Coach Bill Cowher has made it perfectly clear that he is sticking with Kordell Stewart. Rather than making personnel changes, Cowher has put the owness on the coaching staff. Cowher has hired former Chargers head coach Kevin Gilbride as the offensive coordinator and former Seahawks offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski as the new WR coach. These moves were made in order to open this Steeler offense up in hopes of returning to its productivity of 1997. Mike Tomczak, is a capable No. 2 QB, but may have hurt his future with some of his off-the-field comments.
Jerome Bettis, after battling through knee surgery and ailments for most of the season, looked outstanding in the season finale versus Jacksonville. With FB Tim Lester missing half the season, Bettis' production dropped significantly. The front office opted to sign FB Jon Witman, which all but eliminates Lester. Rookie Chris Faumatu-Ma Afala ran hard when given the chance. With a more mature and cohesive offensive line and a better downfield scheme in the passing game to stretch defenses, the Steelers' running game should return to its 1997 level. Richard Huntley ran as well as could be expected when spelling Bettis.
The team's top priority is to fill the shoes of Charles Johnson. Cowher has said he wants to add a speedy receiver, either though FA or draft, and ex-Jet Alex Van Dyke might be the answer. Van Dyke was buried on the bench in New York and the Steelers are hoping a change of scenery will boost this youngster's production. Last season, the play of Will Blackwell and rookie Hines Ward was disappointing to say the least. The team is banking on improved play from both of their former high draft picks. Veteran Courtney Hawkins had an outstanding season, doing all that he could, but remains nothing more than a good complementary receiver. Pittsburgh feels there is enough WR talent in the draft that they can address this issue with its first-round pick at No.13.
Mark Bruener is an UFA that the team re-signed. Bruener is an outstanding run-blocker and is an important key to the Steelers off-tackle running game. Mitch Lyons is a very capable backup. He has fought injury for the past couple of years, but he will be back in '99 to resume his reserve role.
The Steelers will not lose any lineman to FA, but will lose veteran LOT Will Wolford to retirement. Pittsburgh will either need to sign a FA LOT, or move ROT Justin Strzelczyk back to the position. The team is also still figuring out how effective former No. 1 pick Jamain Stephens can be at the ROT position if the move is made. Stephens did a respectable job in reserve of Strzleczyk and proved to be a formidable pass-blocker. Look for OT to be a priority for Pittsburgh during the free agency period. The interior of the line for the Steelers will remain in tact and solid. Veteran center Dermontti Dawson is perhaps the league's best player at the position, and is the anchor of the Steeler line. Brandan Stai and Alan Faneca will return as the right and left guards respectively.
The Steelers experienced a lot of trouble at the DE position in '98. Kevin Henry and Nolan Harrison were particularly ineffective in large part due to injury. Orpheus Roye, however, proved to be a volatile pass-rusher and should likely see much more playing time in '99. Also, Jeremy Staat will be looked upon to contribute more in '99. Last years No. 2 pick of the draft has struggled getting accustomed to the end position, and was off the active roster for most of the 16-week season. NT Joel Steed will return for his 7th year as a Steeler. Steed is a punishing run-stopper, and does an excellent job of stuffing the middle. Depth was lost when Oliver Gibson signed with Cincinnati.
All four starting LB's (Carlos Emmons, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes and Jason Gildon) will return for Pittsburgh's 3-4 defensive scheme. With such pressing issues at WR, OL and the defensive backfield, this unit is likely to stay in tact. Kirkland is the anchor of this unit, and he is looking to drop twenty pounds in order to play a more nimble middle. Emmons and Gildon both had good years, but will be challenged to increase their presence on the pass rush.
The losses of Carnell Lake and Darren Perry have created a serious void in the Steelers secondary. The only two starters returning are SS Lethon Flowers and DC Dewayne Washington. Pittsburgh needs to address the FS position as well as its other corner spot in the draft or through free agency. Chad Scott is a possibility at the LC position, but the team would like to find a player that is more suitable for the position. The team could easily use its first-round pick on top corner if one falls to them.
Kicker Norm Johnson remains consistent and has a good, accurate leg. His age is becoming apparent, as he struggled to get ball deep on kickoffs, but a lot of that can be attributed to a strained calf. Punter Josh Miller gained some more consistency and had an impressive season. Hines Ward, Will Blackwell, David Dunn, and Jahine Arnold give the team plenty of options on returns.