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Smashing Success They aren't the league's most talented team, but the Steelers keep hammering away and have the AFC's best record

The decision was dicey, like choosing between an airport
security line or a car ride with Bill O'Reilly, but Lee Flowers
knew which way to go. The Pittsburgh Steelers' saucy strong
safety had Cris Carter lined up to his left, Randy Moss to his
right and an entire end zone to patrol as the Minnesota Vikings
got set on Sunday to take their final shot at stealing a
victory. With 62,661 shrieking fans turning Heinz Field into
what sounded like a 1964 Beatles concert, Flowers surveyed the
situation: The Vikings were down by five points and faced
fourth-and-goal from the 20 with 1:58 remaining. Knowing the
Steelers' blitz would leave him alone in their zone coverage,
Flowers made an executive decision.

Like a soccer goalie defending a penalty kick, Flowers started
to his right before the ball was snapped and arrived just in
time to help cornerback Dewayne Washington bottle up Moss as the
pass floated toward the All-Pro receiver. "Maybe I distracted
his vision, and maybe I didn't," Flowers said. "All I know is I
had to guess right on that play, or we were screwed."

After the ball fell innocuously to the end zone turf, the
usually impudent Flowers struck a telling pose: He dropped to
his knees and thanked God that his gamble had paid off. Relief,
rather than elation, was the predominant emotion for the
Steelers, who closed out a 21-16 victory that left them alone
atop the AFC with a 9-2 record. That's how nearly blowing an
18-point, fourth-quarter lead will make you feel.

"We didn't play for the full 60 minutes today, and it's
disappointing, because when you get someone down, you have to
keep them down," inside linebacker Earl Holmes said in the sober
Pittsburgh locker room. "You've got to learn from a game like
this, and we will. Hell, we have to. Things have changed. We're
the team to beat now."

Thus the AFC's team to beat spent the better part of Sunday
evening beating itself up. In a typical scene quarterback
Kordell Stewart approached tackle Wayne Gandy and said softly,
"I know there was a lot of pain and a lot of frustration, but
congratulations." Later that night, as he lay on his living room
couch nursing the groin injury that knocked him out of Sunday's
game late in the third quarter, NFL rushing leader Jerome (the
Bus) Bettis said, "We got sloppy and let a lead slip away, and
that's why guys were more pissed than happy. There's no question
it felt like a losing locker room."

In an era in which the margin between winners and losers has
shrunk to minute proportions, Pittsburgh is hardly a team that
can expect to overwhelm opponents. Instead, the Steelers rely on
relentlessly physical play and a toughness forged during last
year's 9-7 season, when they beat both AFC Championship Game
participants (the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders) yet
missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Memories of
last year's 0-3 start and several last-minute losses are fresh
enough that coach Bill Cowher, in his postgame address to the
team on Sunday, attempted to cheer his players: "Don't worry if
this was ugly. We've been on the other side, and we deserve to
win some games like this."

Ugly or not, the win was the 100th of Cowher's 10-year career,
but he doesn't get caught up in numbers. A motivational tactic
Cowher employed last week demonstrated that. When the Steelers
arrived for their Thursday-morning meeting, the grease-marker
board behind the coach's podium, listing the team's 2001
schedule and results, had been altered. "He had cleared off the
first 10 games and told us, 'Those games are gone; it's a
six-game season,'" says Flowers.

Cowher can spew hokey homilies with the best of them, and when
he gets going, he is one of the world's most prolific
unintentional public spitters. (Says defensive coordinator Tim
Lewis, "When I got this job and Bill asked me whether I wanted
to be upstairs or downstairs on game day, I said, 'Up, because I
don't want to get sprayed!'") For all of Cowher's outward fire,
there is plenty of ice within. No coach is better at regulating
his team's temperament, at walking the fine line between
intensity and buoyancy.

Think the run-oriented Steelers have a boring offense? That's a
bunch of Mularkey--as in offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey,
the former tight ends coach whom Cowher promoted last January
after dismissing the grumpy and exacting Kevin Gilbride. That
move was complemented by the hiring of Tom Clements as
quarterbacks coach, the first one the Steelers have had since
Babe Parilli in 1973.

"Twenty-eight years, dude," said Stewart, who credits Mularkey
and Clements for his dramatic improvement this season after
three disappointing campaigns. "Now I'm finally in a comfort
zone. Look it up--I had three offensive coordinators in four
years at Colorado and five in seven years here. The last couple
of years I had to do what I was told, but Mike treats us like
adults, and he encourages me to use my game to exploit
opponents. It's fun. I'm running around like a kid in a park."

The result is that Cowher, who earlier in his tenure had
introduced the five-wideout formation and Stewart's Slash
persona, now greenlights plays such as 35 Sucker, which produced
seven of Bettis's 81 rushing yards on Sunday. With 2:49 left in
the first half and the ball at the Minnesota 24, Stewart stepped
away from center Jeff Hartings, turned to his right and began
yelling at wide receiver Hines Ward. When Ward pretended not to
hear him, Stewart took two steps toward the receiver and then
called out a phantom adjustment as Hartings snapped the ball to
Bettis, who advanced to the 17 before the Vikings knew what had
hit them.

