Steelers Notebook: Ward focused on opener against Ravens

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Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has one thing on his mind these days. Baltimore.

"That's all I think about," he said. "The preseason is good but my mind is focused on one team, that's Baltimore."

The Steelers open the season Sept. 11 against the Ravens in Baltimore. The two AFC North Division rivals have met in the postseason two of the past three years, and the Steelers won both games at Heinz Field on their way to the Super Bowl -- in the divisional round last season and in the AFC championship in the 2008 season.

"They would schedule us in Baltimore for the first game," Ward said. "It'll be an exciting way to start the season off. It's a divisional game so it's very important for us.

"I know their fans will be hyped up for the game. I call it the lion's den because when you go down there there's just a mob of fans who hate Pittsburgh, and what better way than to try to go down there and start their season off the wrong way with a loss."

The Steelers and Ravens did not play until the fourth game of the 2010 season and Baltimore won, 14-7, at Heinz Field in the final game of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension. The Steelers returned the favor, winning Dec. 5 in Baltimore, 13-10. They then beat the Ravens, 31-24, in the postseason, coming back from a 21-7 halftime deficit.

Ward sees it coming down to those two again in the division.

"They're always the competition. Every year it's going to come down to Baltimore and us in the AFC North. When you play Baltimore, you get in the weight room a little longer, you stay a little extra after practice because you know it's going to be a physical ballgame."

No talks yet

The Steelers still have not opened negotiations to extend the contracts of any of their veterans who have one year left on their deals. Among those who fall into that category are Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons and Mike Wallace. Without a new contract, Polamalu and Timmons would become unrestricted free agents in March and Wallace a restricted free agent. But the Steelers could use the franchise tag on one of them the way they did LaMarr Woodley this year.

Kickoff displeasure

Special teams coach Al Everest joined a chorus of boos around the NFL for the new rule that places the ball for the kickoff on the 35 instead of the 30. It resulted in six touchbacks in seven kickoffs Friday night between the Redskins and Steelers.

"You're not getting the looks of the young guys you need to see -- who can cover, who can block, who can do their job," Everest said.

Coach Mike Tomlin said he had no opinion about the rule but thinks it's doing what the owners wanted to do, to protect players from injury.

The rule could help those teams who are not as talented at returning kicks as their opponent.

"If they've got a great returner and you can eliminate him, that's good for you," Everest said. "On the other side of the coin, if you do have a great returner -- which I think we do -- it takes him out of the game too. I just know it's disappointing we can't at this stage of the preseason evaluate guys."

The return man mentioned by Everest is Antonio Brown, who also will handle punts. But he may not handle them all. Everest and Tomlin may not yet be ready to allow Brown to return punts deep in Steelers territory. They will consider newly signed veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cochery for that job.

"He's got great hands," Everest said of Brown. "You've seen him as a receiver. You saw him in the Super Bowl scoop up that one-hopper. The thing he has to continue to learn as a young guy is making decisions down inside the 10-, 5-yard line."

Quick hits

Rookie halfback John Clay pulled a rare move on the practice field Monday and it did not involve a play -- he stormed off the field and walked toward the hill that leads to the locker room, as if he were quitting the team. He got more than 100 yards away when a staffer caught up to him. The two talked for a bit, then Clay walked back and joined practice just in time for it to end. ... Chris Kemoeatu, who came off the physcially-unable-to-perform list Sunday after spending all camp with a knee injury, worked at left guard Monday with the first team in 11-on-11 drills. ... His broken thumb in a cast, cornerback Ike Taylor went through a full practice. ... Rookie cornerback Curtis Brown returned to practice. ... Cornerback Bryant McFadden, who has missed most of camp with a slight hamstring tear, returned to practice but still did not work in 11 on 11. William Gay was at left cornerback Monday. ... For the second day in a row, rookie defensive end Cameron Heyward got in a fight with an offensive teammate, this time guard Ramon Foster. ... Limas Sweed (shoulder), Crezdon Butler (thigh) Cortez Allen (hamstring), Aaron Smith (knee) and Brett Keisel (ankle) did not practice. ... Practice at 3 p.m, today is the final one of training camp open to the public.


Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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