Left and Right Defensive Ends
Starter (Left): Aaron Smith "C+"
Aaron Smith received a huge contract before the start of the 2002 season, which upset some Steeler fans. Smith was quiet pretty much all of the 2002 season but did make a few plays to show why the Steelers gave him a nice new contract. Those plays included 70 tackles, 5 sacks, and 3 fumble recoveries.
Backup (Left): Brett Keisel "?" (Special Teams "B")
Keisel was a bright spot on an improving Steelers special teams unit. When Brett finally was active for a Steelers game, he showed signs of a very good player. Keisel recovered a muffed punt by Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. Keisel also had 5 solo tackles and 2 assists on special teams.
Starter (Right): Kimo Von Oelhoffen "C"
Kimo is the oldest player on the defensive line. Von Oelhoffen was picked up as a free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000. Last season he split playing time with 2nd year man Rodney Bailey, but still recorded 22 tackles, 3 sacks, and 1 fumble recovery. Next season Kimo could lose his job all together to Bailey.
Backup (Right): Rodney Bailey "B"
Bailey, who was a 6th round draft choice of the Steelers (Ohio State), came on strong in his second season. While replacing Kimo Von Oelhoffen on passing downs he registered 5.5 sacks and 24 tackles. 2003 Training Camp will be a very important time for Bailey, who looks to enter Heinz Field on September 7th against Baltimore as the starting right end.
If any top pass-rushing defensive ends are left when the Steelers pick, they could very well be wearing Black and Gold next season. Part of the problem with the Steelers secondary was that Pittsburgh was getting no pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and because of this teams were slashing the Steelers defense for huge gains on 3rd downs.
Starter: Casey Hampton "A"
When Steeler fans thinks of Casey Hampton, I'm sure a play that comes to their mind was when Hampton was running away from Bengals defenders after recovering a fumble in week 5. Aside from that play, Hampton is most noted for stuffing the run, something he does very well. Hampton, at 6 foot 1 and 320 pounds, just has to fall down and no one can run up the middle. Hampton totaled good numbers for a nose tackle in the 3-4 defense, racking up 2 sacks, and 41 tackles.
Backup: Kendrick Clancy "D"
Clancy, the week 1 starter in the 2001 season, was deactivated for most of the 2002 season in favor of defensive end Brett Keisel. Clancy suffered a total drop off from last season, playing in only 3 games and recording 1 tackle in those three games.
Reserve: Chris Hoke "?"
He hasn't played enough for me to make a judgment on him.
With Casey Hampton heading into his 3rd season, and the Steelers needing only one starting nose tackle, the Steelers probably won't make an attempt to draft a nose. They could pick one up as an undrafted free agent to compete with Hoke and Clancy for a backup job. So don't look for a nose tackle to be on the top of the Steelers' priorities.
Left and Right Outside Linebackers
Starter (Right): Joey Porter "A"
Porter led the team in tackles and made his first Pro Bowl appearance. Porter also tied with left outside linebacker Jason Gildon for the team lead in sacks (9). Joey is clearly the leader of the defense and when game day comes he is the one who is getting the defense up for the game.
Backup (Right): Justin Kurpeikis "?"
Kurpeikis was released when the Steelers were short at tight end, but was resigned when John Allred was healthy again. Kurpeikis was deactivated for most of the season, though.
Starter (Left): Jason Gildon "B"
After a very disappointing start, by the end of the season Gildon had tied right outside linebacker Joey Porter for the lead in sacks. Gildon took a lot of media and fan abuse after his slow start and eventually he responded to it, explaining that opposing offenses were double and triple teaming him, and calling out Steelers Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis and Head Coach Bill Cowher for changing what the Steelers did defensively in 2001. Gildon was asked to drop back and cover instead of rushing the quarterback. As the season wound down, Gildon's play stepped up heading into the playoffs.
Backup (Left): Clark Haggans "B"
Haggans took over the rush end spot after Kendrell Bell was injured in the preseason. He took the opportunity to show what he can do by gaining 6.5 sacks, and 26 tackles. Haggans came onto the field mostly for 3rd down situations, and next year his role on defense could be increased, as Jason Gildon gets older. Haggans was offered a RFA tender contract in the beginning of March but hasn't signed it yet.
Reserve (Left): James Harrison "?"
Harrison was only active for a few games, after being brought up from the practice squad.
The Steelers could draft an outside linebacker, but it will be late if they do. They have good young depth at this position.
Left and Right Middle Linebackers
Starter (Right): Kendrell Bell "A"
When Bell was healthy he was one of the top middle linebackers in the league; his presence on the field was unbelievable. When Bell missed most of the divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, Larry Foote just couldn't do what Bell could. If Kendrell Bell were in the game, Steve McNair wouldn't have been able to run around in the pocket as much. Even though Bell was injured most of the season he recorded 4 sacks and 50 tackles. Backup (Right): Larry Foote "B"
Larry Foote started the season for linebacker Kendrell Bell, who was troubled by a bad ankle. The same ankle would allow Foote to get significant playing time all season long. Foote, the Steelers 4th round pick out of Michigan, played in 12 games as a rookie, picking up 18 tackles, not including the 2 playoff games he played in. The Steelers now have good, young depth at the middle linebacker spot.
