Down and dirty in the AFC North

Could the Pittsburgh Steelers win their division in 2004? Anything is possible in the parity-driven NFL. Super Bowl bridesmaids often fall all too quickly, usually out of the playoffs the following year, and everyone's whipping boy is suddenly on top of their division. All of this is more fuel for the eternally optimistic fans, but the sleeping giant in Pittsburgh is buried deep.

The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't simply finish 6-10 last season. They were lucky to win four given the anemic offense. 3-and-out was a way of life for QB Tommy Maddox and his offense. The main problem was the offensive line, decimated by injuries and plagued by weak play.

Are the fans really supposed to believe that RT Oliver Ross is the answer? The Cleveland Browns made a play for Ross, which tells you all you need to know about his potential. Cleveland has made a habit of fielding one of the worst lines in all of football, year in and year out.

The Pittsburgh fans were given some hope with third-round pick OT Max Starks. Every rookie starts with great promise, as the glowing news out of every mini-camp can attest, but Starks looks to us all too familiar.

With the 74th pick in the 1999 draft, the Steelers took OT Kris Farris, out of UCLA. The Steelers found a second round talent early in the third round and jumped at the opportunity. The main rub on Farris' game was that he played soft. He was big enough to be a tackle in the NFL, but he was no mauler.

What really hampered Farris' development was a bad foot that seemed to take forever to heal. Farris' desire to play football was always a question and his injury certainly didn't help things. Farris never amounted to much and the Steelers would eventual cut him.

Enter the 75th pick of the 2004 draft, Starks. His desire for the game has also been questioned. An amazing talent coming out of high school, Starks has never lived up to his billing. Furthermore, he's suffered through a two-year long high ankle sprain, which might have been a product of misdiagnosis.

Starks has great size, but he slipped into the third round because scouts and personnel directors weren't sure if he really wanted to play football. We'll found out soon enough.

Meanwhile, the front office at the South Side facility appears to think that the offensive line will get better with the health of the starters. Center Jeff Hartings' bad knee is not going to get any better. He must learn to play with the pain, which has affected his will to play. RG Kendall Simmons is battling diabetes, also a major life change. You might forgive him for having a new look on life, and that includes football.

After reviewing a few of last season's games, Hartings seemed to be emerging from his funk as the season wore on. Unfortunately, Simmons looked worse with each game. With LT Marvel Smith out most of the season, LG Alan Faneca and Hartings tried to compensate for a line that looked far from NFL-caliber.

Faneca seemed to weather the challenge better than Hartings, but fans that appreciated Faneca's play at offensive tackle have overstated his prowess. For the most part, the Steelers ran the ball with Faneca in there. At times, the opposing defense seemed to key the run when Faneca was at tackle.

There wasn't anywhere for Maddox to hide and the only reason he wasn't sacked more times than any other QB in Steelers' history was his ability to get rid of the ball quickly.

Plus, whenever Faneca and Hartings made some space to run, Jerome Bettis was too old to do anything with it and Amos Zereoue was too busy looking to take it to the house, usually ending up tackled for a loss.

A healthy Smith should shore up the left side, but if Simmons cannot (or will not) find his game, a healthy Duce Staley won't make much of a difference.

There's not much offense in the AFC North as a whole, but the defenses are well above the NFL average. If the Steelers have the playmakers on defense to make a difference, we haven't seen them. Pittsburgh will need to score much more than they did in 2003. When the Steelers faced up to their shortcomings on defense, they went after an undersized safety named Troy Polamalu. Now, faced with a lack of talent on the offensive line, the Steelers go after the mammoth OT Starks. And just like the defense, the whole deal won't simply turn around in the span of one off-season, at least with such incremental changes such as Starks and Staley.

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