The Steelers are scheduled to report Sunday, July 31 and perform their run test the next day. The first practice will be Tuesday, and this is what Cowher and his staff will be looking at:
QUARTERBACK – Don't fall for the propaganda circulating that Ben Roethlisberger tanked in the playoffs. Yes, he flattened out, but if you look at the tape of the AFC Championship game you'll see a rookie quarterback who was given only 7 chances to pass on 28 first-down plays. The fact the tired running game was stuffed by the New England Patriots didn't hurt Roethlisberger on the three – count 'em three – play-action passes he was called upon to execute. Two of them went for big gains to Hines Ward and a third was misplayed by Plaxico Burress. Yes, Roethlisberger made some poor throws, but he also made some great throws in rallying the Steelers in the second half. Poor play-calling and a ridiculous field-goal attempt from inside the 5 in the fourth quarter had more to do with the loss than Roethlisberger, who showed off his athletic skills in both the final loss and the ensuing spring drills. The question here will be whether Roethlisberger's ego is in check. The other question is whether Charlie Batch, Brian St. Pierre or Antwaan Randle El will be the team's third-stringer.
RUNNING BACK – Duce Staley's hamstring snapped so hard at mid-season he claimed one of the Patriots punched him. But the injury didn't heal until the second half of the first-round playoff game. Staley ran hard against the New York Jets, but not hard enough for Cowher to start him in the semifinals – another bad call. Cowher left it up to Jerome Bettis, who is now 33 and has considered retirement. He also had trouble walking up flights of stairs this spring. Both players are question marks this season; Staley less of one, but he is 30. Third-down back Verron Haynes is entering the money year of his contract. Fourth-teamer Willie Parker will be worked into the lineup. This year's rookies – seventh-rounder Noah Herron, Shippensburg's John Kuhn and the smashing Zach Tuiasosopo (once arrested for beating up four parked cars with his fists and head) – are vying for the back-up job to fullback Dan Kreider, but that may not involve anything more than a spot on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVER – Hines Ward could be the straw that stirs the drink, or sucks the drink dry. Word from the South Side is they won't give the re-negotiating player more than $10 million in guaranteed money. That's a bit low for a four-time Pro Bowler who's also the heart and soul of not just the offense but the entire team. Sure, Ward has a year left on his contract, but he has a tendency to take things personally. He would be right in this instance. And for those who think he's merely a singles hitter, check the tape from the most recent Pro Bowl. On the other side, Randle El and Cedrick Wilson will replace Burress without missing a beat. Both showed deep speed this spring to complement their strong short games. Behind them are Lee Mays (money year), rookie Fred Gibson and special-teams ace Sean Morey. The strong cast behind them – Zamir Cobb, Walter Young, Nate Washington, Sam Simmons, Chris Collins – need exceptional circumstances to make the roster.
TIGHT END – First-round pick Heath Miller started slowly but picked up steam in the spring. He's now a legitimate threat to start on opening day. Veteran Jerame Tuman is also entering the final year of his contract, or "money year", and second-year vet Matt Kranchick has added weight to his 6-foot-7 frame and hopes it'll help his blocking. Matt Cushing, Walter Rasby and Marco Battaglia need an injury to make the team since all will be but a phone call away in case of an in-season injury.
OFFENSIVE LINE – Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings blew open the left side for a Bettis touchdown run in the Pro Bowl; they all return. Kendall Simmons returns to right guard and Max Starks moves up to take the place of Oliver Ross – arguably the worst $6 million free agent in NFL history. Behind them are Chukky Okobi, Jim Jones and Barrett Brooks. Rookie Trai Essex missed the spring because of academic rules; rookie Chris Kemoeatu is said to be a slow learner. Long snappers Joe Iorio (Penn State) and particularly Greg Warren will challenge Mike Schneck.
DEFENSIVE LINE – No problems this year, but Kimo von Oelhoffen, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel are in their final contract years. Hampton will likely test the free-agency waters, while KvO and Keisel have something to prove if they want to stick around. Pro Bowler Aaron Smith and back-ups Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke will be here, but there's little else in the cupboard.
LINEBACKER – If Alonzo Jackson makes the team, the unit will have depth problems. It's unlikely free agent Peter Boulware will accept the Steelers' small contract offer, and thus it'll be up to Dedrick Roper to dislodge Jackson. Joey Porter, Larry Foote, James Farrior and Clark Haggans form a solid group, with promising pass-rusher James Harrison the top back-up inside and outside. Fifth-round rookie ILB Rian "Goo" Wallace is big and active.
SECONDARY – Willie Williams, 34, will have to hold off Ricardo Colclough, Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor to keep the left cornerback job he stole from Chad Scott last season. Deshea Townsend enters the final year of his contract on the right side. Colclough is focusing on the nickel position, so McFadden could sneak ahead of him for Williams's job. Safeties Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu were victimized deep late last season. Mike Logan, Russ Stuvaints and Tyrone Carter provide solid depth. NFL Europe star Ron Israel was released by the team without explanation.
Year of redemption at hand
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