Pittsburgh, once the scourge of the National Football League, is today typical of the AFC Central. The division that built a reputation as the league's toughest during 1975 and 1976 retains the image but not the reality. These days football in the AFC Central is just mediocre. Still, despite their 1977 slump, the Steelers are potentially powerful. Coach Chuck Noll believes in a pounding ground game, led by Franco Harris who last year had his fourth straight 1,000-yard season. Injuries, however, cut Rocky Bleier's rushing production in half. Accordingly, the Steeler running attack dropped from first in the league to seventh. To compensate, Pittsburgh went to the air more often and in the process unearthed a powerful passing attack. It ranked first in the NFL in yards per completion. More important, with responsibility thrust upon him, Quarterback Terry Bradshaw matured into the team leader Noll has wanted him to be. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are superior targets as wide receivers and Tight End Bennie Cunningham is a deep threat—he averaged more than 17 yards a catch in '77. But Bradshaw will have to cut down on those 19 interceptions.
Defensively, the Steelers fell off almost everywhere last year. Mean Joe Greene and Dwight White had subpar seasons on the line. Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert never returned to form after a holdout and Safety Mike Wagner missed 11 games with a cracked vertebra. Yet the Steelers were so strong that even in a declining year they were well above average in most defensive departments. Only four teams in the league were harder to run against and only two allowed a lower percentage of completions. The Steelers led the league in interceptions, the one defensive department in which they improved, with All-Pro Corner-back Mel Blount getting six. The secondary could be hurt by the loss of the other cornerback, J. T. Thomas, who will miss this season because of a blood disorder. As a back-up for the position, Pittsburgh has its first-round draft choice, Ron Johnson from Eastern Michigan.
To bolster its punting game Pittsburgh drafted Tennessee's Craig Colquitt in the third round, forcing the involuntary retirement of Bobby Walden, who had lost both distance and height. After subtracting return yardage, Pittsburgh averaged only 25 yards a punt in 1977 and the team ranked a lowly 22nd against opponents' kickoff returns.
Houston is the up-and-coming team in the division. An improving offense helped the Oilers win five of their last seven games and knock the Bengals out of the playoffs in the final week of the season. Then, during the off-season, despite a history of front-office bungling, Houston made the biggest gain in the AFC Central by dealing unproved Tight End Jimmy Giles and three draft choices to Tampa Bay for draft rights to Texas' Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Earl Campbell. And two weeks ago the Oilers picked up Wide Receiver Rich Caster of the Jets for two mid-round draft choices.
Another off-season coup for Houston management was signing Quarterback Dan Pastorini, who has asked to be traded in past seasons because of dissatisfaction with the Oiler offense. Campbell's signing and a bountiful six-year contract for Pastorini, making him one of the league's highest priced quarterbacks, helped change his outlook. Pastorini has one of the NFL's strongest arms but, like Bradshaw, he throws too many interceptions.
In the past the strength of the Oiler offense has been the field position provided by the league's top kick returner, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson. Last year he led the league in punt returns with a 15.4-yard average, ranked fifth in kick-off returns and scored three return TDs. That return yardage is so important to Houston that even before Johnson's holdout caused him to miss training camp, the Oilers had planned to free him of pass-catching chores so he could concentrate on his specialty.
Now Campbell gives Coach Bum Phillips exactly what he has needed most on offense, power and speed up the middle and off tackle. In the past the Oilers have made do with a junk offense made up of draws, screens and bombs from Pastorini to Ken Burrough, who has averaged 52 yards on his 32 touchdowns in seven seasons with the Oilers. This year Houston should be able to try the ball-control type of game at which the Steelers excel.
The Oiler defense has been tough, if overworked. Only eight teams had more plays run against them than Houston last year. The Oilers' 3-4 alignment, featuring Linemen Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp and All-Pro Linebacker Robert Brazile, stopped the run cold, allowing fewer yards per rush than even the Steelers. But opponents could always go to the air for needed yardage. Willie Alexander is too slow on one corner, Zeke Moore too old on the other. Their backups and the safeties are inexperienced. Houston is clearly vulnerable, but potentially a solid winner if Campbell enables the offense to play keep-away.
