Steelers rank up there with great teams of the last 20 years
Posted: Monday November 8, 2004 10:03AM; Updated: Thursday November 11, 2004 2:28PM
PITTSBURGH -- As I sat in the back row of the Heinz Field press box on Sunday afternoon, watching the contest (and I use that word loosely) between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia I wondered: Since I've been covering football, how many teams have I seen that looked as unbeatable at one point during a season as the Steelers look right now?
I started on the NFL beat in 1984, so I have a two-decade window. I jotted down in the margin of my white legal pad as I kept play-by-play of Steelers 27, Eagles 3:
1. The '85 Bears.
2. The '89 49ers.
3. The '90 Bills. (They lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl, but that Buffalo team beat its first two playoff foes by about a million to 3. I thought there was no way on God's green earth the Giants would win that game after Buffalo stomped the Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship Game.)
4. The Cowboys at two or three points from '92 to '95.
5. Maybe -- and I underscore maybe -- the 2000 Ravens, because playing against that defense late in the season made the game a hopeless cause unless the Baltimore offense turned it over a bunch.
I think that's it. The Bears, many of you will recall, had the best defense between the mid-'70s Steelers and the 2000 Ravens. And Walter Payton made the team peerless, though for far too short a period.
I covered the Giants every day for four mostly good seasons, but never got the feeling they were unbeatable, as I did watching the Steelers in the first quarter against Philly, as the Steelers rendered the 7-0 team on the other side of the field absolutely hopeless.
Once I got to Sports Illustrated in 1989, I was mesmerized by the 49ers. I remember a game in Philadelphia against a great Eagles team with Reggie White and Jerome Brown and Seth Joyner and Andre Waters. The Vet crowd screaming for blood, and the Eagles up by double-digits in the second half. Joe Montana surgically took apart Philadelphia with four second-half touchdown passes. (One of my first magazine covers. "Joltin' Joe,'' it blared.) What a team the Bills had the next year, and it might have been immortal had a field goal try at the gun not gone 24 inches wide.
JimmyJohnson's Cowboys made some very good teams feel hopeless. As did Baltimore in 2000. Absolutely suffocating. And suffocated is how the Eagles must have felt in the first quarter and beyond of the showdown at Heinz. The Steelers built a 21-0 lead, and the Pittsburgh defense began coming from everywhere. I love the Steelers' blitz scheme. One one series, they blitzed one on first down, two on second and three on third. Symmetry. "The way we blitz,'' said cornerback Willie Williams, "even the guys on the field have no idea who's going till the call comes in. If we don't have an idea, how can the offense?'' At one point during the rout, Donovan McNabb lit into his offensive linemen in the huddle after getting hit hard a couple of times. He just couldn't get into a rhythm. Same thing happened to Patriots QB Tom Brady last week. On half of their pass drops, it seemed Brady and McNabb didn't have time to set and survey the field. The great thing about the Pittsburgh zone blitz is the element of surprise.
Conversely, there are no surprises in the Steelers running game. The Giants used to have four or five running plays and just kept pounding the same ones over and over again. I'm sure the Steelers don't have a lot more base running plays. When you run the ball 105 times in two weeks, it's a sign that your offensive line is downright stupendous and the guys on the other side of the field are getting manhandled, not tricked.
It'll be interesting to see how the Steelers handle prosperity. Mentally, how does a team respond when, on tape, it can see itself whacking the two best teams in football like rented mules? Does it keep the edge they need to be great? We'll see as the Steelers travel to Cleveland and Cincinnati the next two weeks. In rivalry games such as these, weird things happen. My money's on the Steelers to keep their heads on straight, win home field and face New England in a 2001 AFC Championship Game rematch.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. Pittsburgh (7-1). With 14- and 24-point wins over the best two teams in football, this team is conjuring visions of the old Steelers, the ones who were honored at halftime yesterday. The '79 alums were back in town to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl Championship. The crowd went nuts for them at halftime. The crowd went nuttier in the fourth quarter as today's heroes manhandled McNabb.
2. New England (7-1). The 40-22 win over St. Louis is a new chapter in the Belichick/Pioli/Weis/Crennel/Seely brilliance book. Imagine going into Rams-ville and conquering the obstacles the Pats did. Midway through the first quarter, because of injuries, the starting cornerbacks were Randall Gay, who started one game in college last year, and Earthwind Moreland, who I think last played an NFL snap in 2001. The nickel back was Troy Brown. That's right, the wide receiver. Don Davis, a linebacker and special-teamer, played a good chunk of the game at safety. And Marc Bulger did some damage (23-33, 285 yards), but not enough to win this game. Bill Belichick and his offensive, defensive and special-teams men -- Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Brad Seely -- then had the gumption to call a touchdown pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel and a fake field goal when the kicker threw a touchdown pass. All I can say is this: I want to be at the playoff game when New England and Pittsburgh meet. That will be a great, great football game. I'm just hoping it happens.
