Staley might be playing for job with Steelers Thursday

PITTSBURGH -- Duce Staley was on pace a couple of years ago for one of the best seasons by a Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

When the Steelers wrap up their exhibition schedule Thursday night against Carolina, Staley might be playing to remain with the team.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher isn't saying if Staley, a former starter who has looked slow during training camp and in games, is playing for a job. Perhaps the most telling indicator was he wouldn't say Monday that Staley isn't.

"I'm not ready to sit here and say that he isn't or he is," Cowher said. "The bottom line is that we have some tough decisions coming Thursday. I like the experience that he brings and what he's done. He's gotten better each week."

Even if that hasn't shown up in the game statistics. Staley has only 46 yards on 23 carries in three exhibition games, and was limited to 21 yards on 11 carries in a 16-7 loss Friday to Philadelphia. In 2004, Staley was averaging 101 yards through seven games before injuring a hamstring, and he has never regained his starting job.

Staley looked somewhat out of shape when camp opened, and Cowher said last week Staley would not be the goal-line and short-yardage back that Jerome Bettis was last season as Willie Parker's backup.

"Duce is working himself back into running shape," Cowher said last week.

With Parker likely to go only a series Thursday before being pulled -- and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expected to go no longer -- Staley could get a lot of carries as the Steelers prepare to cut their roster over the weekend.

They cut eight players Monday, but none made any impact during training camp.

"I thought he did fine," Cowher said of Staley's performance against the Eagles. "I think it's hard at this time, considering that we're not game-planning, it's hard to pinpoint any one person. I'd like to see us be more consistent running the ball."

One problem, of course, is that Parker has carried only seven times in three games as the Steelers try to protect one of their most valuable players from injury. It's the same reason Roethlisberger has thrown only 22 passes while playing four series.

The starters rarely go more than a quarter, if that, in the final preseason game, and Cowher almost certainly won't change his philosophy. One reason is the Steelers won't have the usual 10 days off before their opener, but only a week: Pittsburgh hosts the NFL's season-opening game Sept. 7 against Miami.

What Cowher wants to eliminate, no matter who plays Thursday night at Heinz Field, are mistakes. The Steelers have seven fumbles, losing three, and four interceptions in three games.

"The two elements are turnovers and big plays -- two things that have been showing up in these games," Cowher said. "We may be winning 80 percent of the snaps, but then we turn it over and then you have nothing to show for the effort. Or you lose a third down and then you have nothing to show there. There are some things we have to do better and more consistently, but I'm encouraged by how we've played in the first halves of these games."

Not that Cowher is about to get worried if the Steelers lose all of their preseason games, something they've never done since he became their coach in 1992.

The Steelers have gone winless in exhibition play only twice in the last 41 years, in 1987 and 1965.

Of their four previous Super Bowl champion teams, only one had a losing preseason. The 1975 Steelers went 3-4, then went on to win a second Super Bowl in as many seasons.