One starting spot, two roster spots up for grabs

<b> PITTSBURGH -- </b> The game plan is out. The Steelers will go into Friday's game at Carolina and try to come back the same way they left: healthy. <br><br> Otherwise, all Coach Bill Cowher wants from his 1-2 Steelers in the preseason finale is a right tackle and his 52nd and 53rd players. Those are the only openings left on a veteran roster that shapes up this way:

QUARTERBACK (3) -- Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch and Brian St. Pierre. If one gets hurt, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El can be the third-teamer.

RUNNING BACK (5) -- Amos Zereoue and Jerome Bettis will rotate at tailback; Dan Kreider is the fullback; Verron Haynes is the third-down back. Dante Brown should see early action Friday to determine if he can run with the big dogs. Bubble: Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.

WIDE RECEIVER (5) -- Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress are the starters while Randle El is the first slot receiver and Slash-back. The back-ups are Lee Mays and Chris Doering.

TIGHT END (3) -- Jay Reimersma is the starter and Mark Bruener is the blocking tight end. Jerame Tuman probably won't play in the game, which opens the door for ... Bubble: Matt Cushing, who can also play fullback in a pinch.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9) -- Todd Fordham can win the starting job at right tackle if he shows anything against Julius Peppers on Friday. Peppers had 12 sacks in 12 games as a rookie last year. Cowher praised Kendall Simmons for the way he's dealing with diabetes, so right guard shouldn't be a problem. Center Jeff Hartings, left guard Alan Faneca and left tackle Marvel Smith complete the starting group. Oliver Ross practiced at right tackle Wednesday on his tender ankle, but with the second team. Chukky Okobi, Keydrick Vincent and Mathias Nkwenti are the other back-ups. Bubble: Calvin Collins.

DEFENSIVE LINE (6) -- Kimo von Oelhoffen's problematic shoulder is in its best shape in a few years, according to Cowher. The other end, Aaron Smith, had another fine camp. Cowher reported that nose tackle Casey Hampton, who came to camp at 338 pounds, has his weight "about two pounds away from where we want him to be." The back-ups are Kendrick Clancy, Rodney Bailey and Brett Keisel, who may miss four to six weeks with an injured shoulder. Bubble: David Upchurch.

LINEBACKER (8) -- The starting group -- Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell, James Farrior, Jason Gildon -- could be the best in the NFL. Clark Haggans is the best of the back-ups and second-round draft pick Alonzo Jackson is showing plenty. Clint Kriewaldt can play inside, outside and special teams. Second-year player Larry Foote has been disappointing. Bubble: James Harrison.

CORNERBACK (5) -- After Kelly Holcomb shredded the Chad Scott-less Steelers in the playoffs last season, it became obvious Scott is the No. 1 corner here. Deshea Townsend is pushing Dewayne Washington, who's looking at his final season with the team. Fourth-round pick Ike Taylor could become dynamite, but is raw, thus Chidi Iwuoma is a roster lock. Bubble: Hank Poteat.

SAFETY (4) -- Brent Alexander is also looking at his final season with the team and strong safety Mike Logan has had a fine camp. The back-ups are No. 1 pick Troy Polamalu and last year's No. 3 draft pick Chris Hope. Bubble: Erik Totten.

SPECIALISTS (3) -- Jeff Reed is the kicker; Josh Miller is the punter; Mike Schneck is the snapper.

The numbers add up to 51, leaving bubble prospects Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Cushing, Collins, Upchurch, Harrison, Poteat and Totten fighting for the final two roster spots Friday night.

Harrison may have already locked up one of those spots since he's in the thick of most of the special teams. Look for versatility next on Friday night. Fuamatu-Ma'afala can play both spots in the backfield and special teams, but is a candidate to be traded for a late draft pick. Cushing and Collins can play two positions each. The injury to Keisel helps WVU's Upchurch, possibly even Chris Hoke if Cowher feels the team will need that player on game day.

Jim Wexell
SteelCitySports.com

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