Tuesday Morning Blitz

A few weeks back, the Pittsburgh Steelers officially entered their second consecutive offseason with significant concerns in their defensive backfield, specifically at the safety position. What was apparent to the serious football fan in 2001 became painfully obvious to even the most casual observer last season. Passes rained down from the heavens on the undermanned Steelers secondary, and the team's lackadaisical approach to the issue bit them squarely in the hindquarters.

To their credit, the Steelers Front Office has made a number of attempts in the past to improve the safety position, from drafting workout warrior Scott Shields in the second round, to signing vets like Travis Davis, Brent Alexander, and Mike Logan. Each move has proven better than the next, certainly, but in the grand scheme of things, there have clearly been failures. While Alexander has been a solid player for the most part, he is severely limited. Logan was expected to oust Alexander from his free safety post, adding speed, athleticism, and playmaking ability in the process, but failed to wrest the job from his grasp.

Many observers, myself included, had targeted University of Miami safety Ed Reed as the ideal player to cure the free safety woes, but Baltimore wisely snatched him up with the 24th pick overall in last years draft. All Reed did was garner Pro Bowl consideration and finish third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, driven largely by his 5 interceptions and pair of blocked kicks. Pundits laughed at his premature celebration and fumble against Cincinnati, but were quickly silenced by his 10-tackle effort against Pittsburgh in late December. Fact is, Reed was within reach, and the Steelers ignored him.

The Good

All is not lost, so long as the team is serious about reloading the safety position, as well as depth throughout the secondary. There are several talented safeties available in the draft, and all would be an upgrade athletically over last year's starting tandem of Lee Flowers and Brent Alexander. Pittsburgh made a valiant effort to sign Superbowl MVP Dexter Jackson, and has shown interest in acquiring Jacksonville's Donovin Darius, but the asking price was just too steep in both cases. Certainly the Steelers do not want to overpay for a good-but-not-great free safety, nor handicap their draft day maneuvering by blowing a high pick on an aging run defender. Good decisions, in both cases.

The Bad

It's become quite clear that the Steelers would prefer a veteran at safety. Their consideration of Darius, Jackson, and the Texans' Eric Brown seems proof enough. The team does have other needs, though none screams the way this one does. With a starter in place at safety, the team could focus on a cornerback like Texas A&M's Sammy Davis, or a tight end like Tennessee's Jason Witten. Or, perhaps the Steelers' true desire is a future quarterback like Cal's Kyle Boller, or Chris Simms of Texas. Anything but a safety…just like last year.

The Ugly

Worse yet, the Steelers could repeat the same mistakes they made last season, continually missing out on the premiere safety prospects. While Kendall Simmons and Antwaan Randle El were nice players and have a bright future in Pittsburgh, none approached Ed Reed's production, and the mid-round pick it would have taken to move up certainly would not have been missed. Without a legitimate selection at the position the Steelers will be forced to start Mike Logan, a hell of a player in the dime, but the same player that could not supplant the incumbents in each of the last two seasons. Questions have been raised about Logan's ability to assimilate Tim Lewis' complex defense; while this can be covered up in the dime, Logan could be exposed as a starter.

The Outlook

More likely, Logan is playing his last year as a Steeler, considering this is the final year of his contract. While a nice player to have on the roster, his anticipated impact was far bigger than what he's delivered to date. Logan will earn nearly $1.2M this season -- as a dimeback. The team could go safety in the first round with a player like USC's Troy Polamalu and start him as a rookie, move up in the second for their QB in Simms, then grab any one of a number of large corners like Cal's Nnamdi Asomugha or Charles Tillman of Louisiana-Lafayette in the mid-to-late rounds to fill Logan's dime role next season. Heck, both wouldn't hurt. Or, the team can go with Davis early -- a move that would allow Chad Scott to slide inside in the dime -- and grab Julian Battle of Tennesee or North Carolina State's Terrence Holt a round or two later. The Steelers can then bring in a veteran-on-the-cheap like Sammy Knight post-draft to buy them some time to develop. Waiting too long, in the draft and otherwise, however, could be disasterous. Again.

Random thoughts

:: Too much is being made of Charlie Batch's recent signing of a two-year, $2M contract; the most noteworthy thing Batch has done since December 17, 2000 is sign two deals for back-up jingle with the Steelers. That was the last time a Batch-led team actually won a game. Batch went 8-of-18 for 110 yards and an interception in that contest, an ugly 10-7 Detroit Lions victory over the NY Jets. Sure, the Steelers now have an affordable veteran back-up at quarterback -- in fact, now they have two -- just be careful what you wish for.

:: The way I have slammed Ohio State's Michael Doss all year long, I will owe him a huge apology should he actually turn out to be the dominant pro safety many have hyped him to be. I just don't see that apology being written anytime soon. Man, there I go again.

:: Speaking of apologies, I will be writing one to Steelers second-year safety Chris Hope towards the end of the 2003 season. Everything I read on Hope pre-draft 2002 questioned his toughness, physicality, and tackling ability, absolute prerequisites for being a Steelers defender, in my opinion. I was appalled to see him selected in the third round -- salt in the wound of missing on Ed Reed and Michael Lewis in consecutive rounds, I thought. At least until he knocked the snot out of Titans 236-pound running back Eddie George. I'm a believer; this kid will be a player.

:: Don't be surprised if Lee Flowers ends up in New England in late June, after all, with a one-year, vet-minimum arrangement in place, of course. Bill Belichick still loves his vets, and the thinking is that Lawyer Milloy will be moved in trade, or released outright.

:: Put this name in your pocket and save it for later -- Northern Colorado defensive end Anthony Dunn. The Steelers front office could do far worse than making this kid their sixth-rounder given the dearth of depth outside. Dunn hails from the same Division II program that brought us stud DE Aaron Smith, and is an impressive athlete to say the least. Measured in at just under 6-3, and 255 lbs at his Pro Day, and ran in the mid-4.6 range; his vertical jump (39), short-shuttle (4.21), and three-cone (6.85) drill times were equal to or better than those posted by shutdown corner Marcus Trufant in Indianapolis, and his 30 reps in the bench reveal sufficient strength to hold the point as a 3-4 OLB. Dunn recorded 68 tackles, 21 tackles-for-loss, 10 sacks, and 8 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles, and an interception as a senior in 2002, and has totaled 63 TFLs, 28 sacks, 20 passes defended, and 5 INTs in his career as a Bear.

Let this one marinate …

Speed, speed, and more speed. Nothing wrong with speed. The Steelers, like the rest of the National Football League's 32 teams, are looking to get faster in the secondary, and especially at safety. The idea is that speed means a guy can cover. That's all well and good, but they better be able to tackle, too. Supposedly, the NFL's version of football has crossed over some point-of-no-return, and we will inevitably see three cornerbacks and a single cover safety as the base secondary alignment. Um, right. Every year it is something different, and every year it is the end-all, be-all of how things should be done. Please, football for as long as I have known has always been about blocking and tackling. Go ahead, NFL, fill up your secondaries with fast, nimble guys; scorn the physical strong safeties whose strength is playing the run. I for one pray the Steelers have a big, bruising running back in place when you do. And a hammer at SS -- that can run, of course.

Donny Drummond


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