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Early Steelers game may bring opportunity, injury

The Steelers reported to training camp a week earlier than usual this year because they'd been invited to play in the NFL's annual Hall of Fame Game, Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, against the New Orleans Saints.

That didn't exactly thrill the veterans, many of whom aren't likely to play more than a series or two Sunday. They would have preferred to delay the tortures of camp as long as possible and could do without the extra game.

The Steelers haven't played five exhibition games since 2000. They normally play four. To many of the vets, a game this early represents nothing more than an injury risk.

"You know what, you do what you're told, but honestly, you do have that in the back of your mind," said special teams ace Chidi Iwuoma. "There are a lot of guys out there flying around, trying to do whatever it takes (to make a team). It gets a little dangerous. You have to be smart. You play hard, but you have to be smart."

Playing hard is, in fact, the best way to avoid injury, if you ask starting outside linebacker Clark Haggans.

"I go out there with that four-quarter mentality," Haggans said. "I don't say, 'Well, let me go hard for two plays and maybe somebody will take me out of the game.' When I step on the field, I'm there to play."

At the least, the older players get a chance to take out their camp frustrations for a few minutes.

"It'll be nice to hit somebody in a different color," linebacker Larry Foote said.

But while the game means nothing to the likes of Haggans and Foote, it is plenty important to new coach Mike Tomlin and his staff, who will get a jump on evaluating personnel.

And it means the world to fringe players such as former West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall. He's trying to make an impression on special teams and as a reserve receiver.

"It's a good opportunity, because we all know a lot of the vets won't be in there too long," Marshall said. "It's something I'm looking forward to."

Running back John Kuhn, two years removed from a fabulous career at Shippensburg, figures even if he can't impress the Steelers enough to make the team, he'll have a chance to impress someone else.

The idea for fringe players is to accumulate as much good video of themselves as possible, the better for other teams to scout them on.

"The more film you can get of yourself making good plays, the better off you are," Kuhn said. "I'm glad to have an extra opportunity to showcase skills, but at same time, (the early report date to camp) was a little extra daunting physically."

As a bonus, players will get a tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.

"I always watched Emmitt Smith and a little bit of Walter Payton," Kuhn said. "Just to see some of the stuff about those guys that I haven't been able to see, except on NFL Films, will be the coolest part."

Rookie linebacker LaMarr Woodley will experience his NFL baptism - his first chance to see the playbook come to life against real, live opponents.

"You definitely get an opportunity to see where you're at," Woodley said. "With this game, you get a chance to grade yourself. Any mistakes you make, you get a chance to come out on the practice field and learn it all over again, so when the season starts, you don't make that same mistake and hurt the team."

Have the older players told Woodley the speed of the game will pick up considerably from what he saw in college, even in an exhibition game?

"Yeah, they said the preseason is faster, and then it picks up more in the regular season," Woodley said. "And in the playoffs, it really picks up."


Five alive

The Steelers play five exhibition games, instead of four, for the first time since 2000. Here are their season records the past five times they've played five exhibition games:

2000: 9-7

1998: 7-9

1997: 11-5

1996: 10-6

1993: 11-5

Almost famous

The Steelers are playing for the third time in the NFL's annual Hall of Fame Game. Previous results:

1998 vs. Tampa BayL, 30-6

1983 vs. New OrleansW, 27-14

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