Steelers' Starks returns to field

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Max Starks works during practice at training camp in Latrobe, Pa. (The Associated Press)

Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 9:44 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 9:44 a.m.

LATROBE, Pa. — Fresh from a “great” workout and a dip in the hot tub, Max Starks' surgically repaired right knee was feeling fine as the Steelers tackle entered the dining hall at St. Vincent College on Sunday.

But well enough for Starks to step in and fill a developing hole at left tackle, if, theoretically, next Sunday's preseason game actually was the regular-season opener?

“That would be pushing it,” Starks said, accompanied by his characteristic hearty laugh. “We'd have to put some Popsicle (sticks) and rubber bands together to try to get myself going.”

Starks was activated from the physically unable to perform list Tuesday after rehabbing a torn ACL in his right knee. But on Sunday he gave an encouraging update on his projected return to game action.

Pittsburgh opens the regular season Sept. 9 in Denver. With rookie Mike Adams out for about two weeks with a right knee injury, Starks' return to the practice field would be welcome for the Steelers (No. 7 in the AP Pro32).

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said Saturday that none of the five PUP players would be evaluated for possible removal from that list until after the Steelers' next preseason game Aug. 19 against Indianapolis.

That is still three weeks before the season begins, and Starks has proven he doesn't need too much time to get ready to step into a game.

Last season, Starks, a standout at the University of Florida, signed with the Steelers on Oct. 5. He started at left tackle against the Tennessee Titans four days later. He assuredly will have more practice time with the team this season.

“It definitely puts a little less pressure on me than last time,” Starks said. “I had to shake the cobwebs off pretty fast.”

Starks was coming off what was thought to be a career-threatening neck injury during the lockout summer of 2011. With the Steelers having endured struggles by Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex at left tackle through the first four games of last season, they signed Starks after being satisfied he was healthy.

It wasn't long before he regained a starting tackle spot, something he has held — when healthy — with the Steelers since his second season in the league, 2005.

While stressing it wouldn't be an ideal situation, the 30-year-old Starks allowed that he doesn't need too much practice time before he could play in a game.

“Knowing the body of work I put together, I think they trust that if it came down to that, they could trust me enough,” Starks said of Steelers coaches.

“The good thing last year was I had been in that offense for the last four years, so it was a lot easier to just come in.”

The Steelers hired Todd Haley as Bruce Arians' replacement at offensive coordinator in February, a month after Starks sustained the torn ACL in a playoff loss at Denver Jan. 8. Starks became a free agent a month after that, so he was not around the team facility through offseason workouts, OTAs and minicamp.

He signed with the Steelers the week before training camp began. At least this season, Starks will have the benefit of a month of team and positional meetings and studying the playbook. His only issue is learning the new Haley terminology.

“The biggest thing is just digesting all that and making sure when they (call a play), I'm not going in my mind, ‘Oh, this is old such-and-such,' or ‘Oh, this used to be this play' before I think of it. So when I hear a word like ‘218,' I know what it is automatically instead of having to equate it to something else.”

Adams injured his knee during the 24-23 preseason loss at Philadelphia on Thursday. Although it is not serious, any lost practice time for a rookie damages his hopes of earning a starting job.

Adams had surpassed Essex on the depth chart, but the injury, combined with the fact he struggled with pass-blocking against the Eagles, appears to have opened the door for Starks to reclaim the job.

“I think the biggest thing is making sure I'm 100 percent when I go into that competition,” Starks said, “so it's not ... ‘Oh, he's playing at 70 percent; well, we can predict if he's at 100 percent he's going to play like this.' No. I don't want there to be a doubt when I come back that I'm playing at full speed and we're ready to go.”

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