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Smizik: Passing game still lacks punch

Monday, October 01, 2001

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- On a spectacular fall afternoon, the Steelers got back to the business of playing football games. For the most part, their 21 days away from NFL competition was barely noticeable as they did what they had to do to dispatch the injury-ravaged and subsequently hapless Buffalo Bills.

Their defense was superb, winning almost every down and holding the Bills to a ridiculously low 172 yards. Quarterback Rob Johnson was sacked four times and running back Travis Henry was held to 30 yards on 17 carries.

Jerome Bettis, silenced by Jacksonville in the season opener, rumbled for 114 yards, and Amos Zereoue gave a glimpse of what he can do with a 32-yard dash through the Buffalo defense. Hines Ward continued to establish himself as the team's No. 1 receiver with nine catches.

It was a sweet 20-3 victory in a game the Steelers had to have.

But it wasn't enough.

If the Steelers continue to play as they did yesterday they will miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.

Unless a team has something resembling the Steel Curtain defense, it can't be successful in the NFL without at least an above-average passing game. The Steelers have a below-average passing game, and that's being generous.

Kordell Stewart threw 22 times and completed 15. On paper, that's good. But when his yardage figures are added to the mix, his performance becomes unacceptable. His 22 passes accumulated 107 yards, a number as ridiculously low as Buffalo's total offense.

In an NFL rarity, the Steelers not only ran for more yards than they passed, they were penalized for more yards than they passed.

"We have to be more effective throwing the ball," Coach Bill Cowher said. "We had some opportunities. I feel we'll get better. There will be some growing pains with this offense."

The most glaring example of Stewart's ineffectiveness came in the second quarter with the ball on the Buffalo 20. Plaxico Burress was wide open running across the end zone. It was a relatively easy pass to complete. Stewart didn't even come close.

"You've got to make that throw," offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "Kordell will tell you that."

Which he did. "You don't want to miss opportunities like I had with Plaxico. I could have shot myself, but it was too early in the game."

It is becoming more clear with every game, that instead of improving, Stewart is regressing. His accuracy, despite his 68 percent completion rate, is awful. The Steelers rarely ask him to throw to a moving target. Most of his passes and almost all of his completions are to stationary targets. His favorite route is the curl, where the receivers sprint downfield and turn around to accept the pass. He also throws a lot of dump passes to receivers just a few yards away.

Ward's numbers are an excellent example of how Stewart plays the game. Although he caught nine balls, Ward had only 79 yards.

Stewart averaged 4.9 yards an attempt, well below his average of 6.5 yards of last season, which wasn't satisfactory.

Buffalo was giving the Steelers the short passing game but the Steelers couldn't capitalize.

"Their defense wouldn't give us anything deep," said Ward. "They were playing like 15 yards off of us."

Sounds like the perfect time to turn some short slants where the receiver can catch the ball in stride and pick up some nice yardage after the catch. But the Steelers seldom run such routes, presumably because Stewart is not adept at hitting moving targets. Thus the Steelers become extremely limited in what they can do in the passing game.

To Stewart's credit, he didn't have any turnovers. But that's not good enough. He's in his fifth year as a starter, he's making $4.4 million. He needs to do more. The Steelers need more from him to be successful.

When Cowher fired offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride after last season, he said the team needed to improve his passing offense. That hasn't happened. If anything, it's going backward. That's not an indictment of Mularkey, it's an indictment of the talent he coaches.

No passing offense can be effective running the simplistic routes the Steelers must because of Stewart. Maybe there will be improvement in the weeks ahead. But there's be no indication of that based on what's happened this season.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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