3. Philadelphia (7-1). Told many Iggles fans after the game: Don't go jumping off the Walt Whitman when you get home. Nobody's beating the Stillers right now.
4. New York Jets (6-2). Mulligan.
5. San Diego (6-3). How can you be really sure about the Bolt Boys, coming off home wins over Oakland and New Orleans? All I know is they look like the best team in the AFC West now. They've scored 42 and 43 points the last two Sundays.
6. New York Giants (5-3). Wins at Dallas, Minnesota, Green Bay. Losses at home to Detroit and Chicago. Welcome to NFL 2004.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
7. Green Bay (4-4). I bet $100 that, on his bye Sunday, Brett Favre watched more of the Discovery Channel than the NFL.
8. Indianapolis (4-3). Any minute now, I expect those defensive changes the Colts made in the offseason to start working. Like tonight. And it's time for the big defensive stalwart, Dwight Freeney, to come through with four hits on Daunte Culpepper.
9. Jacksonville (5-3). But that may be revised based on the medical report ByronLeftwich gets today.
10. Atlanta (6-2). The Falcons taught Mike Vick the shotgun during the bye week, and they'll continue to work on it this week. That makes this team better. Maybe significantly better.
11. Denver (6-3). None of us -- not me, you or Mike Shanahan -- know if JakePlummer is going to throw three TDs or three picks on a given Sunday. That hurts.
12. Baltimore (5-3). Revenge on the Browns. Somewhere, Art Modell is smiling.
13. Minnesota (5-2). Put your track shoes on, Antoine Winfield.
14. Seattle (5-3). Two-game win streak makes Mike Holmgren 46-44 in six years at Team Espresso's helm.
15. Kansas City (3-5). I can't stomach losing at Tampa either. But let's face it. Of all the teams ranked after the 14 aforementioned, what team would you most fear facing right now? Right. The Chiefs.
THE AWARDS SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
Pittsburgh offensive linemen Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross, who, for the second straight week, dominated arguably the best team in football. Now there's no mistaking the best team in football. It's Pittsburgh, and it's largely because these five horses led the way to 221 and 252 rushing yards, respectively, to beat the Pats and Eagles in the span of eight days. One ridiculously dominating performance is one thing. Two? Against the best teams, other than the Steelers, this league has to offer is quite another. Great job, men.
Defensive Player of the Week
New England WR Troy Brown. This is not a misprint. When Asante Samuel went out with a bum shoulder in the first quarter at St. Louis, Brown was pressed into duty -- because of additional injuries to Samuel and starters Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. Lo and behold, there was Brown on the highlights last night, deflecting a second-half pass. And there was Brown, catching a touchdown pass from the kicker. Weird, clutch, valuable game. Three catches and a touchdown. Three tackles and a pass defensed.
Special Teams Player of the Week
New England K Adam Vinatieri. Four field goals in four tries. A touchdown pass on a lovely fake field goal to Troy Brown. Has a kicker had a better, or more valuable, day in the NFL this year?
Coach of the Week
Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. I could have given it to offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who called an equally masterly game. But LeBeau, whose zone blitz has been a phenomenal success with the very fast Pittsburgh defense, has been an absolute maestro in calling the right blitz at the right time and totally frustrating two of the smartest quarterbacks in the game, Brady and McNabb, in the last two weeks. "Hey, I've got great players now,'' he cautioned me last night. OK. Give them credit too. They deserve it. But the chess-playing that LeBeau did in holding New England and Philly to 23 points in eight quarters was something to see.
FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
My wife's cousin, Marilou Welty, lives in Bridgeville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and she and husband Dave are big Steelers fans. (Who here isn't?) Marilou and Dave have a pale yellow and orange cockatiel named Cece. The Weltys have taught Cece, a fine whistler, some songs, like The Andy Griffith Show theme and the Steelers fight song. Beginning in 2001, the Weltys noticed that Cece had a knack for predicting the outcome of Steelers games. If the bird would whistle the Steelers song all the way through, Pittsburgh would win that day. If the bird would start but stop before the end of the song, the Steelers would lose. "Cece's been wrong just four times in the last three years,'' Marilou told me Saturday, then turned to the bird. "Cece! Cece! Do the Steelers song for Peter. Come on! Come on!'' Cece started whistling the tune, then after 10 beats, changed to Andy Griffith. "Oh no,'' Marilou said somberly. "If the game was today, we'd lose. When he doesn't do it all the way through, it's not good. Not good at all. Glad the game's not today.''
