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Savran: Tim Lewis leads list on Steelers' hot seat

Saturday, August 09, 2003

There's no need for a thermometer. If you want to measure the temperature of a football team's hot seat, merely check the expectations. The greater the expectations, the hotter the seat. Here then, with sincere apologies to David Letterman, in no particular order, is the top 10 (or more) list of Steelers on the hot seat if this team is to get where it wants to go.

1. Tim Lewis. The defensive coordinator has had an entire off-season to combat what opposing offensive coordinators concocted last off-season. While schemes cannot totally camouflage player performance, the Steelers never quite had time to catch up to the spread, empty set, quick-rhythm passing games that shredded their defense. Those offenses raised serious questions about the once-dominant Steelers defense. Lewis must find the answers.

2. Tommy Maddox. Do it to me one more time. There's no reason to think the Steelers' quarterback can't duplicate his "rookie" season as a starter. He was never a full-fledged starter before last season. Then it follows that he has never done it in two successive seasons. Despite the Steelers' declarations that they are still primarily a running team, their offensive success will depend on their ability to pass. Obviously, that can't happen without Maddox. Second, he has to prove that he's a legitimate starting quarterback, one who can pilot a Super Bowl contender. Not to mention one deserving of a new contract.

3. Jerome Bettis. He's healthy now, but can he stay that way? How much is left in a body that's taken more punishment than a Pirates fan? Despite the emphasis on passing, they're going to need Bettis. Amos Zereoue is a tremendous complementary back, but getting the tough yards in tough situations differentiates between contender and pretender. For that they'll need a bus, not a scooter.

4. Brent Alexander. Free safeties are like center fielders, lending support to and covering for the mistakes of corner outfielders. They must get their hands on the ball. On a team that was thrown at an average of 37 passes per game last season, four interceptions weren't nearly enough. That he's smart and quarterbacks the secondary is important but no longer enough.

5. Troy Polamalu. His hot seat is warming faster than the globe, not because the Steelers got him, but because of what it took to get him. He won't have time to blend in, he'll have to make his impact felt literally and figuratively.

6. Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott. Perhaps improved pass coverage from the safeties will lend the additional support needed. Perhaps Lewis' schemes will help as well. Still, on too many occasions they were chasing after receivers with yards of gaping separation, and that was in zone defenses! A coach is obligated to put his players in the best possible situation to succeed. Still, success is up to the players, and these two must play better.

7. Kendrell Bell. The Steelers have pointed to his being injured for their porous pass defense. While no one can deny his impact individually, were his extended absences or limited capabilities solely responsible for the Steelers' secondary chasing opposing receivers like Marshall Samuel Gerard running down fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble ? If Bell is healthy, he'll be a Pro Bowler. If the defensive backs again finish second in an NFL track meet, who gets the blame then?

8. Aaron Smith. You don't measure a defensive lineman's impact solely on sack totals. Still, Smith's sack totals dropped last season, partially because of the offenses they were facing. But they'll be seeing that again, and he needs to be the disruptive force he became in 2001.

9. Oliver Ross. The Steelers matched the offer extended by Cleveland, figuring Ross would eventually replace Wayne Gandy. While that responsibility has fallen to Marvel Smith -- and it says here he'll be fine on the left side -- Ross has yet to prove he's worth the contract he was given. This is his chance. They say he's a better tackle than a guard. He had better be.

10. Jeff Reed. Was last year a fluke? Will the Steelers again be forced to hold an emergency audition for a new kicker about the time the wind begins snarling, turning the football into a leather-covered rock?

Bonus Pick. Bill Cowher. He's not going anywhere anytime soon, but the hot seat is always hottest for the head coach. The temperature on the seat is going up, especially for a team with a window of opportunity that is sliding down.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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