Woodson has not been able to watch a tape of the game. Nor has Steeler coach Bill Cowher. But no team in the league will derive greater motivation from a single loss than the Steelers have from that January disaster.
For the first time in Cowher's four-year reign, every one of the 58 Steeler veterans who reported to camp last week passed the annual sprint-endurance test: Each man ran 14 40-yard dashes in less than his required time. Some teams call this the Vomit Test, but no Steeler breakfasts were surrendered. "I refuse to take a negative out of the San Diego game," says Cowher, "and so do my players. I draw energy from it."
"I don't want to block it out," adds center Dermontti Dawson. "I want it to hurt. It makes me hungrier."
Starving might be better for the Steelers, because a bunch of AFC teams improved themselves in the off-season, and Pittsburgh did not. Gone from last year's Steelers are kicker Gary Anderson, running back Barry Foster, tight end Eric Green, guard Duval Love—all former Pro Bowl players—and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In addition, corner Deon Figures could miss all of September as he recovers from a gunshot wound to his left knee sustained when he was hit by a stray bullet in Los Angeles.
Still, every key player from the AFC's No. 1 defense returns, and there is a jarring running game led by Bam Morris. "We aren't naive as to what we lost," says Cowher, "but look at our core." That core will keep the Steelers alive in January.
4 Can the Browns finally overthrow the Steelers?
You had better be a Bill Belichick guy if you're a Cleveland Brown. Belichick, entering his fifth year as the Browns' coach, has run off the nonbelievers one by one—for instance, linebackers Eddie Johnson and Clay Matthews in 1994 and defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry this off-season—and replaced them with players who are loyal to him. Belichick, a former New York Giant defensive coordinator, has brought in two ex-Giant linebackers, Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks, over the past two seasons, and this winter they helped the Browns recruit Andre Rison, who has caught 475 passes in six NFL seasons.
Perry, now with the Denver Broncos, thinks he knows why Cleveland couldn't beat Pittsburgh last year. "The Steelers intimidated us," he says. "It's like they had this attitude: We're gonna kick your ass. They had big S's on their chests. And we had P's. For pussycats." Now you know why Belichick and Perry had to divorce.
The Browns scoff at Perry's assessment. After all, last season they held Steeler runners to only 3.66 yards a carry in the teams' three meetings. "But," Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson observes of this year's Cleveland defense, "the Browns lost Perry and his backup [James Jones]. I don't know how they're going to stop the run now."
But the Brown-Steeler rivalry is likely to turn on Rison's impact on the Cleveland offense. The Browns will present a three-wideout set on as many as half of their plays, with Michael Jackson and but-terfingered Derrick Alexander split wide and Rison lined up in the slot. What the Steelers do to try to contain Rison will provide the most intriguing chess game of the season. They will probably leave Woodson at corner and try to stifle Rison by throwing a gantlet of linebackers, safeties and other cornerbacks at him.