Steelers Survive Without Glamour Players

When the Steelers and Vikings meet tonight, it will be a matchup of the ironmen of NFL coaches.

The Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers have one major similarity in their teams. Coach Dennis Green was hired about a month before Bill Cowher and each of them has been the longest tenured coach with his current team in their respective conferences. But, beyond that, the similarities between the Vikes and Steelers end — giving fans a chance to see two very different teams squaring off in the home opener Oct. 16 at the Metrodome.

The Steelers have struggled at quarterback, with Kordell Stewart at times showing glimpses of special talent and at other times looking completely hideous. Many thought the Steelers would take Drew Brees in the draft this year, but the team seems satisfied with veteran Kent Graham and youngster Tee Martin as the backups. While the team technically still belongs to Stewart, there has to come a time when Cowher finally cuts his losses and goes with one of his other quarterbacks — both of whom will be getting more than a cursory look during the preseason.

The running game was supposed to be the domain of Richard Huntley. He had signed a contract extension in 2000 and was seen as the RB of the future. Instead, Jerome Bettis, in the last year of his contract, came through with a huge season and Huntley is now in Carolina and Bettis has a fat contract in his pocket. But, with age, he has shown he needs some help and the Steelers can trot out a variety of backs, including speedster Amos Zereoue, Bettis clone Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, former Lion Ron Rivers and fullbacks Jon Witman and Dan Kreider. At some point, all of these players will see action, but Bettis remains the go-to guy.

Wide receiver has been a sticking point for the Steelers since the Lynn Swann/John Stallworth days. The Steelers have consistently taken wide receivers high in the draft, only to be disappointed. The latest on that list is Plaxico Burress. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he has a rare combination of size and speed, but hasn't caught on with the Pittsburgh system to this point. Hines Ward and Will Blackwell are two other high draft choices who haven't panned out as hoped. Perhaps the most impressive wide receiver on the team is Bobby Shaw, who was an undrafted free agent in 1998. If the starters don't start carrying their water, Shaw could find himself going from a third receiver to being a starter.

At tight end, the Steelers use the position more as glorified linemen than receivers, but have some talent in Mark Bruener and Jerame Tuman. Both see a lot of action in the rushing scheme and occasionally are used as receivers.

The running game is effective because of the cohesion on the offensive line. Although perennial All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson is gone, the Steelers went out and got Lions center Jeff Hartings in free agency. He joins guards Alan Faneca and Rich Tylski and tackles Wayne Gandy and Marvel Smith to form a solid front five that is loaded with veteran backups, like 12th-year guard Roger Duffy, ninth-year tackle Larry Tharpe and ninth-year guard Rich Myslinski. Unlike the Vikings, the Steelers have depth and a blend of youth and experience that will assure a solid footing up front for the offense.

Defensively, the Steelers still run the 3-4 defense, but are depending on untested players up front to get the job done.

Rookie nose tackle Casey Hampton will soon be put in the middle of the defense and asked to be the main man in the defensive scheme. At the end, Aaron Smith is entering his third year and second full season as a starter. Joining him on the other end is eight-year vet Kimo von Oelhoffen. Even the backups are young, with second-year men Kendrick Clancy and Chris Combs. If the Steelers are to succeed, this young bunch will have to step up.

The key to a 3-4 defense is attacking linebackers, and Cowher has found a way to find mammoth linebackers with speed to make the defense work. In Jason Gildon, Earl Holmes, Mike Jones and Joey Porter he has a four-man wrecking crew. In an attempt to keep the continuity going in this unit, the Steelers drafted Kendrell Bell of Georgia in the second round to groom as the next big thing in the linebacker corps. The other linebackers are thin on experience, but with the Steelers' track record of creating stars like Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd and Levon Kirkland, don't be surprised if names like John Fiala and Clark Haggans become more familiar in the future.

The Steelers will provide a homecoming of sorts for former No. 1 pick Dewayne Washington, who was allowed to leave in free agency but has become a favorite of Cowher and the Steelers coaches. He recently signed a long-term extension, along with cornerback Chad Scott, to give the Steelers some security in the deep secondary. They are joined by safeties Lee Flowers and Mike Logan, but they are both being pushed by youngsters Ainsley Battles and Brent Alexander. Nickel backs include corners Jason Simmons and Deshea Townsend and the team has solid young veteran depth in Hank Poteat. What had been a weakness when the team signed Washington has become a strength and will be tested under fire vs. Randy Moss and Cris Carter.

The Steelers aren't a glamorous team that has kids flocking to buy jerseys of their players, but somehow they find a way to hold up against teams like the Ravens and Titans and give them all they can handle. With a Vikings offense looking to retool on the fly following the death of Korey Stringer, a team like the Steelers will be a good chance to see how that progress is coming along. VU

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