Defensive packages are being juggled

Originally Published: September 1, 2003
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

After the loss of star linebacker Joey Porter to a gunshot wound that will sideline him indefinitely, the Pittsburgh Steelers were scrambling Monday to make changes to the "base" and "sub" defensive packages, and possibly to the roster as well.

Porter had a bullet removed from his right thigh Monday night during surgery at a local Pittsburgh hospital. Steelers coach Bill Cowher said Tuesday that Porter could be out "as few as two weeks ... and as long as 6-8 weeks."

To help fill the void, the Steelers brought in former Cincinnati Bengals starter Steve Foley Monday for an interview. While the team would like to sign Foley, who was released Sunday after starting 45 games in his five-season tenure with the Bengals, there is some competition for his services.

More significant than adding new players, however, are the changes the Steelers will enact with two veteran incumbent linebackers.

Fourth-year veteran Clark Haggans, who ironically is a former teammate and roommate of Porter's at Colorado State, will be elevated to the starting lineup in the Steelers' basic 3-4 front. He will also fill Porter's role as the weakside rush end when Pittsburgh is in its "nickel" alignment.

"Losing a guy like Joey, that's a huge blow to our defense, but I think the defense is going to rally around this," wide receiver Hines Ward told the Associated Press on Monday. "You can't replace a Joey Porter, of course, but Clark can go out there and be a productive linebacker. I thought he had a great training camp."

Inside linebacker James Farrior, a six-year pro and already a starter in the "base" look, will play Porter's middle linebacker position in the "dime" package.

"Everybody's got to pick it up and we know it," said strongside linebacker Jason Gildon. "We're lucky that we've got good people who can do it."

League sources said that Haggans, a fifth-round choice in 2000, accompanied Porter on the weekend trip to watch their alma mater play the University of Colorado on Saturday evening. It is not yet known if Haggans, whose three-year career includes just one start, was with Porter at the time of the shooting.

Haggans, 26, appeared to be a player in ascent over the first half of the 2002 season, as he registered six sacks in the first eight games. In the final 10 contests (including a pair of playoff games), however, Haggans posted just one-half of a sack. In 32 career appearances, he has 31 tackles.

At one point in the offseason, it appeared the Houston Texans, who also align in a 3-4 front, might sign Haggans to a restricted free agent offer sheet, but a deal was never consummated. Haggans instead re-signed with the Steelers, for the one-year qualifying offer of $605,000.

The choice of Haggans to play the rush end in pass situations comes after the Steelers failed for a second straight preseason to transform inside linebacker Kendrell Bell into a sack threat. Bell, the league's defensive rookie of the year in 2001, looks uncomfortable in the pass-rush role and has been ineffective there. For now, it appears that the coaches have abandoned the experiment.

Farrior has played on third down in the past, largely during his first five seasons in the league with the New York Jets, when the former first-round pick was used mostly as an outside linebacker. He is regarded as a solid pass defender.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE