotment and then some. Dixon hit tight end Matt Spaeth for a first down on third-and-six. On third-and-eight and third-and-nine plays, Dixon connected with Tyler Grisham for first downs.
Dixon was flushed out of the pocket on third-and-10 and had to throw on the run. Fortunately for him, rookie Antonio Brown broke free on a crossing route and made a sliding catch near the sideline for a first down. Dixon completed a short pass to Grisham on his final snap, but he ran close to a first down.
Charlie Batch tool over for the final five plays and went 5-for-5 for first downs if three close ones were ruled as conversions. Two were runs by Isaac Redman and Justin Vincent, while the third was a pass to Emmanuel Sanders. The sure first downs were passes to Sanders and Vincent.
Byron Leftwich had a scheduled day off and assured the media that having his right shoulder and arm covered in ice backs was just maintenance.
“We decided this week to start rotating days for the quarterbacks to take a day off, and today was Byron’s turn,” Tomlin said. “Dennis might not get a turn, since he’s a young guy in the group, but we’ve got four arms. So, one of them can take a day here and there.”
The 9-on-7 drills basically were the first real action after about an hour of stretching, special teams work and individual drills Monday afternoon. And every play was a running play with Mendenhall getting the majority of the reps.
However, the most significant play occurred with the backups, as fullback Dwayne Wright blasted through the line and into the secondary. He collided with safety Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith and ran over him.
“We tried to ratchet up the volume, if you will, to try to get these guys ready for stadium competition, which is coming up later this week,” Tomlin said.
In the defensive line versus offensive line session, the drill was tweaked to feature tandem rushes where two linemen on each side are live. Still, second-year player Ziggy Hood dominated whether he was at an end spot or in the middle. Rookie end Doug Worthington also had a solid performance, as did Chris Hoke from his nose tackle spot.
“Ziggy’s taken the kind of jump you would expect a second-year first-rounder to take,” Tomlin said. “He’s a guy who worked extremely hard. It’d be difficult to find another guy who spent more time in our building in the offseason.
“And it’s paying off for him out here. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He still has a ways to go on some technique things, but we like the way he’s progressing and the way he works. He has a great passion for this game.”
The closest thing to a skirmish, which has not broken out, was when Hood took exception to an extended block during a late team drill and had words with Doug Legursky. But the center-guard just waved him back to the defensive huddle and didn’t bother getting into it with him.
On the injury front, OLB James Harrison had some discomfort in his shoulder, so he was held out as a precaution. But Tomlin said that just meant more reps for a guy like Thaddeus Gibson, who has impressed many so far.
Jason Worilds still is nursing a hamstring injury, but he worked during individual drills. … Tony Hills (right ankle sprain) and Steve McLendon (MCL sprain) were carted off during the line drills. … Troy Polamalu also had the day off.