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3 Pittsburgh Steelers If an unsettled offensive line doesn't get its act together, a second consecutive nonplayoff season could be in the offing for coach Bill Cowher and Co.

Aug. 30, 1999
Aug. 30, 1999

Table of Contents
Aug. 30, 1999

1999 NFL Preview

3 Pittsburgh Steelers If an unsettled offensive line doesn't get its act together, a second consecutive nonplayoff season could be in the offing for coach Bill Cowher and Co.

Most of the talk during the first few days of Steelers training
camp focused on how the relationship between quarterback Kordell
Stewart and new offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride would play
out. But Tom Donahoe, Pittsburgh's director of football
operations, was monitoring perhaps the most critical aspect of
the Steelers' struggling offense--the line. To improve an attack
that ranked among the league's worst in total and passing yards,
and scoring, Donahoe brought 14 offensive linemen to camp, the
most ever during his seven-year tenure. After only two days of
practice, however, he was down to 10. "That's the kind of thing
that makes you old before your time," Donahoe says. "We wanted
to improve the line because, frankly, if you can't block people,
it doesn't really matter what your skill players can do."

This is an article from the Aug. 30, 1999 issue Original Layout

The bizarre 48 hours began with the Steelers' first conditioning
test. Tackle Jamain Stephens, the Steelers' first-round pick in
1996, reported to camp some 30 pounds overweight and was unable
to run the required 14 40-yards sprints. Stephens, who had been
a disappointment in his first three seasons, admitted that he
hadn't done much training in the weeks leading up to camp, and
that night he was released. It was a gutty move by coach Bill
Cowher because the player whom Stephens was expected to replace
at right tackle, Justin Strzelczyk, had reinjured his surgically
repaired right knee in March and is expected to miss the entire
season. Enter 6'8", 322-pound Outland Trophy winner Kris Farris,
Pittsburgh's third-round pick last spring, from UCLA. He arrived
at camp complaining about a sore ankle, and X-rays revealed he
had a stress fracture in his right foot. He could end up on
injured reserve.

Then 12th-year center Dermontti Dawson, the best player at his
position in the game, went down with a sprained left knee and
was expected to miss up to four weeks. Losing Dawson, who has
started every game since 1989, would be a blow to the Steelers.
"It would be like Colorado losing the Hoover Dam," says backup
center Jim Sweeney. Sweeney's geography needs a bit of work, but
his point is well taken. The 6'2", 292-pound Dawson makes all
the line calls, rarely needs help blocking a premier defensive
lineman and even pulls to lead the way for running back Jerome
Bettis. "Because of Dermontti, our offense can do things other
teams can't dream of," says Donahoe.

Donahoe breathed a sigh of relief when Dawson returned to
practice the following day for some light duty, running and
making snaps. Dawson rushed his return in part because he
realized how much work the line needs to put in to learn
Gilbride's offense. Pittsburgh's front five possesses Steel City
work habits, an aggressive nature and a cohesiveness and an
intelligence that begin with Dawson. "You can look at Kordell or
Jerome, but the truth is, the line didn't play up to par last
year," says Dawson. "We didn't play well enough for the rest of
the offense to get the job done. When the line struggles, it has
kind of a snowball effect on the rest of the team."

Playing behind that line, Stewart threw 18 interceptions and was
sacked 33 times. The Steelers ran for only eight touchdowns,
which tied for their lowest total in a nonstrike season. Bettis
scored just three times and averaged 3.8 yards per carry--both
lows for him since coming to Pittsburgh in 1996. The Steelers
finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in
Cowher's seven seasons.

Dawson was held out of Pittsburgh's first two exhibition games
as a precautionary measure, but he'll make his 165th consecutive
start in the regular-season opener. He'll be flanked by Alan
Faneca, the Steelers' first-round pick in 1998, and fifth-year
player Brenden Stai. While Pittsburgh appears to be solid up the
middle, the tackle spots are another story. On the left side,
Donahoe signed free agent Wayne Gandy from the Rams to replace
the retired Will Wolford. At right tackle, second-year man Chris
Conrad has the inside track over Anthony Brown, late of the
Bengals.

Gilbride's running offense is similar to the one the Steelers
employed last year. On pass plays, however, linemen will be
required to hold their blocks longer; Pittsburgh averaged an
AFC-low 10.15 yards per completion last year, so Gilbride wants
Stewart to push the ball downfield while using tight end Mark
Bruener more as a receiver than as a blocker. "The offense may
be getting more complicated, but for us it's simple," says
Brown. "Our only instruction has been to be physical. We want to
keep thinking to a minimum and get back to being the physical,
dominant line the Steelers are known for. Just beat your man.
That's it. The last thing our offensive linemen want to do is
think."

Or have another season like Pittsburgh's in 1998.

