Notebook: Ben refutes report

PITTSBURGH – On May 26, ESPN.com posted its breakdown of the AFC North Division. The otherwise innocuous story included content that reverberated loudly among Steelers fans on the Internet.

In explaining why he felt the Steelers were better off without Plaxico Burress, ESPN's Michael Smith wrote that (Ben) "Roethlisberger and Burress had devised plays for the QB's favorite receiver, though he almost never was the primary one, and would adjust his routes as they saw fit and not according to the playbook."

Roethlisberger was asked about the accusation yesterday after practice.

"I think that's just called improvising," Roethlisberger said. "You make things happen. Sometimes things break down and your only option is to make something happen that's not necessarily in the playbook. I think that's something Plax and I had, and I think it's something me and these other receivers also have."

Roethlisberger said he's "excited about the group" of receivers on hand.

Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El will enter training camp as the starters. Randle El, in particular, is having an outstanding spring. Newcomer Cedrick Wilson, who's wearing Burress' old No. 80, is flashing quickness with short passes and will open camp as the No. 3 receiver. Lee Mays has played well enough to hold off rookie Fred Gibson for the fourth spot.

Of course, the Steelers added 6-foot-5 tight end Heath Miller in the draft, and he's improving daily after shaking off some post-surgery rust at mini-camp.

"He's a guy who can run really well, good athlete, got great hands," said Roethlisberger. "Now safeties have to be cautious of a tight end and it opens up our receivers a little more."

As for Roethlisberger's self-assessment, he said: "I feel more comfortable knowing what's going on on offense this year than I did last year. I think that's a good thing because I am more prepared out there and I can see things a little better and read it and make adjustments."

MISSING (THE) INACTION

Alan Faneca has missed most of the Organized Team Activities due to the pending birth of he and his wife Julie's first child. Duce Staley has missed the last week to be with his dying father. The only other absent players have been rookies Trai Essex (guard-tackle) and Zach Tuiasosopo (fullback), who are still at school.

The absence of Essex is a growing concern.

"It's a setback," said line coach Russ Grimm.

Essex was expected to provide some much-needed depth on the line, and was drafted out of Northwestern in the third round, but must remain in school until he completes his final exams. Grimm expects Essex back next week for the final four days of OTAs.

"He's a smart guy," Grimm said. "But it's one thing to learn it and another thing to come out here and see the different looks. He's going to have some catching up to do."

Essex showed up for the three-day mini-camp the first weekend of May, and will be given a second crash course next week.

"We'll package it again and get him through it," Grimm said. "Once we get to training camp he's going to have to catch up in a hurry."

On a more positive note, Grimm likes what he's seen from sixth-round pick Chris Kemoeatu the past three weeks.

"He's working hard. He spends time studying. He's getting better," Grimm said. "He's picking up more and more, and it's a lot for him. This is his second time through and he'll get one more dose of it in training camp. He's getting better each practice."

INJURY UPDATE

Casey Hampton and Deshea Townsend are still limited by old injuries and are not scrimmaging, although Townsend plays free safety for the scout team.

Kendall Simmons, on the other hand, hasn't missed many first-team reps after sitting out last season with a torn ACL.

"It's getting better," he said. "In fact, I'm not really worried about my knee anymore because it's getting better each week. I just feel like now I've kinda knocked some of the rust off. I'll really be able to tell once we throw the pads on, but I feel better each week."

DISPUTED RACE RESULT

Just as the last two players – would-be placement holder Sean Morey and rookie long-snapper Greg Warren – trudged off the practice field Wednesday, the rest of the team poured back on it. They were wearing t-shirts, shorts and big smiles because a hot-button issue was about to be decided: Lineman Brett Keisel and linebacker Larry Foote were about to race.

The players lined the field like horseplayers at the rail. Cones were placed 60 yards apart. Randle El was the starter, but Foote got the early jump. He false-started and maintained his two-foot lead throughout the 60 yards.

His "win" obviously tainted, Foote and his arguing teammates squabbled all the way back to the locker room.

How long had the race been brewing?

"As long as I can remember," sighed Marvel Smith.

Foote and Keisel were both drafted by the Steelers in 2002.


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