There has been much talk in Pittsburgh on the subject of
pressure and, specifically, how it will affect strong safety
Lethon Flowers. In his first three seasons Flowers never started
a game and played almost exclusively on special teams. Not only
that, the man he's replacing, departed free agent Myron Bell,
was a ferocious hitter and a steady cover man. What's more,
Flowers played cornerback in college, at Georgia Tech.
Regardless, asking the Columbia, S.C., native if he can handle a
do-or-die situation is like asking Pavarotti to hum Mary Had a
Little Lamb. "People say the secondary is our huge question
mark," says Flowers, a fifth-round pick in '95. "But I'll be one
of the NFL's best safeties--no doubt about it."
That self-assurance comes from experience. When he was 14,
Flowers spent three months in intensive care after the removal
of a ruptured appendix that, he says, "came very close to
killing me." Doctors told his mother, Patricia, that Lethon's
prognosis was grim. "I learned to appreciate life and the
blessings you receive," says Flowers, 25. "You learn to keep
things in perspective but also take advantage of the
opportunities given. This is my golden opportunity."
Flowers and right cornerback Dewayne Washington, a free-agent
pickup who was formerly with the Vikings, join left corner
Carnell Lake and free safety Darren Perry in a unit that will
either 1) excel and lift Pittsburgh toward its fifth consecutive
AFC Central title or 2) implode and cause Steelers fans to stage
a "Bring back Dwayne Woodruff" rally.
Lake, the Steelers' best athlete, is a four-time Pro Bowl strong
safety who, to be honest, would rather hang back and smack
overzealous tight ends than bump and run with the Herman Moores
of the world. However, at a voluntary workout in May, Chad
Scott, Pittsburgh's All-Rookie cornerback last year, tore the
anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was lost for the
season. WANTED: Unselfish veteran safety to play corner...again.
Speed and smarts required.
"Carnell is as team-oriented a player as you'll find," says
Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who also asked Lake to play corner in
'95 and '97, after first Rod Woodson and then Scott were injured.
"His best position is strong safety--everybody knows that. But out
of need he's spent two years at corner for us. One time we went
to the Super Bowl, the other we went to the AFC Championship
Game. Clearly, he and Darren Perry are two guys we can count on."
That leaves Washington, who last year was, well, bad. A
fifth-year player out of North Carolina State, he is a strong
guy with good footwork and--as he'll often remind people--Pro
Bowl aspirations. But as Cowher was seeing early in camp (and as
Vikings coach Dennis Green saw too often last year), speedsters
eat him up. In a division featuring the Bengals' Carl Pickens,
the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis, the Oilers' Yancey Thigpen and the
Jaguars' Jimmy Smith, Washington could be toast. "I don't think
it's fair to judge Dewayne on one inconsistent year," says
Cowher. "When a guy has a nose for the ball, you want him around."
If Flowers and Washington hold up, Pittsburgh's swarming
defense, which ranked sixth in the league, will again emerge as
one of the league's best. Inside linebackers Levon Kirkland and
Earl Holmes are mobile and tackle-crazy, while left outside
linebacker Jason Gildon has quietly accumulated 12 sacks in the
last two years. The Steelers cut linebacker Greg Lloyd, which
sounds worse than it is. Anyone who saw the five-time Pro Bowl
player tentatively hobbling around in minicamp knows that Lloyd,
once one of the game's fiercest competitors, has been a sad
shell of himself ever since wrecking his left knee in the '96
opener. "I love Greg Lloyd, as a player and a person," says
Cowher, "but there's an evolution each team has to go through."
Flowers likes hearing this--the idea that, finally, his time has
come. On the second day of training camp, a 95? scorcher at St.
Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., Flowers worked out with the
team for two hours, then--with sweat soaking his black NWO
T-shirt--spent another 50 minutes lifting weights on his own.
The extra work is the result of a conversation he and Lake had
in February, when Flowers asked for a specific workout plan.
From that point, it has been sprints and weights two to three
hours a day, six days a week.
"When all I did was special teams, I didn't worry too much,"
Flowers says of conditioning. "I was on the field 10 times a
game, and that's it. But now I've got a chance to do some big
things. I love making contact. I love covering. I just love being
on the field, part of the Blitzburgh defense. People have
questions about us. I think we've got the answers." --J.P.
