Tuesday Morning Blitz

The Steelers secondary was attacked more times than all but five NFL teams in 2002 -- a whopping 573 times, or 35.8 times per game. The result was the 20th-ranked passing defense, and a million or more broken hearts. Lost in the mix was the top-ranked run defense, and perhaps the sole reason why all of those passes were flying in the first place. <br><br> <b>Third Quarter: Ground Out</b>

The Pittsburgh Steelers are synonymous with running the football and defending the run, and with equal prowess, no less. The third quarter will require them to do one or the other, or perhaps both, if they are to party in Reliant Stadium on February 1st.

The Running Backs

Veteran Jerome Bettis returns for a twelfth campaign, his eighth as a Steeler; a return that was in doubt mere months ago. Bettis, never healthy in 2002, started just eleven games and amassed his lowest rushing yard totals since 1995, his final season with St. Louis Rams. Scatback Amos Zereoue split time with Bettis and recorded career highs in carries (193), rushing yards (762), and touchdowns (4). Oft-injured Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala played in just eight games and is on the bubble.

The Good

The Steelers are deep here. Bettis is a future Hall-of-Fame inductee, and when healthy is a load for even the best defenses. A prideful man whose roster spot was in jeopardy, Bettis is determined to return to the level that saw him leading the league in rushing after eleven games in 2001. By all accounts, Bettis is in great shape. Zereoue was signed to a generous contract last spring and is a key element to offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's offense. Fuamatu-Ma'afala may be the best runner of them all, and can wear down a defense. The contrasting styles provide a dangerous mix.

The Bad

"Show me," is what Steelers fans are proclaiming. Bettis is often said to be in great shape, but until a svelte, rejuvenated Bus begins tearing up defenses once again, its just fluff. Zereoue, while supposedly more explosive than Bettis, has poor vision and loses yards far too often. For all of his talent, Fuamatu-Ma'afala is a china doll, and an expensive one at that. He'll count over $900, 000 in 2003, the last of a three-year restricted free agent deal signed in 2001. Should he fail to hold off second-year back Verron Haynes this summer, he'll be cut. Haynes, however, was a disappointment last season.

The Ugly

Without Fu in the rotation, or a healthy Bettis, the Steelers running game is in dire straits. Zereoue is a nice little player, but he's no feature back, and certainly not a player you can grind down the clock with. Haynes is a man without a position until proven otherwise. Drafted as a fullback, he's now buried on the depth chart behind Fuamatu-Ma'afala. After Haynes, the Steelers have two pure blocking backs in former undrafted free agent Dan Kreider and the massive J.T. Wall. Wall is the more athletic of the two, but is certainly no feature runner. Should Bettis continue to decline this season, he and his $4.75 million cap hit will be gone next June.

The Outlook

Despite the grim picture, the ground attack could thrive in 2003. After that, it's anyone's guess. Bettis has been working with track guru Bob Kersee, and is in excellent condition heading into camp. Zereoue is a year removed from the frightening liver ailment that caused him to lose fifteen pounds last spring. The heated competition between Haynes and Fu should have both players at the top of their game; a good thing as both will be retained. 2004 will bring changes though. The front office was very interested Penn State's Heisman-winning back Larry Johnson in the first round of April's draft, but opted for the trade-up and Southern Cal safety Troy Polamalu. Fuamatu-Ma'afala is likely playing his final season in Pittsburgh, and Bettis may well retire. With just Zereoue and Haynes returning, a back in round one next spring is almost a given.

The Linebackers

There is no better group of starting linebackers in professional football than Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell, James Farrior, and Jason Gildon. Porter, Bell, and Gildon have each been to the Pro Bowl. Farrior was an absolute steal, signing as an unrestricted free agent last spring for pocket change after leading the New York Jets in tackles. Teams spread out this group -- already missing a dinged-up Bell -- repeatedly in 2002, ultimately forcing half of them off the field when the Steelers went to the dime. To combat this spread-‘em-out philosophy, defensive coordinator Tim Lewis will incorporate a Tampa Bay-influenced nickel package on first and second down. Question is, do the Steelers have a cover linebacker good enough to pull it off?

