Sleepers dreaming of big game in Detroit

Sleepers dreaming of big game in Detroit

<b> LATROBE –</b> They are the camp sleepers, the guys who come from nowhere to steal a town's attention in the preseason, only to slip back more often than not into the abyss of trivia questions. <br><br> Steelers Coach Bill Cowher was asked about his team's sleepers at Thursday's press conference. He didn't want to single anyone out, but eventually relented.

"The one guy that flashes is Dante Brown, the running back," said Cowher. "The kid has shown some toughness, some speed. He has been able to hit the holes."

Brown is a 6-foot, 211-pound tailback out of the University of Memphis. He rushed for 902 yards as a junior but as a senior split time with a freshman, gained only 562 yards and wasn't drafted.

"I keep saying, what is the hole with this guy?" Cowher said.

Said Brown: "I didn't have a problem with the coach. I don't know what the deal was. I'm just putting all that behind me now."

Brown is a between-the-tackles runner with nifty cutback ability and just enough speed to get outside with the right blocking. At times, he's shown soft hands as a receiver, but at Wednesday's morning practice showed he has a tendency to fight the ball.

"I worked on my hands a lot over the summer," he said. "When I went back to Memphis I got one of the quarterbacks to constantly throw me balls, so I ran a lot of routes down there. I notice that it's paying off."

Brown credits Jerome Bettis for his job as mentor, and Bettis responded positively.

"Dante's looking real good," Bettis said. "He's been doing an incredible job picking up the blitz. He packs a punch. Some of the linebackers have caught the brunt of some of his good licks. But running the football he's been pretty impressive as well, so he's been doing well."

Brown will get his chance to run the ball in the second half of Saturday's preseason game at Detroit. Another camp sleeper who might impress Steelers fans is punt returner Jason Armstead. The wide receiver from Ole Miss weighs only 156 pounds, but has some of the quickest feet in camp.

"My size for the most part has forced me to make it as a return man," Armstead said. "Detroit's an indoor facility and the turf is the same as the one at our practice facility back in Pittsburgh. I've been on it. It's a pretty fast turf. Hopefully I can go out there and show 'em a little something."

Those are two sleepers who have a chance to make the team, and there are a few more, according to sources with the team. Here's a breakdown of each position and how the roster battles are shaping up, sleepers and all.

-- Quarterback: Fifth-round draft pick Brian St. Pierre is said to have made a monumental jump from his first few days at camp. The Steelers like his decision-making of late, and his arm is strong enough. He can become a solid No. 2 man in this league.

-- Running back: Brown must show consistent hands to make this team. He's the only back with a chance to crack last year's five-back unit. In spite of public speculation, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala will make the team because of his ability to play fullback. Verron Haynes is now considered to be a tailback only.

-- Wide receivers: Armstead certainly has the Steelers interested. If he can return kicks, coaches feel he has a chance to help as a slot receiver, too. Lee Mays is a lock for the No. 4 spot and Chris Doering should be No. 5.

-- Tight end: Fourth man Matt Cushing has a chance to make the team since he can play fullback. Jay Riemersma has improved his blocking of late and will become the starter.

-- Offensive line: The only starting spot still open is right tackle, but Todd Fordham is injured after filling in as a guard, so Oliver Ross is the man by default. Sources are raving about the camp Keydrick Vincent is having as Kendall Simmons' replacement at right guard, so Simmons could possibly become the right tackle once he's healthy, but you won't get anyone to even hint at that possibility. Mathias Nkwenti is ahead of Josh Burr as the fourth tackle. Talent evaluators feel Burr would be claimed by another team if cut. Nkwenti has improved but coaches want to see him play preseason games without making the mental errors for which he's become known. Calvin Collins has a chance to become the 10th lineman on the roster because the left guard can also play center. As for the starters, sources feel Marvel Smith is having an outstanding camp and will make the Pro Bowl this season, and that Jeff Hartings is only injured and that when healthy his play is more than satisfactory.

-- Defensive line: Kimo von Oelhoffen is showing his age, but is not in jeopardy of losing his job. It's unlikely the Steelers can afford to keep seven here this year, so the final spot is up for grabs between nose men Kendrick Clancy and Chris Hoke. The loser, it's been said, will catch on with another team, as will Jabari Issa, who's strictly an end.

-- Linebacker: Alonzo Jackson will only help as a pass-rusher this year but more than one source believes he'll become a fine outside linebacker some day. Remember, it took Jason Gildon three years, so Jackson deserves patience. Clint Kriewaldt and Larry Foote impress the Steelers as backup inside players. Clark Haggans is having a solid camp, leaving little room for James Harrison, whom sources say is having an outstanding camp.

-- Secondary: Ike Taylor, the fourth-round draft pick with only one year experience at the position, shows great qualities one day and poor ones the next. It's what the Steelers expected, so they'll be forced to keep five corners. Chidi Iwuoma is a lock as the fourth corner and Taylor's the fifth. Rookie free agent Nashville Dyer has played well but needs to show better in run support. Right now, Dyer's on the practice squad. Safety jobs are won during preseason games, when the real hitting begins, and the Steelers want to see what Russell Stuvaints has to offer. They like the big safety from McKeesport.

Jim Wexell
SteelCitySports.com

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