The Steelers traded backup center Sean Mahan to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday for an undisclosed draft choice in 2009.
Mahan, 28, started all 17 games, including their playoff, last season after he signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent from Tampa Bay. However, he was overpowered by some of the bigger nose tackles in the league and the Steelers signed free agent Justin Hartwig this year to replace him.
The two competed for the spot in the preseason, with coach Mike Tomlin declaring Hartwig, 29, the winner before the final preseason game.
With Mahan gone, Darnell Stapleton, who also can play guard, becomes Hartwig's backup. Stapleton made the team last year as an undrafted rookie from Rutgers.
The trade leaves the Steelers with an open spot on their 52-player roster that they likely will fill today.
The Buccaneers drafted Mahan in the fifth round from Notre Dame in 2003. The Steelers signed him to replace the retired Jeff Hartings at center and he did so after competing last summer for the job with veteran Chukky Okobi, who was released before the 2007 season began.
Kick coverage will get a quick test from Houston's Andre Davis. He returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season and averaged 30.3 yards per return. Davis played his first three seasons, 2002-2004, with the Cleveland Browns.
"We're familiar with this guy in the AFC North from Cleveland," Tomlin said. "He's got great straight-line speed. He's fearless. He hits the hole long-striding and that's why he generates plays."
Rookie Steve Slaton from West Virginia University also returns kicks for the Texans.
"Andre Davis isn't the only one you've got to worry about in that phase of football," Tomlin said.
Larry Foote will start his fifth season at inside linebacker, but Tomlin promised that Lawrence Timmons will play in the base 3-4 defense as well as the nickel.
"The thing is with those guys we're blessed with great depth at the linebacker position," Tomlin said. "Those guys are going to play for us -- James Farrior, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons.
"I couldn't care less who runs out of the tunnel. That's irrelevant. What is relevant is that those three play football for us because they're playmakers. You'll see that on Sunday."
The Steelers are healthy after Foote returned to practice Monday after missing the previous week with a knee injury. Safety Troy Polamalu played in both series with the first-team defense Thursday night against Carolina after missing the first three games and the entire training camp with a hamstring injury.
"We're just going to toss him in," Tomlin said of Polamalu. "That's the nature of this thing. Training camp is important; preseason is important. He missed a bunch of that due to injury. But we play on Sunday and he's going to be a part of it. Hopefully he gets his legs under him quickly."
Rookie Rashard Mendenhall will return kickoffs, but Tomlin still is not sure how much he will play at halfback. Mendenhall did not help his case when he lost three fumbles in the final two preseason games.
"We're looking at his preparation this week, his attention to detail in terms of how he executes his assignments, and his level of ball security," Tomlin said. "That process will be ongoing. That's what it's about. We'll see as we get closer to game time."
Mewelde Moore and Santonio Holmes will handle the punt returns, being used differently based on certain situations in the game, such as field position.
Tomlin called it "highly unlikely" that all seven defensive linemen will dress Sunday. ... Because the Steelers have only two tight ends on the roster, OT Max Starks might be used as the No. 3 tight end as a blocker, but they first must decide if he dresses as a backup lineman for the game. ... Ike Taylor switched to right cornerback and Deshea Townsend to left this year, but Tomlin indicated he could use Taylor to shadow one receiver as he did on occasion last season.