No hands of Steel Receiving rebirth: Pittsburgh's recast corps of pass catchers has turned its bobbling image of the past into a post pattern of efficiency.

January 27, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- They started out as a group of misfits.

One had a reputation for dropping balls, and the other caught only three passes a year ago. Another one was the subject of trade rumors, and the fourth is a top special teams performer. The fifth is the most celebrated of the group, a rookie who is really a quarterback.

And this is the bunch team owner Dan Rooney called the best in Pittsburgh Steelers' history?

John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, meet Yancey Thigpen, Andre Hastings, Ernie Mills, Kordell Stewart and Corey Holliday, the starters in Pittsburgh's famed four- and five-receiver sets.

"I think Mr. Rooney was talking about deeper talent, but there are always comparisons with those guys. We never compare ourselves with them," said Thigpen. "They were from a different era. We're trying to get our own identity right now. Maybe one day, we'll get a nickname."

The Steelers have gotten the attention of the Dallas Cowboys, whom they meet tomorrow in Super Bowl XXX.

"It's an entirely different look from when we played them in 1994," said Dallas cornerback Larry Brown. "Before, all we had to do was concentrate on the run. They still have the strong rushing attack, but the offense is more balanced. These guys can play."

That wasn't always the consensus. When the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs during the past three years, quarterback Neil O'Donnell and the receivers were criticized heavily.

The Steelers were labeled one-dimensional. Critics said O'Donnell couldn't throw deep, and when he did, his receivers couldn't catch. Even the receivers themselves admitted to backbiting over playing time.

O'Donnell and Thigpen drew the most criticism.

"We've always gotten a bad rap for having dropped passes, or not being productive," said Thigpen. "But the receivers just weren't involved enough in the offense. If they threw me three passes and I dropped two, I would get booed. But if I were in an offense where I had 10 passes thrown to me, caught seven and scored two touchdowns, no one would remember the three I dropped.

"I've always had confidence in my ability," Thigpen added. "The difference is we're now throwing the ball all over the place."

The philosophy changed in the off-season with the departures of receiver Dwight Stone, tight end Eric Green and running back Barry Foster. Steelers coach Bill Cowher huddled with offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, and "Air Erhardt" was born.

But the game plan didn't take shape until the Steelers were 3-4, and kept falling behind in games.

"Part of the four- and five-receiver package came out of necessity," said Mills. "Teams just couldn't stop us. Then we started to get more plays with all of us in. I said 'Guys, let's make this thing work so we all get some playing time.' "

It has all come together. Thigpen is Mr. Clutch, and led the team in receptions with 85 for 1,307 yards. Hastings (48 receptions, 502 yards) is the third-down specialist who usually lines up in the backfield, and runs the short routes over the middle. Mills is the team's deep threat with 39 receptions and a 17.4 average.

Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be traded during training camp.

"For a while, the rumors seemed to be coming every day," said Mills, whom Erhardt calls the most underrated guy in the NFL. "I'm the type of person who doesn't normally react until it happens. But it got so bad that even the coaches came over and told me not to worry about it."

Hastings didn't have to worry about a trade, but playing time -- aside from his duties as punt returner -- was a concern before the season.

"Everybody wants to be in there more. Everybody wants to catch balls," said Hastings, who averaged 9.9 yards on 48 punt returns. "What it comes down to is that you have to know your role."

Stewart doesn't exactly know his. The former quarterback at the University of Colorado has played quarterback, halfback, receiver and punter, but he also has caught 14 passes for 235 yards. He puts pressure on defenses because of his versatility.

Stewart worked his way into the lineup because of injuries to Charles Johnson and Johnnie Barnes. Holliday, who had his first catch in the AFC championship game two weeks ago, also has played because of the injuries.

"Deep down inside, we all think we're the best receiver," said Hastings. "But that's not important. We've put the ego thing behind us. There's not a selfish guy out there. We spend every Thursday evening together just to stay cool with one another."

That's not the Steelers' job on the field. They want to pressure the defense. The Washington Redskins troubled the Cowboys with three- and four-receiver sets this season, and swept the two-game series.

Pittsburgh probably will use the formation on first downs tomorrow to create mismatches with Dallas' linebackers. The drawback to using five receivers is that an offense becomes vulnerable to the blitz.

"You have to know when it's coming, and what to do with it," said Erhardt. "We can do a lot of things with it by moving people. We can use it anytime we want with the people we have. It has become a luxury."

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