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Staley looks ready to carry Steelers

DETROIT -- Five observations on the Pittsburgh Steelers, based on the preseason game of Aug. 14 against the Detroit Lions:

1.  It's dangerous to read too much into any preseason game, let alone the opener, but there certainly seemed to be some symbolism on Saturday when Duce Staley was the starting tailback for the Steelers ahead of Jerome Bettis. The two had been splitting time in training camp and coach Bill Cowher indicated that there has been no decision made on the starter for the regular season and that Bettis will probably run with the first unit in the second exhibition outing. Still, the Saturday game was in Bettis' home town, he had a large contingent of family and friends in attendance at Ford Field and Staley got the call. Staley also got 11 carries, rushing for 45 yards, and looked both aggressive and spry in his first action with the Steelers, who signed the former Philadelphia starter as a free agent in the spring. It sure appeared the Pittsburgh staff wanted to get a good look at the seven-year veteran running behind the No. 1 offensive line, since he carried on nine of the 12 plays in the Steelers' initial series of the game, a drive that concluded when Staley fumbled through the end zone for a touchback. Bettis dramatically reduced his '04 salary to dodge the cap casualty ax in the offseason, but one has to wonder will that be enough to keep him on the roster. He carried five times for just five yards on Saturday, looked slow to the hole, and couldn't move the pile on consecutive second-and-one and third-and-one plays. In defense of Bettis, he was playing with the No. 2 offensive line, which had all kinds of problems, but he still looked ponderous. The 32-year-old Bettis hasn't posted a 1,000-yard season since 2001 and, over the last two years, averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. "The Bus" is such a great guy, a true ambassador for the game, that you hate to see his career end. But one has to wonder if there's any serviceable tread left on his tires. Staley is much quicker to the hole, a far better receiver and, while no youngster himself, is still three years younger than Bettis. It doesn't help Bettis, either, that second-year tailback Dante Brown had a very nice game, or that the Steelers think third-year pro Verron Haynes can play in the NFL and seem to like free agent rookie Willie Parker. It's hard to imagine the Steelers minus Bettis. But after a disastrous '03 campaign in which Pittsburgh had its worst rushing season since the 1970 merger, and ranked 31st in rushing offense, the Steelers need somebody to re-energize the ground game. From here, it sure looks like Staley, who had three 1,000-yard seasons with the Eagles, will be the guy in whom Pittsburgh entrusts its running game.

2.  Notable is that Staley churned out much of his yardage against the Lions behind the left side of the Pittsburgh offensive line. That is significant because injuries in 2003 meant the left side, tackle Marvel Smith and guard Alan Faneca, started just six games together last year. In fact, Faneca, who has played in three consecutive Pro Bowl contests, had to slide out to left tackle when Smith was sidelined by a pinched nerve in his neck, and actually started nine games there. It's key for the Steelers, though, to get the line back on track. The injury to Smith, and the discovery that right guard Kendall Simmons suffers from a hyperglycemia, a diabetes-like condition, really ravaged the unit last year. The fact Pittsburgh ran the ball so poorly in '03 certainly was attributable in part to the injury woes and the inability to get the starters on the field together. Line coach Russ Grimm is one of the NFL's best at his job, and his excellence earned him an interview with Chicago for the head coach vacancy there, but there was no way he could cobble together a solid unit last year. The line in general has played well in camp but the left side, where both starters are former high-round picks, is where everything starts. Center Jeff Hartings is very good, although his knees continue to pose some long-term problems, and Simmons was on his way to becoming one of the NFL's best young guards before his illness caused him to lose considerable weight. There appear to be, though, two problem areas: Oliver Ross still doesn't look like the ultimate answer at right tackle and might still be pushed in preseason by journeyman Todd Fordham. Second, the Steelers don't have much depth at all on the line. The No. 3 tackle, Barrett Brooks, was terrible on Saturday night, allowing at least one sack and being twice flagged for holding penalties. The Steelers couldn't afford all of the injuries that struck them in 2003 and things haven't changed in that regard.


