Defense turns to Haggans
The immediate aftermath of linebacker Joey Porter's gunshot wound of the left buttocks put Clark Haggans under bright lights Monday in the Steelers locker room and in the coaches' meeting rooms.
Coach Bill Cowher named Haggans to start at Porter's right outside linebacker spot when the Steelers open the regular season Sunday at Heinz Field against the Baltimore Ravens. Plus, Haggans will play rush end in the nickel defense, a position previously occupied by Porter.
James Farrior will line up in Porter's middle linebacker position in the dime.
Haggans said his feelings are "bittersweet" while preparing for just the third start of his four-year career.
"I'm not trying to take his spot," he said of Porter, a former teammate and roommate at Colorado State. "I'm just trying to do as much as I can do to fill his shoes until he gets back."
Haggans was the rush end in the dime defense last year, replacing Bell, who suffered a severe and lingering high-ankle sprain. Haggans totaled six sacks in the first eight games, but managed only a half-sack in the final 10.
"I guess I didn't have some of the tenacity I had at the start of the season," he said. "I couldn't tell you (the reason). It just wasn't there for me the second part of the season."
Haggans is just one of several players who must take their game to another level to compensate for the loss of Porter, an All-Pro linebacker who has 30 1/2 sacks in four seasons.
"We have to play above and beyond expectations," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "Even offensively, we kind of want to put it on our shoulders to keep (the opponent's) offense off the field and let our offense control the clock.
"Our key starters are going to make some plays that they haven't made all year.
"It's going to be a group effort from everybody. The cornerbacks are going to have to play a little better and cover a little longer."
Ward said Porter's accident should not become a distraction.
"No doubt it's a tragic situation, but as far as being a distraction, we are such a close-knit team, when we handle adversity we seem to rise to the occasion."
Outside linebacker Jason Gildon said the situation was similar to the start of the 1995 season when cornerback Rod Woodson suffered a severe knee injury in the regular-season opener and was lost for the rest of the regular season. The Steelers responded by earning a berth in Super Bowl XXX.
"Going into the season opener, this is the last thing you'd expect to have to handle now," Gildon said. "But big things are expected of the defense and we can't really let this be a step backward. Clark has been here in the system a while now and he knows how are defense works. We have a lot of confidence in him."
Said Ward: "The season has to go on, regardless. If we lose a great leader like Joey, our other leaders have to step up."