On the Steelers: Starks back as starting LT

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For the second consecutive year, Max Starks' biography is nowhere to be found in the 500-page Steelers media guide. For the second consecutive year, Starks will hold down what football people say is the second-most important position on offense, left tackle.

He will serve as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's blind-side protector for the fifth consecutive year. And for the second year in a row, Starks will work on a one-year, minimum-wage contract.

He couldn't be happier.

"I've been fortunate to have been in this position the past two years," Starks said, sincerely.

He goes to work with a smile on his face, even though his employers often have shown him little respect. It began with the new coaching staff in 2007. They took one look at their starting right tackle of the previous two years, including one that helped produce a Vince Lombardi Trophy, and demoted him. He started just four games that season.

Starks was headed for the same fate as a backup in '08 when Steelers management, obviously disagreeing with their coaches' assessment of the big tackle, put the transition tag on him. He played that season for $6.85 million. Good thing, too, because with Marvel Smith hurt, he became their starting left tackle and pocketed his second Super Bowl ring.

The Steelers rewarded him in '09 with a four-year, $26.3 million contract. Just two years into it, they cut him after he missed all but seven games in '10 because of neck surgery.

He sat out the first four games of '11 while the Steelers came to the realization that Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex weren't left tackles. They signed Starks again, and he started the rest of the way until his ACL was torn in January in a playoff loss. He became a free agent again in March, and the Steelers waited until the eve of training camp to sign him, for one year at the veteran minimum.

He played in the final two preseason games and will open the season as the starting left tackle after rookie Mike Adams did not show enough. Starks has been bruised and abused, but shrugs it off as he often does pass-rushers.

"I never felt unwanted," Starks said. "I never looked at it as being unwanted. I realize it's a business, and a lot of people make decisions. You can't affect those decisions, you can either let those decisions confuse you and use it as a crutch to say, 'Oh, they're picking on me, they don't like me, why do they do this and why do they do that?'

"Me, I just said there's an opportunity to get better at something else while I have the opportunity. I think I've constantly proven that. I have a work ethic and I know I have value, if not here then in the league in general. It just so happens, I've played for the same team."

Starks has started at left or right tackle most of the past seven seasons after playing in 10 games as a rookie in '04. His demotion in '07 by new coach Mike Tomlin and his staff is the only time since that a starting job was not his. Even he thought it would not happen this season. Rehabilitating from ACL surgery, he watched the Steelers draft Adams in the second round from Ohio State and announce they would put him at left tackle.

"There was no way I was thinking when I get healthy they'll re-sign me," Starks said. "I wanted to get healthy and figured teams will be out there, and, if I have to wait through training camp and into the season like last year, I'll do that, prepare for that. It just so happens, there was an opportunity to come back. It was a blessing."

It struck him one day at practice that he had been doing this for a while. Four ex-players came back for a night practice at Latrobe to officially "retire" as Steelers: Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith and Willie Parker.

"A lot of these guys were saying, 'Who is Joey Porter, who is Marvel Smith?' I said, what? I played with all four of those guys. They didn't know who they were. Then talking to Marvel during that practice, he said he knew only about eight dudes on the team."

Starks is 30, same age as Roethlisberger, same draft class. Only backup quarterbacks Byron Leftwich, 32, and Charlie Batch, 37, are older on a young offense.

"To know I'm in my ninth year is truly a blessing, especially when in this league there's such a short time frame for a lot of people. To be around here that long and with the same team is awesome. I'm looking forward to continuing to do great things while I'm still here."

It is why he still is here.

Practice squad takes shape

The Steelers signed two wide receivers, two offensive linemen and two defensive backs to their eight-man practice squad.

Wide receivers Toney Clemons, a seventh-round draft pick who graduated from Valley High School, and David Gilreath joined offensive linemen John Malecki and Ryan Lee, cornerback Josh Victorian, safety Damon Cromartie-Smith, tight end Jamie McCoy and linebacker Marshall McFadden.

The Steelers will make at least one more move Monday when they are expected to place rookie guard David DeCastro on the designated injured reserve list that will permit him to return to the roster after eight weeks.

Since that will leave them thin with eight offensive lineman, they likely will add another to replace DeCastro, possibly Essex, who was released Friday.

Each practice-squad member earns $5,700 a week and had to clear waivers before the Steelers could sign them.



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