Hartwig looking to fit in

Center Justin Hartwig wants to fit into the Steelers' starting lineup, locker room.

Justin Hartwig has been through just about everything possible as an NFL player in his first six years in the league.

Now, all he wants is a chance to play again.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who went into the offseason looking for somebody to challenge starting center Sean Mahan, were more than happy to give the 6-4, 312-pound Hartwig that opportunity.

A sixth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2002, Hartwig worked his way into the starting lineup in 2003.

He left Tennessee following the 2005 season to sign a four-year, $16-million contract with the Carolina Panthers. But Hartwig suffered a groin injury early in the 2006 season and missed all but two games.

After Carolina selected Ryan Khalil, its center of the future, in the 2007 draft, Hartwig was released following the season. He signed a two-year, $4-million contract with the Steelers two weeks after his release from Carolina.

"I have the opportunity to compete for the spot," Hartwig said after completing his first mini-camp with the Steelers. "That's what they told me. I'll have a shot to compete for the starting center spot. It's a challenge and hopefully I can make the most of the opportunity."

The Steelers certainly hope Hartwig's presence will help. Pittsburgh allowed 47 sacks last season, with Mahan, the team's big free-agent signing of the 2007 offseason, taking a large portion of the blame. Mahan, who began the season at just over 300 pounds, struggled to keep that weight on as the season progressed and had trouble holding the point of attack against larger defensive tackles.

The Steelers figure Hartwig will either take the job away from Mahan or, at the very least, force him to improve to keep his job.

"From my standpoint that is the most important thing, to get some guys who are starter-capable and have them compete for positions," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "Competition is a thing that makes us all better. That is what is going to make us better as an offensive line (and) what is going to make us better as a football team."

Hartwig already has been impressed by what he's seen of the Steelers.

"I really like the atmosphere here," he said. "I really like what Coach Tomlin has to say. Everybody's buying into it and it's a really good locker room. These guys have a tradition of winning, and when you step into this locker room, you understand why."

Not that the atmosphere is a surprise to him. Hartwig has started a pair of games against the Steelers. The first came in Tennessee in 2003, a game won by the Titans, 30-13. The second was the opening game of the 2005 season, a contest dominated by the Steelers, 34-7.

"I remember we had the youngest roster in the league and they had the oldest," Hartwig said. "That was one thing that stood out to us. They have a lot of veteran guys who carry this team. That's important in every locker room.

"An outsider's view of the Steelers is they're a team that is definitely one of the most respected in the NFL, just because of the style of football they play. They play a hard-nosed style and everybody around the league knows what the Steelers are all about."

The 29-year-old Hartwig wants to be a part of that. But he knows the Steelers aren't going to hand him the job. "It's just like any other job. No matter who you are and what you're contract is, you've got to prove you can do the job," he said.

"I've been starting the last five years. I've been around the league a little bit. I'm sure that's going to help me in what I'm trying to get done."

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter

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