By BOB LABRIOLA
LATROBE – Why would 80-odd adult males get so excited about one drill at the end of a practice on the eighth day of a training camp, with the first real game still 35 days into the future?
"Bragging rights," said James Farrior.
"It's fun," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We have to remember sometimes that this is a game, and these guys love to play this game. It's great to give them a chance to have some fun."
The defense had all of the fun at Saint Vincent College on Sunday during the first installment of goal-line, the only live tackling drill at training camp. Tomlin's version of the drill was as follows: "It's going to be the best of seven; we're going to put the ball just outside the 1-yard line and the first group to four wins. It could be four snaps, it could be seven. We'll see how it shakes out."
There were the full seven snaps, but when the last one was run the defense already had clinched the win with a 4-2 lead. The defense also won the last one to make the final, 5-2.
"Anytime the defense steps out there and stuffs the first offense three plays in a row to set the tone for the drill, you have to give the win to them," said Tomlin. "The offense did a nice job of recovering but the defense is the winner."
Rashard Mendenhall got the first two carries in the drill, and three overall, and he was stopped all three times. Farrior and James Harrison did it the first time; Larry Foote and Ike Taylor took care of him the second time.
"He's got to run harder, not overanalyze, understand what that drill is about," said Tomlin. "It's about hitting it downhill, and hopefully next time out he'll be better."
Gary Russell and Justin Vincent scored for the offense, but Vincent's touchdown was protested by the defensive unit.
"Kevin Jordan, the chaplain, was the line judge," said Tomlin. "I figured that if you put the chaplain on the line you get less beefs and complaints, and I think it worked out. I'm not going to second-guess the chaplain. He said he scored, so he scored."
If Vincent got some help from above, Russell looked to be the team's best option because he is able to get down so low. Of all the current backs on the roster, Russell looks the most like Jerome Bettis down at the goal line.
"He doesn't over-analyze," said Tomlin about Russell. "He gets his pads down and he finishes downhill. It's one of his distinguishing characteristics, and he has value in that regard."
As for Mendenhall, this was his first time carrying the football in a live tackling drill at the NFL level, and he admitted it was a different experience.
"It was coming fast, man, and that's what the NFL is," said Mendenhall. "It was a learning experience and I'm glad I was a part of that. The next time I'll be a little bit more prepared."
When asked if the hitting was harder and the intensity higher than anything he had experienced, his answer was matter-of-fact. "Oh, yeah. Just look at James Harrison. I don't think you find too many college guys looking like that."
INJURY UPDATE: Ben Roethlisberger (groin) was limited due to a groin, but he did participate in goal-line. Cody Boyd (shoulder) was limited. Mike Humpal (hamstring), Dezmond Sherrod (stiff neck), Anthony Smith (groin) and LaMarr Woodley (groin) did not practice. Tomlin said the team is simply waiting on a piece of protective equipment for Chris Kemoeatu's triceps before he returns to the field. Tomlin said he expects Kemoeatu to return to the field early this week.
As for Troy Polamalu, Tomlin said, "It could be three days, it could be a week."
On Casey Hampton: "That process is still running its course," said Tomlin. "He and I met today, and we'll continue to move forward, but he's not where we want him yet."