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AFC Central
September 13, 1976
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September 13, 1976

Afc Central

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If one Pruitt can run for 1,067 yards and catch 44 passes, what will two Pruitts do? Greg, No. 34, Cleveland Browns, compiled those impressive statistics, and now he is joined by Mike, No. 43, no relation, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry in three years at Purdue. The best news around Cleveland, though, is that Paul Warfield has come home, joining Reggie Rucker (60 receptions) and Tight End Oscar Roan (41) to give the Browns a potent receiving corps.


At 218 pounds, Mean Smilin' Jack Lambert is probably too small for this position. And at 24, only two years out of Kent State, he is probably too inexperienced. But he will probably be All-Pro for the second straight season. The NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 1974, Lambert led the Steelers again in tackles and assists in 1975 and terrorized the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Not one to rest on his laurels, Lambert spent the off-season lifting weights to gain strength.

Cincinnati's Jim LeClair answers to Back Breaker on his CB radio, and his 10-20 always is around the ball. However, despite his three interceptions and team leadership in tackles a year ago, LeClair still is not a Bill Bergey, whom Paul Brown sent to Philadelphia before the 1975 season. Mac and Meg—Steve Kiner and Gregg Bingham—handle the middle in Houston's 3-4 defense. Bingham, incidentally, used to keep a pet baby shark. Cleveland's answer to M&M is Bam Bam—Dick Ambrose, a 12th-round draft choice who replaced the injured Bob Babich in last year's fifth game but didn't play like any Mean Smilin' Dick.


Andy Russell contemplated retirement, but thoughts of a third straight Super Bowl convinced the 34-year-old outside linebacker that he had at least one more year in him. So, Pittsburgh's defense, like the offense, returns practically intact. Eight defensive Steelers, including all three linebackers—Russell, Lambert and the omnipresent Jack Ham—and the Associated Press' NFL defensive player of the year, Cornerback Mel Blount (11 interceptions), made the Pro Bowl after Pittsburgh yielded an AFC-low 162 points in 1975. If anything, the Steeler defense will be improved now that Mean Joe Greene, gentled much of last season with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, seems to have regained his ferocious form. Reclaiming his starting job from Steve Furness is Greene's new worry.

While Russell is the only Pittsburgh defensive regular past 30, Cincinnati will start several graybeards. Coy Bacon, 33, was acquired from San Diego to bolster a sagging line that had only 27 quarterback sacks and permitted 4.6 yards per rush, a division high. Yet the Bengals shuffled their most formidable pass rusher, Sherman White, off to Buffalo. Few teams run well against Houston's front three of Curley Culp (see Key Player), Elvin Bethea and Bubba Smith's little brother Tody (6'5", 250 pounds). Robert Brazile, the NFL's top rookie defender in 1975, is supposed to play strong-side linebacker but tends to appear everywhere, and the additions of Ken Ellis from Green Bay and Mike Weger from Detroit strengthen the secondary. In Cleveland, Tackle Jerry Sherk suffers from underwork; he was voted the "Bulldog Award" as the NFL's best defensive lineman by the offensive linemen, and now nobody ever runs at him. Gerald Irons, the former Raider, toughens the linebacker corps, and Thorn Darden, who missed the 1975 schedule after knee surgery, improves a weak Cleveland secondary that had an NFL low of only 10 interceptions last season.


Pittsburgh's toughest game may be in a courtroom. Defensive Tackle Ernie (Fats) Holmes was arrested last February in Amarillo, Texas for possession of 250 milligrams of cocaine; his case is on the docket for Oct. 4, but the trial will be delayed until after the season because, among other reasons, Holmes' chief character witnesses, his Steeler teammates, will be occupied until the 9th of January. Or so they hope.

Bum Phillips ran the NFL's most relaxed training camp in Houston. Workouts were conducted in light pads and never lasted longer than 90 minutes. Bed-check was a joke. The players loved it, naturally, but Houston's lackluster preseason may be ominous: there is a difference between "lax" and "relax." The big question in Cincinnati is: Will Bill Johnson coach like Bill Johnson—or Paul Brown?

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