Starter (Left): James Farrior "B"
Farrior took over for Earl Holmes, who left the Steelers to go play for the Cleveland Browns before the start of the season. Farrior is not the run-stopping defender that Holmes was but is a more versatile athlete who can cover the run well, and defend the pass as well. James finished 3rd in tackles but had no sacks.
Backup (Left): Mike Jones "B" FREE AGENT
Jones rejoined his former team last season with all the injuries the Steelers had at the middle linebacker spot. Jones was not resigned at the end of the 2001 season and was quick to resign with them in the middle of the season. When Jones was in he called the plays and quickly learned any changes the Steelers had made to the defense for 2002. The only thing that troubled Jones was when he would call a Raider play in the huddle instead of a Steeler play. Jones was cut by the Raiders, in the preseason, and during games with the Steelers would sometimes confuse the terms between the two teams and call a Raiders play instead of a Steelers play.
If you think the Steelers will spend a 1st round pick, or any first day pick, on a middle linebacker, then you're going to be wrong. The Steelers have a lot of other needs other than a middle linebacker.
Left and Right Cornerbacks
Starter (Left): Chad Scott "C"
Scott was everything but consistent at his left corner spot this season. Scott stepped up when needed to, but still made bonehead mistakes, missing tackles and dropping passes that could've secured the game for the Steelers. Some Steeler fans think that Scott should move to a safety spot, but he has said publicly he will not move there. Chad Scott was second on the team with tackles, but would've had less had he deflected the pass rather then let the receiver catch it. Scott also only had 2 interceptions, which is a low for him.
2nd String (Left): Hank Poteat "C-"
Poteat lost his starting job of returning punts and returning kickoffs to rookies Antwaan Randle El, and Lee Mays. He was very lackluster at cornerback this season. Hank recorded only 8 tackles in 12 games.
Reserve (Left): Chidi Iwuoma "C"
Iwuoma made several plays on special teams and really showed a lot of effort, giving his all. When Iwuoma was injured, he practiced anyways because there was a chance he might get more play because Chad Scott was hurt.
Starter (Right): Dewayne Washington "C"
Washington was very average this season, perhaps costing the Steelers a chance to go to the AFC Championship game. Washington missed a very easy tackle by taking a bad angle. Then he hit Titans kicker Joe Nedney after he missed a game-winning field goal. The next play, Nedney made the kick and the Titans moved on. Washington might be reduced to playing in the dime and nickel packages next season if the Steelers use a first round pick on a cornerback, as many think. If this happens, Washington might also be expendable and cut after June 1st or next season.
Backup (Right): Deshea Townsend "B"
Townsend's play was consistent, playing in all 16 regular season games and starting in the final game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens. Townsend picked up 3 interceptions and had 34 tackles. Deshea could also get a shot at one of the starting spots next season, but it is most likely he will play nickel back and dime back for the most part next season.
The Steelers will look very closely at the cornerbacks in this year's draft. If anyone worth the 1st round pick is on the board you better believe the Steelers will select him. The Steelers seriously need to update their secondary. They gave up way too many big plays on 3rd downs with inconsistent play. There is a very good chance that Pittsburgh will select a cornerback with either their 1st round or 2nd round picks.
Starter (Free): Brent Alexander "B"
Alexander is the leader of the secondary. Brent, who is the oldest of the players in the secondary, showed good awareness making 4 interceptions, 75 tackles, and 1 sack. If anyone played their heart out this season it was Alexander, who made mistakes but still played solid for most of the season.
Starter (Strong): Lee Flowers "C-" FREE AGENT
Flowers played average all season, not making good breaks on the ball and too slow to do what the Steelers were trying to have him do. The reason Flowers was not offered a contract was because of his lack of speed and coverage skills. He just was too old for the Steelers defense, and wasn't making plays.
Backup (Strong): Chris Hope "?"
Hope only played a little bit, but showed promise. He had good speed on special teams, but didn't play enough for me to judge him.
This is another area that the Steelers will address via the NFL Draft. The Steelers are looking at several safeties, but also could make a move to sign Sammy Knight or Kwamie Lassiter. Knight was already in for a visit and Lassiter will visit sometime next week. If the Steelers don't make a move in free agency to sign a secondary player, it's almost a sure thing they will draft one with the 1st round pick.
Punter: Josh Miller "B"
Miller was hurt for the remainder of the season and put on injured reserve. Even when Miller was healthy he was still making some poor kicks. It could've been just a nagging injury or a fluke, but Miller will be the team's punter next season.
Don't look for a kicker or punter to be taken by the Steelers in the 2003 Draft.
Editor's Note: 12th Man articles are those submitted by members of the Steel City Sports online community.