Fixing the Steelers

By now, you've seen what went right and what went wrong with the Steelers in 2003. <br><br> Now, here's a look at what they need to return to the playoffs in 2004. <br><br> When you average just 3.3 yards per carry as a team and finish 31st out of 32 teams rushing the ball, it's easy to see there's a problem.

And you'd better believe the Steelers know they had a problem rushing this season and they know what they have to do to fix it. That's why running backs Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue's careers in Pittsburgh are likely over.

The Steelers know they need to bring in fresh legs at the position and that will be their No. 1 priority during this offseason. Whether they do that through the draft or through free agency will be the question.

The unrestricted free agent running back crop this year is not great. Philadelphia's Duce Staley and Tampa Bay's Thomas Jones are the best of a sad group - at least until Cincinnati releases Corey Dillon, that is.

There are a few good options on the restricted free agent market, but that market is a little more expensive. In addition to the contract you have to come up with to make sure it won't be matched, you also have to give up draft picks comparable to the round - or higher depending on the tender - the player was selected in.

Philadelphia's Correll Buckhalter, Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson and San Francisco's Kevan Barlow are solid young running backs who will be restricted free agents, but it's likely their teams will tender them high offers, meaning a team that signs them would have to give up a first round to acquire them. Given that, it's cheaper to grab a running back in the draft than it is through free agency.

The Steelers will also look to upgrade their right tackle position after struggling through a season of using Todd Fordham and Oliver Ross at that position.

Given the Steelers' spotty history of drafting offensive linemen, they may be better served to dip into the free agent pool to fill their tackle need rather than taking a rookie in the draft and hoping he works out.

Seattle's Walter Jones, St. Louis' Orlando Pace and Kansas City's John Tait all would command top dollar, while Miami's Todd Wade, Green Bay's Chad Clifton or Baltimore's Orlando Brown would come a little cheaper.

Defensively, the Steelers may have to go into the free agent market for the second time since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1992 to find a pass rush specialist who can play the outside linebacker position that will be vacated when Jason Gildon is released. The last time they did in 1993, they came up with Kevin Greene, a move that worked out well.

Given Alonzo Jackson's inactivity for much of this season despite being a second-round draft pick, it's unlikely the Steelers will head into next season with him as their only option at the position.

It's unlikely they can find another Greene out there - 15-sack players just don't come along like that all that often - but they need someone who is going to force opponents to play Joey Porter honestly on the other side.

San Francisco's Julian Peterson would be a great fit, but the 49ers are likely to give him the franchise tag, so the Steelers will have to set their sights a little lower.

They could just bring free agent Clark Haggans back to compete for the job, but considering they didn't give Haggans much of a shot to play this year even though Gildon was awful, that would be a cheap way to go.

Baltimore's Adalius Thomas would be a big step up from Haggans and is the type of player who could flourish in the Steelers system. Another interesting player to look at would be Denver's Bertrand Berry, an undersized defensive end with good speed who can get to the quarterback.

Finally, while Deshea Townsend played well at cornerback after replacing Dewayne Washington in the starting lineup midway through the season, replacing Chad Scott on the other side is also something the team will look at if the price is right. The cornerback position will be the glamour spot of free agency during the offseason, but don't expect the Steelers to dive into the market with a big name, having given Washington and Scott big contracts just a couple of years ago.

The Steelers, if they do go the free agent route, will wait things out until after the draft to see what they can acquire. If they, say, take a quarterback in the first round of the draft and then take a running back in the second round, they may grab a mid-level free agent corner after the draft to upgrade the defense. So you can cross Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson, Chris McAlister and Ahmed Plummer off your wish list. It's unlikely the Steelers will be wooing any of them any time soon.

But Buffalo's Antoine Winfield, Jacksonville's Fernando Bryant or Indianapolis' David Macklin could be brought in to battle Ike Taylor for a starting job.

The Steelers aren't going to have a ton of money to spend on the open market. So if they spend big for an offensive tackle, they have to go cheap for a cornerback. If they spend big for a cornerback, they have to go cheap on a tackle.

It's not unfixable in one offseason, but the Steelers are going to have to bring in at least four key players in 2004.

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