The Good

Derrick Brooks makes the Buccaneers defense what it is -- the league's best. Who then, plays Brooks in the Steelers version? Porter's stats compare favorably with Brooks, and while he didn't score a defensive touchdown -- Brooks scored three -- he registered nine quarterback sacks to Brooks' one. Porter, however, may instead be filling Simeon Rice's role as a nickel rusher at right defensive end, leaving Farrior, the team's next best cover backer, to play Brooks. Farrior blossomed in a similar role in Herm Edwards' cover two scheme. The dynamic, and now healthy, Bell is the wildcard in all of this.

The Bad

If there is a unit on defense that mirrors the quality of the offense's receiving corps, it is this one, certainly. Unfortunately, it is equally as top-heavy. The linebacking depth, both inside and out, is at best unsettling. After netting six sacks in the first eight games, Clark Haggans fell off the map with just a half-sack the rest of the way. His foray into restricted free agency was met with lukewarm interest. Second-round rookie Alonzo Jackson must make the transition from college DE to pro OLB, and has yet to play a single practice down in pads. Inside, Larry Foote struggled as an undersized and overwhelmed rookie, but shows some promise if he can get stronger.

The Ugly

Like the receiving corps, this unit must soon deal with the retention of its brightest young star -- Kendrell Bell. Bell, two years removed from league defensive-rookie-of-the-year honors, enters the final year of his initial contract next spring. There is already a glut of salary cap dollars committed to this unit; Porter and Farrior hit the cap at a combined $5 million, and Gildon alone counts another $4.1 million. The figure for that trio will increase to nearly $10.8 million in 2004. While Porter and Gildon are signed through 2006 and 2007 respectively, newly acquired special teamer Clint Kriewaldt is the only other linebacker under contract for 2005.

The Outlook

The Steelers struck gold with Bell, and while he still struggles with pass recognition, there is no denying his talent. Expect an extension to be the highlight of next year's offseason. Gildon, on the other hand, is noticeably on the downside of his career. Porter has surpassed him as the team's best OLB, and if Jackson pans out, Jason will be released early in 2005. Lost in the Bell contract debate is the possible extension of Farrior, whose contract also expires in 2004. Keeping the tandem of Bell and Farrior together would be the ideal. Foote, a restricted free agent in 2005 and likely retained, would then solidify the interior rotation. Unless Jackson tanks, it is unlikely an early draft pick will be used at this position. However, since Haggans is an unrestricted free agent next spring, at least one second-day selection will be of the classic tweener variety.

Random thoughts

:: In 2002, the Steelers allowed 216.2 passing yards per game in 2002. The New York Jets (218.1), Oakland Raiders (220.4), and Tennessee Titans (221.2) -- all AFC playoff teams -- allowed more. Why then does it seem like the Steelers are the only ones with question marks?

:: In 2002, the Steelers led the league in time of possession, or rather tied for the lead with the Titans. A bad finish by Dewayne Washington in the divisional playoffs sent them to Oakland and the Steelers back to Pittsburgh. Or perhaps it was the near thirteen-minute TOP advantage the Titans enjoyed in that game. Go figure.

:: In 2002, the Steelers finished first overall in rushing defense (85.9), due in part to their opponents attempting a league-low 22.4 attempts-per-game. Still, Tim's troops did their part allowing just 3.8 yards-per-carry, or 3.6 inches more per attempt than the league-leading Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens. With a year to prepare, do you really think teams will pass all over the Steelers again?

Let this one marinate …

For the second straight year, few roster spots are up for grabs. The five 2003 draft picks are almost guaranteed a spot, as every one of them will be counted on next season, if not immediately. An undrafted free agent may surprise. Right tackle and strong safety will see new faces, but that's about it. You can count on one hand the significant departures from the Steelers team that was knocking on the door of an AFC Championship in 2001. So what then is missing? Could it be desire? The infectious fire of a few good men? Let's hope. If that's all it is, the Rooneys will certainly need a bigger display case. If it's the coach, they may as well cancel the order.

Donny Drummond

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