Day 5 Camp Notes, the Dirt

With Jerome Bettis on the sideline with an injured foot, this question seems even bigger. What is the identity of this 2003 version of the offense? There are many intriguing pieces to the scoring puzzle, but I'm not sure even Mike Mularkey knows how the Pittsburgh Steelers fit together. Will Mularkey let the offense emerge in its own way in its own time, or will the coaching staff force the proverbial square peg into a round hole?

If camp thus far is any indication, the offense suffers from a case of split personality. Lee Mays continues to practice well and the receiving corps is deep and talented. Tommy Maddox throws the ball confidently and with authority. The problem is, the pocket is collapsing around him as he hurries to get rid of the football.

Save Marvel Smith, this is not a finesse offensive line. Their strength is a physical style of play that would seem to lend itself to a running team. But whose running team is it? Jerome Bettis' or Amos Zereoue's? Do the Steelers shy away from their strengths in the passing game department?

There are only so many plays to go around. If you expect Mularkey to exploit an embarrassment of riches, you'll be sorely disappointed in 2003. The right side of the offensive line is in shambles right now, even after a better practice by the OL in the one-on-one drills. How might this all change when Kendall Simmons returns? I doubt Russ Grimm knows the answer to that right now.

The problems with the offense emerge most strongly when I look through my Day 5 notes. They are filled with good plays by the defense, while the successes of the offense are hard to find. The Steelers even plugged in Todd Fordham at right tackle yesterday, signaling that the coaches are hardly overwhelmed with the play of Oliver Ross. You might even be forgiven if you uttered, "Ross stinks."

What works? Maddox to Hines Ward still works. The Steelers practiced the two-minute drill yesterday and the defense, in its dime defense, struggled to control the elusive Ward. Antwaan Randle El looks mediocre thus far in camp, dropping a few passes and punt returns. However, Randle El, Mays, Burress, and Ward are still by far the strength of the offense. Cowher has talked in the past playing to the strengths of his personnel on defense. Why won't he do it on offense?

The defense is not only the toast of camp, but there are a variety of experimental schemes which attempt to put the best players on the field for the maximum amount of time. A few fans will be eager to note that Chris Hope is running with the first team dime package. Somewhat like the nickel, the Steelers are going with three safeties: Brent Alexander, Mike Logan, and Hope.

Does it even matter who the fourth corner back is?

With Hank Poteat out, Chidi Iwuoma has an opportunity. Unfortunately, Chidi was injured during practice. In fact, Chidi was hurt the play before he was helped off the field. From where I was sitting, the coaching staff overlooked a hobbled Iwuoma only to see the injury get much worse on the very next play. This may bode well for Ivan Taylor, who is beginning to look more comfortable out there. He's still feeling his way with the job of a corner in the Steelers scheme of things, but I'm finally seeing flashes of that tremendous athletic ability that many were buzzing about round draft time.

Despite all the work in the nickel and dime defenses, the Steelers are clearly at their best in the base defense. Kendrell Bell blows up plays in the backfield. Casey Hampton torments Jeff Hartings. Aaron Smith is destroying Keydrick Vincent. To implement the nickel, the Steelers will give up some of this strength against the run. However, the gain is getting players on the field such as Bell and Troy Polamalu, playing to certain personnel advantages that the Steelers possess.

However, teams deep in good receivers will be able to exploit the nickel through match up advantages, while other teams may run at the nickel until the Steelers can prove they can stop it. The question remains if the Steelers really have the personnel to run the nickel as well as Tampa Bay. What is clear is that the Steelers have excellent personnel to run the 3-4 base. How often will they use it?

From an oppositional perspective, I would think that teams would continue to prefer to see the Steelers out of their base defense. There will be some growing pains with the nickel and the Steelers are still lacking enough true, big corners to man the dime effectively. The coaching staff seems quite anxious to turn Iwuoma into that fourth corner, realizing that Taylor is a year away from playing in the dime.

Dewayne Washington and Deshea Townsend continue to impress in coverage. Townsend covered Ward like a blanket on a couple of plays and ended practice for the defense on a good note by poking out a completed pass right into the hands of Rashad Faisen, who went the other way for six.

Back to the nickel and Polamalu. The Steelers like to run blitz Troy out of the nickel, mostly to the right side of the offense. He's already squelched a few running plays in the backfield that way, even catching the speedy Zereoue from behind. This will be one wrinkle of the nickel that will enhance the Steelers run defense when out of the base. In fact, it is already hard to imagine Tim Lewis effectively running the nickel without the drafting of Polamalu. It may even prove daunting if Logan should get injured again.

As for the dime, there are a few permutations. Last year's dime often put Joey Porter in the middle, in a 4-1-6 alignment. There are a few variations of this formation in terms of the personnel on the defensive line. Expect to see much more of Casey Hampton here and, hopefully, Bell. The other version looks a bit like the nickel, except with 3 defensive linemen. Bell and James Farrior play at linebacker in what looks like a 3-2-6. My guess is that this is a streamlining of the nickel package to dovetail with the dime look.

Bell is free to move around and pick his spots. Bell appears much better rushing the passer from this position, instead of lining up at right defensive end. I really like this defensive scheme, out of which Lewis can generate a variety of looks that should confuse the opposing quarterback. The Steelers ran a few very effective blitzes out of this formation.

You can bet that Mularkey has a few tricks of his own that will confuse the defense. I just have not seen much of that, yet. Right now, the offense looks very fundamental. However, the word out of the mini-camp was that Mularkey was playing with a variety of gadget plays, many of them involving Randle El. The counter pitch running play is about all I have seen in the deception department.

So, my pessimism concerning the offense may be a bit misplaced at this point and time. However, the right side of the offensive line does not look sound fundamentally so far. Yet, the blocking schemes are mostly vanilla. The defense has had ample opportunity to tee off on the offense. I suspect that most of the offense has been kept under wraps.

Jim Russell

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