It took 40 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers to get the hang of it; now they look as if they mean to win titles for a long time to come. "Last season we were struggling for our identity," says Coach Chuck Noll. "Now we know who we are and what it's like."
When the Steelers won their division it was the first title in their star-crossed history and one they should retain this year despite the tenacious Cleveland Browns and the improved Cincinnati Bengals. Along with self-awareness, Pittsburgh has too much strength, depth and weaponry, especially if Noll succeeds in improving his passing attack. There is no reason to doubt that he can. Last season he upgraded the Steeler pass defense from dead last in the league to 10th.
Pittsburgh ran the ball so well last year that the deficiencies in passing may have escaped notice, especially from fans who were grooving over bedsheet banners and an 11-3 record. The Steelers ranked 22nd in pass offense, however, and this was a club that missed the Super Bowl by five points and an unbeaten, untied season by 14.
Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who can be both brilliant and lackluster on the same afternoon, was not solely to blame. He completed only 47.7% of his passes, but he cut his interceptions from 22 to 12 while being sacked 29 times behind protection that obviously was less than world-class. Noll believes he has shored up his pass blocking by obtaining 6'5", 265-pound Tackle Glen Ray Hines from Oakland, but Pittsburgh's receivers remain less than awesome. Bradshaw's chief targets are Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis, who caught 65 passes between them; Tight End John McMakin grabbed 21 more.
As for the running game, it will be borne on the Italo-Afro-American legs of Franco Harris, last season's Rookie of the Year, and upon those of pseudogallic-Afro-American John (French) Fuqua, with help from Preston Pearson, Rocky Bleier and Steve Davis. It is the defense, however, that bodes best for the Steelers' continued success. Pittsburgh was second only to the Dolphins in fewest points scored against, and with 48 takeaways Noll's defense helped the offense. "Last year we'd make something happen," says Linebacker Andy Russell. "We'd think 'fumble' or 'interception' or 'what big play are we going to get off to beat them?' We'd like to sustain that sort of thing. We expect to be tough to score on and we feel we're going to be real strong against the run. We hope to force people to throw the football."
With good reason. The Steeler front four had 40 sacks and the secondary led the league in interceptions with 28. Tackle Ben McGee has retired but Pittsburgh traded for Oakland's quick Tom Keating, who will alternate with Ernie Holmes and is still a dependable pass rusher. At linebacker Noll has freewheeling Henry Davis and the talented Jack (Dobra Shunka) Ham to team with Russell. No. 1 draftee J. T. Thomas of Florida State is threatening to crack a secondary that is so well manned that the Steelers were able to trade starting Safety Ralph Anderson to New England.
Pittsburgh's 1973 schedule is ill-designed for title keeping. In addition to two games with Cleveland, a rematch with Oakland and a season closer at San Francisco, the Steelers twice appear in the Monday night Cosell Bowl—against Miami and Washington. "That's bad for two reasons," Noll says. "It shortens your preparation for the next game—and there's all those commentators."
Injuries could knock Pittsburgh out of the picture and if that happens Cleveland is the team most likely to get into it. The Browns were the AFC wild-card playoff team last season, winning 10 of their last 13 games after Mike Phipps was made starting quarterback. Cleveland's success was somewhat mystical, however, since Phipps didn't pass that well, no one ran the ball that well and Coach Nick Skorich, who should have been named for some sort of award, spent most of his time trying to patch up a rush line that lost three defensive ends for the season.
The Browns' running game is headed by Leroy Kelly, who gained 811 yards and now, at age 31, may be playing his final season. Bo Scott, who ran for 571 yards, and rookie Greg Pruitt (Skorich calls him "another Mercury Morris") complement Kelly. The 5'9" Pruitt has particularly impressed Skorich with his blocking, while Offensive Backfield Coach John David Crow says opponents "better watch out, because he'll run right through their legs." Receiving could be a plus if Steve Holden, the No. 1 draft choice from Arizona State, comes on to help Frank Pitts, Fair Hooker and Tight End Milt Morin.
