The answer: "Without a doubt." Feeling encouraged, my next question was obvious. "Will the Steelers finish 11-5 or better?" The answer: "Signs point to yes." Wow. "Will the Steelers finish 12-4 or better?" Answer: "Outlook not so good." So there you have it, 11-5.
So, how could a team roundly expected to finish out of the playoff race put together an 11-5 season? Perplexed, I turned to the magic 8 ball. "How are the Steelers going to finish 11-5?" The response: "Ask again later". Left to my own devices, my answer is this: They are bigger, stronger, and faster.
With Duce Staley carrying the load, and Willie Parker perhaps getting some touches on 3rd down, the 2004 edition of the Steelers are stronger and faster at running back. This is very good news for a team that prides itself on running the football. Staley bulked up to a bus-like 242 during the off season, and would be considered the "big back" on most NFL teams. Parker, a perfect compliment to Staley, should see some action as a 3rd down back on sweeps and screens. If Duce Staley is good enough to keep that eighth man in the box on a consistent basis, that alone could be a very important turn of events for this team.
Not counting a healthy Marvel Smith, the only other significant change on offense will be Keydrick Vincent at guard for the injured Kendall Simmons. Certainly, the ability Simmons brings to guard will be missed. However, if nothing else, the 6-5 330 plus Vincent does bring more size and strength to the position. A more powerful running game could follow.
The Steelers add three new starters on defense: OLB Clark Haggans, SS Troy Polamalu and FS Chris Hope. Haggans takes over for the slow footed and presently unemployed Jason Gildon, lightning-fast Troy Polamalu takes over at strong safety for Mike Logan, and big-hitting Chris Hope moves in at free safety to replace the extra-slow footed Brent Alexander. How each player will perform as a regular NFL starter remains to be seen. What is already certain, however, is that each player is significantly faster than his predecessor. With the requisite speed on the field to run a true zone-blitz, Dick LeBeau may just be able to turn this defense loose. Plus, with Hope and Polamalu, opposing wide receivers will be hearing footsteps in the secondary for the first time since the days of Myron "ring my" Bell.
The 2004 edition of the Steelers' special teams will also be faster and more destructive. Standouts Chidi Iwuoma and Antwaan Randle El are joined by new speedster Ricardo Colclough, new coverage ace Sean Morey, and big Brett Keisel who will resume his role as wedge-buster. With these five players, the Steelers field the nucleus of what could be the most talented special teams unit in the league.
A faster, stronger running game, more speed all around on defense, and more big plays from special teams. That may be the ticket to 11-5. After all, who am I to question the 8 ball.
2004 Steelers are bigger, stronger & faster
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