- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Opponents should be afraid of the Steelers' passing game. Very afraid. Here's an illustration of why this unit is now the scariest on a Super Bowl-contending team. Early in camp the first-team offense, with three receivers and one back on the field, lined up against the first-team defense. Split right, 6'5" wide receiver Plaxico Burress drew double coverage from a safety and a corner. In the slot speedy Antwaan Randle El squared off against a corner, with nickel help ready. Split left, crafty possession wideout Hines Ward had one corner on him. Tommy Maddox took the snap, and Ward sprinted 18 yards downfield, shadowed by Dewayne Washington. Two steps before Ward began his cut to the outside, Maddox threw a soft, catchable pass. The ball hung in the air, and Ward ran a precise route that left Washington lunging. After one more step Ward turned his head, and the ball was right on him. The throw could not have been more perfect, settling in Ward's breadbasket as he got both feet inbounds. "He could make that throw in his sleep, and I could catch that ball in my sleep," Ward said later.
In a break from tradition Pittsburgh will try to live by the pass in 2003. That's partly because—and this will sound sacrilegious from Sewickley to Squirrel Hill—Ward and Burress, complemented by the emerging Randle El, are more threatening to defenses than Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were in their prime. "I think it might be the hardest group of receivers in the league for a defense to match up against," coach Bill Cowher says. "You've got the all-around ability and speed and toughness of Hines, the size and athleticism of Plaxico and a really dynamic young kid in Antwaan, who's becoming a polished route runner."
Last year Ward and Burress combined for 190 catches, 2,654 yards and 19 touchdowns. In their best season together, 1979, Swann and Stallworth caught 111 passes for 1,991 yards and 13 touchdowns. Yes, the game has changed over the last 25 years, but the comparison is valid. Pittsburgh quarterbacks threw for only 159 more yards in 2002 than they did in '79.
Ward, 27, Burress, 26, and Randle El, 24, have handled all sorts of exotic defenses, including ones in which Ward and Burress were routinely double-teamed. Even when teams played overly physical, the three wideouts hung tough and avoided injuries. In eight seasons combined, Ward and Burress have missed only four games—all by Burress, when he was a rookie—because of injury.
Maddox, a pocket quarterback with a quick release, completed 62.1% of his passes last season, and that number only figures to go up with the addition of tight end Jay Riemersma, who was released by the Bills in a salary-cap move last February. The Steelers haven't had a good pass-catching tight end in years, but Riemersma, one of the game's best, gives opposing defenses one more thing to worry about.
But what really gets this team pumped about its offensive potential is the thought that it no longer has to fear having to come from behind. The players believe Maddox, who started 11 games last season, won't make the big mistake nearly as often as his predecessor, Kordell Stewart, did. ( Stewart was released by Pittsburgh last February; he signed with the Bears.) "I have so much confidence in Tommy," says offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. "He's proven himself time after time, and I'm comfortable with him in every situation."
Of course, all that won't matter if the Steelers' defense plays as poorly as it did at the end of last season. In its final three games, including two in the playoffs, Pittsburgh surrendered 31, 33 and 34 points to the Ravens, the Browns and the Titans, respectively, none of whom were offensive juggernauts. But Cowher can usually make quick repairs to his defense. And Steelers fans know that, while this team shouldn't have to score 30 points to win on Sunday, it can if it has to.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]