Defense chips in

For years, the Steelers' defense was one constant the team could count upon through thick and thin. But after a season in which the team fell from fourth to 20th in the league against the pass, and allowed 30 or more points eight times -- including the playoffs -- the Steelers defensive players are a humbled group.

A year after riding their defense to the AFC Championship game, the Steelers fell apart defensively as team after team threw the ball effectively against them. And as head coach Bill Cowher predicted earlier this week, the team's defense and its coaching staff arrived here at St. Vincent College for training camp with a very large chip on their shoulders after their 2002 performance.

"I think Coach Cowher said something in his press conference the other day about our defense having something to prove, and ‘I think the guys have a little chip on their shoulder' and so do I," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "It will be interesting."

Interesting to say the least.

In the healthy little competition that goes back and forth between the Steelers' offensive and defensive units, the offense -- which ranks as one of the most potent in the NFL -- enters training camp with what looks to be a big advantage over the defense. But even after so many seasons of that being the other way around, the defensive players aren't making any excuses.

"We feel like we underachieved last year. We could have done a lot better," said nose tackle Casey Hampton. "We're going to come in here and play a lot better than we did last year."

"We know what we can do. We just made too many mistakes. We just need to get out on the field and do a better job of executing."

That had better be the case because as things now stand, the team has only one new starter penciled into its defense with veteran Mike Logan replacing Lee Flowers at strong safety. The team also added Troy Polamalu in the first round of the draft at that position, which should help the team's depth when it brings extra defensive backs on the field.

"We have looked at the tapes because everyone wants to know what happened to us," said Logan, who is recovered from offseason knee surgery. "We just had some technique breakdowns. We gave up a lot of deep passes, which we usually don't do. And I think that will be easily rectified if we can get back to the basics."

Fixing those breakdowns and adding a few new wrinkles will be the team's primary focus of this training camp because with few additions to the defense, the onus is on the group of players the team now has to get better or for the team to go in another direction next season.

"I feel we've got to have the type of attitude that it's now or never," said cornerback Dewayne Washington, one of four starters on the team's defense who is over 30 years old. "If we're going to do it with the group of guys we've got we've got to do it right now."

Keeping 2001 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Kendrell Bell on the field on passing downs is one thing the Steelers feel will help. So will the addition of speed that Logan and Polamalu bring in place of Flowers.

But there is still a lot of work to be done if the team's defense hopes to get back to where it was in the 2001 season.

"Obviously 2001 was a great season for us," Washington said. "We're two years removed from that. We've got high expectations not only to get back there but to do better than that because we want to win the championship."

Dale Lolley

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