| ||Tuesday, September 7|
Pro Football Weekly
|Changes were promised in Pittsburgh after last year's 7-9 finish, head coach Bill Cowher's first losing and non-playoff season in his seven years with the Steelers.
Changes were delivered.
Kevin Gilbride was brought in to coordinate an offense that sunk from the heights of the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago to last year's season-ending, five-game losing streak, during which the offense managed just two touchdowns.
Instead of saddling Kordell Stewart with the blame, the Steelers upped the ante by signing their quarterback to a $27 million contract extension. They upgraded their offensive personnel by acquiring OTs Wayne Gandy from St. Louis, Anthony Brown from Cincinnati and Shar Pourdanesh from Washington, as well as WR Alex Van Dyke from the Jets. The Steelers also drafted for offense, taking WR Troy Edwards in the first round and RB Amos Zereoue in the third.
Defensively, the Steelers made a few moves and let nature take its course. After losing Carnell Lake and Darren Perry to free agency, the Steelers signed FS Travis Davis from Jacksonville. They allowed CB Chad Scott to rebuild the strength in his surgically reconstructed knee and allowed DE Orpheus Roye to carry his late-season surge into a productive offseason in the weight room.
The result, the Steelers believe, is a stronger defense. The secondary appears more solid, despite the losses of Lake and Perry. It has better depth with the addition of FS Scott Shields through the draft. Already possessing some of the league's best linebackers, the Steelers drafted Joey Porter and are counting on Mike Vrabel to make an impact from a variety of alignments. And Roye has become the team's most dominant lineman.
The Steelers let kicker Norm Johnson walk and replaced him with seventh-round pick Kris Brown, who has been solid after a shaky start.
In short, the Steelers promise to be a different team in '99. Whether that translates into being a better team is yet to be determined.
Here's a position-by-position look at Pittsburgh's roster:
Rookie free agent Anthony Wright has caused a shake-up for the Nos. 2 and 3 spots, possibly forcing the Steelers to keep four quarterbacks on the active roster. Wright has been quite impressive. Last year's backup, Mike Tomczak, has been spotty, while Pete Gonzalez has been steady, if not flashy. Grade: C
Zereoue gives the team the outside speed it has lacked in recent seasons. At fullback, Jon Witman was re-signed instead of Tim Lester. Huntley has seen action there as well. It adds up to plenty of depth but still a lot of injury questions. Grade: B-
TE Mark Bruener is a proven blocker who again hopes the team will come through on its vow to throw more to the tight end. Grade: C
The Steelers believe they have four solid tackles in Gandy, Brown, Pourdanesh and holdover Chris Conrad. Roger Duffy and Jim Sweeney provide veteran depth at guard and center, but the team needs a healthy Dawson to have any chance of establishing offensive continuity. Grade: C
Kevin Henry or Harrison will start at the other DE spot, but Harrison has become somewhat brittle. Steed and Roye make this group above average, especially in a 3-4 defense. Grade: B-
Carlos Emmons is adequate, but he must hold off Vrabel and Porter to keep his starting job on the right side. Kirkland must prove his subpar season (by his standards) last year was not a trend in the making. Linebacker is probably the team's deepest position, with the underrated John Fiala backing up inside and Porter and Vrabel likely backing up outside. Grade: B+
SS Lee Flowers has emerged as a team leader after a solid first year as a starter. Davis is a solid veteran who seems to be holding the FS spot for Shields. Chris Oldham is very valuable in nickel and dime situations, as well as on special teams. Scott must re-establish himself after a knee injury finished his '98 season before training camp opened. Grade: C+
The coverage units might be Pittsburgh's Achilles' heel, but poor coverage is not uncommon before final cutdown day. New special-teams coach Jay Hayes is charged with fixing this preseason problem. Grade: C
Material from Pro Football Weekly.