Notebook: Back-ups keeping quiet

<b> PITTSBURGH -</b> A tell-tale sign the end of a losing season is near is the inordinate amount of ink being used on back-ups whom fans and/or reporters believe are close to the starting lineup. The Pittsburgh Steelers fit that category so we're getting them all out of the way this week. Let's start with Coach Bill Cowher's edict.

"Our plans are to win football games," he said, when asked about playing back-ups. "We're not going to do that at the expense of just trying to give people experience. If we feel like it gives us the best chance of winning, and they both coincide, so be it."

But each new loss will make it easier to look at the youngsters, who are simultaneously chomping at the bit and biting their tongue.
  • Chukky Okobi - The back-up center behind the aging Jeff Hartings will become a restricted free agent after the season. On receiving more playing time, he says: "I believe in our coaching staff and the decisions they make. If that means I'm a reserve, than that's the role I play. I'm just ready for anything."

  • Clark Haggans - The back-up outside linebacker behind the unproductive Jason Gildon will become an unrestricted free agent after the season. On receiving more playing time, he says: "I don't know. I can't really say. I'm focused on special teams right now."

  • Alonzo Jackson - The fourth outside linebacker was drafted in the second round but hasn't played. In preseason, he had two sacks that forced two fumbles against a rookie free agent offensive tackle, Torrin Tucker, who's now in the Dallas starting lineup. On receiving more playing time, Jackson says: "Hopefully they'll play me. If not, I'll just look forward to next year."

  • Rodney Bailey - The back-up defensive end behind the aging Kimo von Oelhoffen hasn't had an earlier chance to show his wares in the starting lineup, as Haggans has. On receiving more playoff time, Bailey says: "I haven't heard anything. Whatever's needed. I just want to be ready when I'm needed."

  • Verron Haynes - The back-up tailback behind the aging Jerome Bettis and the unproductive Amos Zereoue could make a case for being next year's starter. On receiving more playing time, Haynes says: "Hey, I'm preparing like I'm the starter. That's, like I said, my goal."

  • Dante Brown - The fourth tailback and preseason rushing leader has been active for only one game this season. On receiving more playing time, he says: "I just go out there every day and try to work hard, do what I can to make the defense better and give them a good look at the back they're playing."

  • Mathias Nkwenti - The fourth offensive tackle was on the verge of playing but a bulging disk forced him to injured reserve instead. A restricted free agent-to-be, he says: "Things are going good. It's a bulging disk pinching a nerve going to my foot. It made it hard to move. There was numbness, loss of strength. It was bad timing. It just kept getting worse until I couldn't take it anymore. So I'm just rehabbing now. I'll be ready by the first mini-camp."

A SECOND CHANCE
After cornerback Chad Scott was put on injured reserve with a torn tendon in his hand, Cowher turned not to a young player but instead to previously banished cornerback Dewayne Washington.

"Mentally, it's been a big adjustment for me going from starting one day to being on the scout team," said Washington, who was surprised he wasn't allowed a middle ground in the demotion. "It ain't like I said don't put me in the game. I still wanted to play. But they said you're not playing nothing, so I didn't play nothing."

PLAYING A HUNCH
Scott's replacement on the active roster is rookie safety Russell Stuvaints of McKeesport High and Youngstown State University. He'd been cut three times before a season-long 35-day stint on the practice squad recently turned into a promotion.

Stuvaints had a hunch he was doing well, so he bought a used Hummer for $40,000, which was quite a stretch on his weekly in-season salary of $4,350.

"I started feeling more confident as I did better in practice and felt confident I'm going to be in the NFL for awhile, or somewhere playing football for a living," Stuvaints explained.

Now that his game checks have increased to $13,235, he can afford a new Hummer.

"No, I'm going to get my mom a nice Christmas present," he said. "My mom was everything to me all my life."

FRUSTRATED FREE AGENT
Tight end Jay Riemersma cost the Steelers $1.51 million this season and the 30-year-old has caught 9 passes for 114 yards and 1 touchdown. He's returning to the lineup today after missing two games with a bruised sternum. He'd previously missed three games with a shoulder injury.

"This has been the most frustrating season I've gone through in my career," he said. "I never had a season like this so I haven't really dealt with it too well at times. Coach keeps telling me I'm going to learn from this and get better. One thing, it's re-established my love for the game. Sometimes you take it for granted and I've learned not to take it for granted."


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