Monday, August 15, 2005

Going With What You Got

The Steelers have yet to play a preseason game, but heading into tonight's matchup with the Eagles, Pittsburgh will be looking to answer a lot of questions thanks to injuries, holdouts and a few wild cards. The major injuries include Duce Staley and Joey Porter (although seemingly everybody else has missed at least a day or two of practice due to various ailments). Both are expected to be out four to six weeks, but Porter has made it clear that he'll be ready for the Sept. 11 season opener. Duce should be ready sometime thereafter, but if history is any indication (and this doesn't include gunshots to the hind quarters), I fully expect to see Porter opening day and wouldn't be surprised if Staley didn't get his first carry until sometime in November.

In both cases however, the Steelers have very capable backups. James Harrison is emerging as one of the craziest players on the team, and he's also a pretty solid linebacker. And even though Harrison is a former undrafted free agent, the bigger surprise may be the improved play of 2003 second rounder, Alonzo Jackson. He might actually dress for games this season. OK, that's not that impressive, but to hear Cowher and LeBeau tell it, he's actually looking good at camp. I'll reserve judgment until after tonight's game.

I mentioned last week that Staley's absence certainly won't be as big a loss as say, Alan Faneca or Marvel Smith along the offensive line, but as soon as Bettis pulls a ham hock, and Verron Haynes' trick knee starts acting up, we might have a little problem. Until then, however, I'll worry about other stuff.

When talking about other stuff, my primary concern is Hines Ward. There have been differing accounts about the state of the relationship between the Steelers and Ward. Chris Mortensen reported last week that Ward has no problem holding out until week six, the last possible game he can miss without losing his free agent status at the end of the 2005 season. First of all, Mortensen is a dope. His style of reporting is much better suited for the likes of CNN or Fox News because most of what he says is based on anonymous sources, which by itself isn't really a big deal. But you have to wonder how reliable these sources are (or maybe more importantly, who they are) when most of what he tells you ends up being wrong. Hey, maybe Ward will hold out until week 6, but I think it's much more likely that Brian St. Pierre will beat out the other three QBs on the team for the starting job.

Despite Mortensen's grand proclamations, Ward still isn't in camp. In the past week Bettis has publicly supported Ward.
Bettis talked to Ward the past week, and he said the contract holdout that began over money is turning into a case of principle, and that Ward is prepared to stay away when the regular season opens Sept. 11.

"I think it has gotten to the point where he thinks that's his only option, so to speak. That's what he feels he probably has to do. It's unfortunate, but that's the nature of the beast."


Negotiations have taken place between the Steelers and Ward's agent, Eugene Parker, the past two weeks.

Bettis knows how soured negotiations can turn a business matter into a personal one. He held out of the St. Louis Rams' 1995 training camp in a contract dispute that became embittered when, Bettis says, no one from the Rams would return his or his agent's calls. The Rams traded Bettis to the Steelers after that season.

Yeah, that's not good. At least the part where Bettis thinks Ward is prepared to miss the season opener, especially given that Bettis went through similar issues with the Rams (and for the record, even if Mortensen ends up being right on this one, he's still a dope). On the other hand, it's good to see that the Steelers are at least willing to negotiate with Ward even though he's not in camp. Last week on PTI Bettis spoke with Wilbon for Five Good Minutes and at the end of the conversation he implored Steelers management to "Free Hines Ward!" Bettis was kidding -- and it was pretty funny -- but there's also more than a little truth to the statement. And that becomes all the clearer when you consider that the current depth chart includes Cedrick Wilson and Antwaan Randle El.

It'll be interesting to see how Wilson performs against the Eagles, because to date, he's had what sounds like a really good camp. Jim Wexall of the Herald Standard (and my new favorite Steelers beat reporter), takes a look at Wilson's ability to be a playmaker despite the fact that he's a full six inches shorter than his predecessor:
"The fade pattern," Wilson started, "They want the big guys to jump up, but a guy like me, I might give a guy a slant look and then go fade, or I might come off the ball easy and then go fade and just try to beat him to the corner with my speed. I gave Willie a slant and then I went fade, so I buried him inside and left all that grass out there for Tommy to make a great throw to the corner. I use the field and my speed to my advantage."
The funny thing about Plax was that other than last year's Patriots game, he couldn't run the fade route either.

And then there's Randle El, who, by all accounts, has also had a very good camp. He too has missed a few days of practice with an ankle injury, but he should be ready to go against the Eagles. Undrafted free agent WR Walter Young might not get a chance to play tonight, but that's solely because he has a balky hamstring. Apparently the 6'4" wideout has opened a few eyes with solid play -- which was the exact opposite reaction 4th round pick Fred Gibson elicited during his first week of practice. He admitted that he was lost in the offense, but one of the good things about the Ward holdout and the rash of injuries is that Gibson got a chance to work with the first team last week, and finally showed signs of progress:
He was at his best Friday, pulling in a couple of passes from Ben Roethlisberger, including a fingertip grab in front of cornerback Willie Williams, and a deep touchdown toss from Charlie Batch. Yesterday, he broke nicely on a deep ball by Roethlisberger and pulled it in for a touchdown in front of safety Janssen Patton.

"In the last few days, Freddy has really improved," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "He has to continue that and get to the point that he knows where he's supposed to be."
Despite all the talk about Staley, Porter, Ward et al., there are some other things to watch Monday night. Like first round pick TE Heath Miller. There hasn't been much discussion of Miller in the local papers, but that's a combination of (a) the Ward soap opera, (b) the Staley/Porter injury saga, and (c) Miller is actually doing well enough not to raise any concerns, but not so well that he stands out above everybody else. Whatever's the case, I look forward to seeing him tonight.

Maybe most important among them is the play of the right side of the offensive line. RG Kendall Simmons is coming of a knee injury (preceded by adult onset diabetes two years ago) and RT Max Starks will be taking over the starting duties from departed Oliver Ross. Also worth watching are rookie backups G Chris Kemoeatu and T Trai Essex, two guys who you hope don't sniff the field as starters in 2005, but if somebody (or bodies) gets injured, they might be forced into action. But given how the 2003 season unfolded, I don't want to think about that scenario until I absolutely have to. In the meantime, Free Hines Ward!