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Inside the NFL

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Posted: Tuesday November 03, 1998 05:02 PM

Nick of Time | Air's Gone Out of Steelers Attack
A Sweetheart In New York  | It's the Thought That Counts | The Buzz
The Inner Game: Pass Rushing Scheme | Spotlight: Oronde Gadsden
Dr. Z's Forecast

By David Fleming

Nick of Time  

Backs to the wall, the Bucs had their finest hour against the Vikings

Sports Illustrated
  Alstott could not have picked a more opportune time to turn in a career-best rushing performance. Bob Rosato
After posing for the team picture last Saturday, Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy talked about how one break might spark his struggling club and turn it around in the next day's game against the Vikings. "Sometimes all it takes is one game, one play or one moment, and it can just kick you to another level," said Dungy. "There have been a lot of teams left for dead at the halfway point of the season that came back and made something happen. That one moment we need just hasn't happened yet."

On Sunday an opportunity presented itself early. Facing a fourth-and-seven at the Minnesota 31 on Tampa Bay's opening possession, Dungy shunned a field goal attempt, and quarterback Trent Dilfer completed a 10-yard pass to running back Warrick Dunn. Four plays later Dunn scored on a 10-yard run, setting the tone for a 27-24 victory that evened the Bucs' record at 4-4 and knocked the Vikings from the unbeaten ranks.

"We reaffirmed a lot of things today," Tampa Bay center Tony Mayberry said afterward. "A belief in this team, in this offense, in each other and in what we still can accomplish this season."

Entering the game the Bucs' anemic offense had failed to score a touchdown in 38 first-half possessions and had been outscored 64-15 in the first two quarters. This was not the team that many had predicted would contend for a Super Bowl berth. "Maybe somewhere in our mind we did relax a little," says Dungy, whose club made the playoffs last year for the first time since 1982. "We all just assumed it would be easy, but we've found that it's much harder to maintain something than it is to just get there."

Mistakes had negated what little offense Tampa Bay could muster. The Bucs ranked 28th in the league in turnover margin (-7) before they met the Vikings, having hit rock bottom the week before in a 9-3 loss to the Saints. In that game Tampa Bay turned the ball over three times and receivers dropped seven passes.

On Sunday the Bucs had no turnovers, only two offensive penalties, no punts, touchdowns on their first two possessions, 22 first downs, a team-record 246 rushing yards and, for the first time in franchise history, two backs who ran for more than 100 yards in the same game. Fullback Mike Alstott had a career-high 128 yards on 19 carries, and Dunn added 115 yards on 18 carries.

On a starting offense whose average age is 26, Alstott is developing into the kind of leader the Bucs desperately need. "Unlike the 49ers and the Packers, we don't have a lot of players who have dealt with adversity, have battled through it and can tell others what to do," says Dungy. "It would help us a lot if we had more guys who'd been through the ropes in this league. But two years from now, if we're faced with this again, we'll understand it better and get through it quicker."

Hampered by a hip injury he suffered at a June minicamp, Alstott has been slow to hit his stride. But against Minnesota he was at his punishing best, bouncing off a couple of defenders to score the go-ahead touchdown on a six-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, then sealing the win with a 37-yard jaunt. After the game Alstott trotted off the field, his pants stained with equal parts mud and blood.

It was a scene that seemed to say that if the Bucs aren't back, they're at least on their way.

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Air's Gone Out of Steelers Attack  

After last Friday's practice at Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart and wideout Will Blackwell stood near the 10-yard line and, in a test of skill, threw footballs at the goalpost. Blackwell was the first to clank one off an upright, and for his effort he received a standing ovation from a small group of stadium workers. "They were excited because they thought they had found a new quarterback," quipped Stewart.

After helping Pittsburgh get to the AFC Championship Game and making the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his first year as a starter last season, Stewart is going through a severe slump. In eight games he has completed just 117 of 220 passes for 1,159 yards and six touchdowns, and he has thrown 10 interceptions. In a 41-31 loss to the Oilers on Sunday, though he threw for a season-high 230 yards, Stewart was replaced in the fourth quarter after throwing three interceptions and with the Steelers trailing 41-15.

The Steelers rank next to last in the NFL with 146.5 passing yards per game, and Stewart ranks ahead of only three other passers in the league's quarterback ratings, with a 58.5 mark. "I would love to have games where I throw for 400 yards," says Stewart. "But I've come to understand that that doesn't matter. If I throw for 82 yards and we win, to me those are great numbers."

The company line in Pittsburgh takes much the same tone: If the Steelers are winning, then Stewart isn't struggling. "If we were 2-5, then I'd be concerned," first-year offensive coordinator Ray Sherman said last Friday. "We win the ball game, and then someone says, 'Hey Kordell didn't throw for 200 yards.' Well, who gives a crap? We won the game."

But Pittsburgh is 5-3 and a game behind the Jaguars in the AFC Central, and Stewart hasn't performed up to last year's level. More than anyone, he has been affected by the team's annual free-agent exodus. Left tackle John Jackson signed with the Chargers after 10 years in Pittsburgh, and this year the Steelers have already surrendered 17 sacks—only three fewer than they gave up all of last season. Stewart's favorite target last year was wideout Yancey Thigpen, who caught 79 passes, then signed with the Oilers in the off-season. And offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left to coach the Cowboys.

