The studious Mr. Hartwig

PITTSBURGH – If you don't know Justin Hartwig, he's the guy at his locker with the shaved head who's hunched over his playbook.

In fact, he's struck that very pose every day at lunch time since the Steelers broke camp and moved back to the South Side.

"It's obviously not rocket science," Hartwig said. "But there's a lot of information and you have to be able to apply it in a split second."

Hartwig, of course, is the Steelers' new center. He's been that man since he was signed off the street on March 25, but only officially since Monday, when Coach Mike Tomlin made it public.

Hartwig's first game as the official starting center is Thursday against the team that most recently released him – the Carolina Panthers.

Hartwig signed with the Panthers after starting 47 games at center for the Tennessee Titans from 2003-2005, but a groin injury effectively wiped out his 2006 season. Hartwig came back to start 15 games for the Panthers last season, but was released after the team opted to promote their second-round draft pick, Ryan Kalil, to first team.

Hartwig was, for lack of a better term, dumped by the Panthers, but that means little to him as he prepares for the final preseason game.

"All it means is I'm going to see a lot of familiar faces," said the 29-year-old Hartwig. "Maake (Kemoeatu), Chris' brother, is there, and Damione Lewis is there. I know what those guys are all about, what kind of players they are."

The Panthers have had some of the league's more rugged interior lines over the years. Last season, the Panthers were ninth against the run (per carry), and in 2006 and 2005 they were 10th and 6th. The Steelers also have a tradition of running the ball and it's one reason Hartwig hovers over his playbook.

"I'm not behind at all," he said. "I'm just trying to lock in to what I'm doing. We've got so many plays and there are all kinds of different looks that I could face, all kinds of different blitzes. When I get out on the field, I don't want to be thinking, I want to be reacting, so I just keep reviewing my stuff and mentally going over what I need to do when I get out on the field."

Has switching teams previously helped this particular transition?

"I feel I've become a little bit more diversified," he said. "The plays are the same in a lot of places, but the terminology's different. And a lot of times, the rules are different. One team will have a play that's the exact same play, but there are different rules. That's when you really have to forget about your old rules to be on the same page with the guy next to you. So I'm constantly studying the rules and talking to the guys next to me to find out what their process is."

How close is Hartwig to having a sound grasp of the Steelers' offense?

"I feel good about where I'm at, to this point," he said. "I just need more time with the guys next to me in this offense. Over time we'll become a highly conditioned unit, but we've got two new starters in there and I'm a guy who makes a lot of the calls. I have to get everybody on the same page. It's coming along."

Hartwig said that he can't just ask his old buddies in Carolina to give him a break Thursday.

"No," he said, "but I told Chris maybe we could call his brother and bribe him with food or something."

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