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Savran: Steelers lose way to easy street

Saturday, September 28, 2002

It was all going to be so easy. A team jilted at the altar of the Super Bowl was not about to make the same mistakes twice. And for icing on the Super Bowl cake, laid out for them was the second-easiest schedule in the NFL. This cake was more of a cupcake.

Yes, based on last year's records, the Steelers' 2002 opponents collaborated on an 87-105 mark.

But those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Fans hungrily devour the schedule when it's released in mid-April, marking big W's alongside the hapless prey, and an occasional L, allowing for a fluke or mental meltdown.

It's 14-2, steamroller two sissies in the playoffs, and on to San Diego.

But the only constant in the NFL these days is change, so you can never judge the strength of a schedule based on last year's results.

If recent history has taught us anything, it's that a Baltimore or New England can rebound from a losing season and win the title.

Who will be this year's gate-crasher to the NFL's playoff party?

So now the Steelers' schedule, which looked like a collection of carefully selected homecoming opponents, has turned into a much tougher proposition.

That 87-105 record has morphed into a significantly more formidable 20-13 mark and includes four teams that have yet to taste defeat and a fifth that would have been undefeated had it lived up to the league's uniform code, which insists that a player wears his hat at all times.

All of a sudden, easy street has turned into the Burma Road.

Or Burma Rudd, for you Cleveland fans.

Their predicament would seem to ensure that the Steelers will reach the emotional peak necessary to beat quality opposition. If further motivation is needed, the sight of orange helmets should be a gentle reminder.

Although the real Cleveland Browns lie buried somewhere between Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay, the rivalry has maintained its intensity with this new incarnation.

It has thrived despite the fact that in the 52-year, 99-game history seldom have the two teams been good at the same time. On few occasions have they contended in the same season. This is one of those occasions, which is what truly elevates an already heated rivalry to a combustible state.

How good these Browns are, I'm not sure.

Of course, I could say the same about these Steelers. Projections stemmed from last year and the assumption that a natural progression should follow. But we've already seen where that can lead you.

There are those who thought these Browns were playoff-ready. While it's true they're a buttoned chin strip away from 3-0, the game tomorrow will tell us more about them, maybe all we need to know.

Although it appears Don Coryell is now choreographing every NFL game, I still believe you have to run the ball to win consistently in this league.

Defenses will figure it out.

Throwing fifty times per game is generally a formula for defeat. Even if you build a lead exclusively by passing, at the very least you need to run to protect that lead, chewing up yardage and the clock at the same time.

I don't know if the Browns are capable of running the ball, but to this point they have not been. Top pick William Green approaches the line of scrimmage like he's barefoot on hot coals, as if he's deathly afraid of what's on the other side.

But the Browns have improved their passing game because they finally added a support component for wide receiver Kevin Johnson. Tim Couch and/or Kelly Holcomb now have a variety of competent targets, whereas before, if you neutralized Johnson, you eliminated the Browns' passing game.

Add into this that this essentially is the offense Couch played at Kentucky, so he's no stranger to the spread, rhythm-passing offense that has tormented the Steelers in the first two games.

Is the Steelers' season on the brink tomorrow, given the specter of going 0-3 with the 3-0 Saints waiting in the Bayou?

Mathematically, they could recover.

I still think nine wins can take this division, although a 9-7 record would certainly be a disappointment, even if a playoff spot was attached.

But assuming they would still have a chance to make the playoffs, what would 0-3 do to the Steelers psychologically? The Bengals might settle comfortably into that groove, but it's a long way down from the AFC penthouse to keeping company with the street urchins of the league.

Oh yeah, there's much more at stake tomorrow than who can get the most drunk. Just three weeks in, and you can label this one crucial.

And it was all going to be so easy.

Stan Savran is host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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