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fordfixer
08-27-2008, 10:21 PM
Hartwig needs to get in sync as Steelers starting center
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
By Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08240/907166-66.stm

Justin Hartwig, right, blocks defensive end Ryan McBean at Steelers training camp. Hartwig will open the season at center.

Justin Hartwig is the third starter at center in three seasons for the Steelers. For a franchise that had four centers in the previous four decades, that's quite a change.

For the longest time, the Steelers didn't have to worry about their center. Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings manned the position from 1964 until 2006, with each performing at a high level.

But Hartings retired after the 2006 season, and the position has been a source of concern since. The Steelers brought in free agent Sean Mahan to replace Hartings. After Mahan struggled last season, Hartwig was signed as a free agent to replace him.

Having a new starter at such a crucial position is not ideal, especially with the season opener against Houston a little more than a week away. But Hartwig and his new line mates are trying to become accustomed to playing with one another as quickly as possible.
Tomorrow

"The thing you have to do is make sure you communicate well," said Kendall Simmons, the starting right guard who also played next to Hartings and Mahan. "That's our plan as a unit. We're completely different from anyone else. We have to talk. It's not an individual-type deal. If we don't work together, it's not going to get done."

Left tackle Marvel Smith said transitioning to Hartwig is going to take time, much in the same way it did with Mahan last season.

"I kind of remember from last year it was a process with everyone, getting on the same page and being comfortable," Smith said. "It will probably be the same type of thing this year.

"It's more communication, especially in our offense. There are a lot of calls predicated upon what the center sees. Everything else is relayed off of that. The center has to be on the same page as everyone else."

In the Steelers' scheme, the center is responsible for calling out defensive fronts as well as the type of coverage in some instances. Hartwig said he has more responsibility than he did previously as the center for the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans.

"The center has a big role in this offense," Hartwig said. "I feel good. The big thing with offensive-line play is repetition and seeing the looks and going out and doing it. You can study so much, but to actually go out there and do it, playing with the guys next to you helps. Every day I feel like I'm getting better."

The starters will get another quarter's worth of work in tomorrow's preseason finale against Carolina before the Sept. 7 opener against Houston at Heinz Field. After a rough outing against Minnesota last week, they're hoping to gain some momentum heading into the regular season.

Against the Vikings, the Steelers' first-team offense gained just 76 yards on seven series in the first half.

"It's one or two missing pieces to the puzzle," running back Willie Parker said. "Once we get on the same page, we'll be all right. Right now, it's one man here or one man there before it will be a 10-yard or 15-yard gain."

Simmons said the only way for the Steelers to gain cohesion is by practicing together.

"It's going to take the reps in practice," he said. "We really have to emphasize talking. If you make a mistake, you have to say, 'Hey, this is where I'm going to be.' When you look at the film, you have to say, 'This is what I was thinking.' That's the only way you can do it when you have a short period of time."

Hartwig will get his third start with the first-team offense against Carolina. He was happy that coach Mike Tomlin made his decision a week early. The extra work with the first-team will be important.

And even though no one would venture a guess as to when the line would become a cohesive unit, Hartwig did say he was pleased with the progress the starters have been making.

"I'm really happy and just relieved that [the competition] is over," Hartwig said. "Now I can focus on getting cohesion with these guys and running this offense smoothly. It's coming along every day. Every day we're learning more about each other. I'm learning more about the offense and all the little intricacies that are in it. It's always going to be a work in progress, but I feel good about where we're at and how we're progressing every day."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.