In-depth Scouting Report: Pittsburgh Steelers
Tommy Maddox proved to be solid last year, replacing Kordell Stewart early in the year. Stewart was released over the offseason, making Maddox the 1st full time starting quarterback since Kordell took over in 1995. Over that time period, the fans had a love-hate relationship with the inconsistent Stewart, but have taken up to the veteran Maddox, who has had to work hard for everything in his roller coaster career, which makes him a fan favorite in a hard working city. From being a 1st round pick, to getting bounced around to several teams, and playing in the XFL, before landing a job with the Steelers.
| Off-Season Movement
LB Clint Kriewaldt (Lions)
OL Todd Fordham (Jaguars)
TE Jay Reimersma (Bills)
WR Chris Doering (Redskins)
Maddox knocked the rust off his game last year, putting up some impressive numbers, namely, a record game high of 473 yards passing. The Steelers resisted drafting a quarterback early in the draft, believing that like a fine wine, Maddox will continue to get better with more time. He has superb accuracy and veteran decision making. His 62.1 completion percentage set an all time Steeler record. Backing up Maddox will be ex-Lion Charlie Batch. His past starting experience makes him one of the best backups in the league, and should be solid if Maddox is injured. Rookie Brian St. Pierre was drafted in the 5th round to provide a future. He has a great arm, and should benefit from veterans Maddox and Batch, along with a very good coaching staff that includes quarterback coach Tom Clements. With an outstanding group of receivers, the Steelers should be one of the most dangerous passing threats in the league.
Although the Steelers ranked 9th in rushing last season, they do have their share of problems. Jerome Bettis seems to be on the downside of his career and hasnt proved he can still stay in shape or healthy during the season. Last year, Bettis only averaged 3.6 yards a carry and had only one 100+ yard game. There is still the possibility of Bettis returning to his once premier form. No doubt that when healthy, "The Bus" is a load for any defense. Almost all sources have indicated that he is healthy, in shape and motivated in camp, but Steeler fans heard that last year. If he continues to struggle, Bettis will likely lose a lot of playing time and possibly the starting job to Amos Zereoue who rushed for 762 yards last season. Zereoue is tough inside, where the Steelers love to run. Although Zereoue is a great tool for the run game, he isnt a feature back. Far too often he is stopped for negative yardage and has difficulty finding running holes and cut back lanes. A running back by committee could be a possibility once again if a starter does not arise.
Chris Fuamatu-Maafala is a superb "change of pace back" with his power run style, and is yet another tool for the team to use. Last year he proved to be a consistent backup, gaining 115 yards off 23 carries (5.0 avg). Backup Fullback, Verron Haynes should vie for some playing time as well. Although he is a fullback, Haynes has shown potential when running the ball. Youngsters Wes Ours, J.T Wall and Dante Brown, will be fighting for a roster spot. Returning at fullback will be Dan Kreider, although not much of a runner, Kreider is a tough blocker. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, isnt afraid to get the receivers involved in the running game. Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El combined for 276 yards off 31 carries last season. Their presence alone should keep defenses honest.
Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward are a very productive combo, and should continue to haunt pass defenses this year. A team that was once heavily committed to the run, has become a passing power house. Ward, who will start at flanker, is tough over the middle and is very hard to jam. Coming off a great 2002 campaign that netted him 1,329 yards off 112 catches, Ward should continue his productivity. He is one of the most complete receivers in the league, and is a dominant blocker for the run game. At split end will be the other half of the duo, Plaxico Burress. Last season Burress had 78 receptions for 1,325 yards, averaging an amazing 17 yards a catch. Plaxicos 65 frame can devastate smaller corners. Always a big play threat, he is as good as they come down the sideline with speed, size and the ability to out jump just about every corner in the league. Both receivers feel more comfortable with Maddox than they did with Stewart, and a full season with him should help both receivers.
As if that wasnt enough, Antwaan Randle El lines up in the slot where he is a very dangerous. His speed and athleticism make him hard to cover, and thats magnified by the fact he is always in single coverage because of Burress and Ward. He is also used on trick pass plays because of his quarterback experience. A great weapon in an already loaded arsenal, Randle El should improve his production this year, as he gains more experience at a position he is still learning. Behind Randle El are Lee Mays, Khori Ivy and a host of undrafted free agents. Mays and Ivy are both fast and have good hands. They are still young, but show good potential. Acquisition Chris Doering also adds depth. The roster is very top heavy when it comes to talent.
