Tuesday Morning Blitz

A transition of sorts is taking place in Pittsburgh, just not the one you think. With the semi-permanent move to an immobile pocket-style quarterback; the emergence of not one but three highly-effective receiving threats; and the de-emphasis of the greatest big back in league history, one would expect the St. Louis Rams to emerge from the Steelers locker room this fall.

Not happening.

Rather than the high-flying, footballs-raining-from-the-sky, just-doesn't-work-in-December aerial assault, Mike Mularkey and Co. are instead pursuing a lethal balance. Gone -- not forever, but for now -- is the grinding, bruising Jerome Bettis-led ground attack. In its place will be a running game featuring the smallish Amos Zereoue, who despite his ample biceps and squatty build is certainly no power runner. You don't just line up with a third tackle and pound the diminutive one up the middle 25 times per game. Instead, the three-receiver set will be a staple, creating space for the shifty fifth-year scatback.

Previously the philosophy was getting a hat on a hat and allowing Bettis to reach smaller second-level defenders over whom he enjoyed a significant physical advantage. The opponent's counter-philosophy was to bring an eighth man down into the box hoping to win the numbers game, a strategy that often failed. The aforementioned third tackle, tight end Mark Bruener, has essentially been a run-blocking specialist, but his career here may well end in two weeks. All signs point to his June 1st release, though it is hardly a salary cap necessity.

In his place is former Buffalo Bills standout Jay Riemersma, the only significant free agent addition the team has made this offseason. Riemersma has earned his coin to date in the passing game, and is expected to bring that dimension to the Steelers offense in this his eighth NFL season. The threat of an accomplished passcatcher at tight end -- a novel idea in the post-Eric Green era -- should deter opposing defenses from utilizing these loaded fronts, even against a standard offensive set. Whether that is the case, and Riemersma is the player for Pittsburgh that he was against them, is yet to be determined.

The Good

If he is, well then all is cake. Riemersma has been very effective in his role snagging 204 passes for just over 2,300 yards and 20 touchdowns. Truth be told, the staunch refusal to utilize the tight end in Pittsburgh was always a two-headed monster; neither Bruener nor the quite lame Jerame Tuman could get open consistently, and when they did, Kordell Stewart could hardly find them. So the Jay and Tommy Show should change all of that, right?

The Bad

Maybe. Look, Jay Riemersma is no young receiving stud. In fact, the belief in Buffalo the last couple of years is that Reimersma has lost a step, or even two. He is just nine months younger than Bruener and his yards-per-reception has steadily declined from 13.4 in 1999 to 10.9 last season. That still beats Bruener though, who's averaged double-digit production just twice in his career on half as many receptions. So I guess the question is, how much does Jay have left?

The Ugly

If the answer is not much, then where does that leave the Steelers? One would think Riemersma would still be more effective than Bruener, and forte or not, could he honestly block worse than Tuman? Cynics will say that Bruener is likely to miss half the season anyway, and even a 50% decline in Jay's production would be an improvement; sadly, they'd be right about the latter, and possibly even the former. Problem is, Riemersma is here for three years, not one. And his salary increases a million per each of the next two seasons.

The Outlook

This is no marriage, but rather an affair. Head coach Bill Cowher has always been enamored with Riemersma, and now the two are together at last. How long depends on next year's draft and of course, the production of Riemersma and Tuman. The Steelers had a need this year. They identified it, and they aggressively addressed it by moving up eleven slots and drafting superstar-to-be Troy Polamalu. If they follow the same philosophy next April, then the kid they must absolutely pursue is University of Miami tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. Following the Kevin Colbert trend of drafting offense 1-2 in odd-numbered years, Junior Winslow -- a junior, by the way -- would most certainly fit the bill, and can be paired with either a tackle or running back in round two; who that guy may be, is anyone's guess. Winslow, however, may well be the best player in college football at any position, and would give the Steelers a threat every bit equal to that of Baltimore's Todd Heap, Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, and the New York Giants' rookie sensation Jeremy Shockey. In the spirit of seeing how the other half lives, go get him, Kevin.

Random thoughts

:: Watch closely the contract negotiations of the Rams' Torry Holt. Holt is entering the final year of his contract and is seeking a significant pay raise. The Steelers will face a similar situation next summer with receiver Plaxico Burress. A huge season by Burress, a near given, will put him in the same earnings bracket as Holt.

:: He's worth every penny, too.

:: What then, do we do with Hines Ward? Sure he's signed through 2005, but he's playing beyond his current contract, is producing bigger numbers than Burress, and may well continue to do so. Such a wonderful problem to have, no?

:: And before you bring up Tommy Maddox and his contract situation, show me Maddox playing in Hawaii once, never mind twice, otherwise the point is moot. I like Tommy, but he is no franchise quarterback, just a guy who gets the job done.

Let this one marinate …

The Steelers have a group of guys along the offensive line who are playing out the final year of their contracts this season. Tackles Marvel Smith and Mathias Nkwenti, guard Keydrick Vincent, and center Chukky Okobi will all be free agents of one kind or another in 2004. You want to try telling me that next year's draft won't have an offensive flavor?

Geez, is that a good thing?

Donny Drummond

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