By Bob Labriola
One of the highlights of the first day was a session of backs-on-backers, where a running back is supposed to determine which of two linebackers is blitzing and then step up and make the block to protect the passer.
There were two things that stood out during this drill – James Harrison is very difficult to block, and rookie Rashard Mendenhall is a competitor who improved as the drill continued.
"I am not going to pat him on the back just yet," said head coach Mike Tomlin of Mendenhall. "Guys are probably being a little nice to him because it's day one and he is new to the drill. But he did give a good representation of himself. He is a competitor. We expect big things from him."
Harrison ran over Mendenhall on the rookie's initial try at the drill, but then on his second try, Mendenhall almost battled starter LaMarr Woodley to a stalemate, and then on his final three repetitions, Mendenhall defeated Larry Foote, Anthony Trucks and Andre Frazier.
For the most part, the defense got the better of this period.
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 53 times in 17 games last season; the Steelers defense managed four sacks over the final five games of the 2007 regular season. Take those two facts together, and one of the interesting drills to watch every day at camp is the pass rush-pass block competition.
Again, James Harrison was dominant.
In three straight repetitions against rookie tackle Tony Hills, Harrison showed a diverse repertoire while winning all three. Harrison ran around Hills once, he bull-rushed him and knocked him back into the quarterback once, and then he used a quick spin move and got past Hills. It was quite an indoctrination for the rookie.
"When James doesn't want to be blocked it's very difficult to block him," said Tomlin. "He is a Pro Bowl player for a reason. He is a good player and he had a great day."
The other interesting matchup was a three-repetition series between LaMarr Woodley and Max Starks.
Overall, this was a day for the defense, and that was proven to be true here as well.
On the first snap, Woodley beat Starks to the inside. On the second, Starks jumped out and delivered a punch, but Woodley came back and got around him before the play was over. On the third, Woodley dipped his shoulder and got around Starks to the outside.
The first look at the punt return group had Santonio Holmes, Mewelde Moore, Jeremy Bloom and Willie Reid alternating as the primary returner.
INJURY UPDATE: Coach Mike Tomlin said CB Bryant McFadden (groin), SS Anthony Smith (groin) and WR Kevin Marion (slight knee sprain) did not finish the afternoon practice. Tomlin said the three players will be monitored on a day-to-day basis … Tomlin also said there was no change in the conditions that landed Troy Polamalu (hamstring) and Chris Kemoeatu (triceps) on the physically unable to perform list. Rather than give a prognosis, Tomlin said he would deal with those injuries on a daily basis.