The signing of Jay Riemersma shows the Steelers are recommitted to using the tight end in the passing game. Mark Bruener, the starting tight end, is mainly a blocker, but a dominating one at that. Jerame Tuman is an emerging tight end who could have an impact when rotated in.
The Steelers have built a top notch offensive line, because they put so much emphasis on the run. Oddly enough, a once dominant running team, now has one of the leagues top passing attacks. In the center of the line is ex-Lion, Jeff Hartings, who provides power run blocking up the middle along with former 1st rounders Kendall Simmons and Alan Faneca. Simmons excels at run blocking, and should continue to progress in his 2nd season, but needs to improve his strength and durability. Faneca, once again started in the pro bowl last year, as he did in 2001. He has been a devastating run blocker ever since he entered the league in 98. Both Faneca and Simmons are great pulling guards, and although the team likes to run inside the tackles, they can pave the way on the outside run.
Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham will battle for the right side tackle job, which is vacated by Marvel Smith moving to left side to take over for the departed Wayne Gandy. Fordham, who was brought in during the offseason, is a versatile lineman that can play tackle and guard. He offers great depth if he doesnt win the starting job. Ross can also play guard and tackle, and saw time last year filling in for injuries. While Ross didnt prove to be reliable at guard, a move to tackle should benefit him and he is the favorite to win the right side job. Marvel Smith will start from the left side. Smith, who played left tackle in college should make a smooth transition back to his natural spot. Like the rest of his lineman, Smiths strength is run blocking, and he should continue to be a reliable player. Although the line is built for the run, they still need to focus on pass blocking, last year allowing 45 sacks, which was one of highest in the league.
Backing up the tackles will likely be Mathias Nkwenti and Todd Fordham. Nkwenti is a project who has shown potential, impressing the coaches in last years preseason before getting injured. He is athletic and shows decent fundamentals, offensive line coach Ross Grimm with continue to groom him, but Nkwenti lacks a lot experience, making his performance uncertain if he is called upon because of injury. Fordham, like I stated before is a versatile, experienced lineman that adds depth. At guard, Keydrick Vincent provides great depth, and has continued to improve. Calvin Collins is an experienced veteran but has been hampered by injuries as of late. Chukky Okobi is a very promising young center who backs up veteran Jeff Hartings. Okobi showed amazing strength and looked very solid last year, replacing the injured Hartings for 5 games.
The Steelers have built a rock solid 3-4 defensive line, that led the league in rush defense last year. The key to a successful 3-4 defense is the nose tackle and the Steelers have a great one in Casey Hampton. Hampton is very strong up the middle, stuffing the run effectively. One of top 5 defensive tackles in this writers' opinion, Hampton is the nose tackle every 3-4 coordinator craves and the scary thing (for other teams) is that he is still getting better. Casey also does a great job of drawing and fighting through double teams to keep bodies off the linebackers, which in turn makes them more efficient. All and all he could be the most important man in this defense. Backup Kendrick Clancy, Hampton's reserve, has had little playing time since being drafted in 2000 but shows potential. Defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen and Clancy are more gap shooters than the area eater Hampton is, which will make it easier for the offense to get bodies on the linebackers. Practically no one could be an equal substitute for Hampton but Clancy and Von Oelhoffen are no push overs, they will get the job done, but they arent nearly as dominant as Hampton is.
At defensive end will be Aaron Smith and Von Oelhoffen. Like Hampton, Smith fits the 3-4 profile perfectly. He is a big end run stopper that provides a steady pass rush from the edge, tallying 5.5 sacks last season.
Although Von Oelhoffen has been a workhouse who stuffs the run well, he doesnt offer a consistent pass rush. Look for up and coming ends Rodney Bailey and Brett Keisel to give Von Oelhoffen a run for his starting job, or at least a considerable amount of playing time. Bailey and Keisel are excellent pass rushers with the size to play head up against the run. The Steelers drafted Alonzo Jackson, but he lacks the bulk (260) to be a 3-4 end, who are usually around 300 pounds. The Steelers will move him to outside linebacker and develop him there, but Jackson could still see time at end because of his pass rushing abilities.
