Between the Lines: After the preseason loss to the Bills

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Front and center

The Steelers assemble on the fields at Saint Vincent College for their final training camp practices today and tomorrow, which should feature the long-anticipated unveiling of their starting offensive line.

Four of the five blocks have been in place all of training camp -- without official decree -- and the fifth might be installed this afternoon at center. What coach Mike Tomlin described after the first week of camp as a hotly contested competition could be over.

Sean Mahan, who started at the position last season, started the first preseason game and veteran Justin Hartwig, pictured right, who came over from Carolina, started Thursday night against Buffalo.

The coaching staff's plan was to pick their starter this week and have him open in Minnesota Saturday, when starters will get their most extensive playing time of the preseason.

"Evidently, they're going to try to figure it out after they break down this game," Hartwig said after the Bills defeated the Steelers, 24-21, in Toronto.

Hartwig had the edge coming in because he's bigger than Mahan, and the coaches believe he can handle the bigger nose tackles better than did Mahan last season.

No real competition developed during camp at right tackle, where Willie Colon will hold sway for the second consecutive season. And, no, he won't move to guard. Max Starks never delivered the knockout blow he needed to get the job back that he held in 2005 and 2006 before losing it to Colon last summer.

Not only did Chris Kemoeatu get no competition at left guard for the opening created when Alan Faneca signed with the New York Jets, he has been impressive since he came off the physically unable to perform list. There was never any question that Marvel Smith would play left tackle and Kendall Simmons right guard.

Some observations after the second preseason game:

Strong arms

Ben Roethlisberger hasn't played much, but he's picked up from 2007, his best season. He threw his first interception Thursday, but the safety had to make a diving play to get it. Roethlisberger completed 9 of 11 with a 40-yard touchdown to Holmes. He is 11 of 13 for 180 yards and two touchdowns, both to Holmes, and picking up blitzes, checking off, making all the right decisions.

• Roethlisberger's backups had good games Thursday in their own ways. Rookie Dennis Dixon, although at times continuing a practice trend of firing balls at receivers' feet, looked in command, threw reasonably well and ran a perfect bootleg 47 yards for a touchdown. Although there was never any doubt, he is on the team.

• Byron Leftwich showed off a strong arm and looked like a veteran who has been around. He fumbled once, but it was ruled out of bounds before it was recovered by Buffalo. He also had only two days of practice before he relieved Roethlisberger in the second quarter and played extensively.

"They didn't scale anything down for me," Leftwich said. "They said we're going to play you, and I guess they wanted to see how I reacted. Other than the fumble, I was OK with everything the way things went."

Porous line

Of more concern is the way the veteran defensive line was pushed around by a makeshift offensive line that was without holdout Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters. The Bills averaged 6.1 yards per run in the first half, and they drove through the Steelers on their first two series for touchdowns. Casey Hampton's return in the middle was of little help.

Sweed and sour

Wide receiver Limas Sweed had two drops after catching three passes in the opener when he held onto one while being bounced on his head. The drops won't be a problem unless they continue.

• Santonio Holmes looks like a star waiting for the regular season to happen. His two touchdown receptions were ridiculously easy only because he made them that way -- his short pass in the opener, in which he sped around a safety to go untouched for 19 yards, and his 40-yarder Thursday, in which he turned on the jets and left a poor Bills cornerback in his wake. He also hung onto a reception after he got bounced out of bounds early.

Not so special

Jeff Reed missed a 42-yard field goal, but that likely came because of a new holder, punter Mitch Berger. But that 95-yard touchdown return by Buffalo was all too familiar. The Steelers also have not settled on a punt returner, and veteran Eddie Drummond has not stuck out.

Playing like a No. 1

Lawrence Timmons is a monster. He looks like a bigger Kendrell Bell in his prime with his explosiveness and playmaking ability. Tomlin's attempts to reign in the praise for his second-year linebacker fail every time he puts him on the playing field. Timmons had a sack and produced the game's best "wow" hit when he detonated poor Buffalo quarterback Matt Baker after a pass.

Long shots

• Can a rookie free agent make a team or not based on one play? Micah Rucker, who stands 6 feet 6, is intriguing, and he might have been more so had he hung onto that 43-yard Hail Mary pass from Dixon on the last play. Those are always tough, but Rucker got both hands on the ball. He gets no demerits for not coming down with it, but had he done so ...

• It looks as if Berger will nose out Paul Ernster to become the replacement punter. Berger averaged 47.5 on four punts Thursday -- 42.0 net with three inside the 20 and the other a touchback. Ernster punted once for 45 yards into the end zone for a 25-yard net.



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