Notebook: Marvel Smith returns to practice

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Marvel Smith returned to practice Thursday and believes he should be able to return to the lineup as the Steelers' starting left tackle Sunday night against the Cleveland Browns. <br><br> Last Sunday, Smith broke a streak in which he'd started 45 consecutive games, including the playoffs, because of a swollen nerve in the back of his shoulder.

"I'm getting better," Smith said, "but I don't know if I'm going to play."

Smith's concern isn't so much with his shoulder, but with his coaches.

"I could've said I could play last week, but it was up to the coach then and it's up to the coach now," he said. "I'm feeling a lot better than I did last week, so it's looking pretty good." Smith was replaced last week by Oliver Ross, who was beaten by Jevon Kearse to set up the safety that turned the game around. The Tennessee Titans cut the Steelers' lead to 10-2 on the play, and the Titans scored a touchdown after the ensuing punt. The Titans never looked back and won 30-13.

Also returning to practice Thursday were wide receiver Plaxico Burress (hip pointer) and inside linebacker James Farrior (glute). Both are expected to play Sunday.

Missing Thursday's practice were tight end Jay Riemersma (shoulder) and backup linebacker Clint Kriewaldt (knee). Both are listed as questionable for the game.

A TIME TO HEAL
For the second day in a row, the Steelers practiced without pads. Considering they're playing the rival Browns on Sunday, the soft approach came as something of a surprise, except to the players.

"It's getting to that point in the season," said Smith. "We've been working hard since July. We're starting to get banged up and this is a way to help us get healthy. Even though you don't have your pads on, you can still work on your technique."

Even before a key divisional game?

"The whole time I've been here, we usually don't wear pads the last halves of season," he said. "It's not something new. It's just a matter of keeping the focus and working on our technique."

POLAMALU UPDATE
We can't let the week slide by without updating the progress of No. 1 draft pick Troy Polamalu. So far this season, the safety from Southern Cal has one solo tackle and six assists, with four more total tackles on special teams. He's playing in the nickel and dime packages and, of course, remains the back-up in the base defense to strong safety Mike Logan.

Here's what Logan had to say about the rookie:

"I've seen some progress. We've put him in some nickel packages and he's had some success. I think as the year goes along and he gets more repetitions I think he'll be just fine."

Is he tentative?

"I don't think so. When he's been in there I think he's been making plays. He's been real aggressive. He's been going after the ball and making plays, and I think he's kind of comfortable now. I think all of that initial pressure is starting to loosen it up a little bit."

How much different is the role of strong safety this year?

"We're kind of still using that same format. We're still using the strong safety as a run stopper but when teams do bring out that third receiver on first or second down, we're able to play man-to-man on them, whether it be myself in the game or Troy, and I think that's helped us out tremendously because we don't have to go into a state of panic over who's going to cover their third receiver or their flexible tight end, so I think it's definitely helped us."

CUBS FAN OPTIMISTIC
Antwaan Randle El wore his authentic Chicago Cubs jersey to work on Wednesday, the day after Kerry Wood pitched the Cubs to an opening-game win over the Atlanta Braves. Yesterday, Randle El lamented a loss that evened the series at 1-1.

"Yeah, we could've put it away," Randle El said. "But we'll be all right. There's no heartbreaking going on this time."

Randle El was signed by the Cubs out of high school, but opted to play football at Indiana University. Even though he was raised in White Sox territory, the South Side of Chicago, Randle El has always been a Cubs fan.

"They're going to do it this year," he said. "Pitching is one reason. Pitching wins ball games. Now, we might struggle with (Matt) Clement on the mound, but hopefully we'll have three wins by then.

"The only team I really fear is the Giants because they're so versatile. They're the only team that might beat my Cubs."

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