Steelers looking to bounce back in 2004

After a disappointing 2003 season the Steelers are looking to return to contention in 2004.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:51 AM ET
By Jim Wexell | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the Steelers last won a championship, and, on paper, it would appear the barren stretch will continue this season.

Of course, they don't play the games on paper.

The Steelers have made few changes to last year's 6-10 team, but the changes they've made have been subtle and potentially sublime.

Take the Steelers' one big-ticket item for example. Duce Staley was acquired from the free-agent market, and the 29-year-old running back gained only 463 yards last season. However, the previous season he was the Eagles' offensive MVP and then played that way in the 2003 playoffs.

The Steelers have replaced four starters on defense since last year's opener, but all four replacements are homegrown players. The big change defensively is the addition of coordinator Dick LeBeau, who should help improve the worst turnover (25) and sack (35) numbers of the Bill Cowher regime.

Quarterbacks: Tommy Maddox has been sharp in camp and in preseason games, and he understands the position he's in with first-round draft pick Ben Roethlisberger waiting in the wings. Maddox is Roethlisberger's future backup, but for now, Maddox is the man. He'll be helped by the return of a running game, which will make his play-action passing far more effective. With Charlie Batch on injured reserve, Roethlisberger is the second-teamer. He's displayed outlandish tools and a quick feel for the speed of the game. However, he needs at least a year to refine his mechanics. Having to play Roethlisberger this season might doom the Steelers, although it would better serve their long-term interests. The third-team quarterback is Brian St. Pierre, a fifth-round pick in '03. Grade: B.

Running backs: New offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is a Joe Gibbs/Dan Henning disciple, and his dedication to shaping a physical running game was welcomed by Staley, Jerome Bettis & Co. In the opening preseason game, Staley carried nine times on the first possession. He remained in the game on third downs and showed fine hands and blocking ability. Bettis played equally well as the starter in the second preseason game, but he was replaced on third downs by Staley, who'll own the starting job. Bettis remains a competent plow horse who'll be used as a change-up and injury replacement. Another third-down back, and one who is physical enough to play all three downs, is third-year player Verron Haynes. A fourth halfback is Dante Brown, who led the Steelers in preseason rushing last season and was again the leader after two games this preseason. FB Dan Kreider is one of the league's top lead blockers. Grade: B.

Receivers: Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward form one of the most productive WR tandems in the league, and both are in top shape. The best receiver on the team, however, could be Antwaan Randle El, who has taken to the position switch, and in his third year is showing Lynn Swann-type ability. He'll certainly be on management's mind when Burress becomes a free agent next March. The extra receivers are Lee Mays, Chris Doering and Fred Milons. The starting tight end is veteran Jerame Tuman, with Jay Riemersma showing in camp he has plenty of life left. Veteran Matt Cushing and sixth-round pick Matt Kranchick will also make the squad. The 6-foot-7 Kranchick isn't much of a blocker, but his height and 4.5 speed will add up to big plays. Grade: A-minus.

Offensive linemen: ORG Kendall Simmons is on injured reserve, hurting the Redskins-style running game Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were hoping to install, but the line will survive as long as OLT Marvel Smith remains healthy. His shoulder injury wrecked the team last year. Alan Faneca might be the best left guard in the NFL. Jeff Hartings is the center, Keydrick Vincent steps in at right guard, and Oliver Ross has shown improvement at right tackle. Todd Fordham and rookie Max Starks are backup tackles, and Chukky Okobi is a quality backup on the interior. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive linemen: This could be the team's best overall unit. NT Casey Hampton is coming off his first Pro Bowl, and he did not let it go to his head, or stomach. Hampton weighs 327, some 11 pounds less than at the same time a year ago. DLE Aaron Smith is one of the best 3-4 ends in the NFL. DRE Kimo von Oelhoffen led the Steelers with eight sacks last year and seems to improve with age. Backups Travis Kirschke, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke and Kendrick Clancy are quality players. Grade: A.

Linebackers: What has annually been a strength is becoming a question mark. ROLB Joey Porter has eight sacks in his last 25 games. RILB Kendrell Bell missed minicamp and a week of training camp with minor injuries as he attempts to recapture the magic of his '01 rookie season. LILB James Farrior is solid, but he doesn't make many big plays. LOLB Clark Haggans was not the team's first choice in free agency, and his backup, Alonzo Jackson, has shown very little. Inside reserves Larry Foote and Clint Kriewaldt are serviceable. Grade: C-minus.

Defensive backs: Only Chad Scott returns to his starting position in the secondary, and that's probably why the Steelers are 50-1 long shots to win the Super Bowl this season. But several young players have the potential to make the unit a strength by season's end. Deshea Townsend took over for Dewayne Washington at the RCB spot and returns to start opposite Scott, who'll have second-round pick Ricardo Colclough breathing down his neck by season's end. Another young talent is Ike Taylor, who'll also push Scott through what will likely be his final season with the team. Troy Polamalu has shown hints of greatness at strong safety. Chris Hope replaces Brent Alexander at free safety to complete an athletic secondary that will suffer some growing pains. Grade: B-minus.

Special teams: Kevin Spencer earned his paycheck as special-teams coach after turning around the coverage units last year. Randle El was the AFC's best punt returner over the final 10 games. Colclough will greatly boost the kickoff returns. New P Chris Gardocki is an upgrade. PK Jeff Reed is solid. Grade: B-plus.

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