Center decision a snap; punter job still up in air
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer

PITTSBURGH - That's one down and one to go.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Monday he has decided to go with Justin Hartwig as the team's starting center, choosing the seven-year veteran over Sean Mahan. Mahan was the starting center last year.

"We watched this battle closely," Tomlin said. "We have a level of comfort with (Hartwig's) size, strength and range."

With the center battle now decided, the only position that remains unsettled is punter, where the Steelers are looking for a replacement for Daniel Sepulveda. Sepulveda was placed on injured reserve Monday after having surgery to repair a torn knee ligament in his right (non-kicking) leg.

Paul Ernster, a fourth-year player who has spent time with Denver and Cleveland, and 13-year veteran Mitch Berger, who punter last season for Arizona, are vying to replace Sepulveda. Neither holds an edge heading into the final preseason game Thursday at Heinz Field against Carolina.

"I know Paul's doing a good job (and) I'm doing a good job," Berger said. "We're both holding (on placement kicks) and Paul kicks off as well. It's just going to depend on what they're looking for."

In three preseason games, Ernster has averaged 44.3 yards on 12 punts, placing five inside the 20-yard line. Berger, who was signed after the first preseason game, averages 47.5 yards on four punts with three going inside the 20.

But in the Steelers' 12-10 win Saturday at Minnesota, Berger did not get an opportunity to kick. Ernster was scheduled to punt in the first half and had his best game, averaging 48 yards on four punts, placing three inside the 20.

Berger was supposed to play in the second half but the Steelers never punted.

"The last game, he got four punts and I got one, so you never know when you're going to punt," said Ernster. "It just worked out that I got all the punts."

Berger isn't concerned about his lack of action as the Steelers near cutdown day. Rosters must be trimmed to 53 by Aug. 30.

"We're competing in practice and I've got 14 years of game film as well," Berger said. "I counted, it's like the 49th preseason game I've played in. That's just the way it goes sometimes."

This is, however, the first time in his career that Berger has auditioned for a job heading into the final preseason game.

"I've never been in camp where it hasn't been my job to lose, where the only way I wouldn't win it was if I fell on my face, which isn't going to happen," Berger said. "Obviously, this will be the last impression we get to give them, so you want to give a good one."