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AFC NORTH Pittsburgh's needs are defined



Published: Mon, April 28, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Acquiring another defensive back is an urgency.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- An NFL team's needs at certain positions can be so great, so visible and so urgent it makes drafting a necessity, not an option.

The Pittsburgh Steelers go into this weekend's draft with just such a lack of flexibility, and they know it. They need another starting defensive back -- and in a bad way -- plus a quarterback who can challenge Tommy Maddox to be the starter in a couple of years.

Partly because of strong safety Lee Flowers' struggles to play man coverage in the open field against faster receivers, the Steelers fell from fifth to 20th in pass defense last season. They also allowed 30 or more points eight times, or eight times more than they did in 2001.

Weakness

The secondary problems became even more complicated when offenses determined early in the season they could target the Steelers' cornerbacks when they played well off the line of scrimmage to defend against the deep pass.

No wonder the Steelers may adopt a safety-first approach to this draft.

"I don't know if last year was a trend or the way teams decided to attack us," coach Bill Cowher said. "Last year, we went to three corners a lot as part of an adjustment to not get caught up in matchups with Lee Flowers."

With the Steelers in desperate need of a safety capable of doing more than defending against the run, they could well choose Southern Cal safety Troy Polamalu with the 27th overall pick Saturday, if he's available.

The 5-foot-10, 206-pound All-American has the closing speed the Steelers need in a safety and the kind of hitting ability they covet.

What gets dicey, of course, is what happens if Polamalu already has been taken. Ohio State safety Mike Doss is another possibility, though he may not be as fast as Polamalu.

Another scenario is the Steelers could go for the quarterback first -- can anyone say Florida's Rex Grossman? -- and go for a defensive back in the second round, perhaps Oklahoma cornerback Andre Woolfolk, Bethune-Cookman cornerback Rashean Mathis or Texas A & amp;M safety Terrence Kiel.

Need QB No. 3

The Steelers have drafted only two quarterbacks on the first round in 45 years -- Terry Bradshaw (1970) and Mark Malone (1980) -- but they need someone who can be their No. 3 quarterback immediately. They have only two experienced QBs under contract, Maddox and backup Charlie Batch.

"There are some things we have to address, but I don't feel like it has to be done with need and having to get this [certain] guy early," Cowher said. "Certainly, some guys are going to have the opportunity and, if they come in here and take advantage of it, they may be playing a lot sooner."

A year ago, Florida State safety Chris Hope was drafted on the third round, but his inconsistency limited him to sporadic playing time despite their season-long coverage problems.

Another intriguing possibility is the Steelers will use a top-three pick on a running back, something they haven't done since taking fullback Jon Wittman on the third round in 1996.

If they do, it could signal the impending end to Jerome Bettis' days with the team. His yardage dropped nearly in half during a second consecutive injury-shortened season, and Cowher said the draft could determine his status.

Later rounds

Later in the draft, the Steelers may look for help along the offensive line, at tight end and linebacker and add another defensive back.

During their final preparations, the Steelers planned to stage a mock draft today that included not only Cowher, director of football operations Kevin Colbert and scouting coordinators Bill Baker and Doug Whaley, but team president Dan Rooney. The idea was to prepare for all scenarios, financial and otherwise, should a player unexpectedly fall to them.




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