Work in Sports
Slash in the spotlight again for Steelers fans
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
LATROBE, Pa. -- Here are three burning questions that are still very much in the process of being answered at the Pittsburgh Steelers' picturesque training camp at St. Vincent College, a stately Benedictine school that features honest-to-goodness black-robed monks strolling around campus (Couldn't they do shorts and baggy tees in summer?) Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in with them on his tour of NFL training camps:
1. Question: Is this the year Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart resuscitates his career and returns to the 1997 form that had everyone proclaiming him the league's newest superstar?
Answer: Let's start with another question. What would a preseason with the Steelers be like without the Kordell debate? That topic has raged atop the charts in Pittsburgh for three years now. And it's not over yet. All the Steelers want from Stewart is this: Good, quick decisions. Get rid of the ball, or tuck it and run. Don't force it, and cut way down on the hesitation and confusion that his game has featured the past two seasons.
So far, so good. It's way early, but after looking somewhat scattered in the first two weeks of camp workouts, Stewart was sharp in the Steelers' preseason opening win at Dallas on Sunday. He made good reads, quick decisions and played in control. He knew when to throw the ball away and when to avoid the rush and scramble. In short, he looked comfortable for the first time in a long time.
While Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride are cautiously optimistic, this much is clear: Stewart will be on a shorter leash than ever this season. Pittsburgh won't wait long before going to the newly signed Kent Graham if Stewart struggles early. Graham hasn't set the world on fire, either, thus far. But with Chad Pennington in New York, Pittsburgh must tie its fate to one or the other.
Stewart may still recover his complete game, and has better talent to work with at receiver. Teammates say he's more confident and content than they've seen him in the past two years. Chances are, however, that passing on Pennington will remain a season-long topic.
2. Question: Having spent their first-round pick on Michigan State's Plaxico Burress rather than Pennington, are the Steelers' young receiving corps ready to start paying back the investment?
Answer: Pittsburgh's receivers have been mostly horrible the past two seasons, which has only heightened Stewart's struggles. But there's a lot of hope this year. With two first-round picks spent on the position in the past two years -- Troy Edwards in '99 and Burress -- the Steelers believe they have their best collection of young talent at receiver since 1994-95, when Ernie Mills, Yancey Thigpen, Charles Johnson, Andre Hastings and "Slash" Stewart himself were helping Pittsburgh advance far into the post-season.
While Burress and Edwards will eventually line up as the starting duo, Pittsburgh is also going to find playing time for third-year veterans Hines Ward and Bobby Shaw, second-year man Malcolm Johnson and maybe even veteran Courtney Hawkins, who re-signed with the team when Will Blackwell was lost for the season. Fourth-round pick Danny Farmer also factors in, although the Steelers should keep just six receivers, meaning either Hawkins or Johnson may be on the bubble.
You may not have heard much about most of those players, but Pittsburgh thinks that's about to change. The confident Edwards predicted Tuesday that the Steelers will feature the best offense in the NFL and that he and Burress will someday soon be considered its top 1-2 duo.
That may be a bit much bravado for now, but the receiving corps is in better hands. If Burress comes on quickly, the Steelers finally may be riding more than "The Bus" to the end zone.
3. Question: What new emphasis has new defensive coordinator Tim Lewis brought to the unit this season?
Answer: The heat is on. As in pass rush. As in blitz. Lewis is stressing a more aggressive style this season, and even went so far as to use the phrase "Blitzburgh'' in a sentence the other day. That's what the Steelers defense was nicknamed, of course, in the team's '94 Super Bowl season, when the unit blitzed from every direction but straight down, en route to a 55-sack season.
Pittsburgh's sack total was just 39 last season, the fourth consecutive year that figure has dropped. The Steelers may not be as blitz happy as they were in 1994, but Lewis is determined to keep the threat of the blitz in the forefront of an opponent's mind.
In Sunday night's game at Dallas, the first-team defense saw just three series of action. But Lewis gave Steelers fans a taste of what might be in store. Pittsburgh had four sacks of Cowboy quarterbacks, highlighted by outside linebacker Joey Porter's 12-yard dumping of Troy Aikman on a blitz. Porter beat starting left tackle Flozell Adams around the corner.
One game does not a trend make. But the aggressive "Blitzburgh" concept fit the Steelers' personnel well in '94 and helped propel Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl. That's not a bad track record to go on.