The Arizona Cardinals have never been so welcome on the South Side.
Hours before their preseason game against the Steelers at Heinz Field, five members of the Super Bowl XLIII runners-up visited the UPMC Sports Performance Complex — home to both the practice facilities of the Steelers and their alma mater’s college football program.
Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Gerald Hayes, quarterback Tyler Palko and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, along with secondary coach Teryl Austin, took turns speaking to Pitt players in a special meeting early Thursday afternoon.
“It was great but the only problem was, they didn’t stay long enough. I would have loved to have seen those guys in a uniform on the field,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt joked. “Ever since I’ve been back here I’ve been trying to bring alive our great tradition. That’s one thing we have here that a lot of schools don’t have around the country.
“Those are the guys that made this program. It was awful nice to them to come by and spend a little time, and they all said something to our team. Hopefully, it sticks with a few guys and makes a difference with a couple guys.”
• After two days of split-squad two-a-days, the Panthers practiced together as a full squad Thursday for the first time in helmets and shoulder pads. The extra equipment added some intensity to the drills, and it’s evident that defensive players are champing at the bit to start hitting.
The first-team defensive line had its way with its offensive counterparts, which is more a credit to ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard and tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas than to blame the O-line. On one play, with strong-side linebacker Greg Williams blitzing, both Williams and Mustakas broke through the line and knocked Tino Sunseri on his back.
“Defensively, those two defensive ends — Sheard and Romeus — both came out of the gate strong today,” Wannstedt said. “They’re both very focused, have had good off-seasons and both have something to prove.”
Romeus had his way with left tackle Jason Pinkston, repeatedly getting into the backfield. Once, he dropped tailback Chris Burns for a loss and stripped him of his shorts in the process. Another time, Sheard flushed Pat Bostick out of the pocket. When Bostick turned to throw a screen pass in the opposite direction, Romeus soared to swat the ball down.
“That’s going to be a heck of a battle all camp, (Pinkston) and Romeus,” Wannstedt said. “(Right tackle) Lucas Nix is going to be challenged (by Sheard) every day. And that’s what he needs. It’s going to be good for him and it’s going to be good for our team.”
Wannstedt on the competition between Kevin Harper and Dan Hutchins for the placekicking duties: “I think we’re going to have a good problem with our kickers. I was very pleased, and have been, with Hutchins and Kevin Harper. They both kicked the ball well today. It’s going to be a tough decision, but it’s going to be a good decision either way because we have two guys that can do it.”
• Andrew Taglianetti took the field with the first-team defense at free safety in place of Elijah Fields, who was being disciplined for what Wannstedt termed “an internal issue that came up” Wednesday.
While Wannstedt said that Fields “will be back working with the first group” on Friday, he warned that the redshirt junior from Duquesne “hasn’t started yet. He hasn’t done anything. We’re being very demanding on these players. It’s not just what happens on the football field.”
• Weak-side linebacker Shane Murray, running with the second-team defense since returning from a knee injury that sidelined him last season, intercepted a Tino Sunseri pass intended for Aundre Wright on the left sideline at the outset of 11-on-11 drills. It marked the first pick by one of the top three quarterbacks in the first three days of camp.
• Strong safety Dom DeCicco caused a fumble by tailback Shariff Harris that was recovered by tight end Nate Byham. Byham later made a nice catch over the middle on a pass from Bill Stull.
• Jonathan Baldwin made a nice adjustment to turn around and catch a sideline pass thrown over his inside (left) shoulder, just one of many grabs by the sophomore receiver. As athletic as Baldwin appeared this season, he’s showing signs of being much more polished in the nuances of his position, from fighting off jams at the line of scrimmage to running precise routes and catching nearly everything in sight.
• Oderick Turner sped past DeCicco to make a catch on a slant to the seam, then outraced the rest of the defense for a touchdown. With Baldwin being the focal point of the offense, Turner could be primed for a big season. But he followed a terrific camp last year with 21 receptions for 298 yards and one touchdown, all career lows after recording 44 catches for 660 yards and eight TDs in 2006 and 36 for 496 and five scores in ’07.
• Fields made a nice play to break up a low pass in the left flat by Stull to Cam Saddler. Despite receiving praise from Wannstedt — who said he “thought that all the quarterbacks threw the ball well” — it was actually a tough day for the signal callers, Stull in particular. They were under constant pressure and, as a result, their throws weren’t as crisp as previous practices. Stull threw five consecutive incomplete passes, as the team drill ended with Stull and Sunseri combining to complete only one of their final 10 passes.
Not a cause to sound the alarm, but not a good day, either.
• One guy itching for full-contact drills is freshman middle linebacker Dan Mason. He was popping people left and right, including one hit on Wright that saw the receiver react by throwing the ball at Mason. On another play, Mason was so aggressive that he cracked his own teammate in a blue jersey, defensive tackle Craig Bokor.
• Think there are high expectations for Pitt’s defense? On one play, backup middle linebacker Steve Dell chased down Bostick, who was rolling right toward the sideline, for a sack. Instead of congratulating Dell, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett chewed out a defensive back while defensive line coach Greg Gattuso barked at a lineman.
And this after a play that resulted in a 10-yard loss.
• Pitt practices once more in helmets and shoulder pads at 2 p.m. Friday before beginning full-contact drills on Saturday afternoon.
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