Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

It's been nearly three months since their season ended on a disappointing note, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have done nothing to address their primary need in the secondary.

Poor pass defense hurt the Steelers all season and became their Achilles heel in the playoffs when they almost were beaten by the Cleveland Browns and then were beaten by Tennessee. The Steelers allowed 740 yards passing and 67 points in those two games, not quite evoking memories of the Steel Curtain.

They made a game effort to upgrade themselves at safety when they offered Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson a four-year, $12 million contract. Arizona, though, trumped them by $2 million and Jackson went for the money. Since then, they have made little effort to sign anyone else.

One and perhaps two free agent safeties will come to Pittsburgh this week, but they're not quite the kind of upgrade the coaches had in mind. Sammy Knight, a free agent from New Orleans, will visit at midweek and Arizona free agent Kwamie Lassiter may follow. If the Steelers sign either of them, it would be a big dropoff from Jackson and perhaps no better than what they had last year.

Lee Flowers, Pittsburgh's starting strong safety the past five years, never received an offer from his team before or after he became a free agent. Few other teams have been interested in him but one, ironically, is New Orleans. The Saints, who believe Knight is too slow, may sign Flowers to replace him. The Steelers gave up on Flowers because they believe he is too slow and they had to hide him in their defense. He was exposed many times as they tried to use him to cover tight ends and even receivers.

If they sign Knight or Lassiter they will not have improved their secondary, it merely would be a fallback position in case they cannot find a fleet safety in the draft or pick up another who may be cut after the draft or in June.

They do have a safety on the roster that might fill the bill, but the coaches seem reluctant to use him. Chris Hope, drafted in the third round last year from Florida State, has the size and decent speed. They used him primarily on special teams as a rookie but put him on defense only when injuries forced them to.

One thing coach Bill Cowher says they will not do is move either cornerback, Dewayne Washington or Chad Scott, to safety. Scott played some safety at Maryland and many believe he ultimately will move to that spot. It's possible, although unlikely, that they could draft a cornerback that would step in and allow them to move Scott to safety.

Another piece of their pass defense they want to shore up is at end or tackle in their dime defense. They want someone to rush the passer. They had 50 sacks last season, a good number, but they do not believe they put enough heat on the passer as offenses began spreading them out and throwing the ball on them more often and with more success last season than they have done in years.

Thus, the Steelers pass defense sunk to 20th in the league from fifth the year before. Since their cornerbacks are not great cover men, they would like to give quarterbacks less time to throw. That is one reason they took a look at linebacker Antwaan Peek of the University of Cincinnati last week in Pittsburgh. Peek is 6-3, 245 and the kind of linebacker they believe might give them a rush from the edge in their pass defense.

Cowher also has said that he intends to use linebacker Kendrell Bell on passing downs this season. Bell was a two-down player at inside linebacker when he earned the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2001. He has such quickness and a burst that they believe he can be a good pass rusher. They switched Joey Porter from the right outside rush position in their dime defense to inside linebacker in order to put Bell in Porter's old spot last season. However, a severe ankle injury in the pre-season limited Bell to a handful of plays on the outside.

Perhaps Bell will be the answer to their pass rush this season, but they still do not know how successful he can be playing over the left tackle. Instead of putting him in a three-point stance as they normally do with their right end in the four-man pass defense, they might stand him up and move him off the line, more as a linebacker.

Even if they do that, they would like to get more of a push from their tackles in that four-man line, particularly on the right side. What's becoming more and more apparent, though, is that help on their pass defense -- whether it's up front or in the secondary -- will not come through free agency. They either will improve through the draft or with someone currently on their roster.

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