What went wrong

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 second 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 wrong:
The 2003 Steelers have a laundry list of things that basically turned them from a 10-win team in 2002 into a 10-loss team a season later, not the least of which was their total lack of an offensive focus. Bill Cowher named Amos Zereoue the team's starting running back and Jay Riemersma the starting tight end in training camp, closing the door on the team's power running attack.

But because offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey did not trust the running game in Zereoue's hands - with good reason - the Steelers tried to rely too much on the pass early in the season and it led to way too many interceptions by quarterback Tommy Maddox.

By the time the team switched back to Jerome Bettis in the backfield, the damage was done to the season.

Bettis is in no way what he once was and will likely be released or at least asked to take a reduced salary to return as a backup in 2004, but he was a far better option running the ball than Zereoue, who will gain seven yards on one carry and lose three on his next.

The running backs weren't helped by the fact they were operating behind a makeshift offensive line - more on that later - but the bottom line is that neither produced and it put way too much pressure on the passing game.

Maddox proved this season he's not a quarterback who can carry an offense on his back. Then again, there are only 10 or 12 of those guys in the entire league, so that's not a damning statement, just a fact. Maddox didn't force things as much as he did in 2002, but he still at times will try to squeeze a ball into where it should not go. His lack of mobility was also a factor.

Which brings us to that offensive line.

It turns out that right guard Kendall Simmons' diabetes diagnosis a week before training camp would be a harbinger of things to come for the Steelers this season.

Simmons dropped about 30 pounds off his frame dealing with the illness and missed a good portion of training camp. When he did come back, his play was spotty and he admittedly lost confidence in his playing ability because of it.

Then, center Jeff Hartings arrived in training camp and announced to reporters he was considering retirement at season's end because of chronic knee problems. Hartings sat out some training camp practices, but did not do so once the season began.

Again, he played as if he wasn't entirely confident and it wasn't until about midway through the season when he began to perform with any consistency. Hartings said he wants to come back in 2004, but with a salary of over $3 million, the Steelers will likely ask him to take a pay cut to do so.

Making matters worse, the Steelers spent training camp getting Marvel Smith comfortable at left tackle and auditioning for a replacement for Smith at right tackle.

Smith looked like he'd be OK on the left side, but neither Oliver Ross or Todd Fordham really seized the day on the right side and the coaching staff finally went with Fordham because he was the guy who messed up the least.

But it only took a few games to figure out that Fordham wasn't the answer on the right side. And by the time the Steelers figured that out, Smith went down with a pinched nerve in his neck that forced them to play Ross at left tackle and Fordham at right.

Even Cowher knew that wasn't going to work, so the team did something unconventional in a 17-10 loss at Denver Oct. 12, rotating offensive linemen on every play given the down and distance. The team saw enough of Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca at left tackle in that game to feel comfortable putting him out there on a full-time basis until Smith's return - something that never happened.

That put Ross at right tackle, Simmons at right guard, Hartings at center and untested Keydrick Vincent at left guard.

That line combination showed flashes of being good, but then again, given the state of things early in the season, a line combination that included the members of a high school chess club would have looked like an improvement.

Given the state of the offensive line and the running game, opponents began taking away the deep passing game of the Steelers, playing both safeties deep enough to double Plaxico Burress and/or Hines Ward on every given play.

Ward was still effective, working his underneath routes to perfecting, but Burress struggled mightily, showing he is not a move-the-chains kind of receiver.

With the team in desperate need of a third receiving option to occupy the safeties in the middle of the field, Riemersma flopped and Antwaan Randle El was inconsistent.

Riemersma, brought in because of his receiving skills, did absolutely nothing after catching a touchdown in the opener against Baltimore and struggled with a variety of injuries.

Randle El, meanwhile, was plagued by dropped passes and wasn't the threat he was offensively as a rookie, even though his play as a return man picked up.

Because of all those problems - and some severe brain cramps by Mularkey at times - the Steelers dropped offensively from a top-5 unit in 2002, to one that was in the bottom third of the league in 2003. The defense, which was not stout in 2002 to begin with, couldn't make up for that drop in production.

Cornerbacks Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott were again exposed as not being very good in coverage and the team couldn't provide any kind of pass rush up front, at least in part, because of the continued decline of outside linebacker Jason Gildon. Not helping matters was Joey Porter's shooting outside of a Denver bar in the hours after the Colorado-Colorado State football game a week before the NFL season kicked off.

Miraculously, Porter only missed two games after being shot in the buttocks and having the bullet lodge in his thigh. But he never really regained his explosiveness on the field and finished with just four sacks, the fewest he's had in a season since becoming a starter. The safety position was also a problem, as rookie Troy Polamalu, whom the team gave up three draft picks to acquire, couldn't beat out Mike Logan for the strong safety position, giving the Steelers a deep tandem of Logan and Brent Alexander.

When your corners aren't especially fast and don't cover particularly well, it helps to have a pass rush and safety help. The Steelers didn't have much of either.

Cowher tried benching Washington at midseason and inserting Deshea Townsend into the starting lineup, while elevating rookie project Ike Taylor to the No. 3 spot.

But that still left Scott on the field and he continued to be burned mercilessly.

After a loss to Cincinnati at home Nov. 30 that pretty much pushed the Steelers out of the playoffs, it was announced Scott had a serious hand injury and would be going on injured reserve. That put Washington back in the starting lineup. He actually performed well coupled with Townsend, but not well enough to save his job.

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