|Alright, here’s my early season preview of the boys. Camp has just started, obviously, so this is more looking at the things they need to work on from now until September, and what is going to work early.
Any team that finishes 6-10 is going to have a long training camp. But how many of those issues that brought the Steelers from 11-5-1 to 6-10 in one season have already been filled?
Biggest Positive For 2004:
The addition of running back Duce Staley – Hearing “the Steelers will run with both Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue” was more painful than watching Kordell Stewart throw any pass. Bettis’ best days are long behind him and the only question he now has is the possibility of being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Staley’s signing put Zereoue out of work, making this situation positive in both that the Steelers picked up a proven 1,000 yard rusher and they got rid of a secondary back who never lept into an above average player.
Biggest Negative For 2004:
While Pittsburgh didn’t have much choice, their offensive line wasn’t improved with anything other than borderline questionable draft picks. Third round pick Max Starks and sixth-round pick Bo Lacy are not considered to be players who will immediately provide depth (while there were no players on the board for Pittsburgh in the first and second rounds who could have done much else). That still leaves the problem of an offensive line which consists of an All-Pro guard playing tackle (Alan Faneca), a diabetic (guard Kendall Simmons), a guy with one working knee (center Jeff Hartings), a chronic IR member (tackle Marvel Smith) and arguably the worst player in the game (tackle Todd Fordham).
Surprise: Plaxico Burress’ refusal to attend voluntary workouts
Plax was tagged as a problem child ever since the Steelers took him with the eighth pick in 2000. However, it wasn’t until this season that his attitude became a focal point of the team. Burress’ production dropped faster than Bush’s post-Iraq rating in 2003. Therefore, he dismisses any and all responsibility for his lack of playmaking and begins complaining about his current contract situation. Someone explain this to me; this is a guy who caught two touchdowns, and if he wasn’t the oddest-shaped, lankiest guy on the field, you’d swear he wasn’t even there for most of the season. Apparently, things are ship-shape between Plax and Cowher in Latrobe, but I promise you that’s not the last time he’ll bring it up this season.
Offense: Tommy Maddox
Who else? Look at the numbers: Maddox has never been an outstanding quarterback in the NFL. He was Comeback Player of the Year in 2002, but his numbers were almost solid at best. They did win 11 games with him at the helm, though. What that shows is all Pittsburgh needs from him is consistency. Especially now they will be able to run the ball, Maddox needs to complete around 60 percent of his passes, and that will start off the Steelers chain reaction: Run the ball, pass to keep them honest, eat up the clock, suffocate them with pressure on defense, win the game.
Defense: Deshea Townsend
You could give this to just about every guy in their secondary, because beating the Steelers isn’t exactly a mystifying quandary. While Chad Scott will more than likely get the bigger matchups on the corner, Townsend will have to improve his man-to-man coverage if Pittsburgh is going to improve an atrocious 3rd down set and nickel package.
AFC North: It’s probably the weakest division in the game. To prove how weak it is, Baltimore is easily the odds-on favorite, and they are one injury away from Stewart taking over. But even good ol’ Kordell and execute a hand-off most of the time. Jamal Lewis is going to break the NFL record of carries in a season, as their defense will drag their offense kicking and screaming into the playoffs. While it was real fun for fans to talk about the “resurgence” of the Bengals, people still fail to remember they were 8-8. That is an improvement for the hapless Bengals, but it is still two games away from a playoff berth, and with second-year rookie Carson Palmer taking over the snaps, the odds of Cincinnati improving – especially with their decision to not address their weak rush defense this offseason – are not terribly good. Cleveland inherited the oft-hurt Jeff Garcia to replace Tim Couch. The question is whether or not this is anything of a change. Neither quarterback completes passes consistently and neither has proved to be a winner in their careers. The William Green circus continues, as he will be challenged at running back from Lee Suggs, a former fourth-round pick. Suggs did a good job in place of Green, who was charged with drug possession and stabbed, making him the first player to attain both feats in the same season. To make the carnival spin around is the impending contract dispute between Kellen Winslow Jr. and the upper office. Despite never having played a snap and emphatically shouting his “support” for our armed forces, Winslow not only wants to be paid more than the highest paid tight end in the game, he wants as much money as the likes of Terrell Owens and Randy Moss.
Did anyone else NOT see this coming? He proved to be nothing more than a punk all throughout college, starting with his Heisman pose after a touchdown in 2003 and ending with the famous “I’m a F***ING soldier!” speech at midseason. He’s the only guy I would root against in a fight with Ray Lewis.
Vs. New England Patriots, 10/31
The Patriots are only better from a year ago, and the last savage beating the defending Super Bowl Champions put on Pittsburgh is still fresh in my memory.
Vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 11/7
Visions of the 2000 game when Pittsburgh could recover an onside kick to save their lives makes me almost as bitter as the Patriots game to start the 2002 season. The only major concern is that of T.O. having to line up against Chad Scott or Deshea Townsend for 60 snaps. Not good stuff.
Vs. Oakland Raiders, 9/12
With the exception of last season (and I don’t think they played particularly well), the Steelers hit the wall in the first week of the season. Oakland has a large chip on its shoulder, and match up very well to pound the Steelers. Ted Washington and Warren Sapp up the middle will make it very difficult for any team to run on them, and a healthy Jerry Porter at wide receiver will re-open their offense so dominant just two seasons ago.
vs. Baltimore, 12/26
It’s like Rocky IV. Christmas time, bitter rivals, a lot at stake. A playoff berth will more than likely be on the line as the Ravens enter Heinz Field, and Pittsburgh has taken seven of the last eight of the defending AFC North Champions. Plus, both teams hate each other, and punk online columnists get to razz each other with constant insults through their respective sites.
Assuming all goes healthily in training camp, I would say 8-8 is a fair guess for the Steelers this season. Then we can say goodbye to Burress as soon as the year ends.