Thursday, July 15, 2004

Taking a look at Steelers training camp, part II

Yesterday I took a look at some of the offensive positions that may be up for grabs as the Steelers head into training camp. Today I'll finish the position battles by looking at the defensive side of the ball. Defensively is where the Steelers have suffered the biggest letdowns the last few seasons and this offseason saw a spate of activity to ameliorate those problems (oddly, most of this activity wasn't through the draft or free agency, but rather through releasing aged, overpriced players -- the old addition by subtraction routine).

Other than the defensive line, there should be a lot of competition for jobs and I'll start with a look at the linebackers.

Both James Farrior and Kendrell Bell are going into the contract year and the Steelers feel it's imperative to re-sign them both -- that's part of the reason Pittsburgh is trying to put off Hines Wards' attempt to restructure his deal early. Knowing that, both Farrior and Bell will anchor the middle linebacker position with special team guru Clint Kriewaldt and undersized Larry Foote backing them up. So the question is not who'll be starting in the middle, but rather can Kendrell Bell overcome two lackluster seasons (at least for him) after having a breakout rookie campaign. Part of his slow progress can be blamed on a high ankle sprain he suffered during preseason 2002, but maybe the bigger impediment was his inability to understand the coverage schemes (which resulted in him being taken off the field in such situations).

Farrior simply put, is a tackling machine and made a smooth transition to middle linebacker after playing mostly outside with the Jets. He has a good grasp of the defense and with new (old) defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, expect to see a much more aggressive style of play.

On the outside, Joey Porter will try to bounce back from only an average season primarily due to the fact that he got shot in the butt a few weeks before the 2003 season. He might be the prime beneficiary of Lebeau's blitzing style and given that all-time sack leader Jason Gildon is gone, he'll get a chance to perhaps pick up a few more tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Speaking of Gildon, the Steelers decided to cut the 10-year veteran and replace him with long-time backup Clark Haggans. Haggans can best be described as 'serviceable' but he filled in nicely for the injured Porter during the first few games of 2003. He seldom does anything spectacular, but seems to always be in the right place at the right time.

The only backup who might battle for playing time is 2003 second round pick Alonzo Jackson. Jackson didn't dress for the last 14 games in his rookie season for two reasons. First, according to news reports he was slow making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker and second, there were a glut of players ahead of him at the position. No one knows how much progress Jackson made in the learning his new position, but he's never had trouble rushing the passer. One of the things that kept him off the field last season was his inability to drop into coverage effectively.

Fast forward to 2004 and the Steelers fifth round pick, Nathaniel Adibi. He was also a defensive end in college and will be making the conversion to outside linebacker. He too can expect to follow similar paths of all those OLBs before him (Gildon, Porter, Jackson) and spend a year or two learning the position. The good news with Adibi is that he's an outstanding special teams player and excels at blocking punts. And giving the Steelers proclivity for giving up big plays via special teams, that's welcome news.

As far as I'm concerned the Steelers got one right and one wrong in their offseason dealings with their 2003 starting cornerbacks. They wisely cut DeWayne Washington but inexplicably kept Chad Scott and his $3+ million contract -- and as of now he'll be starting in 2004. Nonetheless, the Steelers purchased some 'Chad Scott Life Insurance' in the form of second round pick Ricardo Colclough as well as last year's fourth rounder, Ike Taylor. Not only that, but Pittsburgh has perennial special teamer (and CB) Chidi Iwuoma, Shane Walton, Terry Fair and Willie Williams all competing for time.

There are also rumors that if either Ike Taylor or Colclough have a breakout camp, the Steelers might cut Chad Scott (I'll keep my fingers crossed).

Deshea Townsend, who replaced Washington part-way through last season will be the other starting CB and he'll be the only player in the defensive backfield with both experience and the ability to shutdown opposing receivers (Scott has experience, but that's it -- Polamalu and Hope are both good players, but lack experience). Again, depending on what transpires in camp, Ike Taylor will probably be the nickel back (although Mike Logan was very good in that role in 2002) and Colclough might earn some playing time in the dime defense.

Personally, I'd be willing to cut Chad Scott right now and take my lumps with either Taylor or Colclough.

The Steelers are known for player loyalty, and nowhere was that more apparent than on defense. Gildon had worn out his welcome, safety Lee Flowers continued to be trotted out there even after teams went out of their way to throw in his direction and the aged free safety Brent Alexander had lost a few steps by the time Pittsburgh let him go this offseason.

Well things are a changin' in Pittsburgh. The starting safeties will average 24 years of age and will include one of the best athletes on the team, Troy Polamalu. Polamalu struggled early in his rookie season, but as he became more comfortable with the defense, he started to play better (although he never started a game). Look for big things from Polamalu this season.

All indications are that Chris Hope will be the starting free safety, even though the Steelers re-signed last year's starter, Mike Logan. But if Hope can have just an above-average camp it looks like the job is his. The good news is that Logan is a very capable backup and is familiar with playing in the nickel and dime defenses. He has experience at both safety and cornerback, so even if he's not a starter, he'll be a very important part of a defense that looks to improve on some shoddy performances the past few seasons.

So even though there may not be too many surprises on opening day (in terms of rookies winning starting jobs), the Steelers are making a concerted effort to get younger. And given the defensive state of affairs (especially the pass defense) the past few years, that's all you can ask for -- and that they cut Chad Scott, but I don't want to seem greedy -- yet.