A very special draft

This year, the Steelers drafted a defensive back in the first round. Clearly, there was a hole at strong safety. Last year, the Steelers drafted an offensive guard in the first round. Rich Tylski was no longer a Steeler and there was a need for a starter. However, these were mostly luxury picks and have come at a heavy price. That price has been, at least until this year, a trip to the Super Bowl.

Just how bad was the Steelers pass defense in 2002? Apparently, it was bad enough to trade away two rounds of draft picks to move up and grab Troy Polamalu. However, was the pass defense really that bad?

"Everyone talks about our pass defense," Bill Cowher said at the post-draft press conference. "Okay, now all of a sudden in one year's time our personnel got bad.

"We sat back and reassessed after two games, and we sat there, and if you look at yardage we were 20th, but look at yards per pass, we were in the Top 10. We did some things. We didn't give up a lot of big plays. We gave up too many mediocre plays. Then we got into the playoffs. Chad Scott was playing with one hand, losing Mike Logan in the second game hurt us."

Over the course of one off-season, the Steelers pass defense suddenly became a major liability? Cowher is cautioning everyone that this so called conventional wisdom that a leaky pass defense cost the Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl overstates the case.

The Steelers narrowly lost to the Tennessee Titans in overtime missing Mike Logan, Kendrell Bell, and a healthy Chad Scott. Is it any wonder the Steelers gave up so many points? Right there is your difference between 2001 and 2002. Still, the result was the same. The Steelers did not go to the Super Bowl, albeit this time one more game removed from the prize.

Cowher is probably right; the pass defense couldn't get that much worse in the course of just one year with mostly the same players starting. Of course, that cuts both ways. A team probably cannot get that much better in just one year with most of the same players starting.

The Achilles heel for the Steelers in 2001 was special teams. As a result of the poor play, the Steelers lost in the AFC Championship to the New England Patriots and Cowher subsequently fired special teams coach Jay Hayes.

Did the Steelers fix the problem for 2002?

If you listened to all the off-season hype over the past few months, you might be excused for thinking that the Steelers were past all the troubles on special teams. The problem, clearly, was with the pass defense.

Besides the fact that Larry Foote was completely overwhelmed against the Titans, the special teams unit may have had the biggest hand in the Steelers poor playoff showing.

PK Jeff Reed mercifully replaced the woeful Todd Peterson, who obviously did little to help Steeler fans forget Kris Brown. However, Reed missed his only field goal chance in a playoff game against the Cleveland Browns and then missed an opportunity in a game that the Steelers lost by three points. P Tom Rouen, in for an injured Josh Miller, had a horrible game and gave the Titans great field position all day. But the real killer was two long kickoff returns by John Simon.

The first big return came in the fourth quarter, just after the Steelers pulled ahead 3 points on a Reed field goal. Simon returned the ensuing kickoff 38 yards, setting up the Titans close to mid-field. Tennessee needed only 34 yards to set up the game-tying field goal, which Joe Nedney delivered. The Steelers would never see the lead again.

In overtime, the Titans won the toss and, of course, elected to receive. Simon was able to return the kickoff 21 yards, and put the Titans just three first downs away from field goal range. Granted, the Steelers pass defense failed to hold in this case, but keep in mind they were tired and down a few important starters. This was not the same defensive personnel of 2001, which often compensated for the poor play of special teams.

You should also keep in mind the long returns surrendered to players such as Dennis Northcutt or the inopportune fumbles by Antwaan Randle El in other games, including the playoff match up against the Browns. The Steelers fielded one of the worst coverage units in all of football.

Instead of asking if the Steelers have improved their pass defense (or even pass rush), we should be asking if the Steelers have improved special teams.

Part of the problem is the current fad of playing rookies in order to win now. What this has done, at least to the Steelers, is strangle some of talent pool that used to sit on special teams for at least a season or two. Lee Flowers and Jason Gildon were both special teams aces before graduating to the starting position. Furthermore, roster spots might be filled by special-teams-only-players, such as Fred McAfee.

A number of things have occurred that have led to the demise of special teams in Pittsburgh. First, Tom Donahoe and his late round wonders were forced out of town. Tommy D. seemed to have a knack for landing players that would excel on special teams and then work their way up to first-string offense or defense. However, Day 1 picks would also be loaned to special teams, Cowher preferring to red-shirt most of his rookies.

That's a bygone era and now first and second round picks are often not risked on coverage units. Do you think Troy Polamalu, who would be a special teams terror, will be allowed to sustain an injury chasing down a kick returner? If you aren't sure of the answer, just recall how many games Kendrell Bell played on coverage after he got a concussion busting a wedge.

Give Cowher some credit. He appears to have recognized the problem. While we were all busy discussing pass defense, Cowher quietly mapped the road to better special teams.

The Steelers first got rid of the dead weight, Tom Rouen and Todd Peterson. The next move was in free agency, signing LB Clint Kriewaldt. Welcome back to town, Fred McAfee. The other free agent signings have been for the offense, interestingly enough. Sure, the Steelers tried to sign Dexter Jackson, but that was all about the need for speed.

Which brings me to this year's draft. If you look at it up and down, save Brian St. Pierre, the Steelers drafted players that would excel on special teams. These are intense players that crave contact. There is also speed to burn, especially among the undrafted free agents. Chidi Iwuoma and Brett Keisel will be joined by Alonzo Jackson, Ike Taylor, Russell Stuvaints, Dan Rumishek, and J.T. Wall. Heck, given the need to upgrade, Cowher may bend a bit and play Polamalu on kick coverage.

Don't forget the kicking game. Cowher hasn't. PK Jonathan Ruffin will push Jeff Reed in camp and P Mike Hayes has enjoyed more than a few college games with a punting average over 50-yards. Josh Miller looked spooked by the blocked punts and may have been hurt trying to avoid the rush. Miller looked like a befuddled Kurt Warner, after the line fell apart in St. Louis, often coming up way short of his career average before heading to the IR.

The Steelers did not bring in a large UDFA class to merely compensate for a low-numbers draft. Cowher is fishing for special teams talent. Long term projects Jackson and Taylor are expected to lead a revamped coverage unit that will give Cowher's defense some room to breathe. Remember, you don't need big pass plays to score if you start the drive at midfield. Every player drafted is expected to contribute this coming season, on special teams.

--Jim Russell

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