By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers used the first two preseason games to see if right tackle Max Starks could play well enough at left tackle to serve as a backup for Marvel Smith.
That experiment did not go so well -- Starks allowed three sacks in the first two games at left tackle -- so the Steelers will try another player at that position when they play the Washington Redskins tonight in Landover, Md.
Trai Essex will return to his former position and play most of the game at left tackle against the Redskins. Essex will start if Smith (back spasms) cannot play.
Starks will back up Willie Colon, who will start his second game in a row, at right tackle.
"This is a big opportunity for him," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said of Essex, a third-round pick in 2005.
Essex has been the backup at left tackle the past two seasons, but he was moved to left guard in training camp when Starks, who has started at right tackle the past two seasons, got time at left tackle.
But after Starks allowed the three sacks, Essex is getting an opportunity to reclaim his former position.
"I treat every snap as an opportunity to be evaluated," Essex said. "All you have in this league is what you have on tape, and I'm just trying to put some good tape up there."
Apparently, that has not happened enough his first two years with the Steelers, prompting the experiment with Starks.
"He's done an admirable job," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I really think that he's gotten better, consistently better. I think he's improving technically."
Essex (6 feet 4, 324 pounds) admitted he didn't know what to make of the switch when Starks was moved ahead of him at left tackle. But he agrees with Tomlin's assessment that it's time for him to develop.
"This is my third year, so I should have a good grip on how the game is and how it should be played and what they expect of me as a high draft pick," he said.
"I'm ready to step it up. This has been my best camp, I thought, since I've been here. I felt good. Anywhere they put me I'm ready to play."
Fast Willie returns
Running back Willie Parker has not played in the preseason because of a strained muscle behind his left knee. But that inactivity will end when he starts against the Redskins.
"We have to get Willie Parker going," Tomlin said.
The Steelers are set with their top two backs -- Parker and Najeh Davenport -- and, as of now, it appears first-year free agent Carey Davis and rookie Gary Russell will make the team.
That probably leaves one spot for four players -- Dan Kreider, Verron Haynes, Kevan Barlow and John Kuhn -- though it is possible Tomlin could keep an additional running back.
Center of no attention
Sean Mahan, the team's only significant free-agent signing in the offseason, will start his second game in a row at center. Mahan is battling veteran Chukky Okobi to be the replacement for retired Jeff Hartings, a two-time All-Pro, and would appear to have the edge.
The squeaky wheel
Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, who complained two weeks ago he was being ignored in the passing game, said he wasn't being selfish. He said he just wanted to be sure he was getting some opportunities to show his new coach, Tomlin, what he could do.
Wilson leads the team with four catches for 99 yards and also has returned four punts for a team-best 13.8-yard average.
"I just don't want to be forgotten about," Wilson said.
"It's tough when you have a new coach coming in and you finished the [previous] season as a rotating receiver. You don't know what's been told to him and how he feels about you.
"But I tell you what, I have proved myself on the practice field and I've proved myself in games. Those are the things I have to continue to do."
The Steelers held a light walk-through practice yesterday morning at Saint Vincent College on what was the final official day of training camp.
The team will resume its preseason practices Monday at its South Side facility. Tomlin wants to treat the week like a regular-season week because the Steelers do not play again until Sunday.