Cincinnati gets strong kicking from Punter Pat McInally and Placekicker Chris Bahr, but there are question marks almost everywhere else—and that despite the Bengals' recent batch of first-round draft choices. They have had seven in the last three years, a period in which they picked 16 more players from the draft's next three rounds. Still, they haven't come up with a game-breaker since selecting Wide Receiver Isaac Curtis in 1973. Now Curtis, too, is a dubious quantity after missing half a season with a knee injury. Meanwhile, four important starters—Tight End Bob Trumpy, Defensive End Coy Bacon, Cornerback Lemar Parrish and Safety Tommy Casanova—have either retired or been traded.
A healthy Curtis would make wide receiver the Bengals' top position. Billy Brooks, John McDaniel and McInally are all dependable pass catchers. Without the retired Trumpy, however, there is no strong tight-end candidate and Quarterback Ken Anderson is out for a month with a bone fracture in his hand. Anderson suffered the injury last week, not from a hit but when his hand struck a helmet on the follow-through as he was passing. Anderson's backup, John Reaves, is at best inconsistent.
The Bengals would benefit greatly from a dependable running attack; they had to go to the air more than all but four other teams last year. The jury is still out on Archie Griffin. But the jury is in on Boobie Clark. He refuses to apply himself the way he did as a rookie in 1973, and this year he reported to camp overweight.
Coach Bill Johnson won't miss Bacon, who popped off about the Bengals' coaching and was dealt with Parrish to Washington, because he is switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4. "I lost my guts not going to the 3-4 last year," he admits. "I didn't feel comfortable doing it." Cincinnati is well stocked with young linemen, including Ross Browner, a first-round pick from Notre Dame, and Eddie Edwards and Wilson Whitley, first-round choices last year. However, Johnson will miss Casanova, who has retired to devote full time to medical school, and Parrish. They were the most dependable backs, for what that's worth, in a secondary that last year ranked 21st in interceptions and 23rd in the percentage of passes opponents completed.
Cleveland badly needs more home-run punch. Like a team of singles hitters, the Browns have to put a lot of offense together to do any scoring. Last year only Miami achieved a greater first-down frequency than Cleveland, yet the Browns ranked 12th in points scored.
Greg Pruitt, who is nagged by injuries because of his small size, represents about 90% of the Browns' offense. He rushed for 1,086 yards in 1977—his third straight 1,000-yard season—and caught 37 passes for 471 more. Pruitt and Cleo Miller, small for a fullback at 214, helped the Browns rank third in the league in yards per rush. Unfortunately, Cleveland didn't capitalize on this strength, running the ball less than the average team.
With a high completion percentage, the Browns' passing attack seems effective, but appearances can be deceiving. The two leading receivers are the backs, Miller and Pruitt. The fastest receiver may well be Tight End Ozzie Newsome, a first-round draft choice from Alabama. What new Coach Sam Rutigliano needs is a deep threat. Sadly, even if the Browns had a wide receiver who could get open deep, weak-armed Quarterback Brian Sipe probably couldn't get the ball to him. When Sipe throws the ball upfield, instead of on the flank to his backs, he is often intercepted.
The Browns' defensive line sorely needs Tackle Jerry Sherk to make a healthy return from knee surgery. The unit is just average against the run and applies little pressure in passing situations. Fortunately, behind it is a solid line-backing corps led by Gerald Irons and bolstered by the addition of another rookie first-draft choice, Clay Matthews of USC. Matthews is the best of a good crop of Brown draftees. A few more drafts are needed, however, before the Browns can regain control of the AFC Central.
CAMPBELL AND JOHNSON GIVE HOUSTON POWER AND POSITION