One Step at a Time

Tonight's preseason tilt with the Philadelphia Eagles is a building block for many Steelers, young and old.

At the start of the week, Hines Ward said of the opening game against the Baltimore Ravens: "It's all I think about."

Troy Polamalu was asked the next day if he felt the same way.

"No," said the Steelers' star safety. "I'm thinking about Michael Vick, [Shady] McCoy, Ronnie Brown and those guys right now. When that game comes, it will come. Right now they're just building blocks."

Tonight's preseason game against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles is certainly a building block for Polamalu, who'll see his first action since the Super Bowl.

Polamalu struggled through the playoffs with a slight tear in his Achilles' tendon, and he has yet to test whether his great burst has returned.

It's time, because the Steelers must consider whether to extend his contact.

Per team tradition, they won't negotiate once the regular season begins, and if they don't get a good read on his health, further delay would run the risk of losing Polamalu after the season.

Polamalu wants to retire as a Steeler, but so did Rod Woodson. The two cases are similar in that Woodson wasn't extended after coming off a serious leg injury at the age of 30. His contract expired after the following season and he left.

So, tonight's game certainly is an important one for Polamalu and the organization, as it is for a roster that must be cut to 75 by Aug. 30. So, here's what tonight's "building block" game means at the following positions:

QUARTERBACK: The Steelers' plan is to peddle one of their quarterbacks before cutdown date. So if Dennis Dixon can bring more in return than Charlie Batch, Batch will remain with Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger.

RUNNING BACK: The Eagles have few weaknesses, but tonight their best defensive tackles are out and at middle linebacker they're starting 232-pound fourth-round pick Casey Matthews, brother of Clay. So the inside runners battling for the No. 4 RB spot in Pittsburgh, Jon Dwyer and John Clay, could win and lose jobs tonight. Dwyer is losing weight and starting to look again like an NFL player. Clay, the undrafted rookie, left the practice field prematurely this week and needs to show, well, something.

WIDE RECEIVER: The Eagles' cornerback triumvirate of Nnamdi Aomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel will provide a test for Ward, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery. Emmanuel Sanders is a fifth lock at the position, but won't play as he continues to recover from foot surgery.

TIGHT END: Behind Heath Miller looms a problem area for the Steelers, who just cut practice-squadder Eugene Bright. Rookie Weslye Saunders has been dropping too many passes to push for a spot as a raw but big-bodied blocker. Veteran acquisition John Gilmore is barely hanging on. David Johnson almost got his quarterback killed as an inattentive "fullback" last game. Undrafted rookie Miguel Chavis was moved here from the defensive line this week, but can't be considered a serious prospect for this season.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Tony Hills, the starting right guard tonight, looked good on the move at practice this week. The converted tackle is already the team's most mobile guard. He won't have to face Mike Patterson tonight, but possibly Cullen Jenkins, another of the Eagles' many free-agent acquisitions. The inconsistent Chris Kemoeatu won't lose his job, according to a source, at left guard as he continues to recover from a knee problem. The 10th spot right now belongs to sixth-round pick Keith Williams.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Ziggy Hood will start for Aaron Smith at left defensive end. Hood and LaMarr Woodley will tell the Eagles what they have in their new left-side linemen, Danny Watkins and King Dunlap. First-round pick Cameron Heyward will probably start for Brett Keisel on the other side. The lone roster battle appears to be at backup nose tackle between Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon. Anthony Gray (67) and Corbin Bryant (71) are the youngsters to watch late.

LINEBACKERS: James Harrison begins his comeback from low back surgery tonight. He's in Month 6 of an expected full-recovery period of 12 to 18 months. Chris Ellis outside and Mortty Ivy inside are hoping to force the Steelers into keeping an extra backer this year.

SECONDARY: With cornerbacks Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Butler, and rookie Cortez Allen out, third-round pick Curtis Brown will get a long look. He's shown better raw coverage skills than anyone on the roster. Keenan Lewis will also get another long look as he tries to hold on to a job.


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