This time, Cowher must start young players

PITTSBURGH – It was Pearl Harbor Day, 2003 and the Steelers' season was already in ruins. Going into that game against the Raiders, the Steelers were 4-8 and everyone - media, fans, players' wives, players' mothers – wanted to know if Coach Bill Cowher would ...

... take a look at younger players who might help him out the following season.

On the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench were recent first-day draft picks Chris Hope, Alonzo Jackson and Troy Polamalu, but Cowher refused to yield.

"Our plans are to win the football games," Cowher said. "We are not going to do that at the expense of just trying to give people experience."

That was three years ago, but he said the same thing two days ago about his current 5-7 team. However, young players such as Anthony Smith, Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington will get the break the aforementioned players did not. They will play because of injuries to first-teamers and even Cowher's excited. He admitted as much when asked about seeing Smith play free safety.

"It'll be good to see him," Cowher said. "I've got no other way to look at it."

Smith will play next to Tyrone Carter, who earned raves for the job he did as Polamalu's replacement at strong safety in Sunday's win over Tampa Bay. Smith played in the second half after Clark injured his groin on the punt that was downed at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. Cowher said Carter will make most of the calls in the secondary.

"Tyrone's played free safety as well," Cowher said. "He'll be doing a lot of talking out there, making sure everybody gets set. We're not going to change anything we're doing."

Both starting wide receivers are also being replaced this week. Hines Ward missed Sunday's game with a knee injury and was replaced by Washington, who led the team with 78 yards receiving. Ward will remain out of action, as will Cedrick Wilson, who sprained ankle in the first quarter after making a catch. First-round pick Santonio Holmes will start in Wilson's place. The experience will be invaluable for both young receivers.

"Oh, it's unbelievable the amount of experience you can gain from playing in one game," said receivers coach Bruce Arians. "It's good for their confidence, the way they stepped in and played last week. They'll have even more confidence this week, and this is a good group of defensive backs so they'll be challenged. It's invaluable for the future."

Washington, who only played in the playoffs last season, is virtually a rookie. He felt he played well last week, but did criticize his own blocking. Arians was asked if it might be better for Washington to run a fly pattern on running plays in order to more effectively pull a man away from the point of attack.

"No. That safety blows that running back up," Arians said. "You've just got to get in the way. The physical part of it is the hardest part for the younger guys, especially when they're matched up on safeties. No, that's part of it. His body's a little beat up and he's not used to it. He'll come back this week and do it again on a short week. It'll be a challenge for him to see if he can handle it because these are two good safeties. When you take Hines's spot, you take that part with it."

Can't the Steelers game-plan around Washington's blocking skills?

"You can't," Arians said. "One of those wide receivers has to block that safety if you're going to run the ball effectively. Tampa did a great job of disguising their safeties. When we finally got on them we ran the ball pretty good."

Those are only skills that can only be honed with playing time.

"It's critical in the development of younger players to get a chance to see live action, get the start, put that on their shoulders," said new No. 3 receiver Sean Morey. "I think they're capable of taking that and doing a really good job. They've had a good week of practice so far. As a player, a teammate, I have a lot of confidence in their abilities. But I think for a young guy that's developing, I think it's critical to get that opportunity to step in and play and be counted on. I think it's only going to help them in the long run."

NOTES – Clark, Ward, Polamalu and Wilson have been ruled out of Thursday night's game and were the only players to miss Tuesday's practice. Of course, Duce Staley was released and Willie Reid was placed on injured reserve Monday. … The Cleveland injury list includes DT Orpheus Roye (knee) as the only doubtful player, but Cowher expects second-year quarterback Derek Anderson to replace Charlie Frye (questionable/wrist) after Anderson rallied the Browns to an overtime win Sunday against the Chiefs. Frye missed Tuesday's practice along with Roye and TE Kellen Winslow (questionable/knee).

Steel City Insider Top Stories