The Steelers' best player is Webster, the 13-year veteran. Last season he suffered the first serious injury of his career and missed four games. The running attack gained fewer than 100 yards in three of them. After Webster returned, Pittsburgh rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 of its final 12 games. Webster makes the line calls, and he can keep the Steelers' trap-block attack going, no matter who his linemates are. However, he's 35 now.
Steeler runners were banged up early in the season, but Pittsburgh got lucky with Earnest Jackson, a free-agent pickup from the Eagles who was coming off two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Last year Jackson ran for 910 yards. The Steelers had no such luck in other areas. The offensive line wasn't intact until Game 8. Both wide receivers, Stallworth and Louis Lipps, played most of the season hurt. One cornerback, Dwayne Woodruff, spent the entire year on injured reserve, and another, Chris Sheffield, missed six games. Mark Malone is the quarterback. He's coachable and hardworking, but he finished 25th in the NFL rankings. There's no thought of replacing him.
For several years the defense kept the Steelers in the playoffs. They were third defensively in the league in '83, fifth in '84, sixth in '85. Last year they slipped to 18th, and the Steelers wound up with their worst record in 16 years. They thought they had the answer when they drafted Rod Woodson, a dazzling athlete from Purdue, to play cornerback. When last seen, he was planning to skip the season to train for the Olympics in the 110-meter hurdles.
There are a few bright spots. Joe Greene has been hired to put some fire into the defensive line. Shell, at 35, was one of the big hitters in the early camp. Last year's No. 1 draft pick, 275-pound guard John Rienstra, had an excellent preseason. If Pittsburgh stays healthy and the question marks come through, then what? A .500 year? A little better? A little worse? Yes, it has come to that.
Has anyone seen Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers? Oh, there he is, right over there, talking to the quarterback coach. Which quarterback coach? Good question. It's, let's see, it's, uh, June Jones. They're working on the new attack, which head coach Jerry Glanville says will be like Cincinnati's and feature four wideouts. You say Moon looks a bit confused? Well, this is his fourth year in the league, and he's working under his fourth quarterback coach. Consequently his rankings have steadily dropped—from 76.9 to 68.5 to last year's 62.3, which was next to last in the NFL. In 1984, when Moon came down from Canada, everyone was fighting to give him a million dollars. Last season the Oilers gave him a vote of confidence by drafting Purdue quarterback Jim Everett in the first round. (They couldn't sign him, and he ended up with the Rams.)
The Oilers talk about fresh legs, fresh faces and fresh raw talent just waiting to be cooked. But they always do that in Houston. They bury you with names. Still, Houston isn't without talent. Left tackle Bruce Matthews, a holdout at the start of camp, is outstanding; left guard Mike Munchak is a Pro Bowler when he's not limping; and wideout Ernest Givins was dazzling as a rookie last year. This year's second No. 1 pick (the Oilers always have lots of selections), wideout Haywood Jeffires, may be almost as good as Givins. The first No. 1? He's Alonzo Highsmith, the 240-pound fullback with the 4.5 speed and the tough contract demands. Well, the Oilers can always trade him, as they did Everett. Then they'll have even more draft choices for '88.
Houston is the NFL's losingest team over the last five years, but here's one ray of hope. Glanville, who was defensive coordinator before he became head coach, has been with the defense for four years, and last season it finally showed signs of life. It moved from 27th to 13th overall, and from 18th to eighth against the pass. The Oilers hung tough against some good teams. Cleveland squeaked out a pair of three-point wins, and in the second one Kosar completed only 16 of 41 passes and was intercepted three times. Houston is probably better than last year, but the schedule is tougher. New year, same record for the third straight season.
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