Talks between linebacker Kendrell Bell's agent, Todd France, and the Steelers over a contract extension have ended. Bell will go through his fourth and final season and then become an unrestricted free agent, unless the Steelers re-sign him after the season. The team follows a philosophy not to negotiate new deals once the regular season starts.
They have two other starters who will play out their final years and possibly become UFAs - WR Plaxico Burress and RG Keydrick Vincent. Everyone else is signed at least through the 2005 season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Duce Staley - The balance needed in the team's offense, and the ability for QB Tommy Maddox to be effective could be dependent on Staley being the all-around back the team believes he is. If Staley can be consistently effective as a runner, the offense should be improved.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:
Rd. 1/11, QB Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (Ohio) -- The plan is to use him only in runaway games. He looked like the real thing in the summer and became No. 2 when Charlie Batch went down for the season.
Rd. 2/38, CB Ricardo Colclough, Tusculum -- He worked his way into a position on the dime defense and has the looks of a starter in 2005. Will return punts and/or kickoffs.
Rd. 3/75, OT Max Starks, Florida -- Huge tackle who needs more work, but did better than scouts anticipated in training camp. They have him on the right side.
UNIT BY UNIT:
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tommy Maddox. Backups -- Ben Roethlisberger, Brian St. Pierre.
Maddox gets this season and that may be it; he needs to cut down on his interceptions, which have dogged him the past two seasons. With Charlie Batch out for the season with a knee injury, rookie Roethlisberger is No. 2 and the plans are to work him in late in runaway games only.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Duce Staley, FB Dan Kreider. Backups -- RB Jerome Bettis, RB Verron Haynes, RB Willie Parker.
With Staley's receiving ability, he can play on every down. Bettis and/or Haynes will give him a blow and Haynes may play more on third downs. Kreider's an outstanding blocker who rarely runs and catches passes.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jerame Tuman. Backups -- Jay Riemersma, Matt Cushing.
The Steelers don't throw to their tight ends often. They block and they like to use two of them. This year, they will play more of an h-back, moving in the backfield more often. Tuman is the best combination blocker/receiver of the bunch.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress. Backups -- Antwaan Randle El, Chris Doering, Lee Mays.
Ward is one of the best in the league with his dependability and blocking; not a big deep threat). Burress has had a great summer and may have a big year. Randle El plays out of the slot and they want to throw the ball more to him this season. Doering is a dependable possession, No. 4 receiver.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Marvel Smith, LG Alan Faneca, C Jeff Hartings, RG Keydrick Vincent, RT Oliver Ross. Backups -- C Chukki Okobi, G/T Todd Fordham, T Max Starks.
They've had a good preseason despite the loss of starting RG Kendall Simmons for the year with a torn ACL. Injuries and poor health wrecked them last season. They can't tap any more of their depth because they do not have good depth. The line was the key to their collapse last season and the key to any improvement they might make this time.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Aaron Smith, NT Casey Hampton, RDE Kimo von Oelhoffen. Backups -- DE Travis Kirschke, DE Brett Keisel, DT Kendrick Clancy, DT Chris Hoke.
These were the strongest performers on the team last year, a solid group that includes first-time Pro Bowler Hampton. von Oelhoffen was their surprise sack leader with eight last season and is a steady performer. Smith can push the pocket and smother the run. They set up the linebackers to make the plays.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Clark Haggans, LILB Kendrell Bell, RILB James Farrior and ROLB Joey Porter. Backups -- ILB Larry Foote, OLB Alonzo Jackson, ILB Clint Kriewaldt.
Trouble looms for what has been the backbone of Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense since Bill Cowher arrived in 1992. Haggans has never been a fulltime starter and missed the first three preseason games with a broken hand. Bell was injured much of the preseason and did not play as well the past two years as he did as a rookie in '01. Farrior and Porter are top-notch players. The depth is not good.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chad Scott, SS Troy Polamalu, FS Chris Hope, RCB Deshea Townsend. Backups -- CB Ike Taylor, CB Ricardo Colclough, CB Willie Williams, S Mike Logan, S Russell Stuvaints.
Three new starters from a year ago in Townsend, Polamalu and Hope. Townsend is a veteran who started midway through '03 and did well in coverage. Scott has been a liability in coverage. Polamalu and Hope never started a game but have speed and big-play ability. They are banking on youth, speed and more aggression to improve.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jeff Reed, P Chris Gardocki, LS Mike Schneck, H Chris Gardocki, KR Antwaan Randle El/Ricardo Colclough, PR Antwaan Randle El/Ricardo Colclough.
Reed had hip surgery after a poor second season (23 of 32 on field goals). Gardocki is a veteran who never had a punt blocked in the NFL. Randle El and Colclough could share the return duties.