The Central Division is a collection of masked marvels," says Art Rooney Jr., the Pittsburgh Steelers' vice-president. "All four teams could be contenders, and until the season is well under way and the disguises are off, there's no telling who's for real."
Cincinnati, however, has one recognizable marvel: Head Coach Paul Brown. Like Vince Lombardi, Brown is worth points when the oddsmakers figure the line. Supposedly left behind by the game, he has turned up in the van. While everyone was regarding the pocket as holy writ, the Bengals put in a rollout offense quarterbacked by Virgil Carter, who was found wanting by both the Bears and the Bills. The knock on Carter is that he can't throw the deep out. So, except for an occasional long fling, which is about all the defenses allow today, Cincinnati sprints, rolls and grabs every safe yard the zone will give up—short gains, because Carter cleverly exploits the under zones, using passing for ball control. The attack is constantly shifting, and when the defense guesses sprint, Carter drops back and throws to Tight End Bob Trumpy, the Bengals' closest thing to a superstar.
As a change of pace, Brown will use his latest Wunderkind, Ken Anderson, a classic drop-back passer out of Augustana College (enrollment 1,800). Then the Bengals are apt to go long to Trumpy or Speedy Thomas and, when he returns, Chip Myers, the team's leading receiver last year. Myers broke both arms in an exhibition game and will probably have to sit out four games. The running game is based on quick, wide pitches to the pony backs, Jess Phillips and Paul Robinson.
"Our game looks more like Southeast Conference offense than any pro team's since Tom Matte led the Colts," says Bob Johnson, one of the NFL's finest centers. But the tricky, behind-the-back hand-offs and pitchouts compensate for a weakness. The line play is woefully uneven. After Johnson, there is 12-year Tackle Ernie Wright and after Wright the deluge. But aggressive blocking and exceptional teamwork help stem the flood. Everyone pulls—guards, tackles and, on some plays, even the center.
The Bengal defensive line is equally spotty and plays are aimed away from the strength—Tackle Mike Reid and Defensive End Royce Berry. One of Brown's theories is to be strong down the middle, like a good-fielding baseball team, and this is the key to Cincinnati's defense: right smack in the center stands Middle Linebacker Bill Bergey, an explosive red-dogger who is also nigh impossible to run against. Two fine cornerbacks, Ken Riley and Lemar Parrish, enable the Bengals to play more man-to-man. This, in turn, allows the linebackers to concentrate on the run and the blitz and to be less concerned with pass coverage. Anchoring the deep secondary are quick Safeties Fletcher Smith and Ken Dyer. Speed and, once again, an acute sense of teamwork enable the Bengals to run down their mistakes and successfully hide their weaknesses.
For the first time in years, scouts followed the Steelers around the exhibition circuit like scavengers in the wake of a ship, getting a line on the personnel before the cuts. This is a sure sign the 1971 Pittsburgh team has talent. And it does, with more speed and greater size than ever before. The Steelers have not won a championship in 38 years in the league, and the Rooney boys, Art and Dan, have turned the search for players into a crusade. "We've changed our philosophy," says Art. "Of course, we've done that several times before and nobody noticed the difference. Under Buddy Parker we traded everybody, constantly, but especially draft choices. Then we went for the best player available at a position we needed to fill. Still, the Steelers went nowhere. Now we just take the best athlete available regardless of the position. The last few years we've come up with fine athletes. Whether we have enough for a championship only time and Coach Noll can tell."
Until now Chuck Noll, a professorial looking man with a bent for French cooking and horticulture, has been calm and patient. Now, as he says, "School is out." The Steelers' fortunes in the wide world depend on Quarterback Terry Bradshaw. He has the arm and a capable set of receivers—Ron Shanklin, Dave Smith and rookie Frank Lewis—but he cranks up and lets 'er rip too often. Or else he freewheels unnecessarily and scrambles out of the pocket. But worst of all, he tends to be overwhelmed by the profusion of pro defenses.
Last year Bradshaw's protection was as often miss as hit. This year there is a new set of starting tackles—Jon Kolb and Rick Sharp—who will share time with team captain John Brown. This means Bradshaw should leave the running to the often brilliant John Fuqua and the frequently injured Preston Pearson. Off the field, Fuqua (he likes to be called Count or Frenchy) has been seen wearing a skintight lavender jump suit, a cape, a gypsy hat and twirling a glass cane. On the field, he was the fifth-best runner in the AFC. "Confidentially," he says, "between you and me, I'm planning on leading this league in rushing. I mean the whole NFL, and playing in a championship, too. Now. This season."
The strength of the Pittsburgh defense is a very tough, experienced front four, led by Mean Joe Greene, the man who hates crowds but increasingly finds himself double-teamed. Noll hopes to make better use of L. C. Greenwood, who specializes in rushing the passer on the outside, and has switched Lloyd Voss and the Big Geezer, Ben McGee, from end to tackle. This should ease Greene's claustrophobia. The secondary is improved by the addition of either of two aggressive safeties, rookies Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards. The Steelers' linebackers are vulnerable, and the team will be handicapped by ineffectual pass coverage, particularly when the linebackers must help out.
In his first year as head coach of the Houston Oilers, Ed Hughes frantically traded for what he calls more "physical aggression" in his two lines and he got it. He wanted big men. He got big men. The defensive line is now staffed by monsters: newcomers Ron Billingsley (6'7", 270) and Mike Tilleman (6'6", 280), and old hands Pat Holmes (6'5", 250) and Elvin Bethea (6'3", 262).