Heat is on in Latrobe

So the eighty-plus men who hope to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year have begun their torture on the sun baked fields of St. Vincent College. Las Vegas has them an 8-1 favorite to win the Super Bowl. Local fans all wonder how many games they will win and if they can indeed go that step beyond what they've been able to the last couple of years.

All of that kind of talk is fine, even expected, for late July. But the most intriguing question for me right now, is what kind of personality the Steeler offense will take on this year?

Last year the Steelers threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time in team history. They also set a new team record with 350 completions. Out went three yards and a cloud of Bus and in came Tommy Gun. This was born out of necessity of course. Jerome Bettis was hurt. Kordell Stewart was inconsistent. But instead of the season collapsing, a butterfly emerged from the cocoon. After being passed to death the first two games, they started fighting fire with their own fire.

Will that be the same strategy this year? I'm not convinced. Since Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992, the Steelers have run the ball more times than any team in the NFL. Even last year when they went pass happy, they were still 9th in the league in rushing yards per game. Would they have kept Jerome Bettis and asked Mark Bruener to return, even at a reduced salary, if they were just thinking of slinging it all over the lot again? Would they have refused to give Tommy Maddox a raise if they were sure he could duplicate the numbers he put up last year? I doubt it.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey deserves a lot of credit for thinking and changing on the fly last season. While good football coaching is based on the ability to adjust, few teams can completely change offensive philosophies successfully in midseason. That ability saved the Steelers from a 1-3 fireball to produce another playoff January. And while I'm sure Mularkey would love to start this year with a definitive offensive style in place, it isn't necessary. Not based on last year. He has the luxury of letting the season dictate what he wants to do.

With a healthy Bettis and Amos Zereoue, they should be able to run with the best of them. The Steelers have a great run blocking tight end in Bruener. But they also have added a receiving specialist at the position with Jay Riemersma. And of course Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Antwaan Randle El gives Maddox plenty of throwing options. It's a nice choice to have to make.

But I think you will see a more balanced attack this time, maybe even with more emphasis on the ground game, at least early in the year while the tackle situation straightens itself out. Maddox isn't the most nimble of quarterbacks and with Marvel Smith adjusting to the left side, protecting Maddox's blind side, and a new starting right tackle in place, conservative may be the way to go at first. With all of his success last year, Maddox threw 16 regular season interceptions and was tied with Dante Culpepper for the worst interception percentage among starting quarterbacks in the league. He's not at his best when on the run.

But the good news is, there are lots of options. And right now the most interesting part of the development of the 2003 Steelers is to see which direction they choose to go offensively. If they make the right choices, those 8-1 Vegas odds might be a good bet. Of course they will have to find a way to stop all of those passing yards too. But we'll save that for another time.

Guy Junker
SteelCitySports.Com


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