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Steelers look to open up offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers can run the ball and play defense.

That's usually a formula for making the playoffs, but the Steelers wound up missing the NFL playoff party for the third consecutive season in 2000.

That's because even though they had the league's fourth-ranked rushing offense and seventh-ranked defense, they were twenty-ninth in passing offense.

The result was that head coach Bill Cowher fired offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, whose units ranked twenty-sixth and twenty-ninth in passing offense in his two seasons with the club.

Cowher didn't need an extensive search to find a replacement for Gilbride. He went down the hall and promoted tight ends coach Mike Mularkey. Except for veteran running backs coach Dick Hoak, the rest of the offensive staff is new. The key addition may be Tom Clements, the team's first quarterback coach since 1973. The Steelers also added offensive line coach Russ Grimm, receivers coach Kenny Jackson, and tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt.

"We've gotten a lot of good feedback from these guys," Mularkey says. "They've all come from different teams and different philosophies and they've been around some great offenses, so you listen and take it all in."

The Mularkey system will be designed to take advantage of quarterback Kordell Stewart's athletic ability. There won't be more than two reads to a route so Stewart can try to make something happen rather than sitting in the pocket waiting for a third or fourth receiver to open up.

"I'm trying to get these guys to not think so much, but to react," Mularkey says.

Stewart, who began last season on the bench but came back to win the starting job, has to make more plays than he did in 2000 when he completed only 52.2 percent of his passes. He may be helped by some of the new wrinkles in the Mularkey offense.

"I guarantee teams are wondering what on earth we're going to do," Mularkey says.

The Steelers also need their receiving corps of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Bobby Shaw, and Troy Edwards to make more plays. Ward and Shaw led the team with only 48 and 40 catches, respectively.

Burress, who was hampered by a wrist injury, caught only 22 passes and Edwards 19. Tight end Mark Bruener, who had only 17 catches, also may be more of a factor in the Mularkey offense.

The Steelers' bread and butter, though, will continue to be the running game. Jerome Bettis rushed for 1,341 yards last season and The Bus still has some tread left on his tires. The offensive line also figures to be improved with free agent Jeff Hartings at center in place of the departed Dermontti Dawson.

The defense will be anchored by outside linebackers Jason Gildon and Joey Porter, who combined for 24 sacks last season, and the Steelers have a pair of good corners in Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott.

They also hope that first-round draft pick Casey Hampton can win the starting job at nose tackle so Kimo von Oelhoffen can switch to defensive end. The Steelers lost linebacker Levon Kirkland in free agency, but Earl Holmes will move into his spot and they signed free agent Mike Jones to take Holmes's place. Second-round draft pick Kendrell Bell will press Jones.

The defense held opponents to nine points or fewer in six games last season and figures to be a formidable force once again. The Steelers, who overcame an 0-3 start to go 9-4 in their last 13 games, want to pick up where they left off.

Fast Facts

2000 Record: 9-7

Coach: Bill Cowher 91-64 (10th season)

2000 NFL Rankings

Offense: 18 (4 rush, 29 pass)

Defense: 7 (12 rush, 9 pass)

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