Although Ward caught only three passes for 37 yards, his value,
as always, could not be gauged solely by statistics. When Cowher
calls Ward "the most complete receiver in the game," he's
referring to contributions such as the one Ward made during
backup wide receiver Troy Edwards's 12-yard touchdown run, which
gave Pittsburgh a 14-3 lead midway through the third quarter. As
Edwards took a handoff from Stewart and raced around right end,
Ward, a terrific blocker, was busy eliminating Minnesota's Dale
Carter--one of the league's more physical cornerbacks--from the
picture. "Troy did the same for me on a TD run against Tennessee
earlier this season," Ward says. "I take pride in doing the
little things."

Ward is the Steelers' answer to Beatles guitarist George
Harrison, providing subtle harmonies, consistent precision and,
occasionally, smash hits. In a Nov. 11 victory over the
Cleveland Browns, the 6-foot, 200-pound wideout threw an
assertive block at Earl Little, prompting the Browns' strong
safety to hiss, as Ward recalls, "I'm gonna kill you." Two plays
later Stewart flipped an outlet pass to running back Amos
Zereoue, and Ward, who had run a slant pattern, crack-blocked
the unsuspecting Little so forcefully that it knocked him out.
Ward drew a taunting penalty for standing over Little and
celebrating. "I apologize for that," Ward says, "but I don't
apologize for the hit, because it was clean."

Such brash displays are rare for Ward, a fourth-year player and
former third-round draft selection from Georgia who is sort of
an anti-Moss. Whereas the Vikings' young star sometimes appears
to lose interest during games and recently told the Minneapolis
Star Tribune, "I play when I want to play," Ward, who has lacked
the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee since a
childhood bike accident, adheres to a stricter standard. "He
plays every play as if it's his last, even in practice," says
backup linebacker Mike Jones.

Adds Flowers, "Because of Hines's attitude, I think that our
offense is starting to play more physically than our defense."

"People say I'm always smiling, even in practice," Ward said
last Thursday as he sat in the living room of the home he
recently bought in Pittsburgh's Shadyside district. "I never
dreamed I could make it to the pros, and I enjoy the privilege
of putting on that uniform." Nonetheless, Ward--who, with 69
receptions, is on pace to break Yancey Thigpen's team record of
85--wasn't overjoyed when he started last year as a backup to
Edwards, a first-round pick in 1999. "The coaches never even
talked to me about it," says Ward, who caught 61 passes in '99.
"It seemed like I was always getting screwed."

Now Edwards, who on Sunday stripped the ball from Minnesota kick
returner Nate Jacquet to set up the Steelers' final touchdown,
is the backup. Another first-round draft choice, Plaxico Burress
(six catches, 86 yards against the Vikings), has emerged as a
big-play threat. Still, there are days when Heinz Field becomes
Hines Field--days like Nov. 18, when he had nine receptions for
112 yards in a 20-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hines's popularity in Pittsburgh is on the rise, but it's
doubtful it will approach that of Bettis, the Steel City's most
treasured football hero of this era.

Although it seems as if the Bus has a fresh set of tires in
2001--on his first carry against Minnesota he surpassed the
1,000-yard rushing mark for the sixth consecutive
season--Bettis, 29, is not immune to the occasional breakdown.
When he left Sunday's game, so did the Steelers' momentum, and
Minnesota quarterback Todd Bouman, who had replaced injured
starter Daunte Culpepper early in the fourth quarter, led an
unlikely comeback. After running back Michael Bennett scored on
an 80-yard screen pass with 6:29 to go, Moss, apparently having
summoned sufficient desire, followed a 62-yard reception with a
12-yard touchdown catch. Pittsburgh's lead was down to 21-16.
Then with 2:13 remaining, Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan
pushed guard Oliver Ross into Stewart, forcing a fumble that
Minnesota defensive end Talance Sawyer recovered at the
Steelers' 10 and causing undigested sausages to rise in the
throats of thousands of fans.

"That's exactly what the defense needed, though, a chance to
make it right," Flowers said. "That one stand made us a tougher,
stronger defense for the long haul." The Vikings had
second-and-goal from the five-yard line before a pair of
penalties set them back, the latter a call on Bouman for
throwing a pass from well beyond the line of scrimmage, which
wiped out a touchdown reception by Carter.

Not until the locker room had cleared did Flowers allow himself
to smile. "This is a bittersweet win," he said, "but, hey, we're
9-2, and nobody in the NFL is better. This is huge, a great day
for Pittsburgh. Besides, we understand what happened--we're not
idiots--and the lesson can help us down the road, if we choose
to apply it."

That's one decision Flowers and his teammates should have no
trouble making.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Pointillist Steelers cornerback Chad Scott can only look on in wonder as Vikings receiver Randy Moss makes an artful 62-yard reception. Despite Moss's efforts, Pittsburgh prevailed 21-16. [Leading Off]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Jam session Subbing for Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran for 74 hard-earned yards against the Vikings.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Going places The versatile Ward caught only three passes against Minnesota, but he chipped in with a couple of big blocks.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Making a point Following the score that put Pittsburgh up, Bettis celebrated with a resounding spike.

"Because of Hines's attitude," says Flowers, "I think that our
offense is starting to play more physically than our defense."

Think the run-oriented Steelers are boring on offense? That's a
bunch of Mularkey--as in offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.