NOT SO FAST IF THE STEELERS' DEFENSE CAN HARASS TROY AIKMAN AND SLOW EMMITT SMITH, PITTSBURGH MIGHT UPSET DALLAS

January 29, 1996

If the Pittsburgh Steelers can put a rush on Troy Aikman,
they've got a shot in Super Bowl XXX. If the Dallas Cowboys'
quarterback has time to throw, forget it. It's another blowout.

There are plenty of peripheral elements in this game--the steady
water-torture running of Dallas's Emmitt Smith; Pittsburgh
quarterback Neil O'Donnell and his four- and five-receiver
packages; the prospective meeting of Steelers
passer/runner/receiver Kordell Stewart and Cowboys cornerback
Deion Sanders--but the game will turn on Aikman, the pulse of the
Dallas offense.

The Steelers must make that pulse beat faster. They must make
Aikman throw before he's ready, or get him moving around in the
pocket on the sore knees that have severely limited his
mobility. On Dec. 10 the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Cowboys
with a coverage scheme that took away Aikman's primary and
secondary receivers. But a fancy coverage package isn't the
Steelers' style. Their game is the blitz, mainly because they
have so many people who are good at it.

"We've got new blitzes they haven't seen," says outside
linebacker Kevin Greene, who led Pittsburgh with nine sacks this
year. "We're going to be coming after them with everything we've
got. We're not going to just sit back and react in some kind of
lay-back zone. We'll leave our DBs in man-to-man, we'll put them
on an island if we have to. We've got to get to Aikman."

That job will be more difficult for the Steelers if linebacker
Chad Brown, another terrific pass rusher, is still hobbling
around on his sore right ankle. And the Steelers are being coy
about whether All-Pro cornerback Rod Woodson, who tore a knee
ligament in the season opener, will play on Sunday. Deep
coverage would be iffy for Woodson, but the Steelers could
really use him as a blitzer. None of the Cowboys' 335-plus-pound
offensive linemen are nimble enough to slide outside to pick him
up. Woodson is that rarity among pass-rushing defensive backs--a
guy with a mean streak, a punisher.

If Pittsburgh hopes to keep pace with Dallas, it's going to have
to turn its aggression level way up, because when the Cowboys
beat the Green Bay Packers for the NFC championship on Jan. 14,
they were a nasty, anything-goes offensive team. The defense was
driven by speed and finesse, but the offense was ferocious. "It
was the most physical game I've ever seen the Cowboys play,"
says Cliff Harris, the free safety on Dallas's five Super Bowl
teams of the '70s.

The Cowboys' second-longest play in that game, a 35-yard
crossing pattern to Sanders that set up a first-quarter
touchdown, was made possible by an illegal moving pick by tight
end Jay Novacek on Packers cornerback Doug Evans. It was no
run-of-the-mill pick, either. It was a teeth-rattler, a head
shot under full steam that knocked Evans momentarily senseless.

"It was the most significant play of the game," says Green Bay
defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. "It got the Cowboys going.
They hadn't done anything on offense up to then. It was as
blatant a foul as I've ever seen, a horrible foul."

In the second quarter 329-pound Dallas right tackle Erik
Williams trailed Packers nosetackle John Jurkovic and came down
on the back of Jurkovic's left knee with a block that was
technically legal but still vicious, a maneuver that many
offensive linemen simply refuse to execute. Jurkovic left the
game for good with a torn ligament. "That removed our most
athletic defensive lineman, the guy who drops off for underneath
coverage," Shurmur says. "When we lost him, all we had left were
300-pounders.

"There was a lot more," Shurmur continues. "[Defensive end]
Reggie White got so frustrated from having hands in his face all
the time--somehow I just didn't expect that from Dallas."

"The officials let the Cowboys get away with a lot, which is
what happens with a good team," says free safety Merton Hanks of
the San Francisco 49ers, who last year beat Dallas 38-28 for the
NFC crown. "Every time I see them on TV, they get the breaks."

Hanks agrees that on Sunday the Steelers must pressure Aikman
and should not be tempted into crowding the defense to stop
Smith. "Which is worse?" Hanks says. "Emmitt getting his 100
yards or [wide receiver] Michael Irvin making three big catches,
all for TDs?"

Offensively, the Steelers will get their yards and their points.
The Cowboys don't shut people down, they outscore them. In the
Dallas-Pittsburgh game on Sept. 4, 1994, at Three Rivers
Stadium, the Cowboys repeatedly chased O'Donnell out of the
pocket and forced him to put the ball up for grabs. But things
have changed since then. Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley is
just now returning from back surgery, and he won't be nearly as
effective as he was in that '94 showdown, when he had four
sacks. And O'Donnell finally clicked this season with his corps
of receivers, especially Yancey Thigpen, who caught 85 passes
for 1,307 yards.

The Steelers still run the ball, but when they found themselves
in short-yardage situations in their Jan. 6 divisional playoff
against the Buffalo Bills, in came the wideouts. The following
Sunday, in the conference championship game against the
Indianapolis Colts, Stewart took the snaps on short-yardage
plays, sneaking or running an option. In the old days Pittsburgh
would have slammed an opponent with a big back.

The Steelers' four-wideout set has been especially effective on
short and intermediate routes over the middle, and against
Dallas that will be a sensible way to travel. "Pittsburgh should
forget any play going to the corner," says 49ers offensive
tackle Harris Barton. "The Cowboys are just too fast to the
outside. You want them to have to defend between the tackles or
over the middle."

"Deion doesn't like to cover crossing routes, where he has to
chase through traffic," says Hanks, who played beside Sanders
last season. "He'll take away an outside receiver all by
himself, but he can't play a slot receiver. You don't want to
throw outs on him. If the throw isn't perfect, he'll bring it
back for six. You can't run go routes on him. He eats them up.
You want to get him covering inside."

Finally, much has been made of the matchup between the two
coaches--the hands-on approach of Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher versus
the laid-back style of Barry Switzer. "Cowher is so emotional,
so involved," says Harris. "He's going to get those guys so high
that they'll exhaust themselves in the first quarter, and Dallas
will blow them out. I could see another Buffalo-type Super Bowl
here."

Sorry, but I can't. I can see a Steel Curtain reborn. The final:
Pittsburgh 24, Dallas 20.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Bunching up the defense solely to stop Smith (22) would be a costly mistake for Pittsburgh. [Pittsburgh Steeler defenders tackling Emmitt Smith]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER O'Donnell benefited from a new willingness to go to the air in short-yardage situations. [Neil O'Donnell] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Even at less than full speed, Woodson is the rare corner who can strike fear in passers like Aikman. [Troy Aikman being tackled by Rod Woodson]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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