"Everything is different for Kordell this year," says running back Jerome Bettis. "He had to start from scratch with the line, the receivers and a coordinator with his own philosophies, and that has created some mumbo jumbo in Kordell's head."

"I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Dang, I'm disappointed,'" Stewart says. "We're winning, and I know the best is yet to come." With a game against the Packers looming on Monday night, the Steelers certainly hope so.

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A Sweetheart In New York  

After he was unable to cut a deal with either the Broncos or the Seahawks in the off-season, free-agent linebacker Bryan Cox was preparing to settle into a life of golf, softball and training thoroughbreds at his Florida farm, which is appropriately named Freakman Stables. Then Jets coach Bill Parcells called and offered him a job.

During his seven-year career with the Dolphins and Bears, Cox was named to the Pro Bowl three times and assessed more than $130,000 in fines for bizarre behavior such as throwing his helmet and making obscene gestures at fans. "In some cases I've been an idiot," Cox admitted when he signed a one-year, $500,000 contract with the Jets in August.

Under the thumb of Parcells, Cox has settled into his role as a versatile backup and elder statesman. "It's a process of maturing," Cox said last week. "Those other situations were chaotic and frustrating. But here I'm not a big-money free agent and the defense isn't built around me. I can just relax and play."

Playing mostly outside linebacker in third-down situations, Cox has three sacks, is sixth on the team with 25 solo tackles and is working to change his reputation from madman to wise man. He gave a stirring pregame speech before the Oct. 25 game against the Falcons, his first start for New York, and then contributed five tackles in the Jets' 28-3 rout. Last week Cox was rewarded for his play in the first half of the season with a two-year, $2.2 million contract extension.

"I'm probably more passionate about the game than I have been the last two or three years, but at the same time I don't feel like I have to scream and holler anymore," says Cox. "On this team the coach takes care of that."

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It's the Thought That Counts  

Upon arriving at Rams Park last Friday, St. Louis players and coaches were greeted by a large, hand-painted sign outside the facility that read, TO BELIEVE IS TO HAVE THE POWER. WE BELIEVE. Two days later the Rams lost to the Falcons, 37-15. It was the club's worst defeat in 24 games under coach Dick Vermeil.

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The Buzz  

1. And then there was one. By virtue of their 33-26 come-from-behind win over the Bengals, the Broncos became only the 10th NFL team to start a season 8-0. Of the previous nine, seven reached the Super Bowl. It's hard to imagine that Denver won't be the eighth.

2. Off the hook. Redskins coach Norv Turner benches wideout Michael Westbrook for missing last Saturday's practice. The next day Washington plays inspired football and picks up its first win of the season, 21-14 over the Giants. Redskins fans take note: Your team is only three games back in the NFC wild-card race.

3. Some homecoming. Quarterback Kerry Collins returns to Carolina as a member of the Saints and watches from the sideline as the Panthers win their first game, 31-17. "You absolutely can't believe the things that were said to Kerry before, during and after the game," Saints president and general manager Bill Kuharich said on Monday, of the heckling Collins took from the crowd. But that doesn't justify Collins's behavior early on Monday, when he was stopped by police in Charlotte and charged with driving under the influence.

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The Inner Game: Pass Rushing Scheme  

Chad Brown is on the move in Seattle's blitz-happy Okie

It's a good thing for the Seahawks that team doctors diagnosed outside linebacker Chad Brown's asthma early in the season and prescribed an effective treatment. As the designated rover in Seattle's blitz-happy Okie defense, Brown can't afford to be short of breath.

In the scheme installed by first-year linebackers coach Jim Johnson, Brown might be asked to rush the passer, serve as a contain man or cover the primary receiver. After getting 13 sacks and making the Pro Bowl as an Okie linebacker in 1996, his last season with the Steelers, Brown signed as a free agent with Seattle. "It was frustrating last season because I was always lined up at right defensive end in the nickel package, and everyone knew where I was going to shoot the gap," says Brown, who fought through repeated double teams in '97 to lead the Seahawks with 104 tackles and finish with 6 1/2 sacks. "I'm still the guy who gets all the attention, but now the offense doesn't know where I'm going to be or what I'll do."

Seattle defensive coordinator Greg McMackin calls for the Okie—a variation of the scheme originally run at the University of Oklahoma—in passing situations, using a three-man front with two linebackers and six defensive backs. Brown positions himself at tackle or end just before the snap. The offense must guess whether Brown will blitz or is merely a decoy for fellow linebacker Darrin Smith. On some occasions Brown and Smith will rush the passer. Or Brown might drop into coverage while Smith and a defensive back blitz. In four starts leading up to Sunday's 31-18 loss to the Raiders, Brown had 48 tackles and three sacks.

In passing situations against Oakland, Brown often stuck around the line just long enough to distract a blocker or two, only to bolt back and cover the hot receiver. "It's scary against the Raiders because, when blitzed, their tendency is to send [fleet-footed running back] Napoleon Kaufman into the flat," says Brown, who had a team-high nine tackles. "The worst thing that can happen is when their hot receiver is the wide man and I'm in the interior line. I'll maybe have to sprint 30 yards. My back is to the ball, but I have to get in position or else it could be a big play."

— By Richard Deutsch

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Issue date: November 9, 1998  

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