The Maurkice Pouncey Era seems ready to begin. The rookie moved onto the first team at center for an entire practice Wednesday and smiled broadly at the prospect of opening the season as the Steelers' starter.
"It put a big smile on me," Pouncey said after practice, acknowledging he took every snap with the first team. "I ain't going to lie, but I just need to go out there and practice every day. I want to stay humble. I'm happy about it. I just want to stay humble and keep working at it."
The move has been in the works since the Steelers' coaching staff was blown away by Pouncey's first two practices of training camp July 31. It was after that day they began to re-think their intention of letting Pouncey compete to start at right guard as a rookie, rather than compete with veteran Justin Hartwig at center. As camp progressed, so did Pouncey until coach Mike Tomlin had him split time with Hartwig and the first team all last week in practices.
That division ended Wednesday and, while Pouncey was all smiles, Hartwig was in no mood to talk about it. Hartwig practiced exclusively with the backups Wednesday. He declined to take a question about it.
"Maurkice Pouncey has done a nice job with every opportunity we have given him thus far," Tomlin said after practice. "We continue to give him more opportunities. We recognize that Jamal Williams, who plays nose guard for the Denver Broncos, is a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player. It's going to be an awesome opportunity to measure where he is against a guy that caliber. That's what it's all about more than anything else."
Even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, citing the benefits of playing in the preseason, mentioned "getting used to taking reps with Pouncey" among them.
Pouncey has been dominant at center, where he started the past two seasons at Florida. Several times, he has been seen handling his block at the line of scrimmage, then moving ahead to block someone else, often a linebacker.
Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton has played against many centers over the previous nine seasons and said Pouncey has a combination of attributes many centers do not possess.
"A lot of centers you play against are either quick and weak or they're strong and not quick. He's got both. He's quick and he's really strong. He recovers real well. He does a good job staying on his feet. I think he's going to be a good player."
Pouncey is so quick, his defensive teammates say, that he can make an early mistake and recover to make the block.
"With a center, man, you can't teach that," Hampton said. "If you got that, it helps a whole lot. That's the downfall of a lot of centers, getting beat quick, because guys are so close on you. But he's so athletic, he recovers and stays on his feet. That's the other thing about him, he's hardly ever on the ground."
No rookie has become a regular starter for the Steelers since tight end Heath Miller in 2005, when he started the opener and 15 of 16 games.
Pouncey might not be the only surprise starter Sunday night in Denver.
It looks as though Roethlisberger might make his second start of the preseason at quarterback and Dennis Dixon will get his first chance to run the first team after him.
"I intend to give Dennis Dixon some looks with the first group against some good people," Tomlin said. "I think he's earned that likewise. And that's what this preseason is all about."
Normally, Roethlisberger starting a third preseason game would be no revelation, but he cannot start in the regular season until at least the fifth game Oct. 17 and the Steelers are trying to prepare Byron Leftwich and Dixon to play in his absence.
"I like playing football, it's what I love to do, so, if I can get out there, I'll enjoy it," said Roethlisberger, who started Saturday night against the New York Giants and played 30 snaps.
Roethlisberger described his new relationship with Bill Cowher as "almost fatherly" and said the two talk on occasion after he reached out to his former coach.
Cowher told The Associated Press this week that he believes Roethlisberger has matured after ignoring some of his advice as a young player.
"Any time a hall of fame coach kind of gives that fatherly advice, it's quite a neat thing and an honor that he sees you in that light and it's a good thing," Roethlisberger said after practice.
"It's gone from being a rookie quarterback and a coach who was around for a long time to a guy I can talk to and have almost a fatherly relationship to a point. It's a lot easier for both of us to have that relationship."
Tomlin said that "We're going to look at Antonio Brown more as a punt and kickoff returner, and build some schemes off the skill set we thought we looked at from him last week." Punter Daniel Sepulveda also will kick off for the second consecutive game after Tomlin said, "I thought he did a great job" against the Giants. ... Cornerback Bryant McFadden has a pectoral muscle injury and likely will not play against Denver. He could be replaced in the starting lineup by Keenan Lewis, who returned to practice after leaving the game Saturday night with a concussion. ... Rookie running back Jonathan Dwyer also practiced after missing all the practices last week and the Saturday night game because of a shoulder injury.
• Game: Steelers at Denver Broncos, Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium.
• When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
• TV: WPGH.
First Published August 26, 2010 4:00 AM