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Healthy McFadden seeks Steelers' starting spot

Coach Mike Tomlin has taken a simple approach to the OTA practices the Steelers are holding this month and in June: players nursing injuries, including minor ones, will watch more than they will participate.

"Have to," Tomlin said after practice Wednesday at the team's South Side facility. "The purpose of this is to get better, not get worse, so we'll have to exercise caution."

The Steelers have not had to handle Bryant McFadden with care during offseason practices, and that is telling of how good the cornerback feels physically after playing at times on two bad ankles in 2007.

If staying healthy is McFadden's top priority for the 2008 season, then supplanting veteran Deshea Townsend in the starting lineup has to rank No. 1A on his list of goals.

And time is particularly of the essence for McFadden, 26, since he is entering the final year of his contract.

The 6-foot, 190-pounder started nine games in 2006, but he played as a reserve/nickel back in all 14 games he dressed for last season.

McFadden suffered a high-ankle sprain in the fourth game of the season at Arizona. The injury forced him to miss three games, and when he returned to the field, he did so at less than full strength. He sprained his other ankle in the Steelers' 19-16 loss to the Jets in mid-November, and that proved to be another setback in what turned out to be a frustrating season.

"A lot of people probably didn't understand the pain I was going through playing with two sprained ankles," said McFadden, a second-round pick by the Steelers in the 2005 NFL Draft, "especially playing cornerback."

McFadden has the size and athleticism to excel as a cornerback, and he has shown flashes during his first three NFL seasons.

He had one of the more celebrated pass break-ups in recent Steelers history in January 2006, when he made a season-saving play in the end zone near the end of the Steelers' 21-18 upset of the Colts in an AFC Divisional playoff game.

The following season, McFadden tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) while getting a chance to start in place of the struggling Ike Taylor.

Taylor, however, is firmly entrenched at one cornerback spot, and the 32-year-old Townsend is the man to beat out opposite Taylor.

That means McFadden, who made just one interception in 2007, has to do more than just stay healthy to finally crack the starting lineup.

"I guess just be a difference-maker, make plays, do things that stand out and be consistent," McFadden said on what he needs to go to take the next step in his career. "Last year was kind of tough for me. I wasn't able to be myself like I usually am. I'm blessed to be out here every day running around with my teammates and having fun."

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