The Steelers have four good, deep receivers on the flanks, with Roy Jefferson probably the best of the lot. Jefferson has been a bit erratic in the past, but he has had more good games than mediocre ones and, at 6'2", 210, he carries uncommon authority for a wide receiver. The other two veterans, J.R. Wilburn and Dick Compton, lack the speed of Marsh Cropper and Roy Jefferson, but both of them have exceptionally quick moves and sure hands.
John Hilton, the starting tight end for the Steelers, is potentially in the class of a John Mackey or a Mike Ditka. He has surprising speed for his 220 pounds, he catches well in a crowd and he has good hands. He needs to improve his blocking, but he appears to be working on it. Behind him are two good young players.
Austin is pretty well set on defense. He has a seasoned line, even after dealing John Baker to Detroit. The starters are big and wise: Ben McGee (four years' experience, 260), Chuck Hinton (four years, 260), Lloyd Voss (four years, 260) and Frank Parker (six years, 270), an ex-Brown. McGee is enormously strong, all of them are quick.
The Steelers have two-thirds of an exceptionally good set of linebackers. Bill Saul, in the middle, is a deadly tackier against the run and has increased his range against passes. Andy Russell is rated almost on a par with Green Bay's Dave Robinson on the outside, giving away only weight. But the other outside spot has not measured up. John Campbell and Rod Breedlove alternate there, but Ray May, a 1967 rookie, may push both of them aside.
The secondary defense is pretty well set and pretty good. Paul Martha, a controversial first draft choice for the Steelers four years ago, is beginning to prove his worth as a free safety. Clendon Thomas is a tried and capable strong safety, if not a sensational one. Marv Woodson is set on one corner. Bob Hohn will play the other. The Steelers have no problems in their pass defense, as far as the deep men are concerned.
The Steelers are hurting when it comes to kicking. Jim Elliott handled the punting last year. He did so badly that the Steelers experimented in training with a golf pro named Tom DeRosa. DeRosa's punts were mere chip shots, and so the Steelers gave up on him and made a trade for Bobby Waldon from Minnesota. They lost their fine placekicker, Mike Clark, to the Dallas Cowboys and now have Bill Shockly from the AFL.
Austin feels that at last the team is beginning to mature, and he may be right. Eight of the players on his offensive club, including the quarterback, were in their first or second season as pros last year. All of them are back, a little bigger, a little smarter and a little more sure of themselves. They have already made most of their mistakes and have learned their lessons. In a division with only one sound club—Cleveland—the Steelers could be a surprise.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
When the Saints came marching into the NFL last season, they opened with a flourish of trumpets and a roll of drums. Under the fierce goading of Coach Tom Fears, the new club won five of its six exhibition games, then managed to win three regular-season games, as well. It was a surprisingly strong start, and Fears may find it hard to provide a suitable encore in 1968, even though the club should be better—if only for experience, and for the fact that Fears has some idea where his talent lies. He has moved to shore up the big deficiency of the 1967 Saints—safety—by acquiring Ross Fichtner from the Cleveland Browns and Elbert Kimbrough from San Francisco.
"The safety spots were the glaring weaknesses last year," he says frankly. "Not only on pass defense, but on tackling as well. I could show you movies where we could have won two more games if we had had better tackling by the safetie."