Greener on the South Side

<b> PITTSBURGH -- </b> The scrapes and scratches on Hines Ward tell the story. The Steelers' Pro Bowl receiver only interprets. <br><br> "Look at this," he said, holding his arms out. "I don't know what was up there. It was the good field but you still found some rocks up there and some irrigation things. It wasn't one of the best fields we've practiced on."

What didn't scrape Ward's skin at "the good field" -- the new one carved out of a corn field at St. Vincent College -- irritated it immensely. A layer of skin just burned off his arms and patches formed around his elbows.

Was it the fertilizer?

"Everything was up there," Ward said. "I just broke out. I still went out and did what I had to do. You still have to practice, but it wasn't one of the best fields we've practiced on."

Ward dove and rolled around in the rocks and fertilizer and muck of the Steelers' new field of dreams. It's where they practiced the last week and a half, almost exclusively, because the fields down below were sinkholes.

The Steelers, though, are back in their comfy confines on the South Side of Pittsburgh, where the grass really is greener, and it's time for the passing game to get down to business.

Before posting a first-half passer rating of 106 last week against the Dallas Cowboys, the best the Steelers could do previously this preseason was half as well. The thinking among the Ward-Plaxico Burress-Tommy Maddox triumvirate is that things will continue to improve exponentially.

"Field condition means a lot, particularly with the timing between receiver and quarterback," Ward said. "It's kind of hard to run routes when you can't even get your proper footing or proper steps right up at Latrobe. The field conditions up there were poor, so it kind of threw off our timing as far as running timing routes, like out routes. Coming back here, we're getting a great week of practice because of better field conditions and everybody's back at home sleeping in their own beds."

Not that Ward dodged his duties at training camp in Latrobe. But here on the South Side ...

"I can give you two-a-days up here," he said. "You come in here, it's a nice facility, nice grass. It makes it easy, particularly on us receivers. We run so much, and I know all of camp, every receiver, the bottom of their feet was either blistered up or hurting. When your feet are blistered up, it's kind of hard to cut in and out of routes, especially when the field conditions aren't what they're supposed to be."

Burress agreed. "I think this is where we start really picking it up and really getting our timing down," he said. "It's getting closer to the season so I think everybody's intensity level goes up a little bit knowing you only have two weeks until the first game of the season. You also get to come to the South Side and play on some good fields. You play on nice grass and develop the timing we need going into that first game."

Although Ward is all for crisp timing, he isn't so sure the first team needs to play much on Friday night in the final preseason game at Carolina. He's figured a way to develop timing and not risk injury in a meaningless game.

"If we have a great week of practice, then I'm hoping we don't play that much, probably one or two series," he said. "Having a great week of practice shouldn't have to be a goal. You should go out and have crisp practices anyway. To get to where we want to go, we have to go out and get better each week and it all starts at practice. We play how we practice."

And it's much easier to practice on the green, green grass of home.

Jim Wexell

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