Steelers Have Slipped Some -- But Not Far

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 11:45 AM

The Super Bowl champions suffered some key offseason losses. Most notably, tailback Jerome Bettis retired and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El exited via free agency. But the Pittsburgh Steelers are a deep, versatile and resilient team, and they probably will remain a contender as long as they have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in their lineup.

Roethlisberger didn't play particularly well during the Steelers' Super Bowl triumph over the Seattle Seahawks. But he has demonstrated during his two seasons in the NFL that he is, above all else, a winner. Now, however, he must deal with the most difficult task of all -- staying on top.

Agent Leigh Steinberg's marketing strategy for Roethlisberger coming out of college was to take a conservative, low-key approach and let him accomplish something as a player before he became an accomplished pitchman. Steinberg loosened the reins just a bit after the Super Bowl, and Roethlisberger is well on his way to being an honest-to-goodness celebrity. The down side of that is that he will have to put up with more demands on his time than ever, and the level-headedness that his veteran Steelers teammates have appreciated in their young quarterback will be put to its biggest test.

He still has room to improve as a quarterback, especially given that his most significant postseason contribution during the Super Bowl run was his game-saving tackle after Bettis's fumble in the closing moments of the club's triumph at Indianapolis in an AFC semifinal. With Bettis gone and Roethlisberger a year older and wiser, the Steelers might open up the offense just a bit and rely on Roethlisberger to try to win games more often instead of simply avoiding losing them. Coach Bill Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt turned Roethlisberger loose early in games late in the season, and the approach worked to loosen up defenses and allow the Steelers to build early leads and then turn to the running game.

Any change in offensive philosophy is likely to be subtle, though. The Steelers still have the ability to control games by running the ball. Former undrafted free agent Willie Parker surpassed Bettis and Duce Staley and become the team's centerpiece runner last season, and his Super Bowl exploits cemented his status as the club's top tailback entering this coming season. Bettis will be missed as a team leader. He might not be missed quite as much as a runner, however. If Staley is healthy again after an injury-plagued 2005 season, he should be able to replace Bettis nicely as the complementary tailback.

The Steelers tried before and after last season to re-sign Randle El. But they weren't going to pay him more than they paid fellow wideout Hines Ward, and they no longer were a factor in the negotiations by the time the Washington Redskins outbid the Chicago Bears to sign him. The Steelers thus lost their most versatile player, one who could run and catch and throw. He was a dynamic kick returner, and he sealed the win over the Seahawks with a touchdown pass to Ward on a trick play.

But the Steelers did the best they could to fill the void created by his departure when they traded up in the first round of the draft to get Ohio State wideout Santonio Holmes with the 25th overall selection. The defending champs aren't supposed to be able to land the top wide receiver in the draft. But that's what the Steelers did, getting the only receiver chosen in the first round. The Steelers will need him to develop rapidly to keep defenses from ganging up on Ward. For now, Roethlisberger's No. 2 target could be tight end Heath Miller.

The Steelers released one backup quarterback, Tommy Maddox, but re-signed another, Charlie Batch, and got Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs in the fifth round of the draft.

The defense loses end Kimo von Oelhoffen and safety Chris Hope, who departed as free agents, and cornerback Willie Williams, who was released. Safety Mike Logan was re-signed after being released. The Steelers, as usual, weren't big spenders in free agency. But they managed to re-sign most of their key free agents and they added some players who could be contributors like safety Ryan Clark, formerly of the Redskins, and end Rodney Bailey, formerly of the Seahawks.

Cowher undoubtedly will spend much of training camp preaching to his players that they weren't necessarily the best team in the NFL last season but they won a championship because of their grit and hard work. He's right. Bettis got much of the attention from the public during the title run. But he was, for the most part, just a supporting player last season. The Steelers are more than capable of making up for his loss and, as long as they believe what Cowher will be telling them and stay the same determined group they've been over the past couple seasons, they will remain among the league's elite teams.

Around the League

With Wednesday's trade of Steve McNair to the Baltimore Ravens for a fourth-round pick in next spring's draft -- set to be completed today if McNair passes a physical -- the Tennessee Titans turn over their quarterback job to, temporarily, Billy Volek.

Volek has made 10 starts over the past three seasons backing up the injury-plagued McNair and has been among the league's more prolific passers when he's had a chance to play. But Volek is only keeping the seat warm for Vince Young, the third overall selection in the draft in April out of the University of Texas who probably will take over as the starter at some point during the season.

There has been some talk that the Titans perhaps could sign veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, who was released by the Oakland Raiders earlier in the offseason. The Titans cleared $9 million in salary cap space with the McNair trade and now have more than enough flexibility to sign Young and their other draft picks and add a veteran or two. They had expressed interest in free agent cornerback Ty Law but seemingly had dropped out of the running while the Arizona Cardinals joined the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs among the bidders . . . .

The St. Louis Rams signed free agent defensive tackle Jason Fisk. He was a starter for the Cleveland Browns last season but was released in March . . . .

Defensive end Mario Williams, the top overall choice in the draft, is sitting out a few days of the Houston Texans' practices this week. He had the toenails removed from both of his big toes because of infections . . . .

The Chiefs seem close to signing Kyle Turley, the former offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints and Rams who's trying to return to the NFL as a tight end.

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