Things I don't need to wait until camp to know

Only a month lies between now and the opening of the Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College. That's just over 30 days until the hitting begins and we find out exactly what this team has.

But here are a few things I've seen from the team's offseason workouts that I don't need to wait and see if they will hold up when the big boy pads go on:

When Cowher first became the Steelers' coach in 1992, his starting duo was rookie Darren Perry and strong safety Carnell Lake.

Lake was one of the best strong safeties in the league and Perry was a playmaker. But the team always had to cover for Perry's lack of speed.

Later, when Myron Bell and then Lee Flowers took over for Lake, the team was forced to change its coverage schemes to make up for the fact it no longer had a strong safety like Lake, capable of covering tight ends, backs and receivers.

Now, in Polamalu and Hope, the team has speed, hitting ability and what it hopes will be some playmaking skill.

Hope and Polamalu made plenty of plays during the team's offseason workouts. The question will be whether Hope can do what's needed of a free safety, namely pick off five or six passes, and if Polamalu will develop decent coverage skills.

From what I've seen, I'm going to say yes on both accounts.

  • While the team's offensive line won't remind anyone of the one the team lined up in 1995 en route to a Super Bowl, it will be better in 2004 than it was in 2003. And that includes Oliver Ross at right tackle.

A team can cover for one sub-par blocker, but it can't do it at two or more positions.

That's what the Steelers were forced to do in 2003. They knew going into the season the right tackle position would be a problem area, but center Jeff Hartings' chronic knee problem and then guard Kendall Simmons' diabetes diagnosis were more than it could handle.

By the time left tackle Marvel Smith went down, the season was wrecked.

I saw enough of Smith at left tackle last season to come to the conclusion he'll be a good, but not great, player at that position.

And Simmons should be better than he was in 2003.

The key to the line will be Hartings. While some Steelers fans might feel otherwise, Hartings is still considered an above-average NFL center. If he has put his knee problems behind him - he learned to deal with the pain as last season wore on - the line should at least be adequate.

I know that's not a ringing endorsement, but the Steelers don't need much more than adequate at this point. They're not going to line up and pound opponents up front anyway.

  •  Duce Staley might not rush for 1,000 yards - I'm estimating between 850 and 950 - but he may combine for around 1,500 yards in rushing and receiving.

Jerome Bettis will siphon off 5 to 10 carries per game, limiting Staley to about 15 or so rushing attempts per contest, but Staley is the best receiving back the Steelers have had since John L. Williams.

I wouldn't be surprised if Staley caught 60 passes this season. And in the West Coast offense that most teams have adopted, many of those little passes to the flats are considered much the same as running a sweep by the offensive coordinator.

These won't be your father's Steelers any longer. They'll still run the ball a little, but this is a passing offense all the way now.

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