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Mitchell has been down this road before

For veteran assistant John Mitchell the scenario is a familiar one even if the faces are relatively unrecognizable.

"This reminds me of when I got here in 1994," the Steelers' defensive line coach observed. "They had some players here when I got here, Gerald Williams and Joel Steed. When those guys left, hey, we got Aaron Smith. Then we get Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke. Then we got Brett Keisel. In free agency we got Travis Kirschke. We all grew together and then got to be good football players."

After an offseason of transition at the position, Mitchell suspects it's happening again.

"I'm excited about what I have to work with," he said. "I have some talent. It's my responsibility to get the best out of them. I hope we can grow together over the next four or five years."

Following are a few observations Mitchell made about the defensive line based on what he gleaned from rookie minicamp, OTAs and minicamp:

The value of football in shorts: "With no pads, the things you want to do, especially for a defensive front right now, the big guys, you want them to stay down with a good pad level, use your hands and run to the ball. The best thing we've done in this camp with the big guys is staying low and running to the ball. They've been running 20, 25 yards downfield every play. I want them to get in football shape because that's what it takes."

Free-agent defensive end/nose tackle Cam Thomas: "Cam's a good football player, he's a good technician and he's going to help us. He's a veteran ballplayer, he knows what it takes to win and he wants to win."

No. 6b draft pick Daniel McCullers: "It's new to him. He hasn't had anybody who's going to stay on him about stepping with the correct foot, keeping your pad level down, using your hands and getting off blocks. These are things he hasn't heard. He's heard them enough from me now so that when we go to training camp I'm expecting him to be able to do the things we've been working on."

Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt: "I really like where Tuitt is. I want people to realize this guy is going to be a senior this year. All these people are going to be expecting great things, I'm not expecting that. I'm expecting him to play like a senior in college. As he grows he's going to be a good football player and he's going to play here for a long time.

"I'm going to play him as much as I can. We're not going to rush him. I don't care if he's a first- or second-round draft choice. When he's ready to play and we can play him in certain situations I'm going to put him in the ballgame. The worst thing you want to happen to a good player who is going to be good down the road, he loses confidence because he goes in the game when he's not ready to play.

"We're not going to rush this kid in there. When he's ready to play and we feel he can help this team, that's when we're going to play him."

Nose tackle/defensive end Steve McLendon: "I think Steve McClendon realized the things he needs to do. He's worked real hard. He came back about 10 pounds heavier with pure muscle. I'm really pleased where he is."

What the Steelers accomplished in terms of preparing to adhere to and execute Mitchell's principles for defensive line excellence (stay on your feet, hold the point of attack and run to the football) in offseason workouts: "I'm excited about guys running to the ball. After that we're going to find out what they know when sweat is coming down into their eyes when they're tired and they've been in there for eight or nine plays (in training camp). We'll find out what kind of football players we have at the defensive line."

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