4 Pittsburgh Steelers
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Get ready for a new stadium, a new offense and, perhaps, a new
By Peter King
Shhhh. don't say this too loud, especially in and around downtown Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are happy to be out of Three Rivers Stadium. And not just because it had crummy artificial turf and pipes that occasionally burst.
It's fitting that Lynn Swann, the 10th and quite possibly last player, coach or executive from the Steelers' Super Bowl champs of the '70s to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was inducted just weeks before the 2001 team was to christen Heinz Field. Swann's enshrinement ended the Three Rivers era. The new stadium has refreshed the Pittsburgh franchise. Heinz Field offers a stunning view of the city at one end as well as a museum that celebrates the football heritage of western Pennsylvania. The best thing about the new place, though, is that it's not the old place.
"The history here has been a double-edged sword for us," says running back Jerome Bettis. "Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount -- those names always resonated around the old stadium, and they should, because that team won four Super Bowls. It was always clear to us what was expected of this team every season: a championship. Not that we expect less now, but moving [to Heinz Field] gives us a chance to set the tone for future generations of Steelers, rather than having it set for us. I think a lot of guys are looking forward to that."
"Now," echoes quarterback Kordell Stewart, "I won't be walking in anyone's shadow but my own."
No matter whose shadow he's in, the 28-year-old Stewart -- a perennial disappointment -- remains the key to Pittsburgh's success. The Steelers always have enough defense to compete in the rock-'em, sock-'em AFC Central; last season they allowed a mere 15.9 points per game. They always have a physical, ball-control running game: They've rushed for 4.0 yards per carry or better in 10 of the past 11 years, and the oft-banged-up Bettis says he's as healthy as he has been in any preseason since joining the team in 1996. Now it's up to Stewart and the new offense installed by first-year offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, a scheme that has the players, as Stewart says, "thinking less and playing more."
In last year's offense, orchestrated by deposed coordinator Kevin Gilbride, a receiver would have two or three options on most routes and would decide which option to take as he ran downfield and saw who was covering him and how he was being covered. The quarterback would have to wait to see which route the receiver would run before cutting the ball loose. Mularkey, Pittsburgh's former tight ends coach, wants to simplify the game for Stewart and underachieving receivers Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress -- the Steelers' first-round draft choices in 1999 and 2000, respectively -- by using more single-option routes. If Stewart can't find the open man, Mularkey wants Stewart to be the man and run.
It's hard to muster up faith in Stewart, who's been falling off and climbing back onto coach Bill Cowher's quarterback tightrope for the past four seasons. In his six-year career he has thrown more interceptions (55) than TD passes (50), and his putrid 68.4 career passer rating is lower even than Tony Banks's. There's no reason to think this year will be much different -- until you see the change in Stewart.
"I have never been this happy entering a season, this confident in my ability to do well in a system," he says. Sullen after most recent fall Sundays because of the hometown booing he endured, Stewart enters the season buoyant. "I have been through hell in this city, frickin' hell," he says. "Do you realize what an icon I was early in my career? I blew up! Came out of nowhere! I had $2 million in endorsements after just my third year. Then I fell off the face of the earth."
And now? "Now Mike Mularkey has basically said to me, 'Play football. Make plays. Be the great athlete that you are.' In the past couple of years I've entered games worrying too much and trying to please coaches. This offense caters more to my skills. You can't take Drew Bledsoe and make him run play-action and roll out. He's a drop-back guy. In the old offense there were too many ifs, too much thinking. Now I look at one or two things and make the play. That's the way I've always played [my best] football."
Stewart is not the only Steeler with a newfound confidence. Mindful that his team plays in the same division as the last two AFC Super Bowl representatives, tight end Mark Bruener is quick to point out that Pittsburgh was "the last team to beat Baltimore, and we had two down-to-the-wire games with Tennessee [23-20 and 9-7 losses]. I'm not trying to make bulletin-board material here, but I believe we can be as competitive as both of those teams this year."
For that to happen, the new Kordell will have to be as good as the new stadium.
Issue date: September 3, 2001