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Steelers Cowher hopes to shave inefficiencies at camp

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

His top three draft picks remain unsigned, his punter can't punt because of recent knee surgery, his starting center won't run Saturday because of knee soreness, his left and right tackles are unproven at their positions, his quarterback is not happy about his contract, he's trying to make over a sagging pass defense with virtually the same personnel, and his team is getting older.

Bill Cowher's 24th NFL training camp starts Friday, and unlike some others, he has shaved for this one, probably because it's one way he can control the number of gray hairs showing.

Still, the problems on his team are outnumbered by the talent, and the Steelers again find themselves as favorites to win the AFC North Division and are among the stronger Super Bowl contenders.

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What: Steelers training camp.

Where: St. Vincent College, Latrobe.

When: Players report Friday.

Practices: Workouts begin Saturday

Notable: First-round draft choice Troy Polamalu is still unsigned.


Cowher, entering his 12th season as Steelers coach, hopes that in less than four weeks at St. Vincent College in Latrobe most of the stickier problems will work themselves out.

For example:

Josh Miller developed a right knee injury while practicing his punting two weeks ago. His season ended prematurely in December because of surgery on his shoulder. He had arthroscopic surgery on his non-kicking knee, and Cowher believes he'll be able to punt in a week. Until then, it'll be undrafted rookie Mike Hayes of Akron University.

Little progress has been made in contract talks with first-round draft pick Troy Polamalu, second-round pick Alonzo Jackson or fifth-round pick Brian St. Pierre.

Things have been slow in negotiations across the NFL and they usually work themselves out as reporting time grows closer. Cowher anticipates Jackson and St. Pierre will sign and report on time, but he's not certain about Polamalu.

"I am still optimistic. A lot can happen in the next few days. First-round picks seem to wait until the last week to get started talking. We have talked and some parameters have been discussed. We will see what happens in the next four days."

Center Jeff Hartings won't participate in the run tests Saturday because of a congenital knee problem, but he will practice starting Sunday. "Jeff's is not really an injury," Cowher said. "It is just a precautionary measure."

The two offensive tackles might take time before they are comfortable at their positions. Quarterback Tommy Maddox, who has expressed his unhappiness that the Steelers refused to give him a raise from his $650,000 salary, hopes it doesn't take too long. Marvel Smith was moved from right tackle to left, and Oliver Ross will try to beat out newcomer Todd Fordham to start on the right side.

"There is going to be some acclimation that will be needed to take place by Marvel Smith," Cowher said. "You don't just take three years of playing one position and then move him over and think that he will not miss a beat."

Cowher then added that "we are really looking at the right tackle position being a little unstable. We have two tackles that we feel good about. But it is not like they are both proven commodities."

The Steelers installed some new defenses, including a nickel, to try to shore up the play against the pass. They fell from No. 4 to No. 20 on pass defense last season. "I know defensively, we may have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder," Cowher said. "I think you sensed a little bit of that in a couple camps that we had here, which is good."

Cowher declared the jobs at halfback and tight end wide open, and the job at strong safety to be veteran Mike Logan's, at least as long as he can hold off Polamalu.

Cowher will take into account that he likely will have eight starters age 30 or over as he puts them through training camp.

"I think we have to make sure these guys are fresh and ready to go for the season. There is a fine line that goes from pushing them and working them, to becoming a very tough and persistent football team that is going to wear on you mentally and physically for 60 minutes, or more, and making sure they are ready for that first game and the long haul."

Polamalu, who missed much of minicamp drills because of a hamstring injury, is healthy and ready to go once he's signed. Starting right guard Kendall Simmons, who had surgery on his elbow in June, has been lifting weights, is back to full health and is ready for training camp.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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