So I called Marilou yesterday, during the game. "First thing this morning, Cece woke up and started whistling the song, all the way through,'' she said.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"'72 Dolphins. Pop the cork, baby."
--Sign at Heinz Field while the last undefeated team in football, Philadelphia, went down to defeat. Nick Buoniconti and Co. surely had a warm and fuzzy feeling last night, their perfect 1972 record intact for another year.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Ran into Russ Grimm, the Steelers line coach, in the Pittsburgh locker room. Great guy. Came close to getting the Chicago head-coaching job last spring and should have another chance at a top NFL position soon. So we're talking, and somehow the subject turns to player salaries. "Did you know,'' said Grimm, a former Hog on the Redskins' Super Bowl line, "that when we won the Super Bowl in 1982, the total salary for the five starting offensive linemen on that team was $145,000? Remember we had a strike that year, and so we only played nine games. We only got about half our salary. Joe Jacoby was supposed to make $42,000, and so he ended up making 20-something.''
Times have changed a little bit. In the first half yesterday against the Patriots, St. Louis tackle Orlando Pace earned $220,000. That's one half of one weekly check for Pace.
ENJOYABLE/AGGRAVATING TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
Walking out of an interview with Donovan McNabb on Saturday afternoon at his Pittsburgh hotel, he said to me: "You're a Red Sox guy, aren't you?''
I confessed that I follow them pretty closely.
"You go to the World Series?'' he said.
"Game 1,'' I said. "How about you?''
"Game 2,'' he said.
I started to think. Game 2 was on a Sunday night. The Eagles won in Cleveland that afternoon, in overtime.
"JeffLurie's plane,'' he said.
"Wow,'' I said. "That's right. You guys were in Cleveland, 1 o'clock game, 8 o'clock World Series game. Ever been to Fenway before?''
"Never,'' he said. "I loved it. Really cool place."
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think we are near some news on the NFL's TV negotiations. The league's broadcast committee is scheduled to have a conference call today to say yea or nay on the Sunday network packages -- Fox for the NFC and CBS for the AFC. On the table is a six-year extension by the major network partners; once this is in place, the NFL will go about figuring out the Sunday night, Monday night and, possibly, Thursday and Saturday night permutations of the contract. I hear the networks and the league are very likely to approve the deal. (Editor's note: The NFL agreed to a deal with Fox and CBS on Monday afternoon.)
2. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the football weekend:
a. Found myself watching the second half of Notre Dame-Tennessee, thinking Tennessee would win handily. Inspired Irish defense. Tremendous tackle on a screen play by defensive end Justin Tuck. I'm not a huge college football fan, but winning at Knoxville 17-13 is a pretty big accomplishment. Beating Michigan and Tennessee in one year. Not bad.
b. I walked up to Pam Oliver at the Eagles' hotel and hugged her Saturday for standing up to KeyshawnJohnson's silly spanking comment. We need more people as tough, and as good, as Oliver in this business.
c. Boy, JonRunyan's had better days. And Corey Simon too. They'd better hope there's a blackout when the Eagles put tape of the Steelers loss on the big screen today.
d. I simply cannot believe the Bears beat the Giants.
e. I simply cannot believe the Chargers are the highest-scoring team in football.
f. I simply cannot believe how bad the Steelers are making good teams look.
Bills RB Willis McGahee ran for for 132 yards and a TD against the Jets on Sunday.
g. I can, however, believe the Bills have won three of four. They're a good team, and when they block a little bit, they can beat any team except the best three in football.
h. Willis McGahee is really good.
i. I don't know how you breathe against the Baltimore pass-rush.
j. Told you Dennis Green would get the job done in Arizona. I know it's early, but the signs are mostly good in the first half of his first season.
k. I'd be stunned if we don't start hearing some Mike Shanahan-to-Florida rumors, now that Steve Spurrier has bowed out.
