Justin Hartwig, signed during the offseason by the Steelers as a free agent to help correct some of the problems in the offensive line, gets his first chance to start at center tomorrow night against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto, and he may never abdicate the position.
"My goal was to be out on the field opening day in September," Hartwig said. "This is an opportunity for me."
After Sean Mahan, the starting center last season, spent the first two weeks of training camp and the opening preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles as the starter, Hartwig has practiced each of the past two days with the first-team offense -- a plan mapped out at the start of camp by coach Mike Tomlin. And Hartwig liked the experience.
He and the other starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, will play longer than the one series played by the starters against the Eagles, Tomlin said yesterday.
"It was nice to work with No. 1 [unit] the last few days and get on the same page with them," said Hartwig, who spent the past two seasons with the Carolina Panthers. "I try not to worry about it too much. A lot has been made out of the position battle we have. That's something the coaches talk about and other people talk about. I'm just focusing on what I'm doing on the field."
Roethlisberger and the first-team offense will likely play at least a quarter against the Bills. Tomlin said backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was signed three days ago, will replace Roethlisberger, and that rookie Dennis Dixon is also "scheduled" to play.
Tomlin said quarterback Mike Potts, a rookie free-agent, will play only "if we have enough snaps."
Tomlin said cornerback Deshea Townsend (groin) is among the players who will not play against the Bills. He will be replaced in the starting lineup by Bryant McFadden.
"We feel like it's important," Tomlin said. "We'll deal with a little short-term misery and put his injury behind us."
Also not playing are rookie linebacker Mike Humpal (neck), rookie safety Ryan Mundy (ankle)
The Steelers released one of their injured players, defensive end Kyle Clement (knee), and signed third-year defensive end Kevin Huntley, who was released by the Washington Redskins.
Safety Troy Polamalu (hamstring) remains physically unable to perform.
The Steelers will swap some of the roles of their return men against the Bills, letting Willie Reid return punts and Eddie Drummond return kickoffs.
Tomlin said rookie No.1 Rashard Mendenhall will returns kicks and running back Mewelde Moore will return punts, just as they did in the preseason opener.
Contrary to what he said last week, Tomlin said wide receiver Santonio Holmes will not be used as a punt-returner against the Bills.
"Hopefully, we don't get that many opportunities at kick return," Tomlin said.
Rookie outside linebacker Bruce Davis is off to a slow start, and Tomlin said he needs to see some results from the team's third-round draft choice.
"He was active, not to be confused with productive [against the Eagles]," Tomlin said. "He's a young guy with a lot of energy and desire. He's playing catch-up and he has to catch up in a hurry this week. I'm pleased with his approach, but I need to see some results."
Safety Ryan Clark said he was glad just to be on the field again for the first preseason game after he had his spleen removed and missed 11 games last season.
Clark, a seven-year veteran, was asked if that's why he's always so talkative on the field, even at practice.
"No," Clark said, laughing, "I've always been a jerk."
Third-year defensive end Kevin Huntley was claimed off waivers from the Washington Redskins, supplanting rookie free agent Kyle Clement, who was released. ... The Steelers are moving the time of their last preseason game to accommodate television coverage of the Democratic National Convention. The Aug. 28 home game against the Carolina Panthers will start at 7 p.m. instead of 7:30.