Notebook: Polamalu Moving Up The Ladder

<B>LATROBE –</B> Last week he moved into the nickel package. Monday, No. 1 draft pick Troy Polamalu took another step toward the starting strong safety job with the Steelers when he was moved into the team's dime defense.

"It's just the natural progression for Troy," said Coach Bill cowher. "A guy like Troy definitely gives us some flexibility because he does have the ability to cover in the slot. We know he's an excellent blitzer, a lot like Mike Logan, and then certainly he can play the deep safety as well."

Polamalu lined up next to Brent Alexander, the free safety, while strong safety Mike Logan moved up to his familiar dime-back position next to linebacker Joey Porter. The odd man out is Chris Hope, last year's third-round pick.

"All I can do is wait on my time," said Hope. "But if you look on the film, and out on the field from the sideline, you definitely see [number] 28 running around and making plays. So hopefully my game will speak for itself."

Polamalu had been playing with the first-team nickel in a unique three-safety, two-cornerback package designed for teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, who use tight end Todd Heap as a deep threat. But the nickel is still nothing more than a novelty for the Steelers, who in the past few seasons have used the dime almost as often as their base package.

The Steelers finished 27th in the NFL in third-down defense last year. The secondary in the dime defense was considered a major culprit, so the team traded up 11 spots to draft Polamalu, a three-year starter at strong safety and a two-time All-America at Southern Cal.

"He's doing a good job," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "He's got tremendous speed, a good work ethic. He's very bright and a very instinctive football player. And when you talk to him, you can see the wheels turning and know he understands what you're talking about.

"I just tell him where to line up, otherwise, he takes it over from there. He does a good job as far as playing the game is concerned."

Polamalu, however, isn't all that impressed with himself. "Everything's coming so slow. Hopefully, I can get better," he said. "I don't know. This probably isn't permanent. It's probably just to give me a look at seeing what it's like to play with the first team."

The Steelers released punter Mike Hayes and signed punter Glenn Pakulak, a rookie from the University of Kentucky. Pakulak wasn't drafted but signed with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent and was cut prior to the start of training camp.

Offensive guard Dave Costa left the team and was placed on the reserve/left camp list. He was replaced Monday by Mike Cook (6-5, 345) of Boston College. As an undrafted rookie, Cook spent most of the 2001 season on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad. He was cut during the 2002 training camp and played last spring in NFL Europe.

Punter Josh Miller was activated from the PUP list and returned to practice Monday.

Center Jeff Hartings missed practice Monday afternoon after his left knee swelled following the morning practice. Hartings missed four games last season with torn cartilage in the knee, and then aggravated it in the off-season.

"It's just something I've had to deal with," Hartings said. "In my first five, six years of playing football I never missed a game hardly, never missed a practice even. So the last year it's been a bad dream I guess. It's something no athlete wants to go through. It's hard to heal up when you go out here every day and keep banging on it. That's why I have to be smart about it and not practice every single day."

Joining Hartings on the sidelines were quarterback Tim Levcik (knee) and cornerback Hank Poteat (shoulder). Guard Calvin Collins left practice early with a stomach virus.

Running back Amos Zereoue returned to practice from a foot injury and cornerback Chidi Iwuoma returned from an ankle injury.

Cowher held his players a little longer than usual in the post-practice huddle and chat. He said the field is a better place to teach than in an air-conditioned meeting room.

"That is not where the game is played," Cowher said. "We talked about where we want to go and what type of team we are, and what it will take to get there. Days like this, tomorrow and Wednesday are very important days. I like the approach we are taking but there are still a lot of little things that we need to pay attention to. We want to live up to our expectations and the time to talk about it is when they are tired."

Jim Wexell

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