As coach Bill Cowher emerged from the St. Vincent College
cafeteria one July afternoon at the Steelers' training camp in
Latrobe, Pa., a group of fans asked him to pose for a
photograph. Cowher obliged, jutting his prominent jaw forward
until the camera clicked. Moments later the smile was gone from
Cowher's face. He had read one too many predictions of his
team's demise as a result of the off-season departure of
defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau (to the Bengals)--just as he
had two years earlier when LeBeau's predecessor, Dom Capers,
left to become coach of the Panthers.
"I'm going to tell you something," Cowher growled at a reporter.
"This defense will continue to be strong, because there's one
person who was responsible for it when Dick LeBeau was here, and
it's the same person who oversaw it when Dom Capers was here.
There's one guy who has been here all along, and you're looking
Point taken. Cowher, a coach generally trumpeted more for his
motivational skills than for his strategic prowess, knows enough
about the zone blitz to keep it in place. The real question is,
Do the Steelers have the players to continue executing that
defense effectively? Pittsburgh lost four starters from the
NFL's second-ranked defense, including All-Pro linebacker Chad
Brown, cornerbacks Rod Woodson and Willie Williams and defensive
end Ray Seals. Nickelback Deon Figures is also gone.
With the loss of those players and with their only elite pass
rusher, linebacker Greg Lloyd, coming off major knee surgery,
the Steelers would seem to be vulnerable to repeated aerial
assaults, particularly in a division with so many dangerous
quarterbacks (page 188). But this team is used to starting the
season shorthanded. In '95 Cowher survived Woodson's knee injury
in the opener by eventually moving Pro Bowl strong safety
Carnell Lake to cornerback, and Pittsburgh went to the Super
Bowl. Last year, after sack specialist Kevin Greene signed with
Carolina and Lloyd was lost in the opener, Cowher switched Brown
from the inside to Lloyd's outside position. Brown responded
with 13 sacks, and the Steelers repeated as division champs.
Cowher and director of football operations Tom Donahoe routinely
produce unheralded yet adept sack artists the way Sean (Puffy)
Combs produces hip-hop hits. The projected hit parade includes
outside linebacker Jason Gildon, who became a starter last year;
inside linebacker Earl Holmes, who moves up to the first team
this year; and defensive end Mike Vrabel, a third-round draft
pick from Ohio State. "First you've got to stop the run," says
Lloyd. "If you can make an offense one-dimensional, then you can
Woodson, who signed with the 49ers after the Steelers deemed his
salary demands excessive, was a multidimensional player whose
blitzing skills and knack for the big play will be hard to
replace. But Pittsburgh believed that all three of the departed
corners were on the decline. The new starters are speedy veteran
Donnell Woolford, signed away from the Bears as a free agent,
and first-round draft pick Chad Scott, a 6'1", 203-pounder from
Maryland. J.B. Brown, a Dolphins castoff, will be the
nickelback. "Woolford's a good pickup," says Lake, a close
friend of Woodson's who was upset by the team's failure to
re-sign him. "I underestimated him. He's a better athlete than I
The Steelers are stable at safety with Lake and free safety
Darren Perry. "There's no question we're on the spot," Perry
says. "The secondary is the place where everybody has to be on
the same page. That takes time."
Also on the spot is defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who has
only four years of NFL coaching experience. An assistant with
the Saints the last two years, Haslett spent the off-season
boning up on the zone blitz. LeBeau wasn't around to teach him,
but no matter. Cowher obviously isn't worried.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Linebacker Levon Kirkland (99), a second-round pick in '92, joins a long list of solid defenders that Pittsburgh has developed through the years.
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)
Pittsburgh had the highest percentage of rushing plays in the
NFL last season; in fact, Buffalo was the only other team in the
league to run the ball more often than it passed it. The
Steelers also opted for the ground approach on nearly two thirds
of their first downs, another league high.
Highest Percentage of Rushing Plays
Overall (W-L) Rushes Plays 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) Rushes Plays 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
Bill Cowher's teams tend to survive a rough start and peak at
the end of the season. The Steelers will again need to save
their best for last, with four of their last five games on the
road and their only home date in that span a showdown against
the Broncos on Dec. 7. Six days later Pittsburgh travels to New
England. If the Steelers are where Cowher wants them to be, the
final five games will decide home field advantage for the AFC
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 3 Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .531
Games against playoff teams: 7
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Bill Cowher
QB Kordell Stewart 30 att. 11 comp. 36.7% 100 yds.
0 TDs 2 int. 18.7 rtg.
RB Jerome Bettis 320 att. 1,431 yds. 4.5 avg.
22 rec. 122 yds. 5.5 avg. 11 TDs
FB Tim Lester 8 att. 20 yds. 2.5 avg.
7 rec. 70 yds. 10.0 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Yancey Thigpen 12 rec. 244 yds. 2 TDs
WR Charles Johnson 60 rec. 1,008 yds. 3 TDs
WR Courtney Hawkins[**] 46 rec. 544 yds. 1 TD
TE Mark Bruener 12 rec. 141 yds. 0 TDs
PK Norm Johnson 37/37 PATs 23/30 FGs 106 pts.
KR George Jones(R)[**] 181 rush att. 5.4 avg. 11 TDs
PR Mike Adams(R)[**] 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[**] 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[**] 64 tackles 6 int.
SS Carnell Lake 54 tackles 1 int.
FS Darren Perry 79 tackles 5 int.
CB Chad Scott (R)[**] 60 tackles 5 int.
P Josh Miller 55 punts 41.0 avg
Rookie statistics for final college year