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 Tuesday, September 7
Changes aplenty in Steel City
By Mike Ciarochi
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.

Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis
Last year: 7-9, third place in AFC Central
Key returnees:: QB Kordell Stewart (252-for-458, 2,560 yards, 11 TDs, 18 INTs); RB Jerome Bettis (316 carries, 1,185 yards); LB Levon Kirkland
New faces: OT Wayne Gandy (Rams), WR Alex Van Dyke (Jets), OT Anthony Brown (Bengals), S Travis Davis (Jaguars), WR Troy Edwards (first round)
New places: WR Charles Johnson (Eagles), S Carnell Lake (Jaguars), S Darren Perry (Chargers), NT Oliver Gibson (Bengals)
Watch out: Can Kevin Gilbride help Stewart return to '97 form?
Better than '98: Only if Edwards becomes a big-play wideout.
Worse than '98: Team lost valuable leadership in Lake and Perry.

-- Scripps Howard News Service

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:

Stewart has regained the confidence he seemed to lose in the second half of last season. He has matured both on and off the field and has developed a rapport with Gilbride that didn't exist with Ray Sherman. However, Stewart must prove he can produce on a consistent basis.

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

Running backs
Injuries have already affected the position, which the team believed was its strongest and deepest entering training camp. Jerome Bettis had arthroscopic knee surgery, Richard Huntley had a hamstring problem and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala had a high-ankle sprain.

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-

The issues for the Steelers are the secondary, the offensive line and Kordell Stewart. Everyone wants to look at Stewart, but that's putting the cart in front of the horse. If you don't have great offensive linemen, the quarterback will be less effective.

The line needs to improve for the Steelers, especially at the tackle positions, which are in question. Everything from Stewart to Jerome Bettis will depend on how that erratic offensive line plays. That's the biggest factor in Pittsburgh.

I don't want to overlook Stewart; he needs to be accurate and consistent in Kevin Gilbride's offense for the team to be successful. But 8-8 is the most realistic record for Pittsburgh this season.


If Pittsburgh's receivers were as bad as people thought, Edwards would have been an immediate starter. Gilbride believes the Steelers' receivers were underutilized in the past. Hines Ward is an emerging star, and Courtney Hawkins is savvy and dependable. Edwards gives the team a true home-run threat on every snap, and Van Dyke was a nice addition.

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

Offensive linemen
Not surprisingly, the success of this unit hinges on C Dermontti Dawson. He missed most of the preseason with a knee injury, but the team believes he will be as solid as ever once the bullets start to fly. If that's true, ORG Brenden Stai and OLG Alan Faneca will provide solid interior line play.

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

Defensive linemen
Roye emerged as a starter last season and might emerge as a star this season. He upgrades a position in need of improvement. Joel Steed is solid at nose tackle, and the team hopes either Jeremy Staat or Nolan Harrison can become an adequate backup at nose tackle.

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-

Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes form the best ILB tandem in the league. LOLB Jason Gildon has a knack for getting to the quarterback. He has recorded 28½ sacks in five NFL seasons, including a team-high 11 in 1998.

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+

Defensive backs
Starting CBs Scott and Dewayne Washington and reserve Deshea Townsend give the Steelers three good cover men.

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+

Special teams
Johnson took a lot of experience with him to Philadelphia, but Brown brings something Johnson could no longer provide: kickoff depth. The key will be whether Brown can provide the consistency that marked Johnson's career. Punter Josh Miller is poised for a big season. He is coming off a solid campaign and came to camp stronger.

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.
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