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Pro Football Preview: Steelers seek to regain elite status

Friday, September 03, 1999

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

You want predictions, go find the comics and Sydney Omarr's latest forecasts on that page. They have to be more accurate than the ones made about the Steelers last year, and the ones the team hopes are wrong again this time.

Many anticipated the Steelers to finish first again in their division last season and they came up just short. By four games. Since they only play 16, that's a significant shortcoming.

It was enough to change the forecast for the team in 1999. Most are predicting the Steelers will run like the Bears, either the kind that drive the stock market lower or the ones that drive Chicago fans daffy.

The Steelers no longer are considered among the elite in the AFC, and some don't even consider them among the elite in the AFC Central Division, where they finished third at 7-9 last season behind Jacksonville (11-5) and Tennessee (8-8).

"Last year," Coach Bill Cowher said, "we were sitting at 7-4 and lost a couple games that you maybe think you had a chance to win, then you get on a roll."

The Steelers got on a roll, all right; they lost their final five games. Then they lost Carnell Lake, Darren Perry, Charles Johnson, Will Wolford, Donta Jones, Oliver Gibson, Norm Johnson, and Justin Strzelczyk in the offseason -- not to mention Jamain Stephens.

The Steelers have spent most of this summer not only finding replacements, but putting in a new offense under Kevin Gilbride. Any offense will be better than the one they tried to run last season, which produced one touchdown over the final 17 quarters. But the new offense has not exactly come alive during the three exhibition games they've played heading into tomorrow night's finale at Buffalo. They have scored four touchdowns in three games.

It also hasn't helped that Jerome Bettis has been unable to practice nearly all summer and still can't say whether he will be ready for the opener Sept. 12 in Cleveland, or that one backup to Bettis at running back, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala has missed most of the summer with a sprained ankle.

While the players learn a new offense, though, they want their fans to learn a new word: Patience.

"I'm looking to see us get better," Cowher said. "It's a difference. It is requiring not only the understanding, but the timing. There are a lot of different reads that are done with this offense. We're starting to get the reads. Now, it's the refinement and the little things."

Quarterback Kordell Stewart, whose combined TDs rushing and passing fell by 19 from 1997 to 1998, proclaimed the offense better this year.

Why?

"Because it is," Stewart said. "That's plain and simple."

Cowher says his offensive line is as good as he's ever had in his eight years with the Steelers. The addition of wide receiver Troy Edwards could more than offset the loss of Charles Johnson if the rookie plays the way he did against Washington last week, when he caught 7 passes for 112 yards, including a tackle-busting 45-yard TD on a short slant.

Stewart and his receivers, besides learning a new offense, must learn the many option routes that go with it. The receiver has options based on certain pass defenses and both he and the quarterback must make the same decision or the ball will go one way and the receiver another.

"In due time, everything will start moving better," Stewart said of the learning process that has gone on offense this summer. "Sometimes we'll go out and have a stellar practice and everything will look great in the passing game. Then, the next time we'll sputter a tad bit. That's because we're not as familiar as he'd like us to be."

Putting it into context with last year's offense, however, even when they sputter, it represents improvement.



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