Thursday, August 31
Steelers armed with big question mark

Nobody expects much from the Steelers this season. Nobody except Dan Rooney, one of five new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The big question is whether or not Kordell Stewart can play consistently. But there are other variables that will determine how effective Stewart might be.

Center Dermontti Dawson could be out a good portion of the season with a bad hamstring. That means there will be an inexperienced offensive line in front of Stewart. If the Steelers can't control the line of scrimmage and establish a ground game, that will put a lot of pressure on Stewart, who will be looking to a rookie (Plaxico Burress) and a second-year player (Troy Edwards) as his primary targets in the air attack.

After consecutive losing seasons, including 15 defeats in their last 21 games, the Steelers are viewed as a team in decline. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, whose coaching future is on the line this season, can't afford such a pessimistic view. He is hell-bent on righting this ship.

For Cowher to accomplish that goal, he'll need Pro Bowl-type seasons from some players who are capable and many who are not. So far, the results have been mixed. The team won its first three exhibition games, but it did so, for the most part, without the benefit of a passing game. Worse yet, quarterback Kordell Stewart has played poorly at home, a recurring theme in 1999, when the team seemingly hit rock bottom by losing seven of its last eight games to finish 6-10.

Since last season, Cowher won a power struggle with Tom Donahoe, who was replaced by Kevin Colbert as the team's director of football operations. At season's end, Cowher promised a rededication to the principles that brought the 7-9 Steelers team he inherited in 1992 to Super Bowl XXX four seasons later.

He talked in very generic terms about fixing what was broken and reinforcing what wasn't. In terms of specifics, however, little has changed. Stewart most likely will be the team's starting quarterback, a job he never had to earn, for the fourth consecutive season.

The running game will be the team's offensive staple, but both starter Jerome Bettis and backup Richard Huntley have missed significant time with injuries, as has All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson.

Defensively, the Steelers look as solid as ever and might be improved along the defensive front. The linebackers might be the best in the business, and the secondary seems poised for a great season.

None of it will matter, however, if the offense in general and the passing game in particular don't produce touchdowns. Cowher is calling for patience, but it is in short supply among Steelers fans.

Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis and the ground game could be a strength for the Steelers.
Quarterbacks: Stewart returns as the starter, with Kent Graham replacing Mike Tomczak as the primary backup. Anthony Wright and Tee Martin are battling for the third job, and the team might keep all four. Stewart had what Cowher described as a spotty training camp, looking terrific a few times but erratic more often than not.

Graham is still learning coordinator Kevin Gilbride's offense. Graham might be a factor by midseason, but the Steelers might need him sooner if Stewart struggles. The only encouraging aspect of Stewart's game has been his willingness to escape the pocket and use his athletic ability to run with the ball. He was unwilling to do so last season, as he tried to master Gilbride's offense.

In two home exhibition games, Stewart ran for more yards than he passed for. That is not necessarily an encouraging statistic, but it could be a start for Stewart and the Steelers offense. Rarely in his career has Graham looked pretty while winning, but he has proven he can win games in many different offenses. As he becomes more comfortable with Gilbride's system, he could become a factor. Neither Wright nor Martin is ready to challenge for playing time.
Grade: D

Running backs: This position was believed to be the strongest for the offense coming into camp. Bettis is entering the final year of his contract, and Huntley signed a multi-year extension. Add in second-year man Amos Zereoue and versatile Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, and you could see the reason for optimism. Jon Witman is a solid starting fullback.

Everyone learned the importance of depth in the backfield during training camp, when Bettis suffered swelling in the same knee (left) that forced him to the sideline last season. Bettis was followed to the bench by Huntley, who suffered a mild hamstring injury he reaggravated when he tried to return to practice too quickly. Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran wild in one exhibition game but suffered a rib-cage injury a week later. Zereoue stepped in and looked equally impressive. Fuamatu-Ma'afala was moved to fullback at the beginning of camp but went back to halfback when Bettis and Huntley were injured. The team needs Bettis and Huntley healthy, however, for the running game to remain a strength.
Grade: B

Wide receivers: Without question, this is the most improved position on the team. Plaxico Burress, the team's top pick in the draft, gives the unit instant credibility. He has big-play ability all over the field and should be especially effective in the red zone. He will team with Troy Edwards, last year's top pick, to give the Steelers a totally different look at the position. Edwards and Burress are involved in a bit of a competition with each other, which is being viewed as a positive by the coaching staff.

