Protecting the franchise

Trai Essex will be on football's version of the "hot corner" Saturday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but his teammates and coaches say he's come a long way since the preseason.

PITTSBURGH – Of the 12 teams ranked at the bottom of the league in protecting their quarterback, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only one in the playoffs.

And most people don't see them staying there for long, particularly since the backup to the backup will start at the key left tackle position Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Then again, Trai Essex played flawless football last Sunday in relief of injured Max Starks, who was in for injured Marvel Smith.

Against the Ravens, the Steelers' quarterback was not folded, spindled nor mutilated by any missed blocks. In fact, Charlie Batch wasn't sacked, and was hit only twice.

Batch obviously releases the football more quickly than does Ben Roethlisberger -- who'll return to the lineup Saturday -- but Essex looked the part of an NFL left tackle against Terrell Suggs. Can Essex carry it over into Saturday night's playoff game?

"That little work I got against Baltimore really helped out a lot, so I think I'm okay," Essex said. "Terrell Suggs, I mean, he's one of the best in the league. This week I've got Paul Spicer, another good defensive end, so I've got my hands cut out for me. I should be okay though."

Is Essex pumped up?

"I'm excited. Can't you tell by the face? I'm smiling. I'm ready to go."

The last time Essex played such an integral part in a big game was his rookie season. He replaced Smith at left tackle in late November, 2005. Essex started four games and played the majority of a fifth. The Steelers staggered through the first three of those games before pulverizing both Chicago and Minnesota to start their run.

Essex went to the bench when Smith returned, but his part in that 2005 run has become part of the championship lore.

"I think that does help me at this point," Essex said of the experience. "My rookie year we had to win those two games in order to make it to the playoffs and start our run, so that does help."

But Essex fell off the developmental track. The third-round pick in 2005 slipped on the depth chart behind newcomer Willie Colon last year, and this year he showed up to camp out of shape. Essex started one preseason game at left tackle and played so poorly that Starks, a right tackle, became the backup left tackle.

Essex, most thought, would be cut in order to keep young Jason Capizzi, but he made the team and kept working. His performance against Baltimore didn't surprise those who'd seen him practice throughout the weeks leading up to Sunday's game.

"I expect more of what happened last week," said left guard Alan Faneca. "He's been working but he's not out there on game days, so nobody gets to see that. I think he showed what he's capable of last week."

Essex spoke yesterday about his fall down the depth chart and subsequent battle to keep his job.

"I didn't think I came in out of shape," he said. "I think that's the perception because I was the second tackle last season and any demotion will cause speculation. My weight had fluctuated, but for the most part I came to camp in good shape. I just didn't perform as well as the guys who ended up going in front of me.

"I didn't play up to par. I don't know why. I had delivered in the past and all I can do is keep on moving forward. I can't do anything about the preseason now; it's the playoffs."

From potential cut in the preseason to starting left tackle in the playoffs, Trai Essex has a new lease on life.

"I guess you could say it's a rebirth," he said. "I've gotten that little taste and now I'm hungry all over again. I feel like I'm a rookie all over again. It's been so long since I've played, so I've got that hunger back. Maybe I lost a little bit. I don't know. You can say what you want to say, but all I'm worried about is now and I'm ready to go."

NOTES – The Steelers signed OT Jason Capizzi and promoted OT Jeremy Parquet from their practice squad. They put Starks and LB Clint Kriewaldt on injured reserve. Replacing Parquet on the practice squad is return specialist Jeremy Bloom. … Missing Wednesday's practice were CB Bryant McFadden (ankle), S Troy Polamalu (knee), WR Willie Reid (shoulder), CB Allen Rossum (hamstring), OT Marvel Smith (back), CB Deshea Townsend (foot), and WR Hines Ward (knee). Polamalu, Townsend and Ward are expected back today.

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