3.  If you have played pass defense as poorly as the Steelers have in recent seasons -- even with statistical improvement from No. 20 in 2002 to 11th last year, Pittsburgh was shoddy in its "back end" performance -- it's time for a change. And the Steelers secondary unit has undergone a pretty dramatic overhaul, with three new starters, leaving left cornerback Chad Scott the lone holdover. The three new front-liners -- right cornerback Deshea Townsend, free safety Chris Hope and strong safety Troy Polamalu -- have an aggregate 16 starts among them. And all of those have been by Townsend, the team's longtime "nickel" cornerback and a six-year veteran whose lack of size might be of some concern. But the team was correct in opting to get younger and the "greening" of the secondary is apt to be an ongoing theme for the future, perhaps even during the regular season. From our vantage point, the potential star of the group is Polamalu, the first-round pick in 2003 who did not play much as a rookie. The former Southern Cal star is a terrific athlete, a big hitter who probably runs better than all but a few safeties in the NFL, but who will have to progress quickly with his on-the-job training. Polamalu, whose immense mane dangles down below his helmet, is hard to miss, and not just because of his hair. He is very active and the bet here is that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is usually quite creative when he has a safety of Polamalu's athletic skills, will use him in all sorts of innovative ways. Hope didn't play on Saturday because of a minor injury, so it's tough to get a read on him, although word is he has enjoyed a productive camp. The one cautionary note for Hope, and really for the rest of the new starters in the secondary, is that LeBeau's scheme is incredibly complicated. Hope has the added pressure of calling the coverage packages and assimilating the mental side of things, for him and the others, will be an element that bears pretty close scrutiny. Watch for a pair of young corners, Ike Taylor and Ricardo Colclough, to get lots of playing time and maybe, by 2005, to become the starters. Taylor was a fourth-round pick in 2003, has the kind of size everyone likes at the position, and is already entrenched as the "nickel" guy. Colclough was the team's second-rounder this spring and the former Tusculum star is very, very raw. But he is going to get chances to demonstrate his obvious but underdeveloped skills, probably as a kick returner first, as a rookie. He had three tackles and a pass defensed on Saturday, appeared very confident, and can run. He also returned two kickoffs for 78 yards and four punts for 53 yards. The Steelers already have a tremendous return threat in wideout Antwaan Randle El, but the presence of Colclough augurs all kinds of possibilities. One other thing to watch for on defense: With LeBeau back for a second stint as coordinator, linebacker Joey Porter will have a big year, for sure. Porter experienced a setback last year when he suffered a gunshot wound. But he is one of the most versatile weak-side linebackers in the entire NFL and LeBeau will get him lots of opportunities to make plays.

4.  If the Saturday night game offered even a hint of what first-round quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can be when he gets some snaps under his belt, the Steelers made a savvy pick for the future of the position. The team's first quarterback choice in the opening round since Pittsburgh tabbed Mark Malone in 1980, Roethlisberger demonstrated great poise in working nearly two full quarters. Barring an injury to Tommy Maddox (who moved the team well when he was in the game), or a season that just goes completely in the tank, Roethlisberger won't dislodge the veteran from the starting job this year. But the 2005 season could be another story. The most notable thing beyond palpable composure is how well Roethlisberger moves around for such a big guy and how accurate he is on the run. His first pass completion came off "waggle" action, as if the Steelers coaches wanted to reinforce his ability to get outside the pocket, and to make something happen. There are scouts who contended before the draft that Roethlisberger had more potential upside than the other quarterbacks chosen in the first round. It's way too early to tell if they were right, but the former Miami (Ohio) star sure looks like the real deal. Steelers coaches agree he has been solid both mentally and physically in camp, has hardly been overwhelmed by the pressure, and has a bright future. With the season-ending knee injury to veteran Charlie Batch, the youngster has already moved up the depth chart to No. 2, and figures to retain that perch once the season begins. If anything, coming out of the opening preseason game, Roethlisberger might have to stay in the pocket a bit more and use his size and presence there. Make no mistake, the guy doesn't have "happy feet," but there were times he opted to move around prematurely. Then again, he was playing behind a makeshift line that wasn't offering much protection at all.


5.  Despite playing in three straight Pro Bowl games, wide receiver Hines Ward still might rate as the NFL's best unheralded player, and at any position. The six-year veteran just keeps getting better every season and he was terrific on Saturday working against the Lions' first-unit defense. Let's be honest, when Ward was drafted in 1998, no one could have figured he would be this good. Heck, no one was even sure what position he should play, after a career at the University of Georgia in which Ward lined up everywhere, including at quarterback. But he has made himself a player, a guy who has averaged 100.3 catches, 1,165 yards and 8.7 touchdown grabs over the past three seasons. He is splendid in the clutch, seems to make more timely plays than a guy has a right to, and is a consummate professional. He could have stayed out of camp, given his contractual grievance, but didn't, and Steelers brass definitely won't forget that. He'll get a new deal next year. Notable, too, is that fellow wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who skipped some offseason workouts and apparently isn't thrilled with his contract, either, has been a model citizen in camp. Burress didn't do much Saturday, but seems motivated, and hasn't allowed his personal feelings to interfere with his responsibilities. Also, he's smart enough to know that he is playing for his next contract, since he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Teams that might be interested in Burress are going to watch him closely, and he seems to sense he needs a big year to get the big bucks. While on the subject of wideouts, keep an eye on Zamir Cobb, an undrafted free agent from Temple. He is the school's career leader in receptions, is very smooth, and is getting a lot of practice time in camp with Roethlisberger. The two have developed a comfort level and, if Roethlisberger throws him the ball enough in preseason, Cobb could squeeze onto the roster.

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