From the notebook of a sportswriter who shouldn't complain about the Steelers' final roster but will, as they say, find a way:
<li> If we were to project last year that the Steelers would enter 2004 season with 10 defensive backs and 10 offensive linemen, we probably would've wondered what took them so long to figure it out.
That said, I feel Bill Cowher kept one too many defensive backs and one too many of the offensive linemen, even though both positions were back-breaking weaknesses last year.
Willie Williams simply cannot run anymore. He may be savvy but he has no wheels and without wheels all savvy gets you is a coaching job. Undrafted rookie linebacker Dedrick Roper would've been my choice instead.
Just to stay with linebackers for a moment, Alonzo Jackson didn't play as poorly as some analysts are saying. No, he's not going to be a star in this league anytime soon, and that's probably what irks critics of the second-round draft choice. But he did force a sack last week and the week before he actually put his arms around a first-team quarterback before letting him escape. That's more pressure than any other starting linebacker can boast about, and there were no other linebackers, except for the practice squad-bound Roper, pushing Jackson.
If Roper sticks with the practice squad, as I believe he will, I guess I can be talked into keeping Williams on the roster after all.
James Harrison is in a great position. Don't forget about him as an outside linebacker, and because he's a better special-teamer than Jackson, Harrison figures to be active more often than Jackson. Harrison also made significant improvement as a second-team inside backer. Yes, great opportunity for him.
As for the offensive linemen, the Todd Fordham trade completely surprised me. I would've cut Barrett Brooks and Jim Jones and signed one of them if an emergency came up. I'd have gone with eight, counting Fordham, who can play guard. However, a couple of comments I heard this camp are coming together in my head to make sense of it.
First of all, one front-office vet said that to properly read what the coach will do, ask yourself if the team can win with the older back-up as opposed to the young prospect. If the answer is no, keep the young prospect.
The second comment was made Sunday by Cowher. "It came down to Barrett Brooks and Todd Fordham," Cowher said, "and we felt like the left side was more of a concern than the right side at this time." Now I took that to mean "we couldn't win if we had to play Fordham on the left side." So they took the prospect - in this case a draft pick - instead of Fordham. That part made sense. But to keep Brooks - with whom you also can't win - at left tackle instead of, say, running back Dante Brown, who can help on special teams, just didn't provide consistency to the philosophy.
Minor quibbles, you understand.
Call me Jimmy Quibbles today.
Sorting through the trash, I notice the Detroit Lions cut wide receivers Reggie Swinton and David Kircus, both good, young players. Not that the Steelers need a running back, but the Lions also cut Avon Cobourne. Another interesting Lions cut is IUP defensive end Andrew Battle, who ran a 4.5 40 and might make
for a decent 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Oakland Raiders will bring an interesting new defensive look to Heinz Field on Sunday. They hired former New England OLB coach Rob Ryan to run their defense. He's the son of Buddy Ryan and Rob hopes to bring with him the amoeba-style 3-4/4-3 mix the Patriots used. To that end, the Raiders added nose tackle Ted Washington and 7-time Pro Bowler Warren Sapp, who will be used as a playmaking end in the 3-4. When they want to slide into a 4-3, they can replace Sapp with run-stuffer John Parrella and former Patriots 4-3 end Bobby Hamilton. The player slated to stay on the field is 2003 first-round pick Tyler Brayton, a 6-6 end from Colorado who's in the Aaron Smith mold. The Raiders' problems are at LB. Tackles leader Eric Barton left in free agency, while Napoleon Harris and DeLawrence Grant are hoping to recover from minor knee surgery in time to play Sunday. The Raiders are also missing SS Derrick Gibson, not to mention FS Rod Woodson.
New England can do it, slide seamlessly from a 3-4 to a 4-3 without anyone realizing it. But if the Raiders are anything like the Houston Texans - a team that is in the 3-4 growing stages - the Steelers will run on them at will.
Conversely, the Raiders must be licking their chops over the Steelers' familiar rush-and-cover problems. The Raiders will try to shoot it out; the Steelers will try to grind it out. I believe it will be high scoring.
To be fair to Willie Williams, who was standing still on that 87-yard bomb by the Carolina Panthers, on the very next series the Panthers tried the same Go route. Williams was standing at least 15 yards back in anticipation and broke up the play. Savvy helps, I have to admit.
The safety on that 87-yarder, by the way, was cut.
And while we're being fair, Jim Jones could be this year's Hank Fraley. He's a little small and could pull a little better, but Jones is young, athletic, smart, versatile and best of all hungry. Maybe he's Fraley who didn't get the break as a rookie. Maybe he's hungrier.
Can Dick LeBeau find a way to pressure Rich Gannon? Will it matter with Gannon's three-step drops? And can Keydrick Vincent block Sapp on the first day of the season, when Sapp's fresh and mouthy?
It's so tough to hide your weaknesses. The last question worries me the most.