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Steelers Vanilla offense drives long way

Friday, August 31, 2001

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

For being purposefully flavored vanilla this preseason, Mike Mularkey's offense gave the Steelers heaping helpings of production early in each of the past three games.

Very early.

Against Minnesota Aug. 16, the Steelers started with a 12-play, 89-yard, seven-minute opening drive for a touchdown. Kordell Stewart completed 4 of 4 passes for 30 yards.

Plaxico Burress makes a catch in front of the Bills' Keion Carpenter last night. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Against Detroit Saturday, the Steelers started with a 17-play, 96-yard, drive for a touchdown. That one consumed 11:39. Stewart completed 8 of 8 passes for 95 yards.

Against Buffalo last night, the Steelers started with two 12-play drives for field goals in the first quarter, putting them well on their way to a 20-0 victory at Heinz Field.

"That's important always," said Mularkey, whose new offense entered training camp as the key question on an already solid defensive club. "It really sets the tempo out of the gate. If you can take that thing right down the field, like we have done the last three games, it's a confidence-builder. It makes [the opposing defense] think that it's going to be a long day.

"The thing we have to do is follow up that with drives two, three and four, and put some points on the board."

Vanilla translated to victory in two of the Steelers' past three games this preseason. Mularkey's offensive starters made out rather well with just a simple plan, collecting four scores -- two touchdowns and two field goals -- on its final eight possessions of the preseason.

"That's pretty productive," said halfback Jerome Bettis, who sat out the game. "We had opportunities to put touchdowns on the board and came up with field goals. We can't do that. We still have a ways to go. But, oh, yeah, we didn't do anything out of the ordinary in the preseason. We don't want to show it now. It doesn't count."

What the Steelers showed throughout the preseason was a variety of formations. There have been five- and four-wide receiver alignments. There was a three-receiver set last night with two running backs and no tight end, which is the position Mularkey played in the NFL and coached with the Steelers until replacing Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator in January. Mularkey added some wrinkles of his own, and plans to utilize the tight end more often (Mark Bruener the past three games caught six passes for 56 yards; he caught 17 in 16 games last season). Last night, Mularkey and the Steelers trotted out the no-huddle offense in the first quarter. It didn't make a difference in the outcome, but it gave Jacksonville something to ponder for their regular-season opener in 10 days.

"A change of pace for the defense," Mularkey called it.

"That's when I've been at my best, in the hurry-up situation or the two-minute offense," Stewart said.

Another Mularkey bauble evident last night was the pace of the offensive play selection. Instead of relaying the play, formation, motion, shifts and whatever down to the sideline coach who speaks into Stewart's earpiece -- in this instance, quarterbacks coach Tom Clements -- the Mularkey system merely barks out a number. Stewart then looks at the corresponding play on his wristband, tells his teammates in the huddle, and off the offense goes toward the line of scrimmage.

"It gets there a lot quicker," Mularkey said of this fashion. "You're in an attack mode all the time, you're always coming at them. That's what we want. Keep [the defenders] back on their heels."

Look at the numbers.

The past three games Stewart is 27 of 38, a 71 percent completion rate, for 295 yards. He was sacked four times. He threw one interception and had at least six passes dropped. He rushed for 36 yards on five carries, including a touchdown plunge against Minnesota. He was 2-1 as the starting quarterback.

Bettis combined to rush for 62 yards on 13 carries while playing the first half of the Minnesota and Detroit games. He was rested last night, but Amos Zereoue rushed for 22 yards on three first-quarter carries. Add that up, and the Steelers' starting halfback rumbled 84 yards on 15 carries the past three games, for an average of 5.6 yards per carry.

As for the receivers, Plaxico Burress was a prime target last night, catching three passes and being around several others thrown over his head. "We're hoping he's going to be a tough guy to cover, with the size and speed he has," Mularkey said.

Stewart considers it simply a system placed on his shoulder pads.

"That's more in line with what Coach Mularkey is doing with this offense," he said. "He's allowing me to be the leader of this offense. How well I do is going to determine how far we go. I feel more responsible now."

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