Bad call by Cowher?

<b> LATROBE –</b> It was a call he'd probably like to take back. <br><br> Steelers Coach Bill Cowher thought that canceling morning practice Tuesday for a trip to the movie theater would be a break his players needed. But after a sluggish afternoon practice, Cowher wasn't so sure.

Cowher was asked whether the time off was appreciated.

"We'll see," he said. "They can show their appreciation Thursday night."

How did they follow up the movie at practice?

"Like they were still at the theater".

You weren't happy with it?

"Not really. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time."

Are you having second thoughts?

"Nah. Not really."

The canceled practice came as something of a surprise, considering last week how Cowher bemoaned the fact his team had fallen far behind schedule. His lament was followed by a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a day off Sunday, and Monday's lone practice. They went to the movies Tuesday morning.

"We caught up," said quarterback Charlie Batch. "I think it had a lot to do with the game. Did we get better from the Detroit game? That answer was yes. If we'd have stayed the same or taken a step backwards, I don't think we would've gotten the practice off."

It's become an annual rite, but Cowher waited until the last possible day to pull it off. He didn't tell his assistants, who put in a couple hours of work on the practice plan the previous night only to scrap it at the last minute.

"Dallas does some different things that we needed to look at," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "But it's no big deal. We can work on it [yesterday] afternoon and push the afternoon work back until [Wednesday]."

Cowher usually waits until his players are on the practice field before breaking the news. But he waited so long Tuesday the players figured he'd forgotten.

"He held it all the way to the end," said Batch. "A lot of guys were anticipating it and then he threw a little monkey wrench in it by telling us to warm-up. So you started questioning yourself whether he was going to do it or not and then he started calling us up and we all knew. He kind of held it to the end."

Added Batch: "If he really wanted to make us happy, he would've given us the afternoon off. But I guess putting the pads on in 90-degree weather is what camp's all about. It does prepare you mentally."

Are the Steelers prepared? Cowher said he was pleased with the team's energy and the play of both lines in Saturday's loss to the Eagles, but the Steelers struggled in the first half, particularly on offense. Quarterback Tommy Maddox passed for only 46 yards in four series and the running backs gained only 28 yards on 11 first-half carries.

Jerome Bettis, who's gained only 24 yards on 11 carries this preseason, said he's not concerned about the running game yet.

"Not at this stage," he said. "After the third game and going into the fourth, that's when you have to look at it realistically and gauge where you are. This game, the starters are going to play more, the offensive line will play more, so you'll get a better understanding of where you are through the course of the half as opposed to a quarter. If you run the ball six times, how good are you? You really don't know that. That's why this game is going to be important to see where we are in the running game."

The starters will play longer Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys as the 0-2 Steelers prepare for their regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

"We've been up and down," said Bettis. "We've shown flashes of the team you saw last year and the years before, and then we've shown flashes of a team that nobody wants to see. It's typical of preseason and typical of injuries. That's the nature of the beast."

Jim Wexell

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