Tuesday Morning Blitz

With feet planted firmly on the ground and Disney now in the rearview mirror, my sights this week are again trained on the Super Bowl aspirations of the team of choice. The Steelers have been close, and some say their window of opportunity is closing rapidly, though that is certainly up for debate. One thing is certain, however, whether by air, by land, or by D, so long as they get there -- and win -- none of us will care. <br><br> <b>Second Quarter: Passing Fancy?</b>

The offensive and defensive lines now imposing their ample will on the opponent, the second quarter opens with a pass -- certainly both the bane and the buoy of the Steelers 2002 season. Which holds true for this season, and seasons to come, bears some consideration.

The Quarterbacks

Gone is the blood pressure-raising, ulcer-feeding, can't-hit-the-broadside-of-a-barn play of Kordell Stewart. In its place, the nail-biting, turnover-producing, curse-in-front-of-your-kids play of Tommy Maddox. That's progress, in this neck of the woods anyway. Stewart and Maddox are as different as different could be, but as much as some things may change, they ultimately stay the same. The designated fan-favorite, a role Maddox relished for one-and-a-half seasons, is of course the back-up, veteran Charlie Batch.

The Good

Maddox played well in 2002, providing for some of the most exciting finishes in recent memory. Despite his limitations, Maddox's ability to understand, execute, and play within offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's offense is clearly an asset. Batch has started 46 NFL games and offers experienced veteran depth. Brian St. Pierre, the team's fifth round choice this April, is adept at throwing the ball to a spot, and more importantly, the right spot, much like Maddox. Once the rookie St. Pierre agrees to terms, the top three quarterbacks will be under contract through at least 2004.

The Bad

While Maddox certainly has the confidence of his teammates, his penchant for throwing the ball into coverage has further grayed the hair of Steelers coaches and fans alike. In the fifteen regular season games Maddox played all or part of last year, he threw 16 interceptions, then added three more in the Steelers two playoff games. While his gunslinger mentality has resulted in a number of memorable plays for Pittsburgh, Tommy simply does not have the gun to back it up. Batch is right there with him, having thrown 27 INTs in the last twenty-five games he has played.

The Ugly

As always, the back-up QB in Pittsburgh has his fans. Be careful what you wish for, as the next pass Charlie Batch throws in an NFL game will be his first since December 2, 2001. An injury to Maddox may well end the Steelers season, as well as any quest for the elusive fifth ring. Maddox thrived as the savior coming off the bench last season but has no such comfort zone this year. He is expected to reduce his turnovers and improve his overall play in his second season as a starter. In fact, his play in 2003 will directly affect his contract situation in 2004. Maddox is signed through 2006, but for back-up jingle. Even Batch will earn more before starting incentives are accrued. Should his play regress, it is unlikely the front office will be willing to renegotiate his deal, paving the way for a likely holdout next spring.

The Outlook

The argument can be made that the Steelers have little more than two back-up QBs in Maddox and Batch. In fact, that has been argued here in this space. A strong year from Maddox would render that point moot, however. Batch, the homegrown homeboy from Homestead, will never see the field so long as Maddox remains upright and conscious. He is merely a stopgap until St. Pierre is ready to step into the back-up role, and has been paid accordingly. Ideally, Saint challenges Batch in 2004, and Maddox in 2005, just in time for a contract extension of his own. He'll first have to fend off camp arm Tim Levcik, who like Charlie Homestead, has his fans.

The Receivers

Hines Ward has established himself as one of the elite receivers in the league. His performance in 2002 was off-the-charts and anything close this season will again land him in Hawaii, his third consecutive trip. His running mate Plaxico Burress may well join him, having had a breakout year of his own last season. Manning the slot is 2002 second-rounder Antwaan Randle El. Newly-acquired Jay Riemersma and veteran Mark Bruener are the top two tight ends.

The Good

Ward has over 200 catches the last two years for more than 2,300 yards and 16 touchdowns. He is a team leader and was the team's co-MVP in 2002. Burress is respected in the locker room despite his publicly perceived immaturity. He is also one of the most feared players in the league at his position. His 1,300 receiving yards in 2002 does not include the 123 yards of defensive holding and pass interference penalties he drew as overmatched defenders clutched and grabbed in a futile effort to defend him. Despite the occasional drop and a number of ill-timed fumbles, Randle El was the Steelers most reliable pass catcher and the third-best in the league when it came to converting his opportunities. As a rookie he caught 72.3% of the 65 passes thrown his way -- ideal numbers for a third-down specialist. The Steelers are loaded at this position and have the promising speedster Lee Mays in the wings. All are signed through at least 2004.

