By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — With starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out this week after right knee surgery, backup Bruce Gradkowski got a chance to work with the first team Tuesday during a mini-camp practice and stepped up his performance.
“Bruce did a nice job today, particularly in the two-minute (drill),” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We work with the guys who are working. Whether it’s spring or fall, my mentality in regard to that won’t change.”
Tomlin noted that the Steelers concentrated on situational football Tuesday, but it wasn’t anything new.
“We’ve done similar things here that we’ve done during the majority of the offseason,” Tomlin said. “So, we’re going to continue with the growing process here individually and collectively.
“We did some nice things today (in) situation football, (the) two-minute (drill), third down, and we’ll continue to do similar things the remainder of the week to be prepared and make the best of this opportunity to get better.”
Tomlin added that “as I stand here today,” he did not expect any health issues going into training camp. “But we’ll know more the closer we get.”
Harrison in Bengals Stripes
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who returned to town for mandatory mini-camp after training for two weeks in California, said it was going to be “really weird” to see former teammate James Harrison in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform.
“We all grew up together in this defense, in this locker room, and we became friends,” Polamalu said. “We got to know his children, so it’s definitely going to be weird. … But it was like that for a lot of players. When Joey (Porter) left, it was hard to replace him and his leadership.
“We knew that James was very talented, but I don’t think anybody expected James to be what he was. But in this locker room, we all believed in him. So, Joey went off and had a couple more successful years, and I would expect James to do the same thing.
“And, hopefully,” Polamalu added, “somebody can step up in James’ spot and fill that void that James left. … I wouldn’t want to have to block somebody like James. I still believe he’s one of the most talented defensive outside linebackers in this game. A complete player, and our offense is going to have to deal with him when he plays against us. I’m glad I won’t have to do it.”
The Steelers face Harrison and the Bengals on Monday night, Sept. 16, the second week of the season, at Cincinnati.
Improving the Running Game
The Steelers running game dropped in production for a number of reasons this past season — an injury and apathy from starter Rashard Mendenhall, as well as injuries and inexperience to backups Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch — but offensive coordinator Todd Haley and running backs coach Kirby Wilson both expect more this season.
“We’ve got guys with various skill sets,” Wilson said. “We’ve got some big guys, and we’ve got guys who are more change of pace backs. So, I think it’s going to be a very competitive room by the time we get to training camp. They’re all smart guys with very good football intelligence, and I’m looking forward to these guys competing once we get to training camp.”
With rookie second-round pick Le’Veon Bell added to the mix, the Steelers might again have a back who can carry the ball 20 times per game. Haley believed they all were capable of doing that.
“We didn’t have anybody that quite was able to get over the hump and step up (last season), but they all know the task and the challenge in front of them,” Haley said. “And I believe they’re excited about the competition, because there’s an opportunity there. So, they’re excited about the opportunity and the challenge, and that’s a good thing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Haley added that with Bell, LaRod Stephens-Howling and a healthy Batch added to the mix with incumbents Redman and Dwyer, the Steelers should be more diverse in the running game as well.
Gildon Volunteers His Time
Former Steelers pass-rusher supreme, Jason Gildon, attended mini-camp practice Tuesday and got a glimpse of No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones, who is the club’s future at outside linebacker.
“I’ve only been able to see him briefly and on tape, but I noticed that he does a lot of things naturally,” Gildon said. “Just watching him play in space and rushing the passer, you definitely can tell that it’s something he’s done before.
“He seems to have a nice feel for it, and it looks like it was a good pick for the Steelers. However, it’s early now, so we’ll see what happens once they put pads on and the bullets start flying. But, up to this point, he looks nice.”
Former Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak and Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson also were volunteers. Gildon spent the first 10 seasons (1994-2003) of his 11-year NFL career with the Steelers. Woodson also spent 10 seasons (1987-96) of his 17-year career with the club, while Tomczak (1993-99) was with the club for eight seasons during his 16-year tenure.
Former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford, a Pittsburgh native, also volunteered as a coach Tuesday. He had a brief stint with the Steelers and could be a coaching intern this season.
The Locker Room Shuffle
Several players changed spots in the Steelers locker room this year, and new players also were placed. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders has Mike Wallace’s old locker on the corner by the entrance, and running back Le’Veon Bell is at Hines Ward’s former locker. Ward actually had two spots, and an undrafted free agent was in the second one.
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was to Bell’s left, and cornerback William Gay was next to Ike Taylor toward the middle of the row. Gay was in about the same spot on the other wall during his previous seasons with the Steelers. That spot was taken when he left for the Arizona Cardinals last season. And wideout Antonio Brown, who used to next to Sanders, moved to the other end of the room in James Harrison’s former locker.
Training Camp Schedule
The Steelers announced that training camp begins Friday, July 26, when the players report. They will have a run test that day, but won’t practice until 3-5 p.m. Saturday. Those afternoon sessions are the only ones open to the public.
The first practice in pads is Monday, July 29. There will be two night practices, with the first Aug. 2 at 7 p.m. at Latrobe Memorial Stadium, while the other will be Aug. 16 at Saint Vincent College. The final open practice is Saturday, Aug. 17, and camp is scheduled to break the next day. The Steelers have a preseason game Monday night, Aug. 19, at Washington.