Coordinators on changes and perceptions

The Steelers' coaching sessions are melding into this week's minicamp, meaning players will once again run through their offensive and defensive fundamentals as determined by the respective coordinators. <br><br> There are also changes being considered. On defense, Tim Lewis admits to taking the copycat approach with some of his new looks. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, on the other hand, hopes opponents believe the scuttlebutt about his so-called philosophical changes.

"I certainly hope people think we're a throwing football team," Mularkey said. "We'll run it down their throat if they do."

The perception that the Steelers have become a throwing team began early last season when mobile quarterback Kordell Stewart was replaced by pocket passer Tommy Maddox. The Steelers went on to gain only 36 percent of their yardage on the ground, the lowest run-pass ratio since 1995 and their second-lowest under Coach Bill Cowher.

Since then, the Steelers have made one offensive change: They're poised to start Jay Riemersma instead of Mark Bruener at tight end. It'll bolster the receiving game and probably weaken the point of attack in the run game.

However, while the run game appears to be moving in the direction of a one-back set with Amos Zereoue, Jerome Bettis is in much better shape than he was a year ago. Bettis could give Zereoue a better battle for the starting job than had been envisioned at the end of last season. Also, the Steelers used one of only five draft picks on a huge fullback. It indicates the Steelers are from from abandoning their tradition of power offense.

"I don't see it as other people do," Mularkey said. "I just felt we were in different circumstances [last year] than we were the year before. We had to throw the ball more because of circumstances."

So what changes does the innovative Mularkey have in mind this season? The coaching sessions were his working laboratory, but Mularkey called his fiddling just that.

"Maybe there are some new little wrinkles on each play, maybe at a position we'll try something different," he said. "Sometimes you're trying to test it to see what it looks like, find out if it's good or bad before you go to training camp."

Lewis also engineered some trial runs and likes what he's seen. The Steelers will use more five-defensive backs, or nickel, alignments this season, much like those used by the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"When you watched the Super Bowl and you watched the games Tampa played in all year, it didn't matter really what they saw. They were able to play nickel versus any set," Lewis said. "Versus regular people, two-tight end sets, three-tight end sets, they used their nickel and they were very successful with it. So nickel has to be a very versatile set for us. It has to be a versatile defensive front for us. You have to be able to stop the run and the pass and so we added a nickel back on the field, an extra cornerback, and so we feel pretty good about matching up against 3-wide sets. At the same time, if they keep a tight end on the field we've got some bigger guys out there who can stop the run also."

One of those big guys could be nose tackle Casey Hampton, who ended the 2002 season on a high note.

"He's going to have to be a pass-rusher, and he's developing his skill here," Lewis said. "We're finally getting a chance to see it, since we've been so dime-oriented. But he can do it."

Of course, the nickel would also include Kendrell Bell. If he were healthy, Bell might've forced the Steelers into more nickel last season.

"We never had the package. We never really developed the package. When we go against multiple-receiver sets we've always been a dime team," Lewis said. "People want to know about nickel now because Tampa won the Super Bowl and they ran a lot of it. People want to know about spread because Oakland and New England had success with it. Football's a copycat game. Whoever has success, whatever they're doing people want to do a little bit of that. After the Baltimore game, you'll be able to tell me what everybody's going to run this year."

Jim Wexell

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