Steelers are back in patchwork mode Injuries: With key players hurt in the season opener, Pittsburgh is feeling like last year is repeating itself.

September 05, 1996|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

First, a sturdy offensive lineman left for free-agent riches. Later, a burly back was sent packing before training camp. Then, in the season opener, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a defensive All-Pro for the season to a knee injury and went through three quarterbacks.

And that team wound up playing in Super Bowl XXX.

Yes, that was the Steelers last season.

Been there. Done that.

Doing it again. Free-agent guard Duval Love, who left after 1994, was followed out the door this past off-season by free agent tackle Leon Searcy. The role of troubling halfback Barry Foster was played this past summer by legally troubled halfback Bam Morris.

In 1995 there was the season-opening injury to cornerback Rod Woodson in the same game that Neil O'Donnell and Mike Tomczak were hurt and Jim Miller made his NFL debut. That was outdone Sunday by a season-opening injury to Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Lloyd, injuries to two other regular linebackers and a game in which three quarterbacks got nowhere.

So patchwork Pittsburgh keeps plugging the holes, keeps aiming for the final Sunday in January.

"Lots of teams around the league go through this," said director of football operations Tom Donahoe. (though only Dallas comes to mind). "The ones that respond to it are the ones that are still around in the postseason. The ones that aren't responding. . . ."

. . . . Aren't like this one, patching and plugging and readying for the Ravens on Sunday at Three Rivers Stadium.

Still, the difference is numbing. Half the Steelers' starters in the opener at Jacksonville -- 12 of 24, counting kickers -- were not starters against Dallas in Super Bowl XXX last January. Six of those Super Bowl starters are no longer with the team. Another, sackmeister Ray Seals, was lost before the season because of rotator-cuff surgery. Two more, defensive end Brentson Buckner and guard Brenden Stai, were recovering from preseason maladies.

Then, at Jacksonville, Lloyd ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee, opposite-side linebackers Jason Gildon and Steve Conley were lost for two games with sprained knees, and the Steelers were remodeling again.

Eric Ravotti, scheduled to start in the place of the Gildon/Conley tandem, owns one previous NFL start. Chad Brown, the steady insider, will make his first NFL start Sunday at outside linebacker. Jerry Olsavsky, playing on a reconstructed knee that rendered him a part-time college coach 18 months ago, starts inside in place of Brown.

And most people think the offense is worse off.

Pro Bowl receiver Yancey Thigpen missed the opener with assorted injuries, and big-play man Ernie Mills remains about five weeks from returning because of a knee injury suffered in the Super Bowl.

The line? Free agent Will Wolford at left guard replaced the retired Tom Newberry and the ankle injury to Stai, the right guard, caused Justin Strzelczyk (who replaced Searcy) to move from right tackle, where free agent Bernard Dafney took his place Sunday but may not do that this weekend.

Got all that? Well, yesterday Wolford was briefly hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat, a previously diagnosed condition, but the team said he would play Sunday.

Now, on to quarterback.

With Neil O'Donnell with the New York Jets via free agency, starter Miller and backup Kordell "Slash" Stewart spent only that Jacksonville game atop the depth chart. Then coach Bill Cowher chose to start veteran Mike Tomczak against the Ravens on Sunday and return Stewart to both No. 3 quarterback and his 1995 role as receiver/quarterback/halfback/whatever.

"With the young players we have to go with because of the injuries on both sides of the ball, Tomczak's experience factor will give us stability at a time when we need it," Cowher said. "We are not a real healthy team right now. That is a fact."

Remember, Woodson's loss a year ago caused sufficient panic, leaving the defense without a member of the NFL's 75-year all-time team. The Steelers went through two right cornerbacks last season before moving All-Pro Carnell Lake from safety. "I'm not moving to linebacker," Lake said kiddingly this week. "They're going to get [departed free-agent linebacker] Kevin Greene before they move me.

"When you have one of your premier players go down, a team leader, it's tough," Lake added more seriously, speaking of Lloyd. "Like when Rod went down last year. It's going to take an extra special effort."

Woodson, admittedly rusty in the 24-9 loss to Jacksonville, his first full game in 20 months, figures this bunch can recover.

"We've got a lot of talent on this team," Woodson said. "We've got to overcome this. We've got to make some moves this week. Both sides of the ball."

"I think it's fortunate -- not like last year, when we lost a couple guys -- that we have some depth," Cowher added. "You're not bringing somebody off the street who has to learn on the go."

So maybe Cowher and Donahoe knew what they were doing when they started the season with 10 linebackers. Now there are seven.

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