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Steelers carry high hopes into 2002 season

| Friday, July 26, 2002

Today the Pittsburgh Steelers are strapping on their pads and taking to the field.

Ultimately, it's only training camp, but with less than two weeks before their first preseason game, the whispers of a possible Super Bowl can already be heard around the water coolers.

For a team that returns 19 of 22 starters, who went 14-4 and went to the AFC Championship game, there appears little reason to think otherwise.

They could come close to running the table, which makes the fact that they don't play -...and beat -...Dallas this season even more disappointing.

Of course, they could play Dallas if the Cowboys make the Super Bowl. Yes, I am laughing with you.

Facing the Steelers this season is not a task for the faint of heart. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, that's exactly who they play - the weak and infirm. The Steelers play 11 of the final 14 games this season against teams that did not make the playoffs.

Having teams like Atlanta, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Carolina and Houston on the schedule provides ample opportunities for Kordell Stewart to throw interceptions without losing a game. It also gives Jerome Bettis enough touches to reach the 1,000-yard mark before he goes down with an injury.

While Stewart's interception total - he had 11 last year - should remain about the same, look for his other numbers to skyrocket. He had 14 touchdowns and 3,109 regular season passing yards in 2001, good enough to earn a Pro Bowl selection.

When you consider that his wide-out package this year will consist of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Terance Mathis and Antwaan Randle El this year, big things are possible if not likely. Ward (94 receptions in 2001) and Burress (15.3 yards per catch and six receiving touchdowns) combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards. Mathis, who had 564 yards receiving with Atlanta last year, is the third option and probably the teacher for Randle El, the second-round draft pick from Indiana.

Together, they should open up secondaries like Moses parted the sea.

As for the defense, it's a mirror-image from the 2001 squad that allowed just 44.5 rushing yards per game. Linebacker Earl Holmes was the lone key loss during the off-season but James Farrior from the Jets and his 107 solo tackles should fit in nicely.

About the only question mark, besides if the Pirates lose 100 games, is the lonesome kicker. Former Chiefs kicker Todd Peterson was brought in to replace Kris Brown. And while the jury's still out to see if he can defeat the swirling winds of Heinz Field, if finding a good kicker is your biggest concern, Detroit must feel like there's no point in even playing this year.

Now that Tennessee is in another division, winning the AFC North title should be easier than ever. The Steelers, though, are destined for more and anything less than a Super Bowl appearance will be a disappointment.

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