The crowds of giddy fans that gathered at the Steelers' training
camp in Latrobe, Pa., should have reminded Kordell Stewart of
kinder, gentler days. As he signed autographs one breezy
afternoon last month, there was a sense that the fans hadn't
given up on him, that the booing he heard last season might have
been nothing more than a bad dream. Yet how long Stewart, who's
heading into his fourth season as Pittsburgh's quarterback,
enjoys such encouragement remains to be seen.
In a season during which several key Steelers--including coach
Bill Cowher and erstwhile All-Pro running back Jerome
Bettis--will be heavily scrutinized, no one will spend more time
under the microscope than Stewart. Since leading Pittsburgh to
the AFC Championship Game in 1997, he has endured two abysmal
seasons. He even lost his starting job to Mike Tomczak for the
final five games of last year; Stewart, whose 64.9 passer rating
ranked last in the AFC in '99, finished the season at wideout,
his confidence shaken, his future cloudy.
There's a good possibility that he could again wind up catching
passes rather than throwing them. The Steelers signed former
Giants quarterback Kent Graham to back up Stewart--and maybe
supplant him. As offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says,
"Kordell has to reach a level where he plays consistently. If he
stumbles, we will make that change."
Teammates say that his woes last season hardened Stewart, a
sensitive leader accustomed to being loved in Pittsburgh.
Stewart denies that the ordeal scarred his psyche, saying his
struggles can be linked to the offense installed by Gilbride,
the Steelers' third offensive coordinator in as many years.
Gilbride's system calls for more reads of the defense than did
the schemes of his predecessor, Ray Sherman. The result was
indecision, inaccuracy and interceptions.
August 27, 2000
"Not understanding the offense is what got me to the point I was
at last year," Stewart says. "This year it's much better, not
because I have more confidence but because I understand better
what I'm doing."
To ease the burden on Stewart, Cowher added some sizable weapons
to the passing game. Pittsburgh drafted wide receivers Plaxico
Burress (6'5", 229 pounds) from Michigan State and Danny Farmer
(6'3", 217) from UCLA in the first and fourth rounds,
respectively. Second-year man Malcolm Johnson, a 6'5",
215-pounder, will also vie for playing time.
Bettis is among those most interested in how the air attack
develops, because, if successful, it will keep defenses from
crowding the line. He's in the last season of his contract, and
already there's talk that another subpar season--the Bus averaged
3.6 yards a carry and had only two 100-yard games in 1999--could
make him expendable. His backup, Richard Huntley, averaged 6.1
yards and had his contract extended in the off-season, further
fueling rumors of Bettis's demise. Whoever carries the ball has
to wonder about the state of the line, especially at right
tackle, where the Steelers hope that 6'5", 320-pound rookie
Marvel Smith, a second-round pick out of Arizona State, has the
athleticism worthy of his first name.
The line is also a concern on defense, where the Steelers allowed
4.4 yards a carry, Pittsburgh's highest average in 30 years.
Former Pro Bowl nosetackle Joel Steed retired, and the Steelers'
best lineman, end Orpheus Roye, signed with the Browns. Not long
ago Pittsburgh could lose such talent and still make a playoff
run. Not anymore.
"Even though a lot of people don't want to say it, we're
rebuilding," says center Dermontti Dawson, a 13-year veteran. "We
have so many new guys. We have talent but not the consistency. We
also don't have the swagger we used to."
In camp, Cowher emphasized the need to restore a feisty attitude.
There was more contact in practices. Scuffles became commonplace.
"We have to reestablish our edge," Cowher says. "We have to get
these guys acclimated to how we play football."
