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Last season coach Chuck Noll of the PITTSBURGH STEELERS squeezed all the mileage he could out of a team that looked as if it would run out of gas long before the playoffs. Instead, the Steelers made it to the AFC Championship—with 15 rookies on the roster—and they had the Dolphins worried for a while, until the roof fell in right before halftime. The Steelers were tough and nasty. They were the only club to defeat the 49ers, they roughed up John Elway in the playoffs and they beat the Raiders on the coast to qualify for postseason action.

For the second year in a row Noll watched his pride and joy, the offensive line, crumble with injuries. Rejects from other teams started for him. Pete Rostosky, a free-agent former defensive lineman, became the starting left tackle down the stretch. Indeed, the offensive line was a strange-looking unit. In an era of 6'6" and 6'7" monsters, Noll's group averaged 6'1½", but it kept that good trap-block attack going and pounded people, and center Mike Webster held everything together.

Oh, the Steelers did things in strange ways last year, all right. In an era of outstanding tight ends—Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Todd Christensen, who has caught 172 passes in his last two seasons—the Steelers' tight ends have become invisible. Collectively, they caught 11 passes last year. There were nine games in which they caught none. Quarterback Mark Malone was bailed out when 33-year-old John Stallworth came up with the most amazing season of his 11-year career, an 80-catch year, and when rookie Louis Lipps became a Pro Bowler and an efficient deep threat.

Two years ago Malone was backup to a backup, Cliff Stoudt. Last year he started off second-string to a Miami reject, David Woodley. He was the second-lowest-ranked quarterback of the 10 playoff starters, and his passes didn't always go where he aimed them, but the Steelers seemed to respond to him.

It was a team without a great runner or defensive lineman, with a secondary that could be burned badly and a linebacking corps that lost its great All-Pro, Jack Lambert. But defense was the heart of the Steelers. The outside linebackers, Mike Merriweather and Bryan Hinkle, formed the best twosome since the Jack Ham-Andy Russell days. Robin Cole switched to the inside and came into his own, making the Pro Bowl. The defense was quick, unpredictable and opportunistic. It scored six touchdowns and kept the Steelers competitive all year. That should be the story of the 1985 Steelers.

One of the most remarkable statistics of Noll's career is that in the 1972-79 era, from Pittsburgh's first playoff appearances and through the four Super Bowls, the Steelers' record against teams with less than .500 records was 50-1. Last year four of their seven regular-season losses were to teams with losing records. Call it the downside of emotion.

This was the way Sam Wyche began his NFL coaching career last year: It was late in the fourth quarter of the opening game. The CINCINNATI BENGALS were trailing the Broncos by three but were driving. Then Charley Alexander fumbled deep in Bronco territory, his first fumble in a six-year career—581 straight carries without a bobble. Earlier, Jim Breech had missed a field goal from the four-yard line—his first miss after 14 straight from 25 yards or less. The next week the Bengals had a chance to beat Kansas City in the fourth quarter. A fumble was loose in the Chiefs' end zone and three Bengals had a shot at it, but the ball rolled out of bounds. The Bengals still had a chance to win with a minute left, but tight end M.L. Harris caught a pass on the Chiefs' 29 and fumbled. Next week they were beating the Jets 16-13 in the third quarter. The Jets proceeded to turn four Bengal turnovers into scores. The result—a 43-23 New York blowout.

And so it went—all the way to 1-6, when the season turned around and the Bengals closed with a rush. Their 8-8 record could have gotten them into the playoffs if the Steelers had dropped their finale to the Raiders. Sorry, no miracles. Instead, the Bengals were left with puzzles. The quarterback situation was a revolving door. Ken Anderson and Turk Schonert were decked so many times that their fight for the position would have been stopped if there were a mandatory three-knockdown rule. Boomer Esiason was a hero one week and a raw rookie the next. Against the Saints in the next-to-last game, he went 1 for 6, and Anderson came in and won it.

So how do you figure it? Anderson is 36 but it's still his job to lose. He had a higher ranking than either Boomer or Turk. If I were Wyche, though, I wouldn't start him against Pittsburgh. The Steelers knocked Anderson out of their last four contests.

