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2 - Pittsburgh Steelers
The biggest problem is secondary in nature, and therein lies the greatest cause for concern on a team gunning for its fifth straight division title
Regardless, asking the Columbia, S.C., native if he can handle a do-or-die situation is like asking Pavarotti to hum Mary Had a Little Lamb. "People say the secondary is our huge question mark," says Flowers, a fifth-round pick in '95. "But I'll be one of the NFL's best safetiesno doubt about it."
That self-assurance comes from experience. When he was 14, Flowers spent three months in intensive care after the removal of a ruptured appendix that, he says, "came very close to killing me." Doctors told his mother, Patricia, that Lethon's prognosis was grim. "I learned to appreciate life and the blessings you receive," says Flowers, 25. "You learn to keep things in perspective but also take advantage of the opportunities given. This is my golden opportunity."
Flowers and right cornerback Dewayne Washington, a
free-agent pickup who was formerly with the Vikings, join
left corner Carnell Lake and free safety Darren Perry in a
unit that will either 1) excel and lift Pittsburgh toward
its fifth consecutive
AFC Central title or
Lake, the Steelers' best athlete, is a four-time Pro Bowl strong safety who, to be honest, would rather hang back and smack overzealous tight ends than bump and run with the Herman Moores of the world. However, at a voluntary workout in May, Chad Scott, Pittsburgh's All-Rookie cornerback last year, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was lost for the season. WANTED: Unselfish veteran safety to play corner ... again. Speed and smarts required.
"Carnell is as team-oriented a player as you'll find," says Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who also asked Lake to play corner in '95 and '97, after first Rod Woodson and then Scott were injured. "His best position is strong safetyeverybody knows that. But out of need he's spent two years at corner for us. One time we went to the Super Bowl, the other we went to the AFC Championship Game. Clearly, he and Darren Perry are two guys we can count on."
That leaves Washington, who last year was, well, bad. A fifth-year player out of North Carolina State, he is a strong guy with good footwork andas he'll often remind peoplePro Bowl aspirations. But as Cowher was seeing early in camp (and as Vikings coach Dennis Green saw too often last year), speedsters eat him up. In a division featuring the Bengals' Carl Pickens, the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis, the Oilers' Yancey Thigpen and the Jaguars' Jimmy Smith, Washington could be toast. "I don't think it's fair to judge Dewayne on one inconsistent year," says Cowher. "When a guy has a nose for the ball, you want him around."
Flowers likes hearing thisthe idea that, finally, his time has come. On the second day of training camp, a 95° scorcher at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., Flowers worked out with the team for two hours, thenwith sweat soaking his black NWO T-shirtspent another 50 minutes lifting weights on his own. The extra work is the result of a conversation he and Lake had in February, when Flowers asked for a specific workout plan. From that point, it has been sprints and weights two to three hours a day, six days a week.
"When all I did was special teams, I didn't worry too much," Flowers says of conditioning. "I was on the field 10 times a game, and that's it. But now I've got a chance to do some big things. I love making contact. I love covering. I just love being on the field, part of the Blitzburgh defense. People have questions about us. I think we've got the answers."
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