One day this spring pretty well summed up the Steelers'
off-season. On April 16, several pipes broke inside Three Rivers
Stadium, flooding team offices with raw sewage while the staff
was busy preparing for the draft. That same day, free-agent
cornerback Donnell Woolford was visiting Pittsburgh. As
assistant coaches used towels like sandbags to stem the fetid
flow, Woolford was forced to tiptoe through the waste matter.
"When I saw that flood," joked Woolford, "I said, I'm just going
to turn around and go somewhere else."
Eventually, after a change of heart (and some fresh air),
Woolford signed with the Steelers, but he was swimming against
the tide. The exodus of stars from Pittsburgh, which began in
earnest three seasons ago, continues. Seven players left this
year, including linebacker Chad Brown (he had a team-leading 13
sacks in '96), receiver Andre Hastings (72 catches, six TDs),
defensive lineman Ray Seals (who missed the '96 season after
shoulder surgery but had 8 1/2 sacks in '95) and, most notably,
cornerback Rod Woodson (six interceptions), a member of the
NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau
also left to assume the same role with the Bengals.
There are now so many former Steelers on other teams that coach
Bill Cowher is considering changing his play signals because
he's worried they'll be stolen. But despite the Pro Bowl talent
Pittsburgh has parted with in recent years (including
quarterback Neil O'Donnell, running back Barry Foster, guard
Duval Love, tight end Eric Green, linebacker Kevin Greene and
placekicker Gary Anderson), the team has somehow avoided sliding
in the AFC Central. Cowher has won four division titles since
1992, but this may be the season in which the Steelers lose
Not that they aren't well stocked at some spots. Gigantic
running back Jerome Bettis, who finished third in the NFL in
rushing last year, signed a four-year, $14.4 million contract in
February. Another mainstay is Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson,
whose combination of size and quick feet is unmatched in the game.
Those are two solid blocks, but ultimately the success or
failure of the offense--and perhaps of the entire season--will
fall on the shoulders of untested quarterback Kordell Stewart.
Though confident and athletic, Slash completed just 11 passes
last year, and if he's unsteady or inaccurate, Pittsburgh is in
big trouble. The backup will be rickety veteran Mike Tomczak,
who in his last seven starts threw 11 interceptions and
completed less than half his passes.
The Steelers lost their best defensive player last season, but
only to injury--which for this organization is something of a
relief. Reports out of the team's minicamps have nasty
linebacker Greg Lloyd ahead of schedule on the rehab of his torn
patellar tendon, suffered in the first game of 1996. "Greg's a
big-play guy," says Pro Bowl safety Carnell Lake, another
standout holdover. "He makes things happen, and that in turn
carries over to other players. Many times last year I thought,
'Man, we could really use a shot in the arm or a big play by
Greg,' and it just wasn't there."
Lloyd will line up next to one of the league's best inside
linebackers, Levon Kirkland, whose strength and speed help make
the team's trademark blitzing schemes so effective. Another
linebacker to watch on a team that seems to grow them is
intriguing inside backer Earl Holmes, a 1996 fourth-rounder out
of Florida A&M.
Last year Holmes put a spin on a draft pick's customary call
from his new coach.
"Congrats," Cowher told Holmes.
"No, Coach Cowher," Holmes replied. "I congratulate you for
taking the best linebacker in the draft."
The 6'1", 238-pound Holmes made his case in the season finale
against Carolina, when, in his only start, he had nine solo
tackles and a sack. "On the pass rush, if Earl gets matched up
on a back, we're going to have an advantage," says Cowher. "Much
like when we had Chad Brown in there."
The secondary did lose Woodson, but the Steelers added a former
Pro Bowl corner in Woolford and drafted another immediate
starter, cornerback Chad Scott out of Maryland.
Cowher has done a masterly job the past few years, replacing
stars like Brown with unproven fighters like Holmes and keeping
the Steelers on top. As with the pipes in Three Rivers Stadium,
though, sooner or later all that patchwork is going to give.