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON VERSATILE Lake has been to the Pro Bowl four times as a safety, but the 10-year veteran has also made an impact as a cornerback. [Carnell Lake in game]
B/W PHOTO: SCOTT GOLDSMITH Strzelczyk [Justin Strzelczyk]
Sept. 6 at Baltimore
20 at Miami
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
11 at Cincinnati
26 at Kansas City (Mon.)
Nov. 1 TENNESSEE
9 GREEN BAY (Mon.)
15 at Tennessee
26 at Detroit (Thurs.)
Dec. 6 NEW ENGLAND
13 at Tampa Bay
28 at Jacksonville (Mon.)
1997 Record 11-5 (1st in AFC Central) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 1/23/6; defense 1/18/6
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 1 Opponents' 1997 winning
percentage: .551 Games against playoff teams: 8
Still Steeled Against the Run
Free agency and salary-cap constraints have stripped the
Steelers of several of their best defensive players in recent
years. But Pittsburgh's stout defense against the run, a
signature of its great teams of the 1970s, has been remarkably
undamaged. Since 1993 the Steelers have allowed only 3.43 yards
per rush, the second-lowest average of any team over a five-year
span since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Yards allowed Playoff Super Bowl Super Bowl
Team per rush appearances appearances victories
1971-75 Cowboys 3.40 4 2 1
1993-97 Steelers 3.43 5 1 0
1976-80 Steelers 3.44 4 2 2
1970-74 Cowboys 3.48 4 2 1
1970-74 Steelers 3.49 3 1 1
1975-79 Broncos 3.49 3 1 0
The shift of Justin Strzelczyk from right to left tackle,
necessitated by the departure of free agent John Jackson to the
Chargers, recalls a similar move Strzelczyk made in '95 after
Jackson went down with a knee injury. The Steelers were 6-0 in
subsequent games and advanced to Super Bowl XXX.... Mike
Vrabel, who as a rookie in '97 had 1 1/2 sacks in spot duty at
defensive end, could be the latest on an impressive list of
defensive discoveries by the Pittsburgh front office. Penciled
in to replace the departed Greg Lloyd at right outside
linebacker, Vrabel has dropped 20 pounds and is down to 250. One
of his biggest supporters is Steelers scout Bill Nunn, whose
previous finds have included L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Bill Cowher
Seventh season with Steelers (64-32 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Kordell Stewart 5[PVR*] 440 att. 236 comp. 53.6%
3,020 yds. 21 TDs 17 int. 75.2 rtg.
RB Jerome Bettis 7[PVR*] 375 att. 1,665 yds. 4.4
avg. 15 rec. 110 yds. 7.3 avg. 9 TDs
FB Tim Lester 451[PVR*] 2 att. 9 yds. 4.5 avg. 10
rec. 51 yds. 5.1 avg. 0 TDs
RB George Jones 225[PVR*] 72 att. 235 yds. 3.3 avg.
16 rec. 96 yds. 6.0 avg. 2 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Charles Johnson 81[PVR*] 46 rec. 568 yds. 2 TDs
WR Will Blackwell 155[PVR*] 12 rec. 168 yds. 1 TD
WR Courtney Hawkins 256[PVR*] 45 rec. 555 yds. 3 TDs
TE Mark Bruener 149[PVR*] 18 rec. 117 yds. 6 TDs
K Norm Johnson 51[PVR*] 40/40 XPs 22/25 FGs 106 pts.
PR Jahine Arnold** 382[PVR*] 2 ret. 3.0 avg. 0 TDs
KR Will Blackwell 155[PVR*] 32 ret. 24.7 avg. 1 TD
LT Justin Strzelczyk 6'3" 305 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Will Wolford 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Dermontti Dawson 6'2" 288 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Brenden Stai 6'4" 305 lbs. 10 games 9 starts
RT Jamain Stephens 6'6" 336 lbs. 7 games 1 start
LE Nolan Harrison 31 tackles 4 sacks
NT Joel Steed 48 tackles 1 sack
RE Kevin Henry 51 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
OLB Jason Gildon 53 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
ILB Levon Kirkland 126 tackles 5 sacks
ILB Earl Holmes 96 tackles 4 sacks
OLB Mike Vrabel 17 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
CB Carnell Lake 60 tackles 6 sacks
SS Lethon Flowers 1 tackle 0 int.
FS Darren Perry 78 tackles 4 int.
CB Dewayne Washington[N] 84 tackles 4 int.
P Josh Miller 64 punts 42.6 avg
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)