By BOB LABRIOLA
The pre-preseason game portion of training camp has ended for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now the evaluation process enters another dimension. That dimension kicks off, literally, at 8 p.m. today when the Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field in a game to be televised nationally by ESPN.
Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledges that what the staff sees in this preseason game as well as the other three will carry more weight than what has transpired on the practice field.
"Our ability to finish will be displayed tonight," said Tomlin. "Our ability to finish blocks, our ability to tackle and get people on the ground. Some of the things that you don't get to see in practice you will get a chance to see – some of the finishes to plays. That's one of the things we talked about in approaching this game: how we need to finish, how we need to play the game in a physical nature, and I look forward to watching our guys do that."
The Steelers are looking forward to seeing what all 80 players might be willing to contribute, but for fans some of those are more intriguing than others. Here is a completely arbitrary list of six players who will be interesting to watch in tonight's game, based on how the first 13 days of training camp at Saint Vincent College transpired.
These half-dozen include two second-year players, two rookie draft picks and two undrafted rookies.
RASHARD MENDENHALL: The team's first-round draft pick in 2008, Mendenhall was expected to energize the running attack, but he got only 19 carries on a season in which he broke his shoulder against the Ravens on Sept. 29 and landed on the injured reserve list. So far at camp, Mendenhall has shown a nice burst and flashed his abilities as a receiver, but with no tackling it has been difficult to gauge whether he can join Willie Parker to form the one-two punch the team's rushing attack lacked last season.
"He is a second-year player, and that is how I treat him, that is what I expect from him," said Tomlin. "I expect the jump from him that I expect from all second-year players. This is his second lap around the track in terms of being a professional athlete and football player. Those are our expectations of him. Injuries are a part of the game, we accept that. We don't make concessions because of injury. We expect him to be a mature guy and to this point that is how he has conducted himself. He acts like a guy who has been here before, a guy who is ready to burst onto the scene, a guy who is willing to put his hand in the pile and help us win."
DENNIS DIXON: While an injury ruined Mendenhall's rookie season, it was a knee injury in November of the previous college season that affected Dixon's draft status. As a result, the Steelers were able to get a Heisman Trophy contender with a fifth-round pick, and landing a quarterback with his skills at that stage is a bargain. Now, it's time to see how much of a bargain he might turn out to be.
As camp has progressed, Charlie Batch has done increasingly well, and as this portion of camp ended he wasn't playing like the 34-year-old man he is. Still, Batch is working on a one-year contract, and the ideal situation for the Steelers would be to have developed a quality backup quarterback in-house. Tomlin has made it clear what Dixon must show in order to be considered for that role, either this year or in the future.
"What he is capable of doing above the neck is going to ultimately determine that," said Tomlin. "We all acknowledge that the quarterback position is a little different than other positions in this game. Does he have the talent to be a competitor, or to have a horse in that race? Absolutely. But all of the other things that you can't measure will ultimately determine if that's a possibility or not."
MIKE WALLACE: When he was drafted, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians described Wallace as a guy who could take the top off the coverage, and the player who ran the second-fasted 40-time at the scouting combine has flashed that speed several times in the first 13 days of camp. But Wallace has shown himself to be much more than just a track guy masquerading as a football player. In one camp practice, he caught a ball over the middle, took a big hit from safety Tyrone Carter and held on; during another practice, he drew a 40-yard pass interference penalty to put the ball at the 10-yard line and then ended the drill by making a Santonioesque catch in the end zone for the touchdown.
Tomlin also said Wallace will get the first crack at returning kickoffs against the Cardinals.
"At this stage, I'm looking for guys who are reliable and natural in terms of fielding the football, coupled with the guys I know least about," said Tomlin. "If I don't know much about Mike Wallace, and he's comfortable and natural in settling under balls out here in practice, than I'm going to want to see Mike Wallace returning kickoffs, as opposed to Rashard Mendenhall because I know a little bit more about Rashard Mendenhall. That's been my guiding force in determining who gets the first crack at some of these things this week. It's not a depth chart, per se. I want to see guys I don't know a lot about. I'm interested in seeing Joe Burnett and Stefan Logan returning punts. I'm less interested in seeing Mewelde Moore, because I know more about him."
JOE BURNETT: Tomlin isn't the only one interested in seeing Burnett in game action. A fifth-round pick from Central Florida, Burnett was a productive cornerback who also returned five kicks for touchdowns during his college career. He probably wasn't drafted earlier because of his height, but he has been in good position in coverage, he gets himself around the football and he has pretty good hands.
Burnett has at least two interceptions already in practices, and the one he made during Tuesday's afternoon practice was an NFL-caliber play.
RAMON FOSTER: If it's true that there is no such thing as a team having too many offensive linemen, it's even more of a mystery why Foster wasn't drafted. He has good size (6-5, 325), played at a major Southeastern Conference program (Tennessee) where he was a team captain and was versatile enough to line up at both guard and tackle. Foster appeared in 44 career games for the Volunteers and started all 26 the team played in 2007 and 2008.
What the Steelers think of Foster's progress through this stage of camp can be found in the players they match him against in one-on-one drills. When camp opened, Foster would go against fellow undrafted rookie Steve McLendon and first-year player Jordan Reffett, who since has been waived. After handling that level of competition, Foster was moved up to face top backups Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke. Foster can take another step if he does well tonight.
ISAAC REDMAN: Maybe he started this training camp as an afterthought in the minds of observers, but on the eve of the preseason opener Redman (6-0, 230) had used the previous fortnight to create an opportunity for himself. It began with some solid showings as a blocker in the backs-on-backers drills, and then he announced his presence by scoring two touchdowns in the first goal-line drill. He did it against fellow rookies and free agents on defense, but he also was playing with a lot of fellow rookies and free agents on offense.
"Relative to who he was competing against, at that moment he distinguished himself, and that's all we have to judge him on," said Tomlin. "Hopefully we can put him in more situations against some people who maybe bring something else to the table to see how he matches himself up in those circumstances. But make no mistake, what he showed us the other day was pretty interesting."