A look at the linebackers

The key to the Steelers' 3-4 defense has always been the play of its linebackers. But the linebackers had a decidedly sub-par season in 2003, contributing greatly to the team's 6-10 season.

But instead of going for a major overhaul at the position, the Steelers simply dumped fading Jason Gildon, the team's all-time sack leader, and replaced him with backup Clark Haggans.

But that was not before the Steelers handed Haggans a four-year, $10-million contract.

Is Haggans ready to become a producer in this defense? If so, why didn't he see any playing time down the stretch last season when the team knew it was not going to bring Gildon back this season?

Those will be questions that will be answered during training camp.

Haggans has produced in a limited role during his three seasons with the Steelers, recording 7.5 sacks, including 6.5 in 2002 when he played extensively as a rush end in the team's dime defense. But he wore down as that season went on and Haggans must prove he can be an every-down player.

On the other side, Joey Porter also has a lot to prove after a mediocre season. But while Gildon's play slipped because of age, Porter's did so because of his shooting in Denver a week before the season began.

Even though he missed just two games, Porter struggled after a Pro Bowl season in 2002. Porter views himself as the leader of the team's defense and he must show that he has fully recovered from his 2003 debacle if he is to continue in that role.

On the inside, the Steelers have James Farrior, Kendrell Bell and a problem.

Both Farrior and Bell are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the conclusion of the 2004 season and the Steelers are currently in the process of evaluating whether they want to resign, one, both or neither of them.

The 29-year-old Farrior led the team in tackles last season, but the Steelers are unsure if they want to make him an offer on a deal that would take him well into his 30s.

On the other hand, even though he played all 16 games last season, Bell missed nearly all of mini-camp and the team's offseason workouts because of a groin injury. This wouldn't have been a problem if Bell hadn't shown a propensity to get nicked up here and there in his first three seasons.

There is no doubt Bell has talent. He was the 2001 NFL defensive rookie of the year. But the Steelers aren't yet sure what kind of contract to offer to make given his injury problems.

Last year's second-round draft choice Alonzo Jackson was in head coach Bill Cowher's doghouse last season, but will be counted on this season, especially if he shows some pass rush ability during the preaseason.

Jackson didn't look particularly bigger physically during the offseason, but he does know have a better understanding of the team's defense.

Fifth-round pick Nathaniel Adibi will need to go through that same learning process, but should star on special teams in the meantime.

There is a possibility that undrafted rookie free agents Nick McNeil or Dedrick Roper could win a spot if they prove they can contribute on special teams. The same could be said on the inside of rookie Allen Augustin.

Backup inside linebackers Clint Kriewaldt and Larry Foote aren't much more than special teams warriors, possibly leaving space for McNeil, Roper or Augustin to make this team.

The 6-3, 245-pound McNeil has plenty of speed, having run in the 4.5 range, while Roper recorded 10 sacks last season at Division II Northwood. Augustin is undersized at 6-1, 225 pounds, but has the quickness and instincts to be a contributor.

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