--D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Bus stop The punishing Bettis is trying to bounce back from his least productive season since coming to the Steelers in 1996.COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN

SCHEDULE

Sept. 12 at Cleveland
19 at Baltimore
26 SEATTLE
Oct. 3 JACKSONVILLE
10 at Buffalo
17 at Cincinnati
25 ATLANTA (Mon.)
31 Open date
Nov. 7 at San Francisco
14 CLEVELAND
21 at Tennessee
28 CINCINNATI
Dec. 2 at Jacksonville (Thurs.)
12 BALTIMORE
18 at Kansas City (Sat.)
26 CAROLINA
Jan. 2 TENNESSEE

FAST FACTS

1998 Record 7-9 (3rd in AFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 7/29/25; defense 13/18/12

1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 17 (tie) Opponents' 1998
winning percentage: .496 Games against playoff teams: 5

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Kordell Stewart started every game for the Steelers last year and
had a final passer rating of 62.9. Since the NFL expanded its
schedule to 16 games in 1978, only six quarterbacks have produced
a lower rating in a season in which they started every game. The
good news for Stewart and the Steelers: All but one of those six
bettered his rating the next year.

Player, team Season The next season
Att. Comp. Yds. TDs Int. Rtg. W-L-T GS Rtg.

Vince Evans, Bears 1981
436 195 2,354 11 20 51.1 6-10 0 16.8

Doug Williams, Buccaneers 1979
397 166 2,448 18 24 52.5 10-6 16 69.9

David Whitehurst, Packers 1978
328 168 2,093 10 17 59.9 8-7-1 13 64.5

Trent Dilfer, Buccaneers 1995
415 224 2,774 4 18 60.1 7-9 16 64.8

Dave Brown, Giants 1996
398 214 2,412 12 20 61.3 6-10 6 71.1

Richard Todd, Jets 1980
479 264 3,329 17 30 62.7 4-12 16 81.8

Kordell Stewart, Steelers 1998
458 252 2,560 11 18 62.9 7-9 ? ?

PLAYER TO WATCH

The 1996 draft was almost half over by the time Florida A&M
linebacker Earl Holmes received a call from Steelers coach Bill
Cowher congratulating him on being selected by Pittsburgh in the
fourth round. "No," replied Holmes, "congratulations to you for
selecting the best linebacker in the draft." In '97 Holmes
finished second among the Steelers with 96 tackles, and last year
he had 80 stops and 18 quarterback pressures. Overshadowed by Pro
Bowl inside linebacker Levon Kirkland, Holmes is one of the AFC's
most underrated players. He not only can stuff the run but can
also chase the ball from sideline to sideline.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS

Coach: Bill Cowher
Eighth season with Steelers (71-41 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Kordell Stewart 87
458 att. 252 comp. 55.0% 2,560 yds. 11 TDs 18 int. 62.9 rtg.

RB Jerome Bettis 50
316 att. 1,185 yds. 3.8 avg. 16 rec. 90 yds. 5.6 avg. 3 TDs

RB Amos Zereoue (R)[1] 255
283 att. 1,462 yds. 5.2 avg. 23 rec. 184 yds. 8.0 avg. 14 TDs

FB Jon Witman 333
1 att. 2 yds. 2.0 avg. 13 rec. 74 yds. 5.7 avg. 0 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
[PVR]
WR Troy Edwards (R)[1]103 140 rec. 1,996 yds. 27 TDs
WR Courtney Hawkins 131 66 rec. 751 yds. 1 TD
WR Hines Ward 209 15 rec. 246 yds. 0 TDs
TE Mark Bruener 222 19 rec. 157 yds. 2 TDs
K Kris Brown (R)[1] 188 47/48 XPs 14/21 FGs 89 pts.
PR Courtney Hawkins 131 15 ret. 11.7 avg. 0 TDs
KR Will Blackwell 273 20 ret. 19.1 avg. 0 TDs
LT Wayne Gandy[1] 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Alan Faneca 6'4" 315 lbs. 16 games 12 starts
C Dermontti Dawson 6'2" 292 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Brenden Stai 6'4" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Chris Conrad 6'6" 310 lbs. 6 games 1 start

Defense

LE Nolan Harrison 19 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
NT Joel Steed 49 tackles 1 sack
RE Orpheus Roye 46 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
OLB Jason Gildon 54 tackles 11 sacks
ILB Levon Kirkland 117 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
ILB Earl Holmes 80 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Carlos Emmons 62 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
CB Chad Scott[2] 51 tackles 2 int.
SS Lee Flowers 101 tackles 1 int.
FS Travis Davis[1] 58 tackles 2 int.
CB Dewayne Washington 93 tackles 5 int.
P Josh Miller 81 punts 43.6 avg.

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)
[2]1997 statistics