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Steelers Steelers trade for higher first-round pick, select Southern California defensive back

Sunday, April 27, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Never in their history had the Steelers drafted a pure safety in the first round or made a trade to move higher in the first round.

Southern California safety Troy Polamalu outruns Penn State offensive tackle Imani Bell as he returns an interception for a touchdown. (Daniel Hulshizer, Associated Press)


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Yesterday, they did both.

The Steelers wanted Southern California safety Troy Polamalu enough that they surrendered their draft picks in the third and sixth rounds to ensure they would get him. They moved from 27th to 16th, switching choices in the first round with Kansas City and sending the Chiefs the 92nd and 200th picks in the draft.

What the Steelers got in return was the best safety in the draft, the best at USC since Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and an immediate, necessary injection of speed and talent into their slumping secondary.

"This kid is going to bring a lot of energy to a need position," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "He's special. He's going to create a lot of excitement and he's going to help our defense immediately."

In the second round, the Steelers drafted Alonzo Jackson, a defensive end from Florida State they will use as a situational pass rusher. Even though he weighs 266 pounds and stands 6 feet 3 1/2, the Steelers will convert him to outside linebacker.

They're hoping he can help them with their pass rush quickly and develop into an all-around outside linebacker. They've done that with others, turning college defensive ends such as Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans into outside linebackers. But none of them weighed as much as Jackson as a rookie.

In order to draft the unheralded Jackson, the Steelers passed over such players as quarterbacks Dave Ragone and Chris Simms, linebacker Antwaan Peek, cornerback Dennis Weathersby and tight end Jason Witten.

Clearly, they were not going to pass up a chance to go get Polamalu.

"He has a great nose for the ball, very instinctive," Coach Bill Cowher said. "You can never get enough of those defensive football players. We feel we have a very solid safety situation right now."

Solid enough that they will end their pursuit of veteran safety Sammy Knight, an unrestricted free agent. Polamalu, who is 5-10, 206, should step right into the starting job Lee Flowers vacated and team with safety Brent Alexander and cornerbacks Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott in the secondary.

The Steelers slipped on pass defense from fifth to 20th last season and even added another coach in the secondary, Darren Perry, to help out. Offenses took advantage of their lack of speed in the secondary to throw more often on them last season. Their pass defense has evolved to where they use their strong and free safeties almost interchangeably and more like left and right safeties.

"I think it's the way the game has evolved," Cowher said. "I think speed is such an asset. I watched this kid play. He's playing the game faster than a lot of people are on the field."

The draft yesterday also might have solidified the position of halfback Jerome Bettis for at least another season. First, the Steelers did not draft a back on the first day, and Cowher issued a good report on Bettis, who has returned from Los Angeles and will begin working out with his teammates here this week.

"Jerome is doing great. I think Jerome is going to prove some people wrong this year."

The Steelers had some interest in Penn State halfback Larry Johnson if they had stayed at No. 27 and Polamalu had been picked. Johnson was drafted at No. 27 by the Chiefs.

Cowher said Polamalu was the player they wanted from the start and they were determined to get him.

"We felt he was too good a football player to pass up," Cowher said.

They laid some groundwork during the week by calling teams and offering trades to move up in the draft. New Orleans had two first-round picks, at No. 17 and No. 18, but declined the Steelers' offer to switch. The Saints wound up trading those two in order to move up to No. 6.

Kansas City was amenable to a deal, but the Steelers had to wait first to see what San Diego would do at No. 15. The Chargers were known to be interested in Polamalu. When San Diego made a trade that put Philadelphia at No. 15, the Steelers felt reassured, and when the Eagles drafted Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle at No. 15, the Steelers consummated their trade with the Chiefs, took Polamalu and quietly celebrated.

"When the player's there that you want ... you go get him," Colbert said. "That's what we felt we had to do and we did it. And we're excited about it. Your guy's there, he's affordable, you better pull the trigger when he's there."

Giving up a third-round pick is no small thing. The Steelers have found good and even great players on the third round, such as Joey Porter and Amos Zereoue (1999), Hines Ward ('98) and Jason Gildon ('94). But they have not drafted a starter after the second round in this century.

Polamalu, who grew up on the West Coast, broke out in a Samoan celebration dance, the Paualuga, with his uncle after the Steelers drafted him. The Steelers hope he helps prevent receivers from dancing through their secondary the way they did last season.

"He has got a presence on the field," Cowher said. "What we need to do is make sure he's comfortable with what we ask him to do and allow him to have the ability as fast as he has shown that he can."

The one concern some teams had was Polamalu's history of concussions; he has had four. Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers neurosurgeon, cleared him.

"We wouldn't go up and get a player if we had any doubts about his talent, his personality, his character, or his health," Colbert said. "He has had injuries, he's had concussions. We had him in here. He met with Dr. Maroon and came away with no problems."

Most teams did not rate Jackson highly because they play 4-3 defenses and he does not fit easily as an end or outside linebacker in that style. But the Steelers have a long, successful history of drafting such players and turning them into outside linebackers.

"Bill has done a good job in the last few years of taking people and standing them up and making them good outside linebackers," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "So his track record is proven and he sees a lot in this young man, as I do.

"There's still a couple things he needs to work on but he is an excellent pass rusher."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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