Division Rivals

September 05, 2002|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN STAFF

Pittsburgh Steelers

PLAXICO BURRESS, WR

To ensure NFL defenses don't figure out his game, wide receiver Plaxico Burress used the preseason for modifications. For Burress, the focus shifted from running and jumping to reading and cutting.

"Teams are not going to let me run down the field and jump up and make plays all day long," Burress told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I want to become a complete receiver. I don't think there's a lot out there that I can't run. If I got to go in and take a 5-yard slant and take it 20 yards, that's what I'm going to do."

A look back at the Steelers' upset home loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC title game brought about the change in Burress.

Patriots cornerbacks Otis Smith and Ty Law jammed Burress at the line of scrimmage, then jumped outside and headed downfield. Burress, in his quest to make a big play, shunned inside routes or curls and instead ran with the cornerbacks right into double coverage.

"They were giving me everything inside and taking everything from me deep and outside," said the 6-foot-5, 228-pound Burress.

Consequently, Burress' longest catch was for 16 yards, a bitter way to end a breakout season in which he caught 66 passes for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns.

Burress averaged 15.3 yards a catch, often using his deceptive speed to get down the sidelines against defenders and his height to outjump them for the ball.

If Burress becomes a complete receiver this season and quarterback Kordell Stewart does not regress, the Steelers are likely to stay atop the AFC.

Steelers vs. Ravens

Key for Ravens: Go for the big play. They will not be able to drive the ball consistently against the Steelers' defense, so the best bet would be to attack the corners. Defensively, the Ravens need to continue to force teams to settle for field goals, as they did last season.

Biggest headache: WR Plaxico Burress. He caught 17 passes for 304 yards and three TDs in three meetings last season. His 32-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter of the playoff game ended any notion of a Ravens comeback and put Pittsburgh up 17.

Footnote: The Steelers had the NFL's No. 3 offense last season under new coordinator Mike Mularkey. Pittsburgh had a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back for the first time in team history.

Brian Billick's impression: "Best team in the AFC in my opinion, by far. Maybe the best team in football right now."

Cincinnati Bengals

GUS FREROTTE, QB

In a quarterback competition that drew a collective yawn from NFL observers, nine-year veteran Gus Frerotte came out on top and will lead the Cincinnati Bengals this season. Frerotte beat out last year's starter, Jon Kitna, after three preseason games. While neither quarterback's play is particularly attractive, the Bengals feel they have someone who can revive a passing game that has been dormant since Jeff Blake ran the show in the mid-1990s.

"I feel like my career has gone in all kinds of directions, but I look at people like Rich Gannon and Vinny Testaverde, other quarterbacks who have moved on and found a home ... and I feel I can do that," Frerotte, playing with his fourth team in five years, told The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.

Frerotte, 31, signed as an unrestricted free agent in May after spending two seasons as a backup in Denver. He will begin the season as a starter for the first time since 1998, when he was with the Washington Redskins, and he will be the Bengals' fifth different opening starter in five years.

"The bottom line here is not numbers," Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau said. "I've looked at quarterbacks for over 40 years, and my feeling is, for what we're going to do on offense, Gus is the guy for the Cincinnati Bengals.

"He has a strong arm, is mobile and has won big games."

The Bengals have a strong defense led by Takeo Spikes that continues to get better each year, a Pro Bowl running back in Corey Dillon and three up-and-coming receivers in Peter Warrick, Ron Dugans and Chad Johnson.

With such talent, the Bengals might need Frerotte to just be efficient, not spectacular, to reach the playoffs.

Bengals vs. Ravens

Key for Ravens: The Ravens usually contain RB Corey Dillon. They will have to do so again this season and force QB Gus Frerotte to win the game.

Biggest headache: DE Reinard Wilson. Although he lost his job to Justin Smith last year, Wilson recorded 3 1/2 sacks in two games against the Ravens.

Footnote: The Bengals beat three of the final four playoff teams in the AFC last season (Ravens, Pittsburgh and New England).

Brian Billick's impression: "I think Cincinnati is going to be a very good football team. They are very athletic. If Frerotte can give them some consistency and stability at quarterback, with the running back they have, they can definitely be a playoff-caliber team."

Cleveland Browns

WILLIAM GREEN, RB

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