Experienced Defensive Backfield ?

<b>GREENSBURG -</b> The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't feel comfortable with Chris Hope as their starting free safety last season because he wasn't experienced enough. <br><br> But when the team finished its practice at Greensburg's Offutt Field Wednesday night before a crowd of approximately 7,000, Hope was the most experienced player in the secondary.

With cornerback Chad Scott already sitting out practice for the second straight day with a strained abdomen, Deshea Townsend was also forced out of practice while trying to cover Hines Ward on a deep pass down the sideline from Tommy Maddox. Townsend pulled up with a strained groin on the play, forcing the Steelers to play both Ike Taylor, a second-year player, and rookie Ricardo Coclough at the cornerback positions with Hope, who's in his third season, and second-year man Troy Polamalu at the safety spots.

That could be the team's starting secondary when it lines up for its preseason opener Saturday at Detroit.

"It's a mild groin (strain)," Cowher said of Townsend, the latest Steelers' starter to go down with a minor injury. "I'll know more tomorrow. He has an outside chance of playing."

Townsend wasn't the only starter to go down. Inside linebacker James Farrior also suffered what Cowher deemed a minor groin strain. That brings the number of Steelers regulars who have missed some or all of a practice to at least 16 players. Running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley sat out Wednesday's morning practice along with defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and center Jeff Hartings in what Hartings deemed a "veteran's day off."

Those four returned to practice Wednesday night, but the injury list doesn't have head coach Bill Cowher worried - yet. "They're fighting through a lot of these things," Cowher said. "We've got a lot more guys in camp, so we've had more injuries. That's all part of it. A lot of these guys are practicing with it and you have to condition your mind to do that. During the season, it's no different. Rarely are you 100 percent."

Offense scores
The third time was the charm for the Steelers' starting offense as it finally scored a touchdown against the first-team defense in a goal-line drill.

But unlike previous attempts, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt threw in a curve and actually called a couple of pass plays, the second of which worked, with QB Tommy Maddox hitting a wide open Matt Cushing in the back of the end zone off of play action on fourth down from the 3.

"You knew it was coming, it was inevitable," said Cowher of the offense running consecutive play-action passes on third and fourth down.

With Bettis and Staley sitting out any contact drills, Verron Haynes ran with the first team and gained two yards on first down. But he and Maddox mishandled the handoff on second down - with Haynes recovering the miscue - and Maddox missed a wide open Jay Riemersma on third down.

Maddox then faked a handoff to Haynes on fourth down and tossed a pass to Cushing in the back of the end zone to give the offense bragging rights for the evening. The defense had stopped the offense on the previous two times the team ran the drill, with the offense running the ball eight straight plays.

The second-team offense looked like it would easily score as Dante Brown gained four yards on first down before getting tripped up at the 1. But safety Ainsley Battles sacked Ben Roethlisberger on second down and the defense prevailed. It was a good ending to a good practice, but Cowher is looking forward to lining up against the Lions Saturday.

"We've got to start hitting some other people," he said. "I think we're all looking forward to playing on Saturday."

Odds and end zones
Backup quarterback Charlie Batch sat out for the fifth straight day with a sore knee and Cowher said he will not play against the Lions. . The Steelers will practice at 3 p.m. today and then travel to Detroit Friday. Today's practice is open to the public.

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