By Gary R. Rasberry
After a 6-10 season and no postseason for the first time since 2000, the Pittsburgh Steelers look to get back to the top of the AFC North standings and return to the playoffs.
To do that, the team will have to get over the injuries that plagued them last season.
One player hoping for better things is center Jeff Hartings. The St. Henry native and All-American for Penn State has been bothered by a knee injury that cost him five games in 2002 and hampered him a bit last season, causing him to miss parts of several games.
Hartings persevered through his pain and earned an alternate spot for the Pro Bowl last season.
"I didn't allow myself to get ready after knee surgery (after the 2002 season)," said Hartings during a telephone interview from the Steelers' training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. "This year, I spent my offseason getting ready and getting healthy." Despite the disappointment of last season, the Steelers' mood as they entered camp has been positive.
"We're really optimistic about the upcoming season," said Hartings. "Overall, it's been good. We're focused."
The 6-3, 299-pound veteran is starting his ninth season in the NFL and his fourth as a Steeler after five years with the Detroit Lions, who happen to be the opponents in the first preseason game for the Steelers on Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Steelers this season have made a point to bring their running back back to prominance after having a down year. The Steelers signed former Philadelphia running back Duce Staley this season, giving the team a 1-2 punch in the backfield along with veteran bruiser Jerome Bettis.
"I don't think a team goes into the season saying that they will work on running more," said Hartings. "Last year we had to go to our passing game a little more. ... We have a good quarterback (Tommy Maddox) and receiver corps (featuring Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress) that we can go to."
This year the Steelers went with a quarterback in the NFL Draft by selecting former Miami University thrower Ben Roethlisberger in the first round with the 11th overall pick.
"He's only been here a week or so," said Hartings. "He has a lot of potential. He's in a good organization where he can get prepared to play. The Steelers are one of the best -- if not the best -- organizations and the city is great. The fans love the team and the game."
Hartings has had thoughts about his post-playing life.
"Oh yeah, I have thought about it," said Hartings. "When an established player leaves, it's usually due to the body wearing out. I want to go out there and have fun. If I am no longer having fun, that will be when I retire."
So far, Hartings is still having fun.
"Most of the time. Practices aren't that much fun because it takes a long time to get my knees ready to go," said Hartings. "Last year during the final game of the season (a 13-10 overtime loss to Baltimore) with the clock winding down and getting ready for the overtime, I knew I was coming back this season. I'll go like that this year. If I'm having fun, I'll be back."