Four new starters projected on defense

DETROIT -- Twenty-five years ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were still winning Super Bowl titles on a regular basis, the franchise was much more into replenishing than rebuilding.

When wide receivers Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin stepped aside, there were a couple future Hall of Fame pass-catchers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, members of a 1974 bounty regarded by many as the greatest draft class of all-time, to move into the lineup. Strong safety Glen Edwards left and he was replaced by Donnie Shell. The retirement of linebacker Andy Russell elevated Loren Toews to starter status. And he was eventually supplanted by Robin Cole, a first-rounder who had served an impatient apprenticeship.

It seemed the Steelers, who hoarded nascent talent like Ebenezer Scrooge stashed away pennies, always had an emerging young player anxious for playing time.

Times have changed, of course, and so have the Steelers. The team hasn't won a Super Bowl since the 1979 season and hasn't appeared in one since 1995. The old rallying cry "One for the Thumb" -- based on filling four fingers in six seasons with Super Bowl rings -- is now a quarter-century old. Even the legendary Myron Cope, the club's colorful and indomitable radio analyst, missed last Saturday's preseason opener, yoy, as he recovers from a bout of pneumonia.

And the salary cap and free agency have made it all but impossible for any team to amass the kind of depth Pittsburgh enjoyed during its halcyon days of the '70s.

That said, there is a definite youth movement afoot with the Steelers this year, as the club begins the early phases of what figures to be a period of transition for coach Bill Cowher. The loyal 'burghers don't reconcile change very well but, with the beloved Steelers more stagnant than stable now, a makeover that should feature several younger players and a lot of recent draft choices might not be such a bad thing.

The uniforms remain the readily recognizable black and gold but the Steelers, who exited 2003 black and blue, certainly are starting to go green, blending in new players for 2004, readying even more youngsters for starting gigs in the not too distant future. Unlike the mid-1970s, when the Steelers were infusing fresh talent into the lineup, the young blood on the current roster probably doesn't include any future Hall of Fame members. There is, though, a growing nucleus of solid youngsters.

"We're kind of in a funny stage," said Hines Ward, the splendid six-year veteran wideout and suddenly one of the Steelers' elder statesmen. "We are certainly not an old team. But you look over your shoulder and there are some good, young players here, guys whose time is going to come pretty quickly."

For some younger veterans, especially those in the secondary, the time has arrived. The Steelers, whose pass defense was far shoddier than its No. 11 statistical ranking of 2003, have enacted a wholesale overall in the secondary, with three new starters (safeties Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu, and cornerback Deshea Townsend). There will be a fourth new starter on defense, either the currently injured Clark Haggans or replacement Alonzo Jackson, at strong-side linebacker, the opening created by the salary cap-related release of Jason Gildon this spring.

On offense, the only new first-unit member probably will be tailback Duce Staley, who likely will replace Jerome Bettis as the starter. A year from now, however, the Steelers could have a new quarterback in first-round pick Ben Roethlisberger; Antwaan Randle El could be a starting wide receiver if Plaxico Burress departs in free agency; and there could be a change or two on the line as well.

The one component that won't change is Bill Cowher, who leads all NFL head coaches in continuous service to one franchise, and who was recently awarded a two-year extension through the 2007 season. Cowher, who tied a league record by taking the Steelers to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons but has led them to postseason play only twice in the past half-dozen years, knows a team cannot remain tied too long to the past.

With that in mind, his staff includes a half-dozen newcomers, with both the coordinators different than a year ago. Veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, embarking on his second stint in Pittsburgh, will bring back the "zone blitz" style he popularized during his first go-round. Ken Whisenhunt is in his first season as a coordinator, will have a ways to go to replace the inventiveness of predecessor Mike Mularkey, but seems to have been well received by players.

"Nothing against the (assistants) who left," said one Steelers defensive veteran, "but maybe it was time for a few fresh faces and some (updated) ideas around here. I think we all needed a wake-up call, you know, a kick in the ass."

This is, after all, a club that was 6-10 in 2003 and, in some aspects, wasn't even as good as its dismal record. Cowher isn't given to making alterations just to be able to say that he shook things up a bit, but in a division where Pittsburgh no longer dominates and where longtime doormat Cincinnati might even have better personnel than the Steelers, no one can contest that a makeover wasn't in order.

Pittsburgh really hadn't made a major skill position change on merit -- that is, one that did not include an injury, or free agency exit -- since quarterback Tommy Maddox supplanted Kordell Stewart as the starter early in 2002. Every team wants continuity, for sure, but the Steelers were becoming maybe a bit too set in their ways.

At the end of the 2003 season, the Steelers 2000-2003 draft classes had produced only five starters. That complement has been increased to at least nine now, could mushroom by one or two more during the season, and will continue to grow in '05, as the process of reworking the lineup moves forward. No one is suggesting a full-blown youth movement, or any concession that the Steelers are prepared to sacrifice a season or two as the roster gets greener, but, in the lexicon of politics, Pittsburgh is certainly "trending younger."

Given the past few seasons, when Pittsburgh has lost some of its statute in the division, that isn't such a bad thing.

Pittsburgh is an old, throwback town, one where season tickets are willed to survivors, and where the fans still cling to the memories of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, and players of that vintage. Creating new memories and new heroes, younger players to whom the locals can raise an Iron City beer, is overdue.

"Look around the locker room and you don't see as many (older veterans)," said strong safety Polamalu, the team's 2003 first-rounder and a projected Pro Bowl performer in the near future. "It's starting to settle in mentally on some of us younger guys that (the onus) is on us to continue the tradition this franchise has had for a long time. We don't necessarily want to take a step back to move two steps ahead. The moving ahead part, and doing it now, that's what we all want to accomplish."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.