Sept. 01, 1997
Sept. 01, 1997

Table of Contents
Sept. 1, 1997

NFL 97


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.

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 1997 issue Original Layout

"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
at him."

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
tee off."

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.