Steelers returning to rushing roots

ON THE NFL

September 05, 2004|By KEN MURRAY

Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to win by passing. Quarterback Tommy Maddox threw a franchise-record 519 times, but the team won just six games.

Coach Bill Cowher apparently won't make that mistake again.

The Steelers' just-completed preseason was devoted to reinforcing the core values the team has come to represent: tough, intimidating defense along with a punishing running presence. Cowher was more vocal and involved in his approach in training camp than many veterans can remember.

"He really knows what he wants to get done offensively and defensively," center Jeff Hartings said, "and he's preaching it to us and he's not going to change. I've noticed it in our meetings and in our game plans."

A big part of Cowher's focus is the running game. Free-agent running back Duce Staley was signed to restore the run, and he fits the Steelers' prototype perfectly. But the bigger issue is whether a team can win with a rushing profile when most everyone else in the league is throwing like crazy.

"I don't think this league is that different than it was two or three years ago when we won 13 games [in 2001] and I thought we were a dominant running team at that time," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think we're blessed because we have good receivers, so I think we have the ability to throw the ball. But I still believe you can win in this league running the football."

Still, this is today's reality: The past two Super Bowl champs (New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) both ranked 27th in rushing offense. The last time a run-dominated offense won the Super Bowl was in 2000, when the Ravens did it.

Which is why the drafting of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looms so large for the Steelers.

Crying time

The arrival of nickel back Deion Sanders in Baltimore last week definitely caught the attention of Jeff Garcia, the Cleveland Browns' new quarterback. Garcia spent the week complaining that he hadn't received enough playing time in the first three preseason games to develop a rhythm in his new offense or chemistry with his receivers.

Now, on opening day, he'll face a Ravens team that had eight Pro Bowl players a year ago and added one of the NFL's all-time great cornerbacks in Sanders.

"You're already preparing to play one of the best defenses in the league, if not the best," Garcia said. "To add another quality player in that mix ... what can you say? It's going to be the ultimate challenge."

Learning fast

New Orleans Saints coaches are hinting that rookie defensive end Will Smith is their best defensive player. The team has shuffled him between right and left end in its dime and nickel packages, and unveiled a 3-4 alignment in which the 18th pick in the draft played outside linebacker. The Saints' starting ends are Darren Howard and Charles Grant.

"Will already is the consummate player," defensive line coach John Pease said. "He looks like a five-year veteran. Right now, he's probably where most normal guys are at the end of their first year."

Down and out

The Denver Broncos lost running back Mike Anderson in the final two minutes of their third preseason game when he had to play on the punt cover team because three other players were unavailable. Anderson suffered a severe groin injury trying to get downfield and is out for the season.

Anderson was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 -- the same year the Ravens' Jamal Lewis came out -- but became a fullback two years ago with the arrival of Clinton Portis in Denver.

Because of depth at running back, the Broncos considered trading Anderson this summer. Now they can't. And at 31, with a salary cap figure of $2.4 million in 2005, it's doubtful he'll be back next season.

Audibles

The Chicago Bears' run of hamstring injuries claimed another victim when the team lost cornerback and punt returner R.W. McQuarters for the opener against Detroit. His was the 11th hamstring injury in coach Lovie Smith's first camp. ... New York Jets defensive end Bryan Thomas, a first-round pick in 2002, will be moved inside to tackle when he returns from a strained hamstring. Thomas has 1 1/2 sacks in 31 games. ... The Kansas City Chiefs are short on healthy wide receivers. Johnnie Morton missed all preseason with an Achilles' tendon injury and Marc Boerigter is done for the year with a knee injury. That means 5-foot-8 Dante Hall, their extraordinary punt and kick returner, will start opposite Eddie Kennison. ... The Green Bay Packers like former Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien enough to put him on their practice squad after today's cuts go through. They rate him as a better player than Henry Burris, who was their No. 3 quarterback in 2000 and 2001. ... After the Jacksonville Jaguars cut defensive end Hugh Douglas, it left them with five players at the position who combined for one sack last year.

Final word

St. Louis coach Mike Martz wasn't worried when the Arizona Cardinals picked up linebacker Justin Smith and receiver Derek McCoy shortly after the Rams cut them. Martz was certain no secrets would be disclosed before the Cardinals visit St. Louis in the opener.

"One of the reasons they were cut is they couldn't figure out what we were doing," Martz said. "I wish I had a tape of some of those conversations [with Arizona coach Dennis Green]. I think they'd be very interesting. They'd thoroughly confuse him."

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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