PITTSBURGH -- If the Washington Redskins keep talking about how much confidence they have in backup quarterback Cary Conklin, it will start to look as if they're protesting just a bit too much.
When the Redskins traded for veteran Rich Gannon of the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, team officials were quick to insist the deal had nothing to do with Conklin's disappointing preseason play.
Their rationale was that they needed a veteran because third-string quarterback Chris Hakel hadn't developed.
Yet the Redskins spent all last week insisting they didn't need a veteran quarterback in the first place before they went out and got Gannon.
There's little doubt that the acquisition of Gannon puts pressure on Conklin to play well when the Redskins meet the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight at Three Rivers Stadium in their third preseason game.
Conklin, who arrived at camp hoping to fight Mark Rypien for the No. 1 job, finds himself in the position of trying to hang onto the No. 2 spot.
Gannon can't challenge for the job yet because he hasn't learned the system, but he's a factor just standing on the sidelines.
It gives the Redskins another alternative if Conklin continues to struggle the way he did last week, when he was only five of 14 for 44 yards and an interception against the Miami Dolphins.
Even coach Richie Petitbon, who insisted the Gannon deal doesn't affect Conklin, did concede that Conklin needs to play better.
"I think it's important [for him to play well]. You don't want him to start doubting himself. He needs a good game," Petitbon said.
Conklin insists there's no danger of doubting himself and says he hasn't lost any self-confidence. He brushes off the performance against the Dolphins as an off-night.
"You're going to have off-nights," he said. "You want to go out and play consistently all the time, but that just doesn't happen. You look at every quarterback in the league and he's going to have a bad day. I definitely want to play better than I did last week. I just wasn't as sharp as I should be."
Conklin got off to a slow start in camp because he was recovering from a knee injury. He said it also has been difficult to match his good 1992 preseason because he hasn't been working with the first team the way he did when Rypien was holding out last year.
He said it's more difficult to get continuity while not working with the first unit.
"It's no excuse but there are a lot of people being shuffled in and out," he said. "It's hard to evaluate a person's performance on a quarter and a half. It's not like I played four quarters. That's the way I look at it."
Conklin's problem is that he's still not going to get a lot of playing time. Although Rypien and Conklin will be the only two quarterbacks to play tonight, Rypien will go at least a half. So Conklin will have to make the most of his opportunity.
Conklin, though, said he's not depressed about the situation.
"I'm pretty much upbeat. I take things pretty well. I don't really get depressed. Life's too short to get depressed," he said.
Conklin is one of several young players who will be trying to impress the coaches before they start paring the roster next week.
One rookie on the spot is punter Ed Bunn, who started camp favored to win a spot after being drafted on the third round, but now seems destined for the practice squad.
Veteran Kelly Goodburn, who'll work the first half tonight, has had the best camp of his career coming off a groin injury while Bunn has struggled.
Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach, is now trying to rationalize the decision to take Bunn on the third round by noting how difficult it is for any rookie kicker.
"I don't ever think any rookie punter can step right in and be great. I've just been through it too many times. Most punters in the league have knocked around once or twice. It's rarer to find a punter or kicker to make it as a rookie than at any other position," he said.
The Redskins didn't originally plan to take Bunn on the third round. But when the Atlanta Falcons grabbed the only other punter they liked (Harold Alexander) earlier in the third round, they decided to make a move.
Bunn, who'll kick in the second half tonight, will try to make the duel closer, but he's now trailing.
Then there are the rookies who are long shots, but keep hoping that they'll get the break they need.
Two of the rookies, defensive lineman Ralph Orta of the University of Maryland and linebacker Jerry Dillon, already have been cut once in this camp, but both were brought back because the Redskins found themselves short of players.
They don't figure to make it this time, either, but Orta isn't giving up.
"I've just got to keep doing well and do some stuff that they'll see so they'll keep me here. I just want to do a little better each week," he said.
For a lot of the rookies, this will be their last week.
NOTES: The Redskins will be short of defensive linemen with three, Jason Buck (ribs), Tim Johnson (ribs) and Shane Collins (shoulder), already out of the game. . . Rookie DL Sterling Palmer, who hasn't practiced since hurting his knee Thursday, hopes to play. . . The Redskins will have a short practice week before they close the preseason next Friday night at RFK Stadium against the New York Jets. They then will have 10 days to prepare for the Monday night opener against the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys.