QUARTERBACK – Ben Roethlisberger is starting and Charlie Batch will play as little as possible because the Steelers still fear his injury history. A pulling guard stepped on Batch’s foot while he was backpedaling from center at practice Wednesday night. Batch went down and bodies crashed on and around him. When he got up, the coaching staff exhaled, and so did the front office, which lists Kerry Collins and Tommy Maddox at the top of its street free-agent list. Rookies Shane Boyd (8) and Omar Jacobs (4) are the Nos. 3 and 4 quarterbacks. Off the record, they are called “No. 5s,” but the personnel department believes one of these rookies will emerge and provide security for the injury-plagued Batch (gulp). Boyd moved ahead of Jacobs this week and will play more than any quarterback on the team. This could get ugly.
RUNNING BACK – Last Monday, in the midst of an intensely sloppy practice, Bill Cowher took it all out on rookie running back Cedric Humes (30). “Let me tell you something,” Cowher shouted. “I’m tired of two things: I’m tired of you running this way (sideways) and I’m tired of you looking back to see who’s chasing you!” Since then, Humes, the seventh-round pick, has run with purpose. It’ll be interesting to see if Cowher lit a fuse under a strong, tall back who runs a bit too upright for short yardage.
WIDE RECEIVER – Nate Washington (85) can’t help but steal the spotlight, but the rookies – Santonio Holmes (10) and Willie Reid (15) – are the ones to watch today. Holmes can be a surly jerk but he’s talented and hard-working. Reid is a most pleasant sort whose biggest struggle in practice is getting off jams at the line of scrimmage. That’s the reason he’ll run a handful of routes out of the slot, but he’ll be the dynamic return man of the two. For those who’ve watched Ohio State the last few seasons, Reid is what Ted Ginn was to Holmes – the more dynamic open-field runner with jets that make Holmes look pedestrian in comparison.
TIGHT END – Fifth-round pick Charles Davis (87) will receive plenty of snaps since Jerame Tuman’s out. He has the body and the hands to make it in this league, but does he have the will to block in-line? And can he take a hit in the middle of the field? In the race for a spot on the practice squad, Jon Dekker (88) of Princeton appears to have the edge on Penn State’s Isaac Smolko (48).
OFFENSIVE LINE – Fourth-round pick Willie Colon (74) has been one of the best rookies at camp. He’s the second-team right tackle who’ll probably mop up at left tackle today. The Steelers don’t want to rush him at a second position, so they told him he’d play more left tackle in upcoming preseason games. He’s shown enough ability to be active on game days this season, as long as he can play a second position in a pinch. Right guard Chris Kemoeatu (68) and center Marvin Philip (62) are interesting second-team prospects. The second-team left guard today is WVU’s Tim Brown (65).
DEFENSIVE LINE – First of all, watch Lee Vickers (67) on kickoff coverage. The coaches hope he can become the next Brett Keisel as a wedge-buster. As for Keisel (99), he’ll upgrade the speed on defense, but can he stuff the run as well as Kimo von Oelhoffen? Rookie Orien Harris (71) runs hot and cold at camp. On his bad days, he looks like a short practice-squadder, and on his good days he looks like Kendrick Clancy. Shaun Nua (96) has struggled against the run and is on the bubble, along with Rodney Bailey (93) and Harris, for the No. 6 spot on the line.
LINEBACKERS – The front six are well-established. It would be fun to watch James Harrison (92) work inside, since Joey Porter will return to game action soon, but it’s not to be. Instead, the only semi-interesting battle here is for the backup Mack job between Rian Wallace (54) and Richard Seigler (95).
CORNERBACK – B-Mac, Bryant McFadden (20), is the most physical corner on the team and is pushing Deshea Townsend for the starting right corner job. Ricardo Colclough (21) drew praise from Cowher on Thursday, but he looks like the same No. 4 corner he’s always been. While Colclough’s job is safe, Chidi Iwuoma (29) is battling undrafted rookie Anthony Madison (37) for the fifth corner/special-teams gunner position.
SAFETY – Tyrone Carter (23) and Ryan Clark (25) are battling for the starting job. And since it’s time to hit for real, big rookie Anthony Smith (27) bears watching. He’s on scholarship while Mike Logan battles for a roster spot. Zach Baker (28) is a rangy undrafted rookie who has the edge on WVU’s Mike Lorello (45) for the practice-squad spot.
PUNTER – Cowher said at an upper-level meeting that he’d like to see Mike Barr (6) be given the chance to displace veteran Chris Gardocki as the punter. Personnel folk say the sound of Barr’s foot striking the ball is similar to the sound Jeff Reed’s foot makes on contact. It must be similar to the sound of Bob Gibson’s fastball finding leather.