- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
So why did the Browns break out of the gate 3-1, and why do they remain in the thick of the playoff race? For starters, the players bought into Davis's power-of-positive-thinking approach and unselfish ways. "Instead of having to massage egos and convince players our system is right," Davis says, "we've spent all our time on football."
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has returned quarterback Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft who struggled his first two seasons, to his Kentucky roots by installing a short passing game similar to the one that made Couch a college sensation. This year Couch is a 57% passer with only five interceptions, and even without much of a running game, he's moving the chains. Cleveland has scored at least 20 points in five of its first eight games. The defense, devoid of stars except for end Courtney Brown, has permitted nine touchdowns in eight games by relying on speed and aggressiveness. "We don't play the prettiest football, but Butch has put his stamp on us," Ellsworth says. "We hit people in the mouth pretty good." Good enough to wake the echoes in a city that lives for its Browns.
The current Steelers chafe at being compared to the hallowed Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s, but the similarities are hard to overlook. Jerome Bettis, healthy and frisky again after being bothered for two years by bad knees, is on pace for a Franco Harris-like 1,400-yard season. The new Steel Curtain defense, infused with the ferocious play of rookie inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, leads the league in fewest points and yards allowed and is No. 1 in sacks. It has surrendered 11.3 points per game; by comparison, the unit that keyed Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl wins gave up an average of 13.5 points a game in the title seasons.
Those are the primary reasons that the Steelers, 22-26 and no playoff games over the last three years, should be playing in the postseason. A trip that new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey took to Stewart's house in Atlanta last winter was awfully important, too. "He knew what I'd been through," says Stewart, whom Pittsburgh fans reviled after three bad years. "He asked, 'How are you doing as a person? What do you expect out of this offense?' That's respect." Mularkey told Stewart he planned to make him the running and passing weapon he had been early in his career.
To watch tape of Stewart's performance against Baltimore on Nov. 4, a game in which he completed 60% of his passes for 236 yards with no interceptions, was to see a stunning transformation. Gone are the happy feet and jerky head movements that characterized his two seasons under Mularkey's predecessor, Kevin Gilbride. Stewart is confident in the pocket, standing his ground under pressure, as he did before releasing a pass in the face of a second-quarter blitz by safety Carnell Lake. His accuracy on a fade touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and on a 19-yard sideline throw to Hines Ward was pinpoint. "A year ago at this time, I hated coming to work," Stewart says. "Now I'm totally at peace. I love this offense. I trust everything about it."
Under Gilbride each receiver had as many as five options once the ball was snapped, based largely on reading the positioning of the defenders. Extraordinary athletic ability—in Stewart and in wideouts Burress and Troy Edwards, who were also struggling under that system—was being wasted. "Now the receivers have two options," Mularkey says. "There isn't a lot of thinking."
In the off-season Mularkey told the offensive players that he would run an "exotic smash-mouth" scheme. He has kept his word. Bettis is averaging 20.5 carries a game, but he also has thrown a touchdown pass; Ward has runs out of the shotgun for nine and 36 yards; and Mularkey designs running plays for Stewart each week, incorporating play-action fakes into some of them. "When you're confident, you play well," Stewart says. "I've got more confidence than I've had since back in the Slash days." Beware the new Men of Steel.
Recall Chicago's 1999 draft, and you'll think of what a failure the 12th overall pick, quarterback Cade McNown, turned out to be. However, 2� years later it's looking as if the Bears did more good than harm in that draft. When coach Dick Jauron looked at the team he'd inherited from Dave Wannstedt that January, he saw a plodding defense that he knew couldn't win. So Jauron, a former defensive back, and personnel chief Mark Hatley (who has since left the organization in part for what ownership perceived was bad drafting) traded down three times on draft day to stockpile eight selections in rounds 3 through 5. The Bears wanted speed, and they got it in linebackers Warrick Holdman and Rosevelt Colvin, who came in round 4, and cornerback Jerry Azumah, selected in the next round. Last year middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (first round) and free safety Mike Brown (second round) were added to the mix.