Looking between the lines for answers

LATROBE – The Steelers head into their third preseason game with openings at two starting positions, and possibly a third after an injury to Deshea Townsend. Here's the rundown of the question marks Coach Bill Cowher hopes to answer Friday night in Philadelphia:

* CORNERBACK Deshea Townsend held off the challenge of second-year man Bryant McFadden, but at Tuesday's practice Townsend suffered a slight fracture of his right thumb while making an interception. While Cowher remains optimistic Townsend will return in time for the season opener, he has a pair of former second-round draft picks from which to choose as Townsend's replacement. Cowher said Ricardo Colclough could start there Friday.

"He's had as good a camp that he's had since he's been here," Cowher said. "I remember telling him after the first week that he'd played well. I told him he'd done this in the past and then gone into little lulls. Could he sustain it? I'll say this, to this point he has sustained it. I'm not ready to say he's there. We've played two games in the preseason. But I do like the manner with which he's playing. He seems to be a very focused player. He's been a very consistent player, day-in and day-out on that practice field. He's been able to take it over to the games. Can he sustain that? Time will tell. But I do like where he's at right now."

Prediction: Townsend will end up the starter over McFadden. And after Colclough received this pat on the back, he'll return to his role as the No. 4 corner.

* TIGHT END Heath Miller is the starter, but the No. 2 job has become a question mark due to Jerame Tuman's lingering hamstring injury. Fifth-round pick Charles Davis is a big man with fine receiving skills, but he's had trouble blocking.

"It was not something he was asked to do a lot of in college," Cowher said. "He'll continue to get an opportunity because that's a big part of what we're looking for at that position. He's got a lot of the physical tools you're looking for."

And the other two rookies?

"They all bring their own niche. They're all different. (Jonathan) Dekker has done some good things. He can run. Charles you look at. And (Isaac) Smolko is a tough kid. You never can count him out. I think all three of those guys have their little identity."

Prediction: Tuman will return for the opener and leave the rookies looking for a spot on the practice squad.

* CENTER – Right guard Kendall Simmons will play the position at some point Friday, giving the team four centers, including Chukky Okobi. Although Okobi won't play Friday because of his neck injury, he's expected to return to practice next week.

Prediction: The Steelers will keep Okobi and rookie sixth-round pick Marvin Philip -- along with Simmons and Jeff Hartings of course -- to confound their center-less rivals, the Cleveland Browns.

* QUARTERBACKBen Roethlisberger won't play as long as the rest of the starters ("I will not rule out a whole half; somewhere between the first and second quarter," Cowher said of the first team). He'll be relieved by Charlie Batch, who could finish the game. Cowher admitted he's considering keeping only two quarterbacks on the roster. He said he might keep three, but not four.

"You can absolutely rule out four," he said. "That is not going to happen."

Prediction: The Steelers will keep only two quarterbacks and hold their collective breath that their health holds up.

* FREE SAFETY – It's Tyrone Carter's turn to start and Ryan Clark will be the second guy in the most important position battle on the team. "I'm not ready to name a starter at this point," Cowher said. "We're gathering information every day in practice and certainly in the game. As soon as we make a definitive decision we'll let you know."

Cowher said it might be safe to rule out rookie sensation Anthony Smith from starting. "It would be highly unlikely," Cowher said. "I can't rule anything out; there are a lot of circumstances that could come up. But he's a good football player. We've got him in some different roles. We've kind of thrown a lot at him, a little bit like we did with Troy (Polamalu) that first year. We've got him playing the dime; we've got him playing the safety in the quarter. … I think a lot of that can be overwhelming at times, but he's a bright kid and he's working at it."

Prediction: Clark will be named the starter after the fourth preseason game.

* RUNNING BACK Willie Parker is the starter and Verron Haynes is the back-up and third-down back. Is anyone in line to become the short-yardage specialist?

"It's hard for me to say when we get into short yardage that we're going to make any kind of change," Cowher said. "If somebody starts to surface and becomes that guy, as the season goes on, I wouldn't rule it out, but I can't say right now there's been one person like there was with Jerome [Bettis]."

Prediction: Shippensburg's John Kuhn is bigger, faster, more versatile and has better hands than Duce Staley, but Cowher continues to coddle Staley. He'll make the team while Kuhn will be placed on the practice squad for no good reason other than he's still eligible.

* PUNTERMike Barr has a better net average (37.5) than veteran Chris Gardocki (36.3) and has displayed fine directional punting skills. He also costs less, although Cowher said that won't be a factor in determining the winner.

"Chris Gardocki is still a very solid player in all the things he does," Cowher said. "He's an outstanding holder for Jeff Reed. He's a consummate pro. I have a lot of respect for that man. You know he'll be there. Yeah, it doesn't just come down to how a guy punts in the preseason. Those are tough calls to make."

Prediction: The toughest call in camp. Gardocki was clutch in the playoffs, but it's time for the younger man with the stronger leg, so the Pittsburgh Steelers will keep Barr.

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