Optimist/pessimist: Steelers camp so far

Last year, the injuries to the offensive line was the ominous story of camp. Furthermore, bad weather plagued St. Vincent and the Pittsburgh Steelers, with such outstanding facilities on the South Side of Pittsburgh, looked bush league as they prepped for the 2003 season on a converted cornfield. Here's a first look at how the 2004 team is shaping up.

The offensive line story of 2004 is the group at linebacker. Certainly, we are not talking about Joey Porter getting shot, but the early word is pessimistic, particularly considering the importance of the linebackers to Dick LeBeau's blitzing-mad scheme.

Bill Cowher has long lamented that life as an NFL coach is all about creating mismatches, or hiding from them, as the case may be. On third and long, somebody rushing the quarterback has to take advantage of a mismatch in the blocking scheme.

"That's [Cowher's] favorite drill," OLB Joey Porter said about his sack of Cowher in practice. "He wants to see us compete real hard, whether it's one-on-one with the linemen or one-on-one with the running backs. He wants us to give a good effort. He wants us to win every time we go up. I just try to tell our backers 'When you get a one-on-one chance with a running back, in practice or in a game, you've got to help the team out and make that play.' That's why I go so hard in the one-on-one pass rush."

For the defense, that may be the most important drill in camp this year and the Pittsburgh Steelers need more than Joey Porter proving he can win the one-on-one battle. Otherwise, teams will just double Porter and pick on Pittsburgh's young secondary.

Porter's early bout with a groin pull and dehydration was not good news for Cowher and LeBeau, as the coaches tried to engineer a renaissance for Blitzburgh.

Worse still is the injury to OLB Clark Haggans, who is pegged to upgrade Jason Gildon's under-whelming play, which consisted of running backs or tight ends easily handling Gildon's rush.

We've harped on the Haggans-Marcus Washington saga long enough and camp is a time to see what the personnel on the roster can do. The opportunity landed squarely in the lap of second-year OLB Alonzo Jackson.

Once again, Jackson has flashed some ability rushing the QB, but "disappointment" still dogs this vocal self-promoter. Perhaps Kevin Greene can help him, but Jackson's moves still don't scream NFL-caliber and Kendrell Bell's failed experiment at defensive end seems an appropriate parallel.

While Jackson has yet to seize his chance to break in the starting lineup, Jim Wexell of SteelCitySports.com reports that UDFA OLB Dedrick Roper made the most of his stint at first-string LOLB on Wednesday. Roper is part of the early camp buzz of optimism, which doesn't say much for Jackson.

The secondary is quickly shaping into a strength for the Steelers and along with Roper, FS Chris Hope is serving notice that his time has come. As Wexell reports, the big-hitting Hope only needs to take command of the scheme to cement his position as starter.

The other source of optimism is the play of CB Chad Scott. The much-maligned Scott has always been talented, but seemed to be handicapped by chronic immaturity. Prone to pouting after getting burned by a scrub wide out at camp, Scott would at times demonstrate his brilliance and dominate the passing drills.

Maybe Scott has grown up a bit, particularly with talk of his release after this season and the recent picks of Ike Taylor and Ricardo Colclough.

Speaking of those two, they are one and two, respectively, at the nickel back position. Deshea Townsend, Troy Polamalu, Scott, Hope, and Taylor should comprise a speedy and opportunistic secondary in the nickel scheme. If the linebackers can round into shape, the nickel look will terrorize the opposition in 2004.

Offensively, the pessimist heads straight for the running attack. Neither Jerome Bettis nor Duce Staley is making any big waves at camp, but the real problem is blocking at the TE positions. If offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is going to make good on his promise to run the ball, the tight ends better pick up their game. So far, the strength of the TEs is pass catching, not blocking.

RT Max Starks isn't making anyone forget the problems of last season, at least so far. But the offensive line looks okay and should hold up as long as the injuries hold off.

Both wide receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress appear rejuvenated, but too many people are making much too much out of Burress' supposed improved attitude. Scott's improved outlook is news, but Plaxico's problem has been skill.

We've seen it over the last few years in camp, Burress doesn't judge the ball well in flight. That's no problem when QB Tommy Maddox floats one on the deep out, but that won't play when QB Ben Roethlisberger starts slinging bullets while on the run.

If early reports from our own Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell are taken seriously, the offensive game plan may be more one of quick passes, to Staley out of the backfield or to another 2004 camp star, Antwaan Randle El. The tight ends would also seem better used for such an attack.

The skill sets of the available personnel on offense do not lend themselves to a sustained ground game. All the talk from Bettis and Whisenhunt may just be a ruse.

The offense that Roethlisberger will inherent is shrouded in short term considerations. Neither the running backs nor the wide receivers look to be here long, at least right now.

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