Hoping To Rebound In 2004

Nothing means more to the Pittsburgh Steelers of 2004 than having a good offensive line. They fell apart and slipped to 6-10 last season because their line was a wreck. As a result, the Steelers could not run and found defenses sitting on the pass, playing Cover 2 and taking away their deep threat.

Already, starting right guard Kendall Simmons was lost for the season with a torn ACL and they cannot afford any more health problems or things will revert to 2003. So far, so good in the preseason, even without Simmons.

"Last year, we were trying to shorten our depths on routes to compensate for our banged up line," receiver Hines Ward said. "This year, you can actually get your depth, take your time. The protection's going to hold up and you can execute the play the way it's supposed to be executed. It all starts with the offensive line, in addition to having the running game there.

"The year we were 13-3, you couldn't be more well-balanced than we were to have two 1,000 yard receivers, a 1,000 rusher, and a 3000 passer. That's all you can ask of any offense in the NFL. That's balance. If we can get back to that, we'll be a hard offense to stop."

The big question centers around right tackle Oliver Ross. If he can handle the job, the offense should improve.

Good play from the line would allow the Steelers to run the ball better, which would force defenses to play the run and respect the play-action. That, in turn, would open up more avenues for the passing game. They signed halfback Duce Staley to help their ground game and everything is in place, provided the line comes through.

"I think last year our timing wasn't there coming out of camp for a bunch of different reasons," quarterback Tommy Maddox said. "This year, guys are working hard and our timing's there and we're another year under our belts playing together, so it's been a good camp for everybody."

The other major concern flips over to defense. No Bill Cowher team had fewer quarterback sacks than the 35 from last season. No Steelers team over a 16-game season forced fewer than the 25 turnovers they had last season.

Dick LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator and he wants to turn up the heat. He may not bring back Blitzburgh, but he wants a more aggressive defense that makes big plays.

"We've got to have more turnovers," LeBeau said. "I'd like to see us turn the ball over a little bit more. And third down, we've got to get better on third down."

An infusion of some young players coupled with LeBeau's philosophy should help that along, but their abilities will determine whether they can pull it off.

They have three new starters, strong safety Troy Polamalu, free safety Chris Hope and left outside linebacker Clark Haggans. Outside linebacker Joey Porter enters the season healthy after sitting out the first two games last year with a gunshot wound that sapped some of his explosiveness. But the linebacker play has to improve overall.

"I think we'll blitz a lot more than we have been," said nose tackle Casey Hampton, their only Pro Bowler on defense last season. "LeBeau will do his own thing, and when he says he's going to come, he's going to come and I believe in that. So I think we'll get a lot more pressure and make a lot more big plays."

Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, who led the Steelers with eight sacks last season, said LeBeau's defense would rely on all players being in the right position. If that happens, he said, they would make a lot of big plays. If not, the big plays will go against them.

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