Smith, the Steelers left tackle, missed two full games and all but three plays of a third game, and the offense sputtered. By the end of his absence, the line was in a complete state of flux."> Smith, the Steelers left tackle, missed two full games and all but three plays of a third game, and the offense sputtered. By the end of his absence, the line was in a complete state of flux.">

Marvel returns to bolster line

<b>PITTSBURGH --</b> Marvel Smith returned to practice Wednesday to bolster the left side of the Steelers' offensive line, but that doesn't necessarily mean the questions have been answered for the rest of the line.<br><br> "Anything and everything is possible at this point," said Coach Bill Cowher. <p> Smith, the Steelers left tackle, missed two full games and all but three plays of a third game, and the offense sputtered. By the end of his absence, the line was in a complete state of flux.

At Denver last week, the Steelers used 10 different line combinations in a 17-14 loss. The best combination may have been the last one, which led to Jerome Bettis' one-yard touchdown run and game-tying two-point conversion, but center Jeff Hartings, who was playing his old position of right guard on the drive, warns that too much shouldn't be read into that series.

"The success or failure of every play depends on so much," Hartings said. "It's especially difficult for anybody outside of the team to look at those plays and say 'Well you scored a touchdown on that drive so it must be successful.' There's a lot more involved than that."

"Other guys made plays, too. It wasn't necessarily just because we moved positions. The only way to truly tell if something works is to do it a couple games and see how it works out." That just may become the case as the Steelers continue to sort through their possibilities during the bye week.

The return of Smith more than likely eliminates the different combinations used Sunday on the left side. With Smith back, the move of left guard Alan Faneca to left tackle becomes less likely. However, third-year backups Chukky Okobi and Mathias Nkwenti have moved into the picture at center and right tackle.

"I'm excited that I might get an opportunity to play," Okobi said. "But more importantly, I want to come together as a team and pull this thing back together."

If Okobi is inserted at center, it's expected that Hartings will replace, or rotate with, Kendall Simmons at right guard.

"If that's what they want to do, then I'm totally fine with that," said Hartings. "If you're a professional on a team, you do whatever they ask you to do, just like when I came here and was a guard and they asked me if I wanted to play center. Whatever they wanted me to do, that's what I get paid to do. It goes the same way if they want me to move back to guard."

Hartings played right guard through five seasons with the Detroit Lions, but moved to center after the Steelers signed him as a free agent prior to the 2001 season. A center since then, Hartings replaced a slumping Simmons at guard through stretches Sunday at Denver. Hartings said it wasn't an easy maneuver.

"No, it's not easy because the techniques are totally different in my opinion," he said. "You punch a lot more at guard and you're in a little more space than at center. Without getting reps it's going to be pretty hard, so I think the most important thing is that I know I'm going to be in there so I can get some reps during the week. Then it's going to make it easier on game day."

Simmons, last year's No. 1 draft pick, has struggled with a diabetic condition and admitted Wednesday to being "in a pass-blocking slump."

"There's no question coming back he's had a number of issues he's had to deal with," Cowher said. "Certainly the diagnosis of the diabetes is something that was very unique and new to a lot of people. He lost a lot of strength at that time that I think he's getting back. And maybe in the course of that time he's lost a little bit of confidence, but that's where we are right now."

Right now, the Steelers are 2-4 and sifting through their backups for answers.

"We'll try to find the right combination," Cowher said. "That'll be done on a week-to-week basis, and if necessary maybe done on a series-to-series basis. You don't want to do that but certainly right now we need to get results and I think they all understand that."

NOTES - Hines Ward (foot), Mike Logan (groin) and Clint Kriewaldt (knee) missed Wednesday's practice, but Cowher said none of the injuries is considered serious. … The Steelers will practice again Thursday, take the rest of the week off, and return to practice Monday. … The Steelers' next game, against the St. Louis Rams, will be the franchise's 1,000th game.


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