Six pack of camp concerns

Instead of playing optimist/pessimist, we are now wondering if the beer bottle is half full or half empty. The summer fun at St. Vincent is almost done. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The big camp stories are already apparent and the 2004 season is quickly taking shape. Will the Pittsburgh Steelers endure another litter of disappointments or do we detect some free beer swimming around in there?

Let's crack open the offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers. If there was a skunked beer in the pack during 2003, it was the OL. There's some good flavor this year with the health of Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons on the upswing. But questions still loom about right tackle, where rookie Max Starks tries to find playing time against the underwhelming Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham.

Fordham flashed plenty in last year's camp and then dropped an egg during the regular season. In fact, he looked his best in camp at guard, not tackle. This situation is beginning to sound like the problem at safety: Too many at strong, but not enough free.

The early word on Jeff Hartings and his degenerative knee problem is not encouraging, but the Steelers don't seem in any hurry to switch to backup Chukky Okobi. If Hartings isn't pulling well, Pittsburgh will struggle to run the ball. If running game is a problem, Tommy Maddox will face a lot of cover-2, opposing teams daring them to run the ball. Last time I checked, neither Duce Staley nor Jerome Bettis made their own holes.

Fans better hope that's Jim Wexell is right about his hunch concerning RB Verron Haynes.

This bottle is half empty.

There's always another beer and the tight ends are making plenty of noise in camp. Unfortunately, that noise isn't the likeness of a fresh full one popping open.

You know there's a problem when the brass is trying to sell you on Bobby Blizzard. Blizzard? That swill better be damn cold if you are going to convince me to drink it.

And while we're at it, did Jay Riemersma swallow keg after keg during the off-season? Apparently, Kendrell Bell knows the answer to that question.

But this beer is cold, and surprisingly refreshing. While Mark Bruener is busy recapturing his blocking glory in Houston, the Steelers didn't seem to bother to replace him.

Take a long look at this brew. We hear rumors of Maddox practicing flicking the ball like a dart to his receivers. Duce Staley comes to town, a back better known for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. And now the Steelers have a host of tight ends on the roster much better known for their hands than their blocking.

In the goal line drills, the Steelers don't want to even show pass.

The personnel add up, not camp play calling. This bottle is half full.

For the 2003 vintage, the wide outs were a bit too bitter. Last year's pursed lips is this year's spice. The 2004 batch may be better than ever. WR Antwaan Randle El is the recent star, hitting the third-year peak in stride. Plaxico Burress is a man possessed and Hines Ward is, well, Hines Ward.

There's already been talk of getting Randle El on the field more. That may come at the expense of the increasingly anachronistic FB Dan Kreider. With rookie camp star Ben Roethlisberger waiting in the wings, the Steelers continue their shift of offensive philosophy.

Don't let all the Ken Whisenhunt talk fool you.

This bottle is definitely half full and ready to expose the defensive weaknesses of the AFC North.

"Dick LeBeau this, and Dick LeBeau that," is all I hear Steelers fans talk about. He's got some real stinky beer to work with.

LeBeau will blitz, but he still needs players to man the scheme. Watch the personnel games instead of listening to the rhetoric.

Instead of Marcus Washington, there is Clark Haggans. And now instead of Haggans, there is Alonzo Jackson. That's just scary enough to force a signing of Adrian Ross. And rookie Nathaniel Adibi has to worry about UDFAs Dedrick Roper and Nick McNeil.

Given this crop of linebackers, the likelihood of the Steelers running a 2-4-5 nickel seems slim. In fact, the pickup of DE/DT Travis Kirschke may speak volumes.

Kirschke, a quick pass rushing type, looks very good in camp thus far. The defensive line as a whole has been sharp. DE/DT Eric Taylor looks to be a similar type player, but he was unfortunately injured busting wedges.

So, the Steelers could be headed more towards a 3-3-5 or even a 4-2-5 to deal with the opposition's three (or more) receiver sets on traditional running downs.

But the big issue hanging out there is how well any nickel alignment can stop the run. Our camp coverage has been mostly silent on this count, leading to a provisional summary of the bottle looking half empty.

If LeBeau is going to blitz, he'll need speed and experience in the secondary. He's got half of the equation. The early returns of Troy Polamalu are filtering in and this beer is shaping up nicely.

FS Chris Hope was the early star of camp, but he's currently trying to shake the Bus from his head. The secondary does look uneven, but they may be more of the hedge against the run in the nickel.

If that's the case, this bottle is half full.

One bottle left. Coaching staff? Overemphasized. Special teams? Chris Gardocki will have to prove to be something special to justify paying a punter that much money. This last beer is all about ‘want-to.'

Bad endings to 2001 and 2002 apparently did not leave too awful of a taste in the mouths of the Steelers. The playoffs seem to placate Cowher teams.

This year, there's Kevin Greene running around camp trying to start fires.

As noted above, Ward and Burress both seem on a mission.

Bell will likely be playing for the biggest payday of his life and Polamalu wants to demonstrate that he play football at the pro level.

There seems to be some hunger this year, though expectations are not exactly high as they were during the 2001 camp.

Most importantly, the future looks very bright indeed with Big Ben at the helm. The Steelers are already shaping the team around his considerable skills. The buzz is already starting that the front office finally hit the jackpot with a first round pick.

Indeed, the bottle is half full. Just don't waste it like a fan of the Cleveland Browns has done and throw it on the field.

Of course, beer was dumped on the head of Kordell Stewart. In that situation, the bottle is empty.

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