Notebook: Battles re-emerges

<b>LATROBE -</b> Chris Hope made the play of the night at Latrobe Stadium when he stuffed Jerome Bettis in the hole to prevent a touchdown. But the hit cost him a day of practice after Hope's shoulder stiffened up.

"I told him he makes one good hit and he has to take a day off," said Steelers Coach Bill Cowher. "He'll be back out tomorrow."

Hope's back-up, Mike Logan, also missed Thursday's practice at St. Vincent College. But an MRI done on his swollen knee brought positive news. The swelling was caused by fluid from an old surgery. He'll be back Friday or Monday, according to Cowher.

That left Ainsley Battles to start at free safety for the Steelers. You may remember Battles as one of three rookie free agents to make the Steelers in 2000. He even started two games that year, but was released the following year. He was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars and remained with them through 2001 and 2002.

Last year, Battles was picked up by the Buffalo Bills on July 29. He walked out of camp Aug. 4 and sat out the season.

"I just needed some time," said Battles. "I needed some time for myself to figure out what it is in my life that I wanted to do and realize that football's what I do, it's not who I am. And the time I spent away from football helped me realize it's where my heart's at. It's really what I want to be doing.

"I mean having a Vanderbilt education, a degree from Vanderbilt, opens up a lot of doors, but my parents told me if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life, and this is what I love to do. So I just had a great opportunity here. A situation opened up, I had a good workout, the coaches saw something and I'm here."

Normally, players who walk out of one training camp aren't invited back to another, even with a different team. But Cowher talked at length with Battles and became convinced he's a safe risk.

"I was convinced there were circumstances there," Cowher said of Buffalo. "And sometimes when you get away from the game a little bit you realize how much you love it. He still has a lot of play left in him and it's a good fit here, so we're glad he joined us and we're hoping he'll continue to progress."

Battles showed his wares in the two-minute drill, which ended Thursday's practice. He intercepted Tommy Maddox to send the first teams to the sidelines.

"It's kind of like déjà vu right now," he said. "It feels really good to be back in Pittsburgh. I really enjoyed my time here and I'm really fortunate to have a second chance at it."

And how is he doing?

"I'm only as good as my last play," he said. "I'm already looking forward to tomorrow's practice."

With Clark Haggans and Alonzo Jackson still out with injuries, a roster spot is being contested by young outside linebackers Dedrick Roper, Nick McNeil and Nathaniel Adibi. The first two weren't drafted; Adibi was drafted in the fifth round.

So far, Roper appears to have the edge. He started again on the left side yesterday.

Of the three, Roper is perhaps the best pass-rusher while coaches like McNeil's pass-coverage skills. Adibi has the pedigree and perhaps a better mix of rushing and coverage skills.

"I like number 44," volunteer and temporary assistant Kevin Greene said of Roper. "He's got a great motor."

A group of officials oversaw Thursday's practice and threw only one flag - on wide receiver Plaxico Burress after he and cornerback Chad Scott engaged in some pushing and shoving during a pass play.

"We're meeting with them tonight," Cowher said of the officials. "The points of emphasis this year, particularly in the secondary, (include) the contact beyond five yards. (It) will (be called) this year. There's going to be a lot more calls. The grabbing of a jersey is now going to be called, where in the past it was a judgment call as to whether it affected the receiver. This year they're going to call it. Having these guys in here is really going to be a benefit."


After special teams coach Kevin Spencer spoke briefly with rookie defensive lineman Eric Taylor in the lunch room, a reporter mentioned to Spencer that the 305-pound Taylor might make a fine wedge-buster. "He just told me he'd like to cover kicks," Spencer said. "You know, you always have to watch what you wish for. I told him, 'You're on board, baby.'"

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