The Browns had the best pass defense in the AFC last year despite an erratic rush and questionable linebacking. They were not as successful against the run but should do better this season. Skorich is set at defensive end, and Tackles Walter Johnson and Jerry Sherk are extremely capable. The secondary is strong and the acquisition of Bob Babich from San Diego should end their middle-line-backing woes.
Cleveland has had a losing record only once in 27 seasons. The Browns won't sully that record this year as the team shoots for its 19th playoff appearance.
Paul Brown may have found the remedy for the Cincinnati Bengals' pussycat passing attack. If he has, they could be back in the playoffs after a two-year absence. Charlie Joiner, obtained from Houston last season, excelled in exhibitions, and Brown picked Isaac Curtis as his No. 1 draft choice. Curtis has the "burner" speed (9.3 for the 100) that the Bengals have lacked.
Joiner and Curtis may be mere frills, however, if Quarterback Ken Anderson cannot reach them on fly patterns and deep posts. But if Anderson can't throw long he can throw accurately, as was evidenced by his 56.8% completion average and only seven interceptions, fewest by any NFL regular. Anderson's other receivers are dandies, if not burners. Chip Myers tied for second in the AFC last year with 57 catches for 792 yards, and Bob Trumpy, a tight end who had to play wide too often, caught 44.
The draft also pleased Brown by offering up a 6'2" 240-pound running back named Charles (Booby) Clark in the 12th round. A Bengal scout saw Clark as a sophomore running back, made a note to give him another look two years later and, upon his return, was astonished to find that Clark had been switched to tight end and linebacker. Impressed with his 4.75 speed for the 40, and with visions of Marion Motley thundering in his head, Brown has restored him to running back, where he will team up with 230-pound Doug Dressier. Brown plans to use Essex Johnson, who gained 825 yards in 1972, √† la Mercury Morris. The offensive line is sound, and Horst Muhlmann is a good field-goal kicker (27 for 40) if the distance is not too short: he missed four of 10 between 20 and 29 yards last season.
The Bengal defense, led by Composer-Tackle Mike Reid, is excellent, Sherman White, Ron Carpenter and Royce Berry joining their musical chum on the front line. The linebacking should be more effective now that Ron Pritchard, who arrived in mid-season with Joiner, has fully learned the system. The secondary of Lemar Parrish, Ken Riley, Neal Craig and Tommy Casanova is dependable if not deep.
"Two things hurt us last year," Brown says. "Fumbling the ball in key instances, particularly on kickoffs and punts, and fouling. Penalties hurt us tremendously. But we're a snootful for any of them," he says of his rivals. "They don't know what to make of us."
The same certainly may be said of Houston. General Manager Sid Gillman has given the team a whole new look—if not dimension—by trading draft choices as if pro football were going out of business after Super Bowl VIII. "We've about traded off all our picks for 1974," Gillman says, "and I'm willing to start on 1975 right now—just give it all away if we can help make this team a winner right now." Gillman's position is similar to that of the Dutch in 1585. When they were prohibited from trading with Spain, with whom they were at war, they protested that if they didn't supply the enemy they couldn't afford to fight him.
Gillman has acquired some good receivers in Billy Parks—who has followed him from San Diego to Dallas and now to Houston—Clifton McNeil and Dave Parks, and the defensive line should prosper with the addition of Al Cowlings, Tody Smith and No. 1 draft pick John Matuszak. But the Oilers' big problem is the same as it was a year ago—a weak offensive line and insufficient rushing to ease the burden of Quarterback Dan Pastorini.
Coach Bill Peterson, sole claimant to the malaprop title of the NFL now that Joe Kuharich is no longer coaching ("Running helps your heartbeat. You know, your extracurricular vacular system"), also may be in an unenviable position, with Gillman looking over his shoulder. The former San Diego coach attended almost every practice, sat on a stool on the field and occasionally jumped up to give a player personal instructions. If Owner Bud Adams decides to fire Peterson, bet on Gillman.