Break in Ward talks looms Monday night

LATROBE – Hines Ward's holdout has gone full two weeks, but a break in the stand-off could occur Monday night.

The Steelers are talking with Ward's agent, although a source with the team said no numbers have been discussed, only a framework and basic contract structures.

The Steelers say Ward is asking for top-three money among wide receivers. They believe he ranks among the next tier. They're willing to pay at least $10 million in guaranteed money.

The three highest paid wide receivers are Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens.

The Steelers are altering their policy slightly by talking with Ward's agent; they vowed they wouldn't at the start of his holdout.

However, they're adamant about committing to their regular-season policy. The Steelers won't negotiate once the season begins for fear of setting a precedent. Ward would have to return to play in six games to be credited for this contract year.

The current negotiations could take a turn either way Monday night when the Steelers host the Philadelphia Eagles in the first preseason game at 8 p.m. (ESPN).

If the Steelers' wide receivers perform poorly, as they have this week, the fans – and possibly quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- would make their voices heard.

The Steelers have been playing with a new crop of receivers most of the week, and it reflected poorly on the quarterbacks. All five receivers from last year's roster were either out of town or injured. Even Walter Young of last year's practice squad has been out with an injury.

Antwaan Randle El and Sean Morey returned to practice Saturday. If they help the Cedrick Wilson-led receiving corps Monday night, perhaps the Steelers' bargaining position would improve.

Randle El doesn't believe one game will have that much of an impact.

"People have already made up their minds either way," he said. "One preseason game isn't going to change anyone's mind."

Randle El will start at split end Monday, while Wilson will start at Ward's flanker position. Randle El has been struggling with hamstring and ankle problems, but is comfortable at split end.

"It's a position designed for playmakers, go-getters, ballplayers," Randle El said. "That fits me."

PRACTICE REPORT

With a 99-degree heat index on the field, the players were relieved to practice Saturday in shells instead of full pads, and thus the celebrated goal-line drill was canceled.

Missing practice were Tommy Maddox (flu), Lee Mays (hamstring) and Walter Young (hamstring). Cowher said Mays and Young, along with Joey Porter and Duce Staley, would miss the game.

Ricardo Colclough and Ike Taylor were the first-team kick returners during drills, but Cowher did not say whether they'd be used first in the game. Cowher did say Jerome Bettis would start at halfback, "but he won't be in there real long," Cowher said.

Roethlisberger gave way to Charlie Batch and Brian St. Pierre about two thirds of the way through practice.

MILLER IMPRESSIVE

Rookie tight end Heath Miller made a sensational one-handed catch of a high Roethlisberger fastball to start practice, but then dropped an easy pass to his chest from Batch a few plays later. Cowher was asked for what he likes about the first-round pick.

"The way he's picked up the offense," Cowher said. "We've moved him around quite a bit and he really has not missed an assignment. We put him in situations in the backfield, trying to look up safeties, and I like the fact he's picking things up very quickly."

And the rest of the tight ends?

"(Matt) Kranchick is a big target and he's catching the ball very well; Jerame (Tuman) is having an excellent camp; and (Walt) Rasby is probably one of the better blockers we have on this football team. So it is a very, very good crew."

SLEEPER WATCH

Undrafted rookie John Kuhn of Shippensburg could see playing time at tailback in the second half Monday.

The 255-pounder was moved from fullback to tailback at the beginning of the week because of Staley's injury.

Born in York, Kuhn played at Dover High School and went on to set 27 school records at Shippensburg, including 4,685 career rushing yards and 53 touchdowns.

"I'm a little excited," he said. "It was a little bit of a shock for me Monday when he said it to me, and now I'm a little excited it's become a reality."


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