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BRSP COVER [REGIONAL] Loaded Weapon Versatile Kordell Stewart gets his shot at QB in Pittsburgh
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER More key Steelers have slipped away, leaving Kirkland and the D hanging on. [Levon Kirkland and opponent in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 10-6 (first in AFC Central)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 143.7 (2) 177.6 (27) 321.3 (15)
DEFENSE 88.4 (3) 184.2 (5) 272.6 (2)
The Steelers ran the highest percentage of rushing plays in the
NFL last season; in fact, the Bills were the only other team in
the league to run the ball more often than it passed it.
Pittsburgh also opted for the ground approach on nearly two
thirds of its first downs, another league-leading figure.
Highest Percentage of Rushing Plays
Overall (W-L) Rush Total Pct.
Steelers (10-6) 525 1,002 52.4
Bills (10-6) 563 1,094 51.5
Panthers (12-4) 502 1,025 49.0
Oilers (8-8) 475 972 48.9
Redskins (9-7) 467 960 48.6
On first down (W-L) Rush Total Pct.
Steelers (10-6) 290 446 65.0
Giants (6-10) 271 426 63.6
Redskins (9-7) 267 434 61.5
Dolphins (8-8) 260 435 59.8
Eagles (10-6) 273 470 58.1
PLAYER TO WATCH
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. At 6'6", 291
pounds, and with a shaggy beard and a penchant for flannel,
Steelers right tackle Justin Strzelczyk looks like your typical
mean, rugged, Harley-riding NFL blocker. And that's exactly what
he is. The 293rd pick in the 1990 draft, Strzelczyk (pronounced
STREL-zik) will claw, hold and trip to protect his passer, as he
did last year when he filled in admirably after tackle Leon
Searcy signed with the Jaguars. Strzelczyk is ready for a
breakthrough season in 1997, but he'll need all of his
bad-to-the-bone ability as he guards the right side for
inexperienced but dangerous quarterback Kordell Stewart.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1996 STATISTICS
Head Coach: Bill Cowher
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Kordell Stewart 145[*] 30 att. 11 comp. 36.7% 100 yds.
0 TDs 2 int. 18.7 rtg.
RB Jerome Bettis 29[*] 320 att. 1,431 yds. 4.5 avg.
22 rec. 122 yds. 5.5 avg. 11 TDs
FB Tim Lester 290[*] 8 att. 20 yds. 2.5 avg. 7 rec.
70 yds. 10.0 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Yancey Thigpen 69[*] 12 rec. 244 yds. 2 TDs
WR Charles Johnson 128[*] 60 rec. 1,008 yds. 3 TDs
WR Courtney Hawkins[A] 176[*] 46 rec. 544 yds. 1 TD
TE Mark Bruener 264[*] 12 rec. 141 yds. 0 TDs
PK Norm Johnson 236[*] 37/37 XPs 23/30 FGs 106 pts.
KR George Jones (R)[A] 386[*] 181 rush att. 5.4 avg. 11 TDs
PR Mike Adams (R)[A] 366[*] 23 ret. 9.7 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Jackson 6'6" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Will Wolford 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Dermontti Dawson 6'2" 288 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Brenden Stai 6'4" 307 lbs. 9 games 9 starts
RT Justin Strzelczyk 6'6" 291 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Nolan Harrison[A] 9 tackles 2 sacks
NT Joel Steed 45 tackles 0 sacks
RE Kevin Henry 23 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Greg Lloyd** 116 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
ILB Levon Kirkland 113 tackles 4 sacks
ILB Earl Holmes 10 tackles 1 sack
OLB Jason Gildon 59 tackles 7 sacks
CB Donnell Woolford[A] 64 tackles 6 int.
SS Carnell Lake 54 tackles 1 int.
FS Darren Perry 79 tackles 5 int.
CB Chad Scott (R)[A] 60 tackles 5 int.
P Josh Miller 55 punts 41.0 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)
** 1995 Statistics