Malcolm Johnson has improved tremendously since his rookie season and will battle Hines Ward, a starter last season, for playing time in multiple-receiver sets. Bobby Shaw and Courtney Hawkins, another starter from last season, are battling for roster spots with rookie Danny Farmer.

Tight end Mark Bruener has blossomed into a fine blocker and occasional pass catcher, but second-year man Jerame Tuman might emerge as a pass-catching threat. Obviously, the production from this unit will stem from the play of the quarterbacks, but the Steelers have certainly set the table for their quarterbacks to enjoy success.
Grade: B

Offensive linemen: Once the trademark of great Steelers rushing offenses, this season's offensive line might be a weak link. The team is hoping Dawson can regain his health and return at center to anchor the unit. Dawson missed nine games last season with a hamstring injury and was limited to one series through three exhibition games with the same hamstring problem. Dawson is the key to the entire unit because guards Alan Faneca and Rich Tylski are better with Dawson at center.

The team hopes it has finally solved its annual problem at right tackle with rookie Marvel Smith. He'll be the Week 1 starter, even though he has never played the right side before. The team has high hopes for left tackle Wayne Gandy this season. Gandy was shaky at times last season, but it was his first year in Pittsburgh and the team hopes he will be more steady with a year under his belt in this system.

Pittsburgh was quite impressed with free-agent rookie Hank Fraley, a guard who played tackle at Division I-AA Robert Morris. Fraley started at center while Dawson recuperated and handled himself well. At worst, Fraley is targeted for the practice squad.
Grade: C-

Defensive linemen: This unit could feature three new starters on opening day. Gone are Joel Steed (retired) and Nolan Harrison (not re-signed), while Kevin Henry continues to rehabilitate a surgically repaired knee. The two definite new starters are Kimo von Oelhoffen, signed from Cincinnati, at nose tackle and Chris Sullivan, signed from New England, at right end.

Rookie Chris Combs might start at left end if Henry isn't healthy. The team has been impressed with Combs and fellow rookies Kendrick Clancy and Al Lucas, both at nose tackle. Also showing life is Aaron Smith, a second-year player. There is plenty of promise along the line, but it must transform into production. Newness alone won't accomplish that feat.
Grade: C

Linebackers: This is the best and deepest position on the roster. The Steelers go eight-deep at linebacker. Inside starters Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes are exceptional talents, and Holmes might be headed for his first Pro Bowl. Outside starters Jason Gildon and Joey Porter are both solid. Porter might beat Gildon to the Pro Bowl in this, his second season.

Depth on the outside will be provided by Mike Vrabel, who might finally have found a home as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and Clark Haggans, a rookie who was a college teammate of Porter's. Inside, the Steelers have steady John Fiala and Chad Kelsay. Undrafted rookie free agent Donnel Thompson led the team in preseason tackles through three games and might stick around. This is the group that makes Pittsburgh's defense tick. Grade: A

Defensive backs: The return to form of cornerback Chad Scott might lift the secondary to new heights. Scott has played superb football throughout training camp and appears on the verge of a breakout season. Scott automatically makes Dewayne Washington better on the other side, and the emergence of free safety Scott Shields could allow Washington to gamble more. Shields has improved a great deal since his rookie season, when he still managed to tie Washington for the team lead with four interceptions.

Strong safety Lee Flowers is a leader in the locker room and on the field. Deshea Townsend and rookie Hank Poteat are backups at cornerback, while the Steelers replaced Travis Davis with Brent Alexander as a backup safety. Alexander is an upgrade who could start for many teams.
Grade: B

Special teams
Punter Josh Miller was the offense's best weapon and the defense's best friend last season. He kept the Steelers in many games with his booming leg. Miller will contend for a Pro Bowl spot this season.

Kicker Kris Brown set a league record with 13 consecutive field goals to start a career and converted 25 of 29 in an outstanding rookie season. He is not superstitious and is level-headed enough to not allow the sophomore jinx to affect him. The coverage units are generally solid, and the return game should be better.
Grade: B

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     Kordell Stewart is prepared for his opportunity to lead the Steelers.
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