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Time for No. 1 draft picks Burress and Edwards to step it up

| Monday, July 23, 2001

Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress are fighting to determine a starter at split end, which is the small picture. In the larger view, they're battling to live up to expectations.

They are a pair of Steelers' first-round picks, from 1999 and 2000, who haven't provided impact commensurate with their selection level. Edwards caught 61 balls as a rookie split end but was switched to flanker last year and ended up losing his starting job to Hines Ward. Edwards' production slipped to 18 catches. He has been shifted back to split end to face off directly with Burress, who had his 22-catch rookie season of 2000 cut short by wrist surgery.

In a word, what the Steelers want from these two is more.

To understand why requires a look at history. Don't go there with Burress, though.

'Is that all you're going to talk about is last year?' a perturbed Burress said Monday on the subject.

It was explained that last year was his entire pro career and therefore the only reference point, but that didn't soften Burress' mood.

'Are you going to ask about this year or are you going to keep asking about last year?'

More explanation.

'Why don't you go back over there or something, man?'

That Burress is testy is understandable. He took heat last year for dropping passes. It only got worse when, after making a catch at Jacksonville, Burress spiked a live ball. The Jaguars recovered, but the gaffe was softened by an eventual Steelers win.

Already this year, coach Bill Cowher has tightened the focus on Burress and Edwards.

'It's a big camp for Plaxico, and it's a big camp for Troy,' he said before camp opened.

Yesterday, following an afternoon practice in which Burress and Edwards made notable catches, Cowher was complimentary.

'I've been very impressed, just with their approach, the way they've come out here,' he said. 'Again. It's still early, and those are things that they have to show over time. But I've been very pleased to this point.'

Fans have been critical.

Burress was booed by fans for dropping a pass in the first practice at St. Vincent. He received mock cheers for a catch.

Edwards was chided yesterday from the hillside for not diving for an overthrown ball.

Why, Plaxico's last name was even misspelled in this year's Steelers media guide.

Pro football has been a disappointing experience for Burress and Edwards. But both he and Edwards are promising better things in 2001. At the crux of their optimism is offensive change.

'I like X (split end). I've been playing X all my life,' Edwards said. 'I played it in college and everything, and it's more comfortable for me. Mostly, it's backside one-on-one (coverage), so you've just got to beat the person. You don't have to read all the defense and sit in the hole and stuff like that.'

Burress, too, was heartened by what he perceives as clarity in the offensive scheme.

'The offense is just totally playing to my strength now,' he said. 'It's kind of letting me run. Kind of letting me just play and get open.

'It's not a whole bunch of just be here. You get to the line, you know what you've got to do and just get open. Last year, I was coming to the line, I was reading coverages and trying to figure out who was blitzing and what route I was running. All that's gone.'

Both downplayed their head-to-head competition, although, last year, Edwards publicly had been perturbed about the attention focused on Burress during the preseason, when Plaxico had shared the team lead in receptions.

Said Edwards of sharing a position this year: 'It's fine. I know Plaxico's a great player. I know I'm a good player. One of us is going to be on the field. This year, I think we're going to go a little bit more with three wides or four wides. We'll fit in there some kind of way.'

From Burress: 'It's not competition for me at all. Not at all. If I just go out and play, whew ... just go out and play. I don't think about no competition, nothing like that.'

The Steelers need one or both of these two to play well. They need them to be consistently productive. It is time for them to deliver.

Sam Ross Jr. is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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