Coordinators optimistic at break

PITTSBURGH – Ken Whisenhunt sees no reason to change. Dick LeBeau has not only embraced change, he likes the results.

The two Steelers coordinators expressed optimism about their respective units as the clock ticks down on the final week of spring practices.

The Steelers will complete Organized Team Activities today and won't return to the playing field until the start of training camp in Latrobe on July 31. The two coordinators, on the brink of their second seasons on the job, can't wait.

"We've got some new looks," LeBeau said of the defense. "I think if teams are just taking our video from last year and getting ready for that, they're going to see some things they haven't seen."

Last season the Steelers were first against the run in the AFC, third against the pass and first in fewest points allowed. Sacks jumped from 35 to 41 under LeBeau and turnovers jumped from 26 to 32. He credited the improvement to the changes he instituted last year. And this year?

"We've had a further application of that in that our defense is much further ahead right now than where they were at this time last year, and we put in quite a bit more material. It's pretty difficult for the young guys because they're getting it all for the first time, but our veteran players have really done a good job of running a lot of defenses.

"I think this has been an outstanding camp for us."

LeBeau explained that he and coach Bill Cowher "have talked, and he had some ideas of things he wanted to look at, and I got to sit down and improvise a few things."

The result is more blitzes out of different formations and personnel packages. The Steelers haven't made any personnel changes to their starting defense -- yet. They lost inside linebacker Kendrell Bell in free agency and released cornerback Chad Scott, but both players were injured most of last season and lost their jobs.

While Larry Foote has secured Bell's former Mac inside linebacker position, Willie Williams will be challenged at left cornerback by Ike Taylor, Ricardo Colclough and second-round draft pick Bryant McFadden in training camp.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about our young players – our draft choices and free agents," LeBeau said. "I think as a group they're as good as any group I've seen starting out."

Whisenhunt can't make the same statement. In his first season as offensive coordinator, he oversaw what may have been the best performance ever by a rookie quarterback, but Whisenhunt said Ben Roethlisberger has made strides this spring.

"He's progressing very well," Whisenhunt said. "You know, from the standpoint of how much he studied and worked in the off-season you can see a lot of it starting to click out here for him. Certainly he knows a lot more of the offense; certainly he's a lot more comfortable with it. You see a lot of that from the way he interacts with the players and also how quick he is on his reads and some of his throws. I think getting the amount of reps that he's gotten has really been beneficial to him."

With Whisenhunt calling the plays in 2004, the Steelers were first in the AFC in rushing, but 20th in the NFL in passing. He doesn't expect the run-pass ratio to change much, in spite of his quarterback's progress.

"You're not going to get away from what you did that won 15 games," Whisenhunt said. "We're still going to run the ball, but I certainly think that we can expand on what we did just because everybody's more comfortable with everybody. Certainly Ben and a lot of the offensive guys are maybe a little more comfortable with me, and hopefully I've learned a little bit, gotten better, and we as a staff are more comfortable with the guys we have, and we're excited about it."

At last year's training camp, Whisenhunt stressed a physical approach. During goal-line drills, the Steelers frequently plowed into the middle of the line all four downs. He'll use the same approach at this camp.

"It seemed to work pretty good last year," he said. "For me, I learned a lesson last year, and that's you establish that mentality at training camp. It paid dividends for us. It starts with the head coach, and that's what he wants to do and I agree with that. So it's hopefully a philosophy we'll continue with."

And LeBeau's approach to training camp this year?

"I want to keep growing," he said. "I just can't say enough about the attitude and the effort that our guys put in there. We want to make sure we hold onto that. I think that's the key to this group of men. X's and O's? We just try not to get in their way too much with those and really keep them focused on them playing with the speed and focus that they have, and we'll be looking to keep growing in those areas."


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