Staley optimistic he'll play this season

| Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006

Ask Duce Staley about the passion that has become a job, and his eyes light up and a smile creases his face.

As it turns out, the running back's need for speed goes beyond the football field.

Staley is the owner of the Catch 22 Motorsports team, and it will enter two cars in the National Hot Rod Association's Drag Racing Series in 2007.

When asked if he sees himself getting behind the wheel of one of his cars, Staley laughed.

"I don't know yet," he said. "Let's save that for later."

For now, Staley is squarely focused on a different kind of running. The right knee that has hobbled him for more than a year is feeling stronger every day, Staley said.

That is why he is optimistic he will contribute this season, even though he has yet to get a carry and has become a forgotten man in the Steelers' backfield.

Staley was inactive for Monday night's game in Jacksonville and could be again Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals visit Heinz Field.

"It's been frustrating, but it's also been a learning process, too," Staley said Friday after practice at the Steelers' South Side facility. "Just know that you can't jump back out there when you think you feel good, because you've got to be 100 percent."

The 31-year-old Staley hasn't been 100 percent since his first season with the Steelers in 2004.

Last year, he had surgery during training camp to repair a meniscus tear, and he ended up playing in just five games and rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown.

Staley entered camp this year as the front-runner to replace Jerome Bettis as the team's short-yardage back. After averaging just 2.2 yards a carry during the preseason, the 10th-year pro finds himself behind Willie Parker, Verron Haynes and Najeh Davenport, if coach Bill Cowher's decision to dress Davenport for the Jaguars game is any indication.

"Two-a-days are rough on anybody with a bad knee," said Staley, who played for the Eagles from 1997-2003 before signing with the Steelers. "And I'm starting to feel better."

It apparently shows.

"It's a different Duce," said Parker, who supplanted Staley as the starting running back last season. "He's running really well, and I go up to him and tell him all the time 'Duce, you look really good.' "

Staley had three 1,000-yard seasons for Philadelphia and showed his versatility by twice catching more than 50 passes.

He's had to accept a reduced role since starting his first seven games with the Steelers in 2004 - probably more reduced than he ever imagined.

Not that Staley, who took a $1 million pay cut to return to the Steelers, is resigned to watching the rest of the season in street clothes.

"It's all about continuing to build strength in my knee and continue to get that burst, and I think now it's starting to come back," Staley said. "I think (getting back on the field) will come."

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