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Steelers Burress, receivers still looking to make impact

Thursday, October 12, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The difference between Bobby Shaw and Plaxico Burress is half a foot, three yards, one touchdown and about $5.5 million.

A pass slips off the hands of Plaxico Burress against the Titans earlier this season. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Burress, the Steelers' tall and high draft choice, was supposed to pump some life into their flailing air game this season, but nearly one-third of the way through, he and they are still waiting.

After five games, the 6-foot-6 rookie has 12 catches for 170 yards and no touchdowns. Shaw, their 6-foot No. 3 receiver who will take home about $5.5 million less than Burress this year, has 173 yards on 11 catches and the team's only receiving touchdown.

Burress said the breakout game he's been looking for is past due.

"We're going into our sixth game, and I'm just trying to get that big game under my belt," the soft-spoken Burress said yesterday. "You can only make big plays out of opportunities they give you. I'm just waiting for that time."

Coach Bill Cowher will switch quarterbacks, starting Kent Graham against Cincinnati Sunday following two consecutive Steelers wins with Kordell Stewart at the helm. Graham is the more accomplished passer, and his coaches believe he has the better ability to throw deep.

That can help Burress toward his goal, but they also will give something up without Stewart.

"When Kordell's in," Burress said, "it kind of loosens up the secondary a little bit. I don't think teams can double-team as much because they have to respect Kordell's running ability. Whereas with Kent, I think teams kind of sit back in a zone and sit back and read. It's kind of two different philosophies that defenses play against us."

Stewart, though, is more impatient in the pocket than Graham because he knows he can make a play by running out of it if he does not spot an open man, according to the other starting wide receiver.

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"When Kordell's in there," Hines Ward said, "and he doesn't feel comfortable with a certain situation, he's going to tuck the ball and run it. To Kordell, it may not look like we're open right now, but we're about to get open. But Kordell relies on his feet. That's where Kordell has to have trust in us, that no matter what happens, we're going to get there."

Ward said that Stewart's runs help the team in one way, but it hurts the receivers in another. There's no such thing with Graham at quarterback. When he drops back to pass, his full attention is on delivering the ball.

"Kent can't rely on his feet," Ward said. "So he's going to rely on us getting there. He's gong to wait until the last moment, make sure we get down field. He's going to throw it, regardless if you're open or not. By him throwing it, he's saying you better be there when I release this ball."

They often don't get that chance with Stewart at the controls.

"We might run a 15-yard comeback," Ward said, "and Kordell might be running the ball when we're at 10 yards because of what his instincts see. You never know with Kordell. He has that option in his repertoire where he can tuck it down and run. Kordell has to have faith in us to hang in there a little longer before we get open. It hurts us on our catches, but it helps us out because he has that dimension to really hurt a defense."

So, what do the Steelers want in a quarterback -- a pure passer who waits patiently for his receivers to develop a route, or one who will run for daylight if he does not see an open receiver?

Obviously, at least this week, Cowher and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride want the passer.

And that should give their wide receivers a chance to make more plays against the Bengals than they have the past two weeks. Their wide receivers combined for just 17 receptions and 174 yards in games against the Jaguars and Jets.

Burress, for one, can't wait to have the kind of big game he was known for producing last season at Michigan State. There, he caught 66 passes for 1,142 yards and 12 touchdowns. He caught 20 touchdown passes in two seasons in college. He set a school record with 255 yards on 10 receptions against Michigan, or two fewer catches for 85 more yards than he has with the Steelers.

"I don't think I've gone this long without a touchdown, ever," Burress said. "The stats I have now I'm used to having in one game. We have only one touchdown catch as a whole corps."

Burress was the second receiver drafted this year. The first was Peter Warrick, the fourth player chosen, by Cincinnati. The two are friends, but Burress would like his breakout game to come on the day he lines up on the same field with the only receiver drafted ahead of him.

Warrick leads the winless Bengals with 16 receptions for 225 yards and one touchdown.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out and play well," Burress said. "I just want a couple more balls to come to me. I think I can come down with a couple big plays.

"All it takes for me to have a big game is just to catch one deep ball. One deep ball is a 40- to 50-yard pickup on that one play. I'm pretty sure you'll catch two or three more passes for another 30 or 40 yards. That's all it takes to have a big game in this league is to catch one or two deep balls and you had a great day.

"Last week, we didn't go deep one time."

Graham hopes to accomplish that with Burress on Sunday.

"One thing we have to do is start making big plays between two of us. Either I can throw a better ball or he can catch it for us to start getting some chunk plays to put seven points up pretty quick.

"That's like the next step for us. Plax and I -- and all the receivers -- have to get to a point where we're taking the next step."

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