Poor pass defense hurt the Steelers all season and became their Achilles heel in
the playoffs when they almost were beaten by the Cleveland Browns and then were
beaten by Tennessee. The Steelers allowed 740 yards passing and 67 points in
those two games, not quite evoking memories of the Steel Curtain.
They made a game effort to upgrade themselves at safety when they offered Super
Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson a four-year, $12 million contract. Arizona, though,
trumped them by $2 million and Jackson went for the money. Since then, they have
made little effort to sign anyone else.
One and perhaps two free agent safeties will come to Pittsburgh this week, but
they're not quite the kind of upgrade the coaches had in mind. Sammy Knight, a
free agent from New Orleans, will visit at midweek and Arizona free agent Kwamie
Lassiter may follow. If the Steelers sign either of them, it would be a big
dropoff from Jackson and perhaps no better than what they had last year.
Lee Flowers, Pittsburgh's starting strong safety the past five years, never
received an offer from his team before or after he became a free agent. Few
other teams have been interested in him but one, ironically, is New Orleans. The
Saints, who believe Knight is too slow, may sign Flowers to replace him. The
Steelers gave up on Flowers because they believe he is too slow and they had to
hide him in their defense. He was exposed many times as they tried to use him to
cover tight ends and even receivers.
If they sign Knight or Lassiter they will not have improved their secondary, it
merely would be a fallback position in case they cannot find a fleet safety in
the draft or pick up another who may be cut after the draft or in June.
They do have a safety on the roster that might fill the bill, but the coaches
seem reluctant to use him. Chris Hope, drafted in the third round last year from
Florida State, has the size and decent speed. They used him primarily on special
teams as a rookie but put him on defense only when injuries forced them to.
One thing coach Bill Cowher says they will not do is move either cornerback,
Dewayne Washington or Chad Scott, to safety. Scott played some safety at
Maryland and many believe he ultimately will move to that spot. It's possible,
although unlikely, that they could draft a cornerback that would step in and
allow them to move Scott to safety.
Another piece of their pass defense they want to shore up is at end or tackle in
their dime defense. They want someone to rush the passer. They had 50 sacks last
season, a good number, but they do not believe they put enough heat on the
passer as offenses began spreading them out and throwing the ball on them more
often and with more success last season than they have done in years.
Thus, the Steelers pass defense sunk to 20th in the league from fifth the year
before. Since their cornerbacks are not great cover men, they would like to give
quarterbacks less time to throw. That is one reason they took a look at
linebacker Antwaan Peek of the University of Cincinnati last week in Pittsburgh.
Peek is 6-3, 245 and the kind of linebacker they believe might give them a rush
from the edge in their pass defense.
Cowher also has said that he intends to use linebacker Kendrell Bell on passing
downs this season. Bell was a two-down player at inside linebacker when he
earned the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2001. He has such quickness and
a burst that they believe he can be a good pass rusher. They switched Joey
Porter from the right outside rush position in their dime defense to inside
linebacker in order to put Bell in Porter's old spot last season. However, a
severe ankle injury in the pre-season limited Bell to a handful of plays on the
Perhaps Bell will be the answer to their pass rush this season, but they still
do not know how successful he can be playing over the left tackle. Instead of
putting him in a three-point stance as they normally do with their right end in
the four-man pass defense, they might stand him up and move him off the line,
more as a linebacker.
Even if they do that, they would like to get more of a push from their tackles
in that four-man line, particularly on the right side. What's becoming more and
more apparent, though, is that help on their pass defense -- whether it's up
front or in the secondary -- will not come through free agency. They either will
improve through the draft or with someone currently on their roster.