"We rotated them around in there and we just want to wait and see how he feels," said Pittsburgh Steelers line coach Russ Grimm. "If there are no setbacks, coach will make a decision at the end of the week."
The Steelers' line had been debilitated by the loss of Smith to two ankle injuries. They were 3-11 over the last three seasons and 0-3 this season when Smith played less than a half, but Essex made strides and the Steelers won their last two games with the rookie protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.
"I give him all the credit in the world," Grimm said of Essex. "He's worked hard all year and all of the sudden he has to go at Baltimore against (Terrell) Suggs and at Indy against (Dwight) Freeney, so those were his first two out of the gate and he's getting better every week, and he'll keep getting better."
Smith, however, is a Pro Bowl player with a big edge over Essex in experience. Smith struggled through the first half of the season with shoulder pain, but the time off may have helped.
"I would hope," Grimm said. "On the opposite end of it, you had a couple weeks off and you should be feeling good body-wise – hopefully you get healthier – but you haven't been working."
Grimm was asked what attributes Smith would bring to the line, but was careful not to insult Essex.
"You're talking All-Pro tackle," Grimm said. "He's a lot smoother on some things out there. He's a lot smoother technique-wise. I don't want to compare the two, but he's been over there a lot longer; he's played the position a lot longer; he's played in more games. Basically it comes down to the experience factor, but Trai's getting better. Don't compare them. It's an experience factor."
BEN NO HATER
Ben Roethlisberger normally talks to reporters on the first practice day of the week, but he held off yesterday.
"I didn't win the Chief Award so I'm not talking anymore," he joked.
Roethlisberger did answer one question: In light of Cleveland rookie quarterback Charlie Frye's recent admission that he grew up hating the Steelers, didn't Roethlisberger, of Findlay, Ohio, once say he grew up hating the Browns?
"No. I never said hate," Roethlisberger said. "I was always asked if I grew up a Bengals fan or a Browns fan and I always said neither, but I never said hate. Now I'm pretty sure he said he hated the Steelers growing up, but he grew up in Cleveland, so I guess it's kind of understandable."
COMING AND GOING
A day after the New York Giants signed tight end Matt Kranchick away from the Steelers' practice squad, the Steelers replaced him with tight end Eric Jensen.
The 6-foot-2, 253-pounder out of Iowa was a seventh-round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams in 2004, but he spent the season on the injured-reserve list. He was released and spent four weeks this season on the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad.
The only other players on the injury list this week are Smith, Essex (ankle/probable), OG Alan Faneca (toe/probable) and Roethlisberger (thumb/probable).