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Savran: Burress, Zereoue keys to offense

Saturday, August 11, 2001

Let's everyone take a deep breath. There now. Feel better, more relaxed? Good. We can proceed.

Now that the Steelers have played one exhibition game (and they really played just a half of that one), many are holding some truths to be self-evident. To wit: Kendrell Bell's induction to the Hall of Fame is merely a formality of a retirement date plus five years. That the "new" offense looks frighteningly like the "old" offense. And that Kent Graham continues to look frighteningly like Kent Graham.

Time out. It's way too early to be dealing in absolutes. Can we wait until the second half of the second game for that? Many times exhibition performances are merely a confirmation of what the coaches have been seeing in training camp. Unless there are some real eye-opening performances, good or bad, coaches evaluate players on what they see every day, rather than on four weekends. Besides, if the Steelers are to progress to the playoffs, contributions from newcomers won't be the key. The play of young veterans Plaxico Burress and Amos Zereoue will.

Certainly there are others critical to the prospects for this season, beginning with the quarterback. Kordell Stewart certainly played better last season than he had the previous two, but that's a long way from being good enough. It's not as though the Steelers have Peyton Manning and can go to bed at night worry-free. Hoping a guy will break through is a long way from being convinced he will. Quarterbacking is a key on any team, so we'll take that as a given. But here's why the other two must step forward and reach their potential if the Steelers expect to reach theirs.

Someone has to become the lead dog in the pack of wide receivers. If you force a defense to double-cover a dangerous receiver, the trickle-down effect is obvious. Ask Randy Moss what it means to have Cris Carter on the other side. Or vice versa. If Burress were to become that leading man this season, the rest of the group would be elevated in the process.

The Steelers always will be perceived as a running team, yet in the Super Bowl season of 1995 they did not have a 1,000-yard rusher. What they did have was an accurate quarterback and four quality receivers in Yancey Thigpen, Charles Johnson, Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings. And one of the reasons they excelled as a unit was because they had the All-Pro Thigpen leading the way.

The organization has done an excellent job of building a stable of quality receivers. But even though Hines Ward has become an accomplished wideout, and Bobby Shaw has shown an ability to get open and make the tough possession catches, both are complementary receivers. Both are reliable and most valuable, but neither is going to send a shiver up a defensive coordinator's spine. Troy Edwards, although potentially an asset, doesn't have that kind of upside, which is why it was a stretch to draft him as high in the first round as they did. But that's another story for another day.

By the process of elimination, this is where Burress comes in, the mantle of big-play receptions falling to him. One encouraging thing in his performance in Atlanta: He had three catches for 53 yards and a touchdown, and the touchdown pass was only 3 yards. That means he averaged 25 yards per catch on the other two. That's the kind of big-play production you're looking for. Last year, the Steelers averaged 12 yards per catch. They need to stretch that out if the "new" offense is to succeed. You can't constantly take 12 plays to go 80 yards. Burress' ability and willingness to shoulder the burden are keys to the season.

The other, offensively, is Zereoue. This offense is painfully slow and has been for the past three seasons. Someone or something has to make the opposition defend the perimeter. Not since Erric Pegram have the Steelers had a back who could turn the corner and be a legitimate third-down weapon, and not just on screens or swing passes. I'm talking about a guy who can get involved in a downfield pass pattern, a tremendous option and outlet in a passing attack. Zereoue certainly has those skills. If the Steelers utilize him, and he performs, the impact on the offense will be immediate. The Steelers have always done what they do very well. But it's time to do more and different things.

Are there other keys? Sure. How about a defense that makes a stand when the game is on the line? Not one that gives away leads and games as they did last season against Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Tennessee twice. And again, you can't help but wonder about their quarterback play. But you'd wonder less about that if Burress and/or Zereoue become the players they were drafted to be.

Stan Savran hosts a radio sports talk show, weeknights from 8-9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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