It was Easter Sunday, and Pittsburgh wide receivers Charles
Johnson and Kordell (Slash) Stewart were a couple of lonely
Steel Town bachelors hungry for a home-cooked meal. The duo went
to teammate Rod Woodson's restaurant, but it was closed. So they
called the only audible left for single guys in this kind of
predicament: mooch off your married friends. The pair drove out
to the suburbs and knocked on offensive coordinator Chan
Gailey's door. "I said, 'Let's go to Chan's house. I know his
wife probably cooked Easter dinner,'" says Johnson. "We didn't
have anywhere to go."
Gailey and his wife, Laurie, welcomed the wideouts, who played
pool, stuffed their faces and talked football all night. It was
a natural extension of their weekly in-season ritual: Each
Thursday after practice, the Steelers' receiving corps gets
together to eat, watch movies, play dominoes or go bowling. As
it turned out, the Easter visit with Gailey couldn't have come
at a better time. There was a lot of catching up to do.
Since Pittsburgh's loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, Gailey
had been promoted from receivers coach to offensive coordinator
after Ron Erhardt was shown the door. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell
had left the team for New York and a $25 million contract.
Offensive tackle Leon Searcy had jumped to Jacksonville. Running
back Bam Morris had been charged with two counts of drug
possession. "You can sit around and talk about what you don't
have," says Gailey. "The key is what you do have and what you
plan to do with it."
Left intact is the team's five-receiver set of Yancey Thigpen,
Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, Johnson and Stewart, a unit that
became the unlikely emotional core of the Steelers in 1995 while
setting the league on its ear. The fab five helped turn a 3-4
start into a Super Bowl berth. "Who would have thought the
Steelers would be using five receivers and be in the Super
Bowl?" says Hastings. "Nobody. Nobody at all."
July 31, 1996
The same number of people believed O'Donnell would be back in
black and gold after he gave away the Lombardi Trophy with two
of the worst-thrown balls in Super Bowl history. Stewart, who
was a quarterback at Colorado, wants the starting job (last
season Slash scored TDs rushing, receiving and passing the ball
and punted once for 41 yards), but as one Steelers coach said,
"He doesn't have a complete grasp of the game yet at this level.
But when he does, look out." Third-year signal-caller Jim Miller
will step in. Miller, who set a school record with a 62.9%
career completion rate at Michigan State, is a poised passer who
was selected ahead of the Redskins' Gus Frerotte in the 1994
draft. "We don't need a big-time quarterback to make this
offense go," says director of football operations Tom Donahoe.
Given the uncertainty of Morris's situation, the Steelers
acquired punishing rusher Jerome Bettis from St. Louis. The
former battering Ram will complement scatback Erric Pegram.
Colts All-Pro Will Wolford signed a four-year deal in March and
will fortify the left side of the line. "I would not have come
to Pittsburgh if I thought they couldn't get back to the Super
Bowl and win it," says Wolford.
With Pro Bowl-caliber players at every position, the defense
will continue to raise blitzing to an art form. "With the kind
of athletes we have, we can do an awful lot out there," says
defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "We've got guys who weigh 300
pounds backpedaling into coverage like ballerinas and backs
hitting like linebackers. It's something to watch."
Some of the action may require an R rating, though. Perennial
All-Pro Greg Lloyd specializes in launching quarterbacks out of
games (three) and dropping bombs (two) on live television. If
third-year player Jason Gildon can step in for Kevin Greene, who
signed with Carolina, then the linebacker group will remain the
most talented in the league. After missing most of the '95
season with an ACL tear, cornerback Woodson is now at full
strength and is joined in the backfield by Willie Williams and
Carnell Lake, who returns to safety after filling in at corner.
Ends Ray Seals and Brentson Buckner are one reason the Steelers
allowed just 82.6 yards rushing per game in 1995. Seals has
spent the last two off-seasons at the Duke University Diet and
Fitness Center watching his waistline shrink. On the field he
beefed up his sack total to a career-high 81/2 last year.
Somebody better make sure Seals stays out of Laurie Gailey's
kitchen during the holidays.
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 115.8 (12) 244.8 (8) 360.6 (6)
DEFENSE 82.6 (2) 202.5 (6) 285.1 (3)
Hit Hard, Win Big
The Steelers' defense tied for the league lead last season in
forcing fumbles on sacks. Note the contrast in won-lost records
between teams that finished near the top of the NFL in this
category and those that finished near the bottom.
Most Opponents' Fumbles Fewest Opponents' Fumbles
on Sacks on Sacks
Steelers 11 11-5 Buccaneers 3 7-9
Lions 11 10-6 Oilers 3 7-9
Bears 11 9-7 Seahawks 3 8-8
Eagles 10 10-6 Jets 4 3-13
Vikings 9 8-8 Patriots 4 6-10
Chiefs 8 13-3 Panthers 4 7-9
Raiders 8 8-8 Chargers 4 9-7
Colts 4 9-7
PLAYER TO WATCH
Last year wide receiver Charles Johnson was fitted with contacts
to correct his 20/50 vision. But the 1994 first-round pick
continued to squint his way through games when he repeatedly
dropped the lenses in the sink. After he jumped to catch a pass
against the Jaguars on Oct. 8 and was hit by the ball square in
the stomach, Johnson finally asked the Steelers' trainers for
help in learning how to put in his contacts. The results were
crystal clear: 38 receptions for 432 yards.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Bill Cowher
QB Jim Miller 56 att. 32 comp. 57.1%
397 yds. 2 TDs 5 int. 53.9 rtg.
RB Jerome Bettis[*] 183 att. 637 yds. 3 TDs
FB Tim Lester 5 att. 9 yds. 1 TD
TE Mark Bruener 26 rec. 238 yds. 3 TDs
WR Yancey Thigpen 85 rec. 1,307 yds. 5 TDs
WR Charles Johnson 38 rec. 432 yds. 0 TDs
WR Ernie Mills 39 rec. 679 yds. 8 TDs
LT John Jackson 6'6" 297 lbs.
LG Will Wolford[*] 6'5" 300 lbs.
C Dermontti Dawson 6'2" 286 lbs.
RG Brenden Stai 6'4" 307 lbs.
RT Justin Strzelczyk 6'6" 302 lbs.
PK Norm Johnson 39/39 XPs 34/41 FGs
LE Brentson Buckner 3 sacks 1 fum. rec.
NT Joel Steed 1 sack 0 fum. rec.
RE Ray Seals 8 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
OLB Jason Gildon 3 sacks 0 int.
ILB Levon Kirkland 1 sack 0 int.
ILB Chad Brown 5 1/2 sacks 0 int.
OLB Greg Lloyd 6 1/2 sacks 3 int.
CB Willie Williams 7 int. 0 sacks
SS Carnell Lake 1 int. 1 1/2 sacks
FS Darren Perry 4 int. 0 sacks
CB Rod Woodson 0 int. 0 sacks
P Rohn Stark 59 punts 40.1 avg.
PR Andre Hastings 48 ret. 9.9 avg.
KR Ernie Mills 54 ret. 24.2 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)