Notebook: Another vet feeling the heat

Anthony Smith isn't the only rookie putting heat on a veteran starter. Santonio Holmes played so well against the Browns – "a perfect game," he said – that starting wide receiver Cedrick Wilson went from doubtful to probable this week.

Wilson missed the Thursday game against Cleveland with a high ankle sprain and Holmes, the Steelers' first-round draft pick, made his first start at split end and led the team with four receptions for 81 yards.

In his last six games, Holmes has caught 21 passes for 320 yards (15.2) and a touchdown. In Wilson's last six games, he caught 20 passes for 261 yards (13.1) and a touchdown.

As with Smith at free safety, Holmes appears to be making the transition to full-time starter this week.

"From coach's standpoint, I had no mistakes, did everything correct in the game, and had a perfect game," Holmes said. Asked if it's all coming together for him Holmes said, "Yes, sir. It just takes time."

"His will to want to get better each day really stands out," said veteran flanker Hines Ward. "He's constantly asking questions. He watches me run routes and he asks, ‘Why did you run it that way?' Or, ‘Why did you do it this way?' Or, ‘Did you see this?' He's constantly asking questions."

Why is this so remarkable?

"Well, first-rounders sometimes know it all," Ward said. "There's an ego factor, but it's not been the case with him. He's a humble guy who is just looking to get better and better. That's what stands out about him."

One of the best plays Holmes made against the Browns was a third-and-four catch after Ben Roethlisberger threw it well before Holmes turned for the ball. Holmes caught it for a 16-yard gain and on the next play Nate Washington caught a 49-yard touchdown pass.

"I couldn't have been more proud of him and Nate against Cleveland and Tampa," Ward said. "Yes, those are games we were supposed to win but they handled it well. They did all they had to do in the game plan and it only helped their confidence. Now they have to do it again and again. They have to be consistent. Tim Brown told me at the Pro Bowl you are judged by how you do year in and year out, not one game. That's what I preach to Nate and Santonio. They made plays but we've got three hard games coming up and they have to continue to do that. That's what separates the average receivers from the elite players."

PENDING FREE AGENCY

It's not a stretch to argue that the Pittsburgh Steelers' lackluster season coincides with the fact 21 of 22 starters are signed through the 2007 season. The only starter who can change teams in free agency next spring is right tackle Max Starks, who'll be a restricted free agent in March. The Steelers would receive a third-round draft pick from a team that signs Starks.

However, the front office will have plenty to do in the offseason because 12 players -- eight starters – can become free agents following the 2007 season. Here's the list, with the players age during the 2007 season in parenthesis:

CB Ricardo Colclough (25), OG Alan Faneca (31 in Dec. of 2007), OLB Clark Haggans (30), C Jeff Hartings (35), RB Verron Haynes ( 28), DL Chris Hoke (31), DL Travis Kirschke (33), FB Dan Kreider (30), SS Troy Polamalu (26), OLB Joey Porter (30), OG Kendall Simmons (28), and DE Aaron Smith (31).

The guess here is that the Steelers' second order of business this off-season – after securing a head coach – will be negotiating an extension for Polamalu.

PLAYOFFS?

The Steelers are favored to beat the Carolina Panthers and improve to 7-7. As long as Jacksonville and Cincinnati don't both win, the Steelers would remain alive for a wild-card berth.

Here's what the race for the two wild-card berths would look like if the betting favorites were to win this weekend (division record, conference record in parentheses):

1. Jacksonville 9-5 (3-3, 6-4); 2. Denver 8-6 (3-3, 7-4); 3. Cincinnati 8-6 (4-1, 6-4); 4. NewYork 7-7 (3-2, 5-5); 6. Buffalo 7-7 (3-3, 5-5); 6. Steelers 7-7 (2-2, 4-6); 7. Kansas City 7-7 (3-2, 3-7).

X's & O's

The Panthers have lost three consecutive games. They believe their best chance to make the playoffs is to win the NFC South Division. New Orleans is first with a 9-4 record. ... Panthers cornerback Dion Byrum is the player who returned two Tyler Palko interceptions for touchdowns in Pitt's upset loss at Ohio in 2005. Byrum's 85-yard touchdown return in overtime ended the game. ... QB Chris Weinke relieved starter Rodney Peete the last time the Steelers and Panthers played in the regular season. Weinke completed 3 of 7 passes for 14 yards with an interception. His passer rating was 10.7 in the Steelers' 30-14 win Dec. 15, 2002. ... No. 3 receiver Drew Carter led the Panthers last week with 8 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. ... Carolina's return teams both rank last in the NFL.

QUOTABLE

Willie Parker on his old college teammate Julius Peppers: "He's quiet. He's real quiet. He's like a Troy Polamalu. A lot of people used to get upset at him because they'd see him in the street and he wouldn't say two words, or they'd think he was arrogant or something like that. He just doesn't talk. That's just him. He just don't say nothing to nobody, even with his teammates. I'm pretty sure that's how he is down at Carolina. He doesn't say two words. That's just the type of person he is, but he's a nice guy."


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