For a while it looked as if the Bengals' deep receiving threat, Cris Collinsworth, was going to the USFL, but his deal with the Tampa Bay Bandits fizzled and back home he came. (It's the boomerang theory—eventually everything returns. Back from the Jacksonville Bulls came linebacker Tom Dinkel, who defected two years ago, with defensive end Ross Browner of the Houston Gamblers and tight end Dan Ross of the Portland Breakers expected to follow, dragging along some USFL mileage on their legs.)

On paper the draft looked terrific; Bengal drafts always do. But signing people can be difficult. Oh they got their second No. 1 pick all right, linebacker Emanuel King, a bargain at $1.175 million for four years, but their top guy, wideout Eddie Brown, didn't come as cheaply. He was a camp holdout for more than two weeks, so all plans to line him up with Collinsworth and terrorize opposing cornerbacks had to be postponed. The offensive line is still big league, and 265-pound fullback Larry Kinnebrew is one of the NFL's more terrifying runners. King eventually might help a defense that slipped from first to 13th last year when it lost Hank Bullough, the coordinator.

For the CLEVELAND BROWNS it's the Ernie and Bernie show. Ernie Accorsi, the general manager, showed that Al Davis isn't the only football executive whose thinking is one step ahead of the pack. Ernie's innovation was trading regular draft choices for picks in the supplemental draft designed for special-situation guys and USFL players, trading goods at full retail markup for discounted merchandise. It got the Browns a productive runner from the L.A. Express, Kevin Mack, and, of course, Bernie Kosar, the quarterback of the future and a drawing card who means about 5,000 extra season tickets from his hometown Boardman, Ohio area. Without trading, Ernie picked up the Bandits' second team All-USFL tackle, Dan Fike, a 6'7", 280-pounder who'll step into Doug Dieken's old spot on the left side.

They low-keyed it with Kosar in training camp, trying to avoid the 1983 John Elway circus atmosphere in Denver, and assigned him a backup role to ex-Lion Gary Danielson, but if things aren't going right at about midseason, the kid could be in there. Actually, the Browns traded Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks for the Kosar rights, but the deal became a draft choice when Banks refused to report. How could the Browns break up the best linebacking corps in football, people asked. Well, they were No. 2 in the NFL in defense last year and still finished at 5-11. The offense was nowhere. Once you got by Ozzie Newsome, the AFC's top pass catcher, the next-highest Brown receiver ranked 78th in the league.

The running attack could shape up if top draft pick Greg Allen shows some of his pre—knee-injury flash. Coach Marty Schottenheimer loves Earnest Byner, 215 pounds and dirt tough. The Browns' schedule is too vicious, the offense too unsettled for there to be much improvement, but at least the team is showing some smarts.

Hey, guess what? The HOUSTON OILERS didn't draft an offensive lineman with their top pick, as they had for three straight years. They didn't even take an offensive player, as they had the last five. Their two first-round choices were a defensive end, Ray Childress, and a cornerback, Richard Johnson. That's the good news. The bad news is that they were unsigned entering the exhibition season, so a defense that has been no better than 22nd in the NFL in the four years since Bum Phillips left probably won't be much better, at least not in the early going. And that's exactly where the Oilers need all their muscle, because the first five weeks of the schedule are the most brutal in the NFL—bringing Miami, Washington, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Denver as opponents.

Like a crazy uncle who's locked up in the attic, the Oilers' defense is never mentioned. Instead we hear about that great, massive offensive line, led by Pro Bowl guard Mike Munchak, about the blossoming of Warren Moon now that he has his legs under him (the Oilers even hired his Edmonton offensive coordinator, Joe Faragalli, this year), and about the runners who will make everyone forget Earl Campbell.

These last are Butch Woolfolk, who showed great zip in the Hall of Fame game when he was proving himself against the New York Giants, the team that gave up on him, and Mike Rozier, who has a chance to be the only player in history to rush for 1,000 yards twice in the same calendar year, having gained his 1,361 yards for the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL. That's assuming his legs and his body hold up. He'll also have made some of the biggest money in the shortest period of time, a little more than $3 million in two years, counting his USFL and Oiler paychecks. It's all very pretty, but the Oilers need those defensive rookies in top form or they'll be looking at a quick 0-5, with a very long season to follow.




Denver's Sammy Winder did his level best to stand up to the Bengals' defense.



The Moon shot Houston expected last year was temporarily put on hold.



Pittsburgh has high hopes for improving running back Walter Abercrombie.