The Steelers starting linebackers are the finest in the league without question. Joey Porter has surpassed Jason Gildon as the top linebacker of the group, both will start at outside linebacker with Kendrell Bell and James Farrior starting inside. Porter is a force, in coverage and against the run and could very well be the next Derrick Brooks. Last year he had 89 tackles, 9 sacks, 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles, being the 1st player in NFL history to record 8 sacks and 4 INTs in one year. Because of teams trying to spread the defense out last year, defensive coordinator Tim Lewis will incorporate a nickel package on 1st and 2nd downs that heavily resembles the one Tampa Bay runs. Porter and Farrior are the only solid coverage linebackers they have while the others are more oriented toward the run. Jason Gildon, who also recorded 9 sacks last year, is a solid veteran, but he should continue to struggle in the nickel system. Gildon is not the playmaker in coverage like he is against the run. Clark Haggans will be the backup and will see time once again on passing situations, last year he recorded an impressive 6.5 sacks while only seeing limited playing time. Justin Kurpeikis and Alonzo Jackson will also play backup roles.
Kendrell Bell and James Farrior will start on the inside, and should prove to be a solid duo. The lineman do a great job of keeping the center and interior guards off the linebackers, which allow them to chase down plays and penetrate the gaps. Although Bell was injured several times last season, including the playoffs, he is a great young linebacker who is still improving. Bell is a do-it-all type linebacker, simply put, its hard to find a weakness to him, when healthy, he is one of the top linebackers in the league. James Farrior was a great pickup last season, switching from his natural outside linebacker position to the inside. Farriors coverage ability is excellent and he should be an intricate part of the nickel system. The backups in the middle are Larry Foote and ex-Lion Clint Kriewaldt. Foote showed promise as a rookie, filling in for Bell on several occasions. Kriewaldt was brought in for his special teams ability and shouldnt be counted on as a reliable backup.
If there is a weakness to this defense it is in the secondary. Although it's often blown out of proportion, the Steelers pass defense isn't that bad considering they ranked better than the Jets, Raiders, and Titans who all made the playoffs. The fact that its so hard to run well against them, made teams turn to a wide open pass offense rather than struggle with the run. Its apparent in the fact that teams threw a total of 573 passes against them, which translates to almost 36 times a game. Thats a lot even for a good secondary to take on.
On the corners once again, will be Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington. While most point the finger at these two for the troubles last year, its hardly their fault. When a corner cant trust that the safeties have their back, its very hard for them to cover. The departed Lee Flowers is and always has been practically an undersized linebacker playing safety. His coverage abilities are horrible and he is too slow to effectively cover up top. Because of this fact, Scott and Washington had to cushion their receivers more than would like too, and because they are corners that love to play press, it was to their disadvantage. Now that the team drafted top safety Troy Polamalu, they have a young player that can stuff and run, yet cover well too. What the secondary needed was more speed at safety, and they got it with the speedster Polamalu who runs a 4.3 forty. His athleticism and coverage will help out the secondary immensely once he cracks the starting lineup. This move will allow Scott and Washington to play press coverage more often, because they have assurance of safety help on the deep ball.
At free safety will be either Brent Alexander or the youngster Chris Hope. Alexander is an experienced centerfield type free safety that lacks the speed and range that is needed for the position. Although he had 4 interceptions last year, he will face competition for job from Chris Hope. Unlike Alexander, Hope has speed and range, but lacks experience. Its either stick with a decent player of put a potential standout through a trial by fire. The jury should out on this one until the season starts, but either way they have solid depth there with two starter quality players. Nickelback Deshea Townsend returns along with dimeback Mike Logan. Townsend is solid in nickel and dime packages but also played well last season when he subbed for the injured Chad Scott. Mike Logan is still recovering from a knee injury, but if healthy, he should be a solid dimeback once again. Durability has always been a problem for Logan.
Townsend or Logan will be the backup if Scott or Washington gets injured. Behind them on the depth chart will be Hank Poteat, Chidi Iwuoma and rookie Ivan Taylor. Poteat got lit up in the playoffs, and had an overall disappointing season. He will be fighting to keep his roster spot. Taylor is a speed merchant who has a lot of potential, although its unlikely he will be ready at corner this year, he can be an immediate contributor on special teams. Iwuoma has to prove himself if he wants to stay on the roster.
Although Antwaan Randle El is a dangerous return man, he is limited because of poor blocking on special teams. Also the coverage teams need work; they are decent but gave up two returns last year. Kicker Jeff Reed proved to be consistent, connecting on 10 of 10 field goals from inside the 40, and 17 of 19 overall. Punter Josh Miller is another story. His net average of 32.5 yards is one of the worst in the league and he also struggles when attempting to kick inside the 20. With the exception of place kicking, this is a weak area for the team.