2003 Training Camp Preview
By Jerry DiPaola
It would be unfair to criticize the Steelers for arrogantly standing pat this offseason while others in the AFC North - especially the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals - worked feverishly to get better.
It also would be untrue, although not all that far from the truth.
The Steelers did not look at their division championship roster of 2002 and consider it good enough to compete successfully for another title. Hey, they signed Clint Kriewaldt and Todd Fordham, didn't they? Oh, and let's not forget quarterback Tim Levcik, who can't be all bad because he was smart enough to execute Joe Walton's offense at Robert Morris University.
But the Steelers are counting on improving their major weakness - a leaky pass defense - with:
o Two rookies (one who was hurt through a large part of the spring and another who is undergoing a position switch).
o The return to good health of linebacker Kendrell Bell, who also needs to develop a greater understanding of the team's defensive concepts.
o Increased use of the nickel defense that was all but in mothballs last year.
Is such an array of dice-rolling enough for the Steelers? Maybe, maybe not.
With a schedule that includes four trips west of the Mississippi River, a journey into the New Jersey swamps to play the Jets, and visits from AFC title game participants Oakland and Tennessee, the Steelers are no lock to reach double-digit victories for the third consecutive season.
The offense, coordinated by Mike Mularkey and carried out by Tommy Maddox, is one of the best in the league. Is it good enough to do better than 2-5-1 when the defense falters (last year's record when the other team scored at least 30 points)? Hey, no team is that good.
Here is a position-by-position look at the Steelers as they probably will be shaped when the team reports to training camp July 25 at St. Vincent College:
Under coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers always seem to have more quarterbacks than they need, and this depth has paid dividends in the form of Mike Tomczak, Maddox and Kordell Stewart. The team survived poor play by Stewart and a two-game absence by Maddox to finish
10-5-1. Maybe the same could happen this year with Charlie Batch, who has thrown for 5,078 more career yards than Maddox. By the way, that number should interest Steelers fans more than the mere pittance Batch is earning above Maddox's salary. Levcik and No. 5 draft choice Brian St. Pierre will compete for the third spot.
The competition at another position of admirable depth is among four players - two trying to be No. 1 and two hoping to be No. 3. Look for Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue to share snaps, but Bettis has looked good this spring as he recovers nicely from another knee surgery.
"He seems to be out to prove a lot of people wrong," Cowher said. "Jerome's best year was in 1997 when he was here at the same weight. He had over 1,600 yards and he is in better shape now than he was this time that year." Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala will try to hold off the challenge from second-year back Verron Haynes. It might come down to who can fill in best at fullback.
There are not three more productive pass catchers on the same team than Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. Depth isn't great, but if those three stay healthy, it doesn't need to be. Still, the unit is one major injury from trouble.
There is talk that the tight end will become more involved in the passing game, but with the three wide receivers, Bettis and Zereoue, how is that possible? There is only one ball in play at a time. The Steelers signed Jay Riemersma to guard against losing the starting tight end to injury as they did at the end of three of the past four seasons. If Riemersma stays healthy, the extra threat in the passing game will just be a nice bonus.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of sweat or hand-wringing over the makeover of 40 percent of the offensive line. Maybe there should be. Marvel Smith will move from right to left tackle, one of the toughest positions to master and one he never has played in the NFL. Oliver Ross, who failed as a guard, will play right tackle. He will be backed up by Fordham, who was not invited back by the new Jack Del Rio regime in Jacksonville. What if Smith and Ross aren't up to the task? Look out, Tommy. The guard and center play is solid and often spectacular, with two-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons at guard and Jeff Hartings at center. All three were drafted in the first round and are 30-years-old or younger.
The key to any great defense is the three or four men up front, and the Steelers have three good ones with some young talent in reserve. Nose Tackle Casey Hampton, drafted in the first round two years ago when few people expected it, is a master at collapsing the pocket and blowing up blockers. Right end Kimo von Oelhoffen is a crafty vet, whose quick slap to the head is his best weapon. Left end Aaron Smith played well over the second half of last season, finally looking like he deserved that $5.5 million signing bonus. The Steelers found depth in the sixth and seventh rounds with ends Rodney Bailey and Brett Keisel. Kendrick Clancy, the backup nose tackle, is 31 pounds lighter than Hampton and correspondingly, not nearly as effective.
The Steelers' four linebackers are among the best units in the league led by Pro Bowl players Joey Porter, Bell and Jason Gildon. James Farrior, the only one of the group drafted in the first round, was a significant upgrade over Earl Holmes at inside linebacker. Kreiwaldt and Larry Foote are nothing but backups. The Steelers need a more menacing pass rush in long-yardage situations from a group that includes Bell, Clark Haggans and second-round rookie Alonzo Jackson, who has been asked to move from defensive end in college.
After a week of minicamp in June, the local media discovered that strong safety Troy Polamalu is inferior to his predecessor Lee Flowers in one important category - filling up reporters' notebooks with his thoughts. Polamalu is quiet, polite and modest, quite a contrast from the loquacious Flowers. Plus, he's injured - at least he was at the end of minicamp. If Polamalu's hamstring doesn't respond favorably to treatment and Mike Logan's surgically repaired knee doesn't allow him to practice twice a day at St. Vincent College, the Steelers will count on Chris Hope. But if they were pleased with Hope's ability to play strong safety, they wouldn't have traded their third-round pick to get Polamalu or tried to sign Dexter Jackson. Cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington return for, perhaps, their final year together, with Washington entering his 10th season. Scott, an underrated player, makes big plays and doesn't give up as many as his perceived reputation indicates.
Give Dan Rooney credit. He comes from an era when there were far fewer coaches and they made far less money than they do today. But he has anted up, paying Cowher more than $3 million per year and giving him a quarterbacks coach and a second defensive backs coach for the first time in franchise history. He pays the money, and patiently waits for the results.
Jerry DiPaola covers the Steelers and NFL for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.