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'We think we can do it again'
Steelers see concerns, not crises, going into camp
Posted: Saturday July 18, 1998 02:39 PM
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Their season ended fitfully and unexpectedly on their home field six months ago, a couple of Kordell Stewart interceptions away from the game they were convinced was their destiny.
The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't forgotten how close they came to going to the Super Bowl rather than the Denver Broncos, who beat them 24-21 in the AFC championship and went on to beat Green Bay for the NFL championship. The Steelers weren't resentful of the Broncos, but were envious of them.
Now, as they open their seventh training camp under coach Bill Cowher on Monday, the Steelers will not focus on what went wrong that January afternoon in 1998. They will try instead to prevent it from happening again in January 1999.
"We think we can be real good again," director of football operations Tom Donahoe said.
Are the Steelers, who have reached the playoffs in each of Cowher's six seasons, being presumptuous when they talk confidently of returning to the AFC championship game again?
"There is only one goal around here, and it is the same goal we have ever year: To win a championship," Cowher said. "We think we can do it. I like this team a lot."
That isn't to say the Steelers don't have their problems -- don't they always? -- as camp begins.
Once again, they lost not just starters but stars to free agency: on offense, Yancey Thigpen, one of their most productive receivers ever, and left tackle John Jackson, who protected Stewart's blind side.
There also are question marks, at cornerback, linebacker, the offensive line, fullback, receiver. And they will have a new look defensively now that five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Lloyd has been released following two debilitating injuries in as many seasons.
But the Steelers don't expect the concerns to become crises, not with so many core players back: Stewart, who is on the verge of becoming their first true star quarterback since Terry Bradshaw; Jerome Bettis, Dermontti Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Carnell Lake.
"We have to create a new identity for ourselves," Cowher said. "We have a chance again, I think, to be there when it's all said and done, to be one of the few teams playing in late January."
The most unsettled position is cornerback, where Chad Scott's season-ending knee injury will probably force them to break in two new starters: Dwayne Washington, signed away from the Vikings, and another free agent, possibly Terry McDaniel, a 10-year veteran coming off a down season with the Raiders.
McDaniel has been offered a two-year, $1.8 million contract. The Packers want him for only one year, and only as a reserve, but for more money.
"Terry McDaniel can play at a high level -- I had him twice in the Pro Bowl - and this is a good opportunity for him," Cowher said. "But he didn't have a good year last year."
The plan is for Lake, who moved to cornerback last season after free agent Donnell Woolford flopped, to stay at strong safety unless a veteran cornerback can't be found.
"Carnell is our ace in the hole, but you don't like to play your hand right away," Cowher said.
Offensively, the Steelers will use their five-week camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe to find Thigpen's successor at split end - almost certainly, second-year receiver Will Blackwell.
They'll also get their first look at Hines Ward, the former Georgia star who already is being called Slash II for his ability to shift seamlessly from receiver to quarterback to running back. The Steelers already have drawn up plays in which Stewart shifts from quarterback to receiver and Ward steps in at quarterback.
One concern is at fullback, where Jerome Bettis' trusted blocker, Tim Lester, may miss the season opener - and maybe even longer - with an injured shoulder. If he's not ready, former Penn State running back Jon Witman will start.
"The last thing we want to do is bring Timmy back too early," Cowher said. "It's a long year, and we'll make a decision by looking at the whole picture. Witman is ready to play, is itching to play, and we feel comfortable with him in there."
Jackson's departure frees up a job for 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens, whose only start last season was halted by an injury. He expects to start at right tackle, with Justin Strzelczyk shifting sides to replace Jackson at left tackle.
Because of the August 1 Hall of Fame game against Tampa Bay, the Steelers will have five exhibition games for the third year in a row -- only this time, they don't have to go to Japan or Ireland to do so. They'll also play four of their five exhibitions within 90 minutes of Pittsburgh; they have two home games, plus two others in Canton, Ohio, and Morgantown, West Virginia.
Cowher will also break up the routine of camp by scrimmaging twice against the Washington Redskins and holding a few night practices. He'll even experiment by giving his players a night off or two at midweek, rather than the traditional Sunday.
"We'll try to change things up so don't get into that rut type of mentality," Cowher said.
Morning practices at St. Vincent are closed, but afternoon practices are open to the public until camp breaks August 22, before the final home exhibition game.
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