Steelers' off-season focus obvious

There is angst in the fandom today as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- a.k.a. the Paper Champions -- make their way to the Super Bowl and the Pittsburgh Steelers don't. But those same fans also realize their team would've needed a whole lotta luck to have defeated the Oakland Raiders, a passing team in a new age of football.

The Steelers learned this year that the game has changed. The defensive front seven, which they've meticulously built over the years to stop the run and rush the passer, isn't quite as important as the back seven and covering receivers. The fact that only one of the NFL's top 13 ground-gainers -- Tikki Barber of the one-and-done New York Giants -- made the playoffs is the best statistical support of the game's evolution. It was seconded by Lee Flowers' post-season assessment that his specialty, that of the run-stopping safety, has become as antiquated as the run-stuffing linebacker.

Flowers could always call a spade a spade, or a Paper Champion a Paper Champion, and it's apparent that he's taken a good, long look in the mirror, as the Steelers must. Here's what they'll see:

QUARTERBACK -- Tommy Maddox is a 31-year-old quarterback with one full season of experience. Surprising? Sure. But the fact the Steelers have even this much at a position they've ignored for several years is surprising. But Maddox does appear to be the long-term answer, yet he'll have no backups upon the trade/release of Kordell Stewart and the pending free agency of Charlie Batch.

Why the Steelers were so quick to yank Stewart yet so convinced of his staying power that they ignored the position in the last draft is disturbing, but it only reinforces the need to draft a quarterback early this April.

RUNNING BACK -- Jerome Bettis is learning that it's tougher to lose those calories as he moves into his thirties. Next he'll learn about the vicious cycle of bad wheels/big body/bad wheels as he attempts to rehab a knee injury and lose weight. The Steelers are giving their formerly great tailback until June 1 to shape up or they'll ship him out and throw $4 million in bonus money to the wind. Problem is, when guys work so hard to lose so much weight, muscle maladies follow. That's why it's so important, you kids out there, to be consistent in conditioning.

Perhaps the Steelers could be interested in a big back, such as Larry Johnson or Chris Brown, come draft day, and perhaps one or both will be available at pick No. 27. But Amos Zereoue could probably head this stable for another year in this pass-oriented new age.

WIDE RECEIVER -- Possibly the strongest position on the team will include Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El for at least the next two seasons. Most likely gone will be veteran Terance Mathis, who was unhappy with his lack of playing time this season. Rookie Lee Mays showed potential very early and very late. In between he showed a disturbing unwillingness to catch passes over the middle. He'll have a chance to move into the No. 4 spot next season and a fifth receiver will be added, probably in the late rounds of the draft.

TIGHT END -- Jerame Tuman blocked well and caught well at the end of the season, just in time for free agency. Not that he'll be overwhelmed by offers, but Tuman does have leverage with the Steelers, who're left with only Mark Bruener at the position.

Bruener, 31, is coming off of his second consecutive season-ending injury and has certainly slowed. The Steelers would love to upgrade a position that produced only 18 receptions for 133 yards in 2002, and may have to if Tuman doesn't sign cheaply.

OFFENSIVE LINE -- Perhaps the deepest position on the team, that depth will be tested by the certain loss of left tackle Wayne Gandy in free agency. The Steelers believe Oliver Ross or Mathias Nkwenti can replace Gandy, an average pass-blocker and below average run-blocker. If neither can handle the job, right tackle Marvel Smith, a left tackle in college, could switch sides.

In the middle, the Steelers are confounded by the snapping problems of Jeff Hartings, who endured a tough, injury-plagued season. Hartings also has a back-up, Chukky Okobi, nipping at his heels at center, but the Steelers are still on the hook for $3.84 million in pro-rated bonus for Hartings through the year 2006. Hartings is due a $3 million salary next season, when he will be 31. Could be a surprise move there, but don't count on it.

All-Pro guard Alan Faneca will team with promising No. 1 pick Kendall Simmons at guard throughout the forseeable future. There's also back-up help in Keydrick Vincent, and perhaps even Nkwenti.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- For whatever reason, the Steelers wanted end Ryan Denney in the second round last year to fortify the area. Former GM Tom Donahoe caught wind of it and drafted Denney for his Buffalo Bills, leaving the Steelers to select Randle El. The Steelers then chose their lineman in the seventh round and they like Brett Keisel's potential. Nose tackle Casey Hampton has developed into one of the league's best young run-stuffers and Aaron Smith had another outstanding season. Don't ask a fan; ask a coach because the staff loves the underrated Smith. The other end, Kimo von Oelhoffen, also played well and has become a team leader. Rodney Bailey is a quality backup to von Oelhoffen, who turns 32 on Jan. 30.

Noise is being made about the Steelers drafting a pass-rusher, but they certainly wouldn't expect that pressure to come from a 3-4 end, would they?

LINEBACKER -- The most heralded unit on the team actually could use help. However, with huge contracts recently signed by the overrated Jason Gildon and the decorated-yet-inconsistent Joey Porter, that won't happen. Kendrell Bell is the stud here, and James Farrior may be the next best linebacker for the Steelers, who could use some depth inside.

The other problem here involves the dime defense. The Steelers must consider moving Porter back to rush end in the passing-downs set and insert Bell in the middle. The Steelers learned last camp that Bell has a long, long way to go as a pass rusher out of a 3-point stance. Perhaps that time would be better used as the 1 in the 4-1-6.

SECONDARY -- The Steelers learned in the playoffs against the Cleveland Browns that the chasm between Chad Scott and their other outside corners is more like a canyon. That game alone may have given the coaching staff reason to scrap any designs of moving Scott to safety next season. Still, some inside the organization believe Scott was born to play safety, so the move could happen if a quality cornerback is found in the draft or free agency.

The starting safeties, Flowers and Brent Alexander, are likely gone, pending the spring harvest.

KICKERS -- Rookie find Jeff Reed filled a gaping hole at placekicker. Veteran punter Tom Rouen replaced injured Josh Miller late in the season, and it was thought that Rouen might steal the job after Miller and coach Bill Cowher engaged in a shouting match at the team's Christmas party. However, Miller and Cowher have made up, again, and the sharp-witted punter will return.

COACHING STAFF -- Dick LeBeau anyone? He's one former assistant who's always gotten along with Cowher, and one who would always be welcome in Pittsburgh. Perhaps a spot could be found for both LeBeau and former player Jerry Olsavsky with the departure of linebackers coach Mike Archer. Perhaps the staff could be expanded to include both.

Offensively, the Steelers have some fine assistants in line for the day coordinator Mike Mularkey lands a head-coaching job. Mularkey kept the offense at the cutting edge and was important in the quick development of Maddox. Without Maddox and Mularkey, the Steelers would be facing the impossibility of developing both a passing game and a pass defense. Instead, the focus is obvious.

--Jim Wexell

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