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Savran: Are Steelers covered for Chiefs' spread?

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Do many people actually enjoy studying? I know I didn't, which should be readily apparent.

The only satisfaction I got from studying came when taking that first, slow revealing look at an exam, like looking at your recently drawn hole card in a game of five-card stud.

You twist your neck sideways as you slowly peel away the cards you know you already have, squeezing them tightly on your way to discovering if you have the card that wins you the pot.

Only this time, it's this test they're making you take.

You look over the first few questions and then smile and say to yourself, "Hey, I know this stuff! Man, am I glad I studied!"

Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis hopes to have that feeling tomorrow afternoon.

This will be the first exam on what he studied in the off-season: How to defend against the spread, empty-set offenses that bedeviled the Steelers in 2002.

The most significant changes to the Steelers' defense weren't necessarily changing strong safeties or drafting one.

The beginnings of the most important change were hatched in darkened meeting rooms at the Steelers' complex on the South Side ... developing a counterattack to the attacks that subverted the Steelers' defense.

Tomorrow afternoon, proctor Dick Vermeil will present the first major test.

The Baltimore game didn't qualify as one and was more of a test of individual players than scheme.

The defensive staff did employ a solid plan to pretty much take tight end Todd Heap out of the game. He might have been credited with six catches, but he was not a factor.

Given that the Ravens don't play that attack style of offense, and that their wide receivers are unlikely to cause any self-respecting defensive back to lose a minute's sleep and that a novice -- albeit a noble one -- was at quarterback, the game last week was a mere pop quiz, and the Steelers aced it.

The same cannot be said of tomorrow's exam.

You might recall that when the Steelers played the Chiefs two years ago in Kansas City (where else?), Dick Vermeil was still introducing his system to players he had inherited.

Nobody in Kansas City was sure if Priest Holmes was a running back or a religious figure, and just four games in, Chiefs' fans were already breathing fire down the neck of quarterback Trent Green, anxious to run him out of town.

Now, in year three of the Vermeil regime, every fantasy football geek knows about the Priest.

Tackle William Roaf has stabilized the offensive line, tight end Tony Gonzalez is no longer Green's only dependable target, and the Chiefs score more points than the Showtime Lakers teams of the 1980s.

The Chiefs don't have to add anything special to attack the Steelers the way so many others did last season, because they attack every team that way.

The Steelers, on the other hand, have yet to prove they have a plan or the players to stop it.

That's why this past off-season was so important. Anyone who calls the defensive side of the Steelers' complex home knew full well that teams would attack them that way.

Why not?

They never showed they had an answer. You allow 33 and 34 points in two playoff games, you've got a whole lot more questions than answers.

The preparation to find answers came in the dead of winter and the beginnings of spring when there's ample time to study for the exams of autumn.

The first revealing one comes tomorrow.

Which is not to say that only the coaches are on trial.

Ultimately, the players have to perform regardless of the scheme. You still have to cover people and rush people and tackle people.

This coaching staff, any coaching staff, is powerless to help with those things after kickoff.

And unless they have success, questions will remain about this Steelers' defense in general and the secondary in particular, which is why the game tomorrow offers such intrigue.

It will judge not just three hours on a September Sunday, but the past eight months.

Cowher and his defensive staff will take that first slow revealing look the first few times the Chiefs have the ball.

They'll know then about their off-season studies. And if they're able to sit back and say, "Hey. I know this stuff," they might have reason to smile for good portions of this season.

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

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