The biggest puzzle

Pittsburgh opened its month-long coaches sessions the past week and began tinkering with a defense that slumped last season and cost the Steelers a shot at the Super Bowl.

The biggest puzzle coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis must solve is what to do with linebacker Kendrell Bell. They want to get him on the field on passing downs for the first time in his three years in the pros. That will require a change in the way they defend against the pass, which many will say is not a bad thing since they slumped to No. 20 on pass defense last season.

Bell, playing inside linebacker only on first and second downs, was the NFL defensive rookie of the year in 2001. The Steelers wanted to keep him on the field at all times last year, so they put him at right rush end in their dime passing defense. An early, severe ankle sprain caused them to scrap that and use him on running downs only in 2002 again.

They also have come to the conclusion that Bell's forte is working from a stand-up position behind the line of scrimmage, not as a 3-point rush end. In their dime defense -- which they've used almost exclusively in passing situations since Cowher became coach in 1992 -- there's room for only one stand-up linebacker.

Last year, outside linebacker Joey Porter moved into that role -- once played by Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes -- and he played it well, helping him make the Pro Bowl for the first time. Still, it would be easy for the Steelers to move Porter back to right rush end where he also excelled in the dime defense, and put Bell in the middle.

There's just one big problem with that. Bell is a crummy pass defender, something that Porter does well. That leaves that move out. So where to put Bell? They could always try him again at right rush end, but the Steelers are hoping that rookie Alonzo Jackson, their second-round pick from Florida State, will fill that role.

More than likely, they will change their pass defense to fit Bell in it. Instead of a dime, they will try the nickel, using five defensive backs, two linebackers and four down linemen. In that defense, they will have Porter deeper in the middle and Bell standing up behind the line, moving him around from right to left.

There are potential risks and rewards with that defense. It gives the Steelers another good pass rusher on passing downs. Bell has such quickness and a burst that he explodes on quarterbacks. That asset strengthens when the offense does not know where he might be rushing from.

However, it also puts a premium on the rush either getting to the quarterback or forcing him to throw the ball quickly. The Steelers secondary wasn't the keenest at covering in the dime last season and in the nickel, they will have one fewer cover man.

Offenses spread things out against Pittsburgh last season and, using three-step drops, went to a quick passing game. It proved to be an Achilles' heel for what had been the NFL's top-ranked defense in 2001. Whether the addition of Bell will help that passing defense is one of the main topics this spring. Anything, though, would be better than how they defended the pass in 2002.


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