3. I think the question of the offseason is looming to be: What team will sign the hottest player, Drew Brees, in free agency? Not that Brees won't move. I think he probably will, to make room for Philip Rivers. But assuming Brees keeps up this insane pace, look for San Diego to put the franchise tag on Brees and force some team to trade a high draft choice in 2005 for him. This could set up an incredible draft-day booty for the Chargers, who have their own first-round pick and the Giants' first-rounder (from the Rivers-Manning trade). Imagine if they do deal Brees and get a high second-round pick for him. That would give them two ones and two twos next April -- to fortify a surprisingly decent young team. Is there a way they won't deal Brees but would bring him back in 2005? Highly doubtful, though I did talk to Charger GM A.J. Smith Thursday, and he told me not to draw any conclusions about what will happen to his quarterback position after the season. Well, let's just say this: In today's NFL, you can't pay two quarterbacks huge money. San Diego is already playing Rivers, obviously. But as Smith said, "The object of this game is to win, and if we win, we're going to be smart about what we do.'' Smart might mean trying to keep Brees around, though let's not get ahead of ourselves. Remember why the Chargers drafted Rivers in the first place -- because a year ago, Brees looked hopeless.
4. I think of all the numbers you got bombarded with this past weekend, remember this one, because to me it symbolizes just how special Priest Holmes and his Kansas City offensive line are: It took Otis Taylor 11 years to set the Kansas City record for yards from scrimmage (7,467). It took Holmes three-and-a-half years to break it. Holmes passed it last week, and should be at 8,000 any minute now.
5. I think -- and I only want to tantalize you, not give it all away -- that one of the biggest surprises of SI's Midseason All-Pro Team has to do with the choice of the 16 NFL scouts/pro personnel directors/GMs at tight end. And let's just say the possible Hall of Famer from the AFC West will be disappointed at the balloting, and the former Mid-American Conference basketball player from the AFC West will be thrilled. It's an interesting team. Check it out this week in the magazine.
6. I think Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior is having a better year for his team than Eagle defensive end Jevon Kearse is having for his.
7. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I tried Clubhouse, CBS. Sorry. It doesn't work. At all.
b. You haven't lived till you've taken off from Newark in a puddle-jumper headed for Pittsburgh in 35-mph winds and then landed in the Steel City in 30-mph winds. Not gusts. Steady winds. The kind of winds that make you say two minutes into your climb: "God, if you put me back down on the ground safely right now, I will drive the six hours. Just put me on the ground, please.'' We had only one casualty Friday morning: a volcanic-ralphing, air-sickness-bag-using woman on the descent into Pittsburgh, complete with multiple sound effects.
c. Coffeenerdness: I've got to hand it to the baristas at the Greentree Starbucks, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. I ordered a grande hazelnut latte at the drive-thru lane, drove away, and found that the hazelnut was sugar-free hazelnut. Which tastes like poison, by the way. So I walked into the place, asked if they'd mind making one with regular hazelnut, and the barista apologized all over herself and handed me a free drink coupon. You didn't have to do that, really. But how neighborly. Thanks.
d. ESPN putting a college football game on every night for so many days in a row reminds me of the old story about the dog. Why does a dog lick himself? Because he can.
8. I think, and this is just a gut feeling, that if I were making a tote board on the odds for the coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2005 -- should the Browns finish at or below .500 this year -- the name with the best odds next to it would be Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a Browns' assistant on Bill Belichick's staff 10 years ago.
9. I think one of the sad things about yesterday was legendary Pittsburgh broadcaster Myron Cope leaving his booth at halftime of Steelers-Eagles with two paramedics trailing him. Cope, one of the best color men in any sport -- ever -- felt ill during the first half and couldn't continue. He had offseason throat surgery and has been fighting to regain his strength. Pittsburgh is one of several press boxes where I listen to the radio during the game. No radio team is better.
10. I think, if I'm not mistaken, the seven early-game favorites yesterday all lost. A nation of gamblers got more degenerate than ever by midafternoon.
WHO I LIKE TONIGHT, AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS
Monday night game of the year, even without Randy Moss, who'stonight with a bad hammy. This is the only time the Colts and Vikes will play until 2008, barring a Super Bowl meeting, and thus the only time you'll see DaunteCulpepper and Peyton Manning dueling for the next four years. They both may have the juice to challenge DanMarino's 20-year-old NFL records of 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 passing yards. I asked Marino about the records, and found he's not eager to relinquish his marks. But he is realistic about it. "Yeah,'' Marino said, "I care. Those are records I worked hard for. I think Daunte, especially, has a shot to get into the 40s [for touchdowns] and past 4,000 [yards] to challenge me. He's got great receivers, he plays indoors in ideal conditions, and the DBs can't be as physical this year.''
Projected full-season stats for each quarterback:
But this is Manning's night. His team can play better defense than Minnesota's.
The final: Colts, 38-23.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.