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Steelers In Steelers' minds, new free safety is Alexander the Great

Thursday, October 26, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

A couple of cops waited for Brent Alexander as he walked off the Three Rivers Stadium field Sunday. They put him in a car and sped away.

A few hours later, Nylan Joseph Alexander arrived, setting yet another personal high for the Steelers' free safety. His third child was born on the day in which he intercepted his third pass of the season.

Brent Alexander

Alexander has never had more than two interceptions in his previous six seasons in the NFL.

But then, Alexander has always been a late bloomer. He sat for three years in high school before becoming a starter as a senior. He turned down football scholarships in order to attend Tennessee State on a prestigious presidential academic scholarship, majoring in computer science.

He did not plan to play football in college, but Tennessee State Coach Joe Gilliam Sr., father of the former Steelers quarterback, wrote him a letter of recommendation for his scholarship and then asked him to play football.

"We kind of worked it out," Alexander said.


 
 
More Steelers coverage

Steelers Report, 10/26/2000

   

 

It's all worked out rather well for Alexander, too. He played football, got his degree in computer science and now has helped put the byte back in the Steelers' defense.

Coach Bill Cowher gushed about him at his news conference Tuesday, repeating what Alexander's teammates have been saying about him lately.

"Brent Alexander has been a very solid, stabilizing force back there," Cowher said. "They are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence."

That's better than how they played last season when free safety was a soft spot for them. They signed Travis Davis as a free agent from Jacksonville, but he played on a bad ankle, and they released him this spring. They drafted 6-foot-4 Scott Shields on the second round last year, but he was unable to win the job.

Shields played safety in the dime defense last season and played the first three games there this season, but he also lost that job to Alexander, who now plays on every down.

He calls all the defensive signals and rarely gets a call wrong, one big reason there have been few charges of "miscommunication" in their dime defense the past four games.

"He's provided a steady, calming effect for us," defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said.

They signed him May 31 as a free agent after Carolina released him to save his $1 million salary, even though he started all 32 games for the Panthers the past two seasons.

Since Alexander also was inserted into the dime defense, the Steelers haven't allowed a pass completion longer than 22 yards over the past four games, all victories. In the first three games, they yielded eight passes of 28 yards or more, including a 53-yard touchdown pass from Tony Banks to Qadry Ismail and a 28-yard pass to Travis Taylor in the opener against Baltimore.

Ismail and the Ravens are back on the docket Sunday -- with Trent Dilfer at quarterback instead of Banks -- and they hope to contain Baltimore's big plays this time.

"We just have to continue to play the way we've been playing the last four, five weeks and play disciplined, smart and aggressive," Alexander said.

He dished off much of the credit for the improvement in the secondary to cornerbacks Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott.

"Our two corners right now are playing some great football," said Alexander. "When you're playing safety and your corners are playing good football, that just makes you shine even more. That really cuts the field off. If you can't throw the ball outside the numbers, you have to throw it inside, and we're just sitting there and waiting for it. Right now, we're getting a lot of opportunities for the ball and we just have to take advantage of it."

The safeties, including strong safety Lee Flowers, should get even more opportunities in Baltimore on Sunday. Tight end Shannon Sharpe leads the Ravens with 32 receptions for 409 yards, and they also have Ben Coates, although the former Patriots All-Pro has been a disappointment with just five catches.

The tight ends are often the safeties' responsibility, and they roam over the middle. Alexander has good size at 5-11, 196 pounds, but Sharpe is 6-2, 232 and Coates is 6-5, 245.

"It's an opportunity and a challenge at the same time," Alexander said. "When you come into a game and the tight end's the top receiver on the team, you just look straight for the safeties and say, 'What are you going to do?' This is going to be a game where we can help the corners out where they've been helping us out the last few weeks."

Alexander knows what it's like to play every position in the secondary. He started seven games at cornerback in Arizona as a rookie in 1994, then started 15 games at three different positions for the Cardinals in 1995. He has started every game but two the past four seasons and started all seven for the Steelers in this one. He started the second and third games at strong safety for the injured Lee Flowers.

Since Flowers returned, he and Alexander have developed a better feel for each other. and it has spread throughout the defense.

"I'll tell you what," said linebacker Levon Kirkland, the captain of the defense, "the back end of the secondary is doing a great job. I think Brent is a wonderful addition. He's really getting the calls back there. We're playing sharper."

Said Flowers, "He's very much like Darren Perry. Darren was the quarterback of this defense. Darren's job was to know the defense as well as the defensive coordinator. Right now, Brent is doing that. He's making all the right calls and he's playing with a lot of confidence to the point it almost frees me up to do what I want because I know he's going to play off me. He's been a big addition to this defense."

Alexander has a new addition to his own team, and the football from his third interception was a nice birthday gift for his newborn son.

"That's the end of the line," Alexander said.

Children, he meant, not interceptions.

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