Re-vamped secondary

<b>LATROBE - </b> Give the Steelers' brain trust a little credit. After two seasons having more passes thrown their way than a waitress at closing time, they finally realized there was a problem with their secondary.

But what was needed to fix the problem wasn't just a little housecleaning. No, the Steelers basically rebuilt their secondary from the ground up.

"There's a lot of new guys who are finally getting a chance," said Chris Hope, who is set to replace Brent Alexander as the starting free safety. "It's a game of waiting and I've waited my turn. Coming from Florida State where I had been a starter, basically since my sophomore year, it was hard sitting and watching when I felt I could help the team in more ways than I was asked to. That was the hard part."

The Steelers will have three different starters from the secondary that began last season as in addition to Hope replacing Alexander, Troy Polamalu is now the strong safety instead of Mike Logan, while Deshea Townsend is now a starter at cornerback in place of Dewayne Washington. Only Chad Scott, who finished the 2003 season on injured reserve with a broken hand, will retain his starting cornerback position.

"There's a little more excitement and probably a little more nervousness," said Townsend, who had been the team's third cornerback for his first six seasons in the league before replacing Washington at midseason last year and starting the team's final eight games.

"We're trying to get to know each other in these (starting) roles. It's going to be fun back there. There's a lot of guys who are hungry to go out there and show what they can do."

While the Steelers' secondary didn't give up as much yardage as it did in 2002, when the team allowed eight of its 16 regular season opponents to throw for 250 or more yards, it did so because the coaching staff didn't have the defense play as aggressively. The theory last season was to make opponents dink their way down the field instead of giving up big plays.

It worked in the respect that the team allowed just four opposing quarterbacks to throw for more than 250 yards. But it also hurt the team's aggressiveness. The Steelers had just 35 sacks, the fewest they've had under Cowher. They also intercepted just 14 passes, with Townsend leading the team with three interceptions and 12 pass defenses.

But Lewis was let go following the season's end and former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was brought back to help the team's defense improve.

"Coach LeBeau is all about pressure and being aggressive. The more pressure they put up front, the tighter the defense they expect from me," Townsend said. "And the tighter we cover, the more time that gives them to get to the quarterback. Everything goes hand-in-hand."

But there's no doubt the emphasis for the Steelers was re-working the secondary. Not only were Hope, Polamalu and Townsend inserted into the starting lineup. But the team added second-round pick Ricardo Colclough to the mix to go along with last year's fourth-round selection, Ike Taylor.

But the Steelers also have several veterans in camp competing for backup spots. Logan was re-signed to provide a veteran presence behind Hope and Polamalu, while corners Willie Williams and Terry Fair and safeties Shane Walton and Ainsley Battles were added from other teams.

Between Logan, Williams - a former Steelers' draft pick and starter, Fair and Battles, another former Steelers player, there are over 200 career NFL starts.

"We've got some new guys out here bringing a lot of speed to this defense," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "But there's some veteran guys back there too who know the tricks of the trade. It's a nice mix and they should be really good this year."

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