Fordham gets his shot

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> When training camp began, the Steelers had four jobs that were open for competition. <br><br> Through three preseason games, three of those positions have been claimed, as last week, head coach Bill Cowher declared competitions at running back and tight end over, choosing Amos Zereoue and John Riemersma over Jerome Bettis and Mark Bruener.

And the strong safety battle that was supposed to take place between veteran Mike Logan and rookie Troy Polamalu never really got started as Logan never faltered.

But at right tackle, nothing has been settled as neither Oliver Ross or Todd Fordham has laid a claim to the position.

With only one preseason game remaining before the Steelers line up to play Baltimore to open the regular season Sept. 7, Cowher has yet to make his mind up over which player will start at right tackle against the Ravens.

Cowher said Wednesday that Ross, who had started the first three preseason games at right tackle and had been considered the frontrunner for the job, likely won't play Friday in the team's preseason finale at Carolina because of an ankle injury.

That leaves Fordham, who was signed as a free agent during the offseason after spending the previous five seasons in Jacksonville, with his best chance to make one last impression before Cowher makes a decision.

"We'll see where Oliver is at," said Cowher, noting Ross's playing time will be a game-time decision. "This will be a chance for Todd to get a lot of reps. He's probably been more behind Oliver at this point because he's been playing some guard as well and he missed a game with his elbow. He'll play without a doubt the whole first half."

The Steelers offensive line has been an unsettled point throughout this preseason. Right guard Kendall Simmons missed the first two weeks of training camp after being diagnosed with diabetes. And center Jeff Hartings has been troubled by a chronic knee injury that has forced him out of action at times. Even Fordham missed some practices because of loose bone chips in his elbow.

Because of those problems, the battle between Ross and Fordham never really developed because Fordham was needed to help out at guard. It's a problem Fordham is accustomed to. The 6-5, 315-pound Fordham saw considerable playing time at all five positions along the offensive line at Jacksonville, even though it made him a jack of all trades and master of none. "I've kind of thought about that from time to time, wondering that if I was a one-position guy, would I stick there? But at the same time, versatility has kind of made me valuable, so I take the good and run with it," said Fordham. "I try to make the best of every opportunity I get wherever it may be at and play to the best of my ability."

The versatility has been what helped keep Fordham in the league. An undrafted free agent coming out of Florida State in 1997, Fordham earned a spot on Denver's practice squad that season.

Jacksonville signed him to its active roster the next season and he played in 11 games, getting one start at right guard. He missed the entire 1999 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during a scrimmage with Atlanta, but came back strong in 2000, playing in all 16 games and starting eight games at right tackle. The following season, Fordham stepped into the left tackle position after Tony Boselli was injured, starting the final 12 games.

And last season, he switched back to the other side, starting nine more games at right tackle, sharing the position with rookie Mo Williams after veteran Zach Wiegert was injured. In addition, he also had to learn to play center last season when Jacksonville's primary backup was injured during the preseason.

"It's been crazy, I've played some at every position, but it's helped me too because I've learned how other positions go about their blocking," Fordham said. "You can't just play in your little shell. You have to know what the guy beside you is doing and sometimes the guy on down the line. So I think it's made me a brighter player."

Dale Lolley

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