The Bad

Burress enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2004 and will cost a bundle to retain. His presence guarantees single coverage for the other receivers on the field. While Randle El may be un-coverable in the slot, he is an ill fit outside. In the event of an injury to either Ward or Burress, the inexperienced Mays would be forced to start. Riemersma, a pass catching tight end, has been added to a position that has rarely been involved in the passing game in recent years. His presence may well force the over-compensated Bruener off the roster, should he refuse a proposed paycut.

The Ugly

Behind those four is journeyman Chris Doering and a slew of undrafted free agents. The Steelers receiving corps is as good or better than any in the league at the top of the depth chart, but the rest is filled with huge question marks. Bruener's release would leave Jerame Tuman as the team's designated run-blocking TE; Tuman, despite weighing 270 lbs, has never been much of a blocker. Or a receiver, for that matter. Furthermore, Ward is grossly underpaid for a player of his stature; any contract extended to Burress will certainly have a ripple effect.

The Outlook

The Steelers rarely draft in the top ten, and when they do, it behooves them to retain those players, especially when they are as dynamic as Burress. As mentioned last week, Burress will stay, absolutely. Mays may surprise a lot of people this season, and his development would solidify the position for the next few years. Ward's deal will likely need to be renegotiated and doing so may provide the cap relief with which the team secures Burress. Randle El is already among the best slot receivers in the game and will be much more involved as a jack-of-all-trades in Mularkey's offense this season. Bruener is expected to accept a reduced salary and remain a Steeler at least for this season. Tight end will likely be considered high in the draft next spring.

The Secondary

After a tumultuous season, Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington return as the starting cornerbacks. Gone is the pedestrian Lee Flowers, and for the most part, little else. Deshea Townsend returns as the nickelback, and Mike Logan, the dimeback. The Steelers added rookie strong safety Troy Polamalu in the first round of April's draft, and a corner, Louisiana-Lafayette's Ivan Taylor, in the fourth.

The Good

Corners Chad and Dewayne were hardly the problem last season, at least that's the opinion here. Both are very solid corners built to play the run as well as a physical brand of coverage. Flowers presence forced each off the ball to compensate, and they were summarily burned. In stark contrast, Polamalu offers blazing speed to a position being reshaped league-wide. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis will press his corners more this season, something Scott has begged for repeatedly. They should flourish as a result.

The Bad

The cerebral Brent Alexander returns and all signs point to him once again manning the centerfield position. In the wings is 2001 third-rounder Chris Hope, a former Academic All-American at Florida State. Hope would add much-needed range at free safety, and though it has been rumored he is expected to start, the coaching staff feels that while they couldn't win with two slow safeties, they will be fine with just Alexander. A huge mistake in my opinion; start the kid already.

The Ugly

Scott, Washington, and Townsend are on the slate for a combined $10 million, with Alexander and Logan adding another $2+ million to the secondary's payroll. Logan is still not healthy after a knee injury ended his post-season, and Alexander is getting neither younger nor faster. Both will be gone next season, and Washington may be forced to take a significant paycut or be released as well. Hank Poteat, who has been nothing more than a very average punt returner, may make the roster by default one more time.

The Outlook

The Steelers need nothing more than to have hit a homerun with both Polamalu and Taylor. Hope should push Alexander hard and, at worst, provides excellent depth at both safety positions. The rookie Taylor may find himself penciled-in as the starting corner opposite Scott next spring, and at minimum, will replace the departed Logan in the dime. Townsend, while too small to play the outside, is a strong third corner. Still, the Steelers secondary will need an additional infusion of youth in 2004. Young and cheap is the mantra here.

Random thoughts

:: When Marvel Smith's pending contract extension was mentioned in this space last week it was totally unexpected that a new deal would come the next day. Maybe Hope will be named the starter tomorrow, eh? Or not.

:: There is no valid reason why the Steelers should consider the injured and academically-ineligible former Yellowjacket running back Tony Hollings in the upcoming supplemental draft. If the team needs a running back, it will be next year that it becomes an issue, and the spring when it gets addressed. Hollings will likely land in Dallas or some other running back-starved NFL city.

:: It is July, finally. In the next few weeks, the remaining Steelers rookies will be signed, and some other folks will be cut. Cry not for them; none will earn this town another ring. The guys who make it through August, however, just may.

Let this one marinate …

Jerome Bettis was a certain Hall-of-Fame candidate, first ballot even. He was leading the league in rushing and his Steelers were running roughshod over the NFL toward the fifth league championship in franchise history, and the first of his 10-year career. He was aglow in this, his finest season, and life was good. Then, just like that, it was all gone. First, a groin injury that took forever to heal, then a scandal. His image tarnished, his body never in shape, this once-adored Pittsburgh icon had lost the faith of his fans and ultimately, his coach. In three-plus weeks "The Bus" will roll into Latrobe on a healthy set of wheels, but missing a few rows of seats, particularly around the middle. He'll don a huge smile as always, but he's pissed. Pity the fool that gets in his way.

Donny Drummond
SteelCitySports.com

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