Friday, August 11, 2006
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nate Washington was inactive for 13 regular-season games last season, and his only reception was a big one -- a 13-yard catch on third down against the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship.
But, when the Steelers open their preseason tomorrow in Arizona, Washington will be one of the starting wide receivers.
An undrafted rookie from Tiffin University in 2005, Washington will start at flanker for four-time Pro Bowl receiver Hines Ward, who will not play because of a hamstring injury. Ward and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Joey Porter (knee) are the only starters who will not play against the Cardinals.
Coach Bill Cowher said he is curious to see Washington get to work with the first-team offense, even if it is for just a series or two.
"When he played last year in the preseason, a lot of it was in the fourth quarter," Cowher said. "Then, he got a chance to play in the playoffs; now, it's a chance to see him get up there with the first group. I think it will be great for him."
Washington has risen up the depth chart because of the free-agent departure of Antwaan Randle El and the uncertainty about the return of veteran wide receiver Quincy Morgan, whose right leg was broken in the wild-card playoff victory against the Cincinnati Bengals in January. Now, with Ward's injury, he gets a chance to start along with split end Cedrick Wilson for the defending Super Bowl champions.
In addition to Ward and Porter, Cowher said the following players will not play against the Cardinals: Tight end Jerame Tuman (hamstring), offensive left tackle Trai Essex (groin), center Chukky Okobi (neck surgery), fullback Branden Joe (hamstring) and wide receiver Isaac West (knee).
Tuman was injured in practice Wednesday night and could be out for a week, Cowher said. Ward is expected to resume practicing next week.
Carter draws the start
Cowher said veteran Tyrone Carter, not free-agent pickup Ryan Clark, will start at free safety, although he said they will split time at the position.
Clark was acquired from the Washington Redskins after Chris Hope signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
"They will go back and forth," Cowher said. "I guess that's probably how we'll start out. They're going to get equal playing time throughout this preseason."
Rookie safety Anthony Smith, the team's second pick in the draft, has been a training-camp standout and likely will get some work in the extra-back defensive packages. But Cowher said it is very difficult for a rookie to start in the Steelers' defense, especially at free safety, where the player is responsible for calling out changes in coverages.
"Not many people have done it," Cowher said. "Darren [Perry] might be the lone ranger, and he did that because we had no other choice. And Darren never looked back. Anthony Smith is a good football player. Even in some of the subpackages we have, he's getting a lot of repetition there."
Perry, the team's defensive backs coach, was a rookie in 1992 and started the first 110 games of his Steelers career.
Holmes, Reid likely returnmen
Cowher said he still hasn't decided for certain, but he likely will use No. 1 pick Santonio Holmes and rookie wide receiver Willie Reid to return punts and kicks against the Cardinals.
"It's just get a chance to look at them," Cowher said. "Quincy [Morgan] will be back there, too, but I know what Quincy can do. I'd like to get a chance to see those two young kids."
Morgan tries to fit in
Morgan caught nine passes for 150 yards as the No. 4 receiver last season and also led the team in kick-return yards (583) and average (25.3), including a 74-yarder in overtime against Jacksonville that appeared to position the Steelers for a victory.
Then came the broken leg in the playoff game. And he got another tough break when the Steelers took wide receivers with two of their first three picks in the NFL draft.
That did not prevent him from signing a one-year contract to remain with the Steelers.
"Being injured, they drafted guys, they got guys in front of me, obviously it affects me," Morgan said. "But it's a situation where I have to make a decision what to do. And that's just come out and play hard."
At best, Morgan likely will be the fifth receiver this season, behind Ward, Wilson, Washington and Holmes. But the Steelers also drafted a receiver, Reid, in the third round, even though he is mainly a punt returner.
And they also have special-teams co-captain Sean Morey. That's seven receivers for five spots, perhaps six.
"I would think they would need a veteran guy around here with all these young guys," said Morgan, who was signed by the Steelers after spending 3 1/2 seasons with the Cleveland Browns (2001-04) and a half-season with the Dallas Cowboys (2004). "It's a team, and I want to be part of it. I'm out here working and I'm hoping I can fight for one of those spots."