Plax feeling great

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> The Steelers can blame their current offensive slump on playing some of the top defenses in the NFL. They can also blame it on the absence of wide receiver Plaxico Burress.

The Steelers have scored only 50 points in their last three games, matching their lowest three-game output of the season. Yet, Burress doesn't believe his hamstring injury has hamstrung the team in any way.

"We haven't lost a game since I've been gone," he said.

The Steelers are expected to win again Saturday at New York against the Giants, but they may not have to do so without Burress. He believes he's close to returning.

"I feel great. It's the best I've felt since I've been on the injured list," he said before Tuesday's practice. "I haven't felt this good since before I went out of the Cincinnati game."

Burress didn't practice Tuesday, but warmed up and ran a few patterns. His injured hamstring felt fine afterwards.

"The key words are pain free," he said. "That's what I wanted to see, and I'm just going to gradually work my way into it. I never had one, man, so I don't know what my limitations are or anything like that. The key was I didn't have any pain, so I'm just about picking it up each day, making progress and keep getting it stronger."

Burress estimated he's 95 percent healthy, or better than he was before the game in Jacksonville two Sundays ago when he felt he suffered a slight setback in pre-game warm-ups. It caused Steelers coach Bill Cowher to rule Burress out of the game in the middle of the following week. Burress' availability had previously been determined in pre-game warm-ups.

With Burress out the last three games, the Steelers averaged 16.7 points and 261.7 yards. In their previous 10 games, the Steelers averaged 24 points and 326.4 yards.

Since Burress was injured in the second quarter of the Cincinnati game, the Steelers have averaged 4.5 yards per snap, compared to the 5.2 per snap they'd averaged with Burress in the lineup.

The Steelers have also gone up against what are statistically three of the best defenses on their schedule. The Washington Redskins are second in total defense, while the New York Jets are fifth and the Jacksonville Jaguars are ninth.

The Steelers will face the 10th-ranked defense Saturday. Would the return of Burress mean the return of the Steelers' offensive fireworks?

"I don't know. It's all about timing," said Hines Ward. "For Plax to be out this long, and to say he's going to come right back in tune, that's hard for anybody. Look at Duce (Staley)."

Staley missed four games with a hamstring injury. Before his injury, he'd averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 101 yards per game. In his two games back, he's averaged 3.1 per carry and 51 per game.

"You've still got to get your timing down," Ward said. "But fireworks? We're not that type of offense to be out there passing that many times. If people expect us to go out there and pass for 300-350 yards, it's not going to happen. It's not our identity. When Plax gets back in there, it's just another weapon on the field that teams have to game-plan to try to stop."

Ward would welcome the return of Burress. His statistics have slumped along with the team's of late. With Burress out, Ward's averaged 3 catches for 53.3 yards per game. With Burress, Ward averaged 5.7 catches and 67.8 yards per game.

"Does it open things up?" Ward asked. "Yeah, it probably opens things up. Being 6-5 with his talent, he's going to demand some attention out on the field, both of us. That's why I think we complement each other. Pick your poison. If you're going to double both of us, we'll run the ball. If you're going to double one guy, one guy gets singled. So having him out there is big for our offense."

"I would love to go out and play on Saturday," Burress said. "Right now I feel like I can."

How important is that final five percent to Burress? Does he need to be 100 percent healthy to play?

"Because of some of the things that I do, I need to be 100 percent to get the acceleration that I need when the ball's in the air or to make a quick move or jump up for the football," Burress said. "So it's very important for me to be at 100 percent and right now I feel very close to that. I feel good, and it kind of puts a smile on my face because I haven't felt this good in about a month. But at the same time I don't want to go out and overextend it, you know, put too much pressure on it and rush it back and go back to being sore, so I'm just going to see how it feels."


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