Bill Cowher keeps saying that while the Steelers won the Super Bowl, they were not the best team in the NFL last season. If so, they have not become stronger since Feb. 5 and have one last chance to do so this weekend in the draft.
The Steelers squeaked into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC because they won their final four games to go 11-5. Their fabulous run to a Super Bowl victory does not erase the fact that they did not win their division. Then they lost starters Kimo von Oelhoffen, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope and the valuable Jerome Bettis this year.
Those are not additions by subtraction, even though they avoided a major erosion of their roster by signing 11 of their 14 unrestricted and restricted free agents.
They are armed with 10 draft picks, six in the first four rounds, to restock a team that still should compete for a Super Bowl. While few rookies step right in and make a team better, the Steelers did find one last season that helped immensely in tight end Heath Miller, and cornerback Bryant McFadden became an important player in their passing defenses.
"It is going to be important through this draft to get some players that can come in and be very competitive in camp and challenge some of the players we have coming back," Cower said. "I think we will be able to do that.
"You are looking for production, you are looking for character, you are looking for dependability. I think that you have to get the guys who fit your systems with what you are doing schematically, offensively and defensively."
Here is a look at the Steelers' situation at each position as they mine the college prospects:
Few teams can match the Steelers' strength at this position. Ben Roethlisberger not only proved there was no sophomore jinx but also has built a base in two years that should vault him among the best in the game. Injuries to both of his knees last year showed the importance of having a good backup and they secured that position by re-signing Charlie Batch, 31, who won two games while Roethlisberger was injured and has started 48 games in eight seasons. The Steelers want to come away with a third quarterback this weekend, whether that's on the second day of the draft or as a free-agent rookie. Rod Rutherford also is on their roster.
Willie Parker not only became their first 1,000-yard rusher in four years but also did it in a style rarely seen in Pittsburgh. He also showed he could stand up to the pounding, rushing 255 times for 1,202 yards, a 4.7-yard average. Duce Staley steps into the short-yardage role vacated by Bettis, but there are questions about whether he can stay healthy at age 31. A hamstring injury cut short his 2004 season after a great start, and he had knee surgery in August, which opened the door for Parker. Third-down back Verron Haynes re-signed as a free agent, a move Cowher said was important. Dan Kreider remains one of the game's best blocking fullbacks. They have an opening for a rookie here. It's not necessary for them to draft a back high, but if LenDale White is available, it would be hard for a team that runs as often as the Steelers to pass him up.
The loss of Randle El combined with the need for a speed receiver to loosen up defenses might be their biggest hole. The problem with this draft is it is bereft of those kinds of receivers, and the Steelers aren't likely to get a crack at one in the first round, unless it's 5-foot-8 Sinorice Moss. Cedrick Wilson must step up into a bigger role this year, teaming with Hines Ward. The Steelers might move Ward into the slot when they go to three wide receivers. Even if they draft someone, it's rare for a rookie receiver to step in and be effective. That leaves Quincy Morgan, Nate Washington and Lee Mays to compete for the No. 3 spot and play on the outside. Miller could be their answer otherwise. He gives them another option, which they took advantage in his rookie season, when he finished second to Ward in receptions (39) and touchdown catches (six).
By the final quarter of the season, the Steelers' starting five was as good as any in the league. They all return. What they need now is depth and a draft pick or two for the future. Rookie Trai Essex started four games for injured Marvel Smith at left tackle but they could use another young tackle, possibly someone who also can play guard. Jeff Hartings turns 34 when they open the regular season, and they must decide if Chukky Okobi is his heir apparent or if, as many mock drafts would suggest, they would be better taking Nick Mangold of Ohio State in the first round.
The Steelers had the best 3-4 line in the NFL last season, and they're hoping young Brett Keisel can fill the gap created when von Oelhoffen left for the Jets. Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his second Pro Bowl and left end Aaron Smith probably should have made his second. They have good, veteran depth with Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke and Rodney Bailey, who re-signed with them this year. However, it would be hard for them to pass up a big-time end if he becomes available this weekend.
They are nearly as good as they've ever been under Cowher. On the right side, Joey Porter led all linebackers with 10.5 sacks. On the left, Clark Haggans finished third in the NFL among linebackers with 9. They are two disruptive forces. Inside, James Farrior has been the model of consistency and one who can make big plays. Larry Foote led the Steelers in tackles and tackles for losses. The starting four is strong, but what happens if there are injuries? They lost nothing on the outside when James Harrison came in, but they would feel better adding another strong backup, perhaps even someone to groom for a starting job. Inside, second-year player Rian Wallace could be that man.
There's nothing wrong that a little depth at safety couldn't help. With All-Pro Troy Polamalu at strong safety, Ike Taylor at cornerback and veteran Deshea Townsend competing with McFadden at the other cornerback, only one position remains uncertain for quality this season. The Steelers signed Ryan Clark from the Redskins to replace Hope at free safety, but they would like to draft a rookie with more size to compete with him and also add depth to the position. The Steelers won't shy from drafting a cornerback, not with Taylor possibly leaving next year.
Ideally, they will come out of this draft with a punt returner to replace Randle El. Otherwise, Ricardo Colclough will get first crack at the job and Townsend is another possibility. Their kicking game has been dependable with Jeff Reed and punter Chris Gardocki, although he is 36.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3878.