"Goal Line!" yells Steelers coach Bill Cowher, chin jutting out and a game-day edge to his voice. "First-and-goal at the five! Let's go!" Twenty-two starters scurry into position—the offensive players in black jerseys, the defenders in yellow.
This is one of the last practices of the preseason at Pittsburgh's training camp in Latrobe, Pa., and Cowher loves this drill. It is mano a mano football at its best: on one side, eight players along the offensive line in front of quarterback Kordell Stewart, fullback Fred McAfee and running back Jerome Bettis; on the other, a nine-man defensive front with two linebackers trying to crash into the backfield.
As each side digs in, Cowher turns to conditioning coordinator Chet Fuhrman and barks, "Gimme a whistle!" Fuhrman quickly reaches for one but doesn't get to it fast enough. "Now!" Cowher screams.
On the first play Bettis surges for two yards behind All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson. Now it's second-and-goal from the three, and inside linebacker Levon Kirkland gets on his mates. "No more! It stops here!" he shouts, mindful of the fact that the last time the team ran this drill the offense got zero yards in five snaps. On the next play McAfee runs into a brick wall. "No!" someone in a yellow jersey yells. "You get nothing!"
Third-and-goal from the three, with Jon Witman in for McAfee. Stewart fakes to Bettis. Strong safety Lethon Flowers bites. Witman slips outside to the flat and catches a perfect lob from Stewart. Touchdown. "No!" one defender yelps from the pile, as though in pain. The offensive players high-five each other with gusto. Flowers rips off his helmet and throws it Frisbee-like toward the sideline. Kirkland hollers, "Can't happen!" and tosses his helmet too. Cowher stalks off, angry that his defense didn't do its job.
Thirty minutes later Pro Bowl defensive back Carnell Lake walks from the field, still glum about the defense's failure. "You've got to care," he says. "You start uncovering the layers of everything surrounding the game—the money, the hype, the stardom—and it comes down to this: How bad do you want it?"