A look at what went right in 2003

To say that the 2003 Steelers were a disappointment would be something of an understatement. <br><br> Coming off consecutive division titles, the Steelers were again widely thought to be the favorite to win the AFC North again. Instead, they finished 6-10 and in third place in the division behind both Baltimore and Cincinnati.

And things are not going to get any easier as the Ravens and Bengals look to be on the rise, while the Steelers, well, they have some work to do this offseason.

This is the first in a three-part series on what went right, wrong and what the Steelers have to address this offseason to get back into the playoffs in 2004.

What went right:
When a team goes 6-10, there usually aren't a lot of good things to talk about.

But the Steelers actually had some standout performances this season that should give them hope for the future. Wide receiver Hines Ward solidified his spot among the elite players at his position in the league with his third consecutive 90-plus catch season, while becoming the first player in Steelers history to record three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. And he did it without the benefit of a running game as opponents showed no respect to the Steelers' rushing attack at all.

Left guard Alan Faneca put together yet another Pro Bowl season and was the lone standout on an offensive line that struggled throughout the year. Faneca also proved a more than capable left tackle, filling in at that position for more than half the season in place of injured Marvel Smith.

Antwaan Randle El, despite his struggles with dropped balls as a receiver, returned to punts for touchdowns and just missed on returning a few others for scores.

Randle El's returns highlighted a terrific season for the Steelers special teams units.

The coverage units were among the best in the league and outside a big game by Kansas City's Dante Hall - who didn't struggled against him? - generally shut opposing kick returners down.

Despite questions about his durability, quarterback Tommy Maddox started all 16 games this season, missing only a few snaps to injury.

Maddox isn't the team's long-term answer at quarterback, but after an interception-plagued start to the season, he did a much better job taking care of the ball down the stretch - a three-interception game at Baltimore in the season finale notwithstanding.

If the Steelers can improve their offensive line play and generate a running game in 2004, they can win with Maddox at quarterback, making him more than just a stopgap.

Rookie Troy Polamalu overcame a slow start and finished the 2003 season strong. Was he worth trading three draft picks to move up in the first round and acquire? That's highly debatable. But Polamalu showed enough by season's end to lead the team to believe he will be a factor in 2004.

The team's defensive line also put in a strong season this year, as Kimo von Oelhoffen led the team in sacks with eight and nose tackle Casey Hampton earned his first Pro Bowl nod. Defensive end Aaron Smith was also a major force in the running game, even though he didn't get the sacks this season that he had in the past. Part of that may have been due to the decline of outside linebacker Jason Gildon beside him. Backup end Rodney Bailey also showed some flashes, picking up a pair of sacks subbing for von Oelhoffen, giving the Steelers 10 sacks out of the right defensive end position.

Inside linebacker James Farrior also had a strong season, leading the team in tackles. Farrior isn't a star, but makes the plays that are in front of him. He and Kendrell Bell give the Steelers a pair of excellent inside linebackers, though both will be unrestricted free agents at the conclusion of the 2004 season.

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