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Back Where They Belong

Many faces are new, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the same old place: first in the AFC Central

The Pittsburgh Steelers are doing it with mirrors. They're also doing it with a pair of no-named receivers, Calvin Sweeney and Gregg Garrity, and an offensive line that averages 6'2½"—the shortest line in the NFL—and features such household names as Rick Donnalley and Tunch Ilkin. They're doing it with Cliff Stoudt at quarterback and with a defense that has, oh, maybe four or five guys you've heard of and is a shifting force field employing as many as 19 different players on a single series.

Eleven games into the schedule it's clear that Chuck Noll is in the midst of his finest coaching job in 15 seasons in Pittsburgh. Last Friday, two days before the Steelers beat Baltimore 24-13 for their seventh straight win, someone asked Colts Coach Frank Kush if he realized that he and Noll were among the leading candidates for NFL Coach of the Year. It was a logical enough question, because Kush had been working miracles of his own, lifting last year's winless Colts to within one game of the AFC East lead. "Chuck can give one away, he's won so many," Kush said, meaning Coach of the Year awards.

Now wait just one minute, Frank. Hardly anybody wins Coach of the Year for four Super Bowl triumphs, which, of course, Noll—and no one else—has had. Tom Landry hasn't won Coach of the Year for keeping the Dallas Cowboys in the hunt for the last 18 years. Coach of the Year is an emotional award. The rags-to-riches guys make it, the fellows who take a dog and turn it into a playoff team. The elite are taken for granted, and Noll, very much a member of the elite, has never won the award for the entire NFL.

But the '83 Steelers are 9-2, tied with Dallas and the Washington Redskins for the best record in pro football, running away in the AFC Central, and nobody quite knows how Noll is doing it.

After Sunday's victory Noll was asked, "What do you think of your Steelers now?" He made a face. The NFL history book is filled with the sad stories of November hotshots that faded down the stretch. "I think there are still five games left to play," he said.

"If you could capsulize this Pittsburgh team in a word, how would you do it?" someone else asked him.

"Adaptable," he said.

This is what the Steelers have had to adapt to:

Last April, Jim Smith, their long-ball receiving threat and the heir apparent to Lynn Swann, went to the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL, and starting Left Tackle Ray Pinney joined the Michigan Panthers. In March, Quarterback Terry Bradshaw had an operation to repair a torn muscle in his throwing arm. Bradshaw has yet to suit up this season. A few weeks ago his rehabilitation had progressed to the point that he was throwing for two hours a day, but then he strained a triceps and hasn't thrown since. If Bradshaw makes it back for the playoffs it would be a bonus, but no one's counting on it. Moving right along....

John Stallworth, a Pro Bowl wide receiver, missed six games with a sore hamstring. The Steelers got him back for one game, and then last Thursday in practice he went down again with a sprained ankle. The offensive line hasn't looked the same from one week to the next. Center Mike Webster and Tackle Ted Petersen are the only starters who haven't been out of the lineup. Larry Brown, the Pro Bowl right tackle, has missed the last six games with a bad leg.

On Oct. 20 Pittsburgh was rocked by tragedy when 6'2", 293-pound rookie Defensive Tackle Gabriel Rivera, the Steelers No. 1 draft choice, was critically injured in an auto accident in North Hills. He's still in Allegheny General Hospital. Doctors fear permanent paralysis from the chest down.

Somehow, through all the adversity, the Steelers tightened the straps and drew everything together. Starting at quarterback after six years on the bench, Stoudt has had his ups and downs. He has heard his share of boos. No one will forgive him for not being Bradshaw. Nonetheless, Stoudt has managed to keep his composure—and his sense of humor. "On Halloween I went out disguised as a quarterback," he said a couple of weeks ago. "No one recognized me."

In the season opener Denver had intercepted him three times. "What did you learn from your first start?" someone asked him.

"How to tackle," he said.

Another time Stoudt was asked to name his favorite charity.

"Defensive backs," he said.

While the Pittsburgh offense continues to have its shortcomings, the defense keeps making big plays. It went into the Colt game as the No. I-ranked unit in the NFL, and, what's more, it had come up with seven touchdowns this year, a figure that Defensive Coach Woody Widenhofer calls "shocking." Before this season the most defensive TDs a Noll-coached team had scored was two.

It's a curious mix, this edition of the Steeler defense, led by 10-year veteran Jack Lambert, who's still playing middle linebacker at All-Pro level, and manned largely by ambitious youngsters such as Defensive End Keith Willis, a second-year free agent out of Northeastern, whose 13 sacks are a club record.

There was an oldtime flavor as the Steelers flew into Baltimore. For the first time in six years the Colts, at 6-4, had a contending team. Fortified by an influx of some 20,000 fans from Pittsburgh, Memorial Stadium was sold out for the first time since December 1981. "We always know the Pittsburgh fans," said a doorman at the downtown Hilton. "Their luggage is Iron City beer."

On Saturday night, Colts' owner Bob Irsay was interviewed on local TV. "If someone said 'playoff to you, what would you say?" he was asked.

"I'd respond in one word," said Irsay. "I hope so."

The Steelers arrived for practice in Memorial Stadium on Saturday under heavy, dark clouds. The field was under a tarp. Noll, his seven assistants and the 49 players rolled up the tarp, worked out for an hour and then rolled it back on again, fighting the blustery winds that swept the tarp up into huge, rolling waves—Banzai Pipeline with the surf up.

