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Steelers Game on: Steelers' wait over

Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

They call it a game, but football the past three weeks for the Steelers has been a tedious series of monotonous exercises:

Practice, meetings, film, interviews, practice, meetings, film, interviews, practice, meetings, film, interviews.

It can make a grown man want to go out and smack someone.

Today, at last, the Steelers (0-1) get a chance to do just that when they kick off at 1 p.m. in Buffalo against the Bills (0-2).

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"I can't say the right words," defensive end Aaron Smith said, groping for ways to describe his job the past three weeks. "Football is not a game in which you love to practice for. It's the game you look forward to. I want to just get back there and start competing against someone else."

Receiver Hines Ward has had it with Dewayne Washington, Chad Scott and Deshea Townsend. He's ready to run his routes against some other cornerbacks.

"I'm ready to strap it on, put on a uniform and go up against another team," Ward said. "It's like we're playing once a month."

It has been 21 days between games for the Steelers, a rare in-season rest that resulted from the postponed second week and their scheduled bye on the third week. It's been like a second training camp, most players have noted, with Coach Bill Cowher screaming at them some days to get their attention and taking the unusual step of sending first team offense against first team defense in practice to try to step up the intensity.

One thing is different this time. There are no high expectations about the new offense under coordinator Mike Mularkey. There was such a buildup before the unveiling in Jacksonville Sept. 9 and the Jaguars popped the balloon.

The new offense looked no better than the old one. The Steelers managed three points, the quarterback had a 47.2 passer rating, the receivers dropped passes and they gained only 281 total yards.

Jerome Bettis said they stunk, and no one argued with him.

"I was disappointed in the little detail things that were sloppy out there," Mularkey said. "Am I in a panic? No, because I've seen them, against first units, play well."

That would include the same units of the Buffalo Bills they will go against today. The Steelers' first team marched down field twice against the Bills on Aug. 30 at Heinz Field. Kordell Stewart completed 9 of 14 passes for 105 yards. They scored both times, but they could no score touchdowns.

Since then, the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts have cut a swath through the Bills defense for 856 yards and 66 points. Buffalo has given up more yards and points than any team in the league this side of the Washington Redskins.

But the Steelers offense is not that of the Colts.

"It's more of a ball control offense," Ward said. "We want to work short to long and take our shots."

The Bills are without middle linebacker Sam Cowart, their best defensive player. He's done for the season with an injury. His backup, Brandon Spoon, is also out. They will start Kenyatta Wright, a second-year, undrafted player from Oklahoma State in the middle of their new, 4-3 defensive scheme.

It should be a good place for Bettis to run. He ran 12 times for only 28 yards at Jacksonville on a day in which the line did not block well. The Steelers fell behind in the second quarter and tried to catch up with a hurry-up offense in the rain.

"For us to be successful in the passing game, we have to have a better running game," Ward said. "We depend on our run so much. Our run opens up our passing game."

Bettis has spent the past few years saying he needs the passing game to open up the running game. Everyone admits defenses have ganged up to stop the run and are practically daring the Steelers to pass.

"We're not going to drop back and throw the ball 35, 40 times a game," Ward said. "Probably about 20, 25 times and hopefully we'll get about 180 to 220 yards just to mix it up.

"If we can go out and accomplish that and make some big plays from Plaxico and myself, Troy and Bobby -- just one big play to get it going. You make one big play, it carries over to everyone else."

The Steelers are still waiting for Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards to bounce back from poor seasons in 2000. Bobby Shaw, their No. 3 man in the slot, is the last Steelers receiver to have 100 yards receiving in a game and that came in the previous millennium.

"The hunger is there," Ward said. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it."

There remains a question about whether the offense will be in sync after the 21-day layoff, not that they were precisely in step at Jacksonville.

"I don't want to say it really hurt us," Ward said. "But the game tempo is totally different. You can't simulate that in practice. In a game you see so much different stuff.

"We have to go out and adjust to the game speed. In practice, a lot of guys don't go full speed like they would in a game. I'm not going to say it's going to hurt us, but at the same time, probably the first series or two, we might not look as sharp as they are."

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