Stewart doesn't need a lesson in that. All he has to do is
rediscover how to run an offense. "I think our line will be
better, as will our running game and receivers, but our success
on offense will come down to how we play at quarterback,"
Sept. 3 BALTIMORE
10 Open date
17 at Cleveland
Oct. 1 at Jacksonville
8 at N.Y. Jets
29 at Baltimore
Nov. 5 at Tennessee
26 at Cincinnati
Dec. 3 OAKLAND
10 at N.Y. Giants
16 WASHINGTON (Sat.)
24 at San Diego
1999 Record 6-10 (4th in AFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 10/26/22; defense 26/4/11
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 15 (tie)
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .500
Games against playoff teams: 5
PLAYER TO WATCH
As a rookie last season, outside linebacker Joey Porter did his
best to quiet comparisons to former Pittsburgh standout Greg
Lloyd, who totaled 53 1/2 sacks with the Steelers from 1988 to
'97. Porter shares some traits with Lloyd--including an
explosive first step and tenacity--but he also wants to be known
as his own man. Once an H-back at Colorado State, Porter was
moved to defensive end in his senior year and had 15 sacks. He
was impressive in his first camp, getting four sacks in the
preseason, but veteran Carlos Emmons was entrenched as a
starter. However, Pittsburgh didn't re-sign Emmons, leaving
Porter, who in '99 had two sacks and recovered two fumbles, to
prove he can be a star.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Bill Cowher
Ninth season with Steelers (77-51 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Kordell Stewart 118 275 att. 160 comp. 58.2% 1,464 yds.
6 TDs 10 int. 64.9 rtg.
RB Jerome Bettis 59 299 att. 1,091 yds. 3.6 avg. 21 rec.
110 yds. 5.2 avg. 7 TDs
RB Richard Huntley 166 93 att. 567 yds. 6.1 avg. 27 rec.
253 yds. 9.4 avg. 8 TDs
FB Jon Witman 320 6 att. 18 yds. 3.0 avg. 12 rec.
106 yds. 8.8 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Troy Edwards 87 61 rec. 714 yds. 5 TDs
WR Plaxico Burress (R)105 66 rec. 1,142 yds. 12 TDs
WR Hines Ward 150 61 rec. 638 yds. 7 TDs
TE Mark Bruener 296 18 rec. 176 yds. 0 TDs
K Kris Brown 221 30/31 XPs 25/29 FGs 105 pts.
PR Troy Edwards 87 25 ret. 9.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Hank Poteat (R) 350 17 ret. 23.6 avg. 0 TDs
LT Wayne Gandy 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Alan Faneca 6'4" 315 lbs. 15 games 14 starts
C Dermontti Dawson 6'2" 292 lbs. 7 games 6 starts
RG Rich Tylski 6'5" 308 lbs. 10 games 8 starts
RT Marvel Smith (R) 6'5" 320 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LE Chris Sullivan 15 tackles 1 sack
NT Kimo von Oelhoffen 24 tackles 4 sacks
RE Kevin Henry 30 tackles 1 sack
OLB Jason Gildon 56 tackles 8 sacks
ILB Levon Kirkland 107 tackles 2 sacks
ILB Earl Holmes 114 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Joey Porter 25 tackles 2 sacks
CB Chad Scott 50 tackles 1 int.
SS Lee Flowers 78 tackles 5 sacks
FS Scott Shields 31 tackles 4 int.
CB Dewayne Washington 52 tackles 4 int.
P Josh Miller 84 punts 45.2 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Steelers
They spent the off-season trying to find some players for the
offensive line, but they won't be as good there as in years
past. They could have starters at tackle who haven't played much
and aren't really tough.... Their wideouts are young, and I
wonder about the talent there. If you have tremendous ability at
that position, you can run by people. Without that you have to
rely on smarts, and that's tough on rookies.... Jerome Bettis is
on the downside, but if he dedicated himself, he could have
another good year.... This will be a make-or-break season for
Kordell Stewart, but I'm not sure Kent Graham is a legitimate
starter.... Most of their pass rush will come from their outside
linebackers. They used to get something from their inside
linemen, but I don't think they have those kinds of players
anymore.... They've had trouble at corner. Chad Scott gets hurt
too much, and Dewayne Washington isn't the answer. They'll
probably struggle at safety, too, where they've lost some Pro
Bowl-caliber guys over the years.