"You're not supposed to use the field," the stadium manager told Noll. "I'm protesting to the league office."

"See our legal department," Noll said.

The game figured to be a throwback, too, involving two teams geared to running the ball—the Colts were No. 1 in the NFL rushing department, the Steelers No. 3—and stopping enemy rushers. Both operate from a traditional two-back offense, with each back called upon to block; both shun frills and gimmicks and multiple sets and passes. Only one team has thrown less than Pittsburgh this year, and that's Baltimore. "My pitch 'n' pray offense" is what Kush calls it when he has to put the ball in the air. "We know what they're going to do, they know what we're going to do," Noll said. "I don't expect many surprises."

The Steelers took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards—all on the ground—for a touchdown. The drive was kept alive by a roughing-the-punter penalty—a surprise gift. The touchdown, an 11-yard sweep by Walter Abercrombie, was triggered by Franco Harris' block on a safety. That was a surprise, too, unless you've been watching Franco closely this year. In his 12th NFL season, Harris has emerged as an efficient and willing blocker. "Among running, pass receiving and blocking, I'd say I like blocking last," he says, "but I guess that after 12 years I'm better at it now."

The Colts got a field goal on their first possession—a 46-yard cannon shot by their free-agent rookie, Raul Allegre, that would have been good from 60 yards. His next try, another 46-yarder in the first quarter, was blocked when Linebacker Mike Merriweather slid through a gap in the Baltimore line and got a hand on the ball. "That's two special teams' mistakes worth 10 points," Kush would say later, "and you just can't get away with that against a team like Pittsburgh."

Midway in the second quarter the Steelers got a 42-yard Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-6 lead. Again, the drive was an infantry march—61 yards in 10 plays, with only eight of the yards coming on a pass. It looked suspiciously like old-style Pittsburgh football—set 'em up with the run, then knock 'em out with the pass. And sure enough, with two minutes left in the first half, Stoudt threw four completions, for 55 yards, to Sweeney, whose last reception of the sequence was a leaping seven-yard touchdown catch in the right corner of the end zone. Sweeney ended up with six receptions for the game, one fewer than his total for the 1981 and '82 seasons.

The Steelers had all the points they needed. Kush called on Mark Herrmann, the backup quarterback who hadn't played at all this year, to take over for Mike Pagel in the second half, but he was overmatched. Six second-half possessions produced just one touchdown, a five-yard plunge by Curtis Dickey set up by a 14-yard run by Randy McMillan and a 29-yard pass to Ray Butler. That cut the Steelers lead to 17-13. But in the fourth quarter the Steelers turned out the lights with a final TD. It was a neat bit of tomfoolery in which Stoudt scrambled to his left, drawing in linebackers Johnie Cooks and Barry Krauss, and then lobbed the ball to Tight End Bennie Cunningham for a two-yard score.

The game's most significant statistic was the 214 yards the Steelers gained on the ground, 65 by Harris, 42 by Stoudt, 27 by Abercrombie and 80 by Abercrombie's reliever, 5'10", 210-pound Frank Pollard, who's having his best year in his four seasons with Pittsburgh. The patched-up offensive line seems able to make Noll's trap-block attack go no matter who's playing; this was the Steelers' fourth 200-plus rushing day of the year. Steve Courson, a sawed-off, 6'1", 270-pound guard who looks like he could trap-block a pickup truck, was back in the lineup Sunday after a five-week knee injury. The 31-year-old Webster, 10 pounds lighter, at 250, than last year and much quicker off the ball, is having his finest season in 10 with Pittsburgh. "He's playing the best center that's ever been played in the NFL," Noll says.

The Colts' blitzing gave the Steeler linemen some problems, but when the running game was clicking the men leading the way were very pretty to watch.

"All those years," says Art Rooney Jr., the director of Pittsburgh's scouting operation, "Noll used to tell the scouts, 'I don't want any dumbbells on the offensive line. Get me guys who can think on their feet—and move. I don't care how big they are.' Well, it's paying off. These guys are adaptable. Take a kid like Emil Boures. We drafted him in the seventh round last year, as a center, but so far he's filled in at every offensive line position—plus weakside tight end in short yardage situations. And he's only 6'1"."

"A lot of teams won't draft an offensive lineman unless he stands 6'6"," Noll says. "We don't have a 6'6" minimum. We're looking for guys who can play."

And are the Steelers ever finding them.


Harris, that renowned blocking back who has also run for 11,725 NFL yards, clears out Colt Safety Jeff Delaney (above) to spring Abercrombie (34) on an 11-yard touchdown sweep.


Harris lifted Greg Bracelin off his feet as Stoudt (18) somehow got this pass off.


Forget Swann. Sweeney caught six passes, one for a touchdown.


By the way, Harris can still carry the mail, as he did 19 times for 65 yards Sunday.


Pagel, pressured by Steeler John Goodman (left), gave way to Herrmann, who nearly gave away the football on this fumbled snap.


Lambert, in his 10th NFL season, shows that old All-Pro technique in clobbering Dickey.


McMillan stood Rick Woods and the other Steelers on their heads with 60 rushing yards.


Dickey went five yards for this score, but one TD was not enough to beat the Steelers.