The AFC Central is the league's best division. You can look it up. Last year it not only produced the Super Bowl champion Steelers, as well as their rivals in the AFC championship, the Oilers, but it also had the best combined winning percentage—.563—of any of the NFL's six divisions.
Despite the AFC Central's overall quality, no team is likely to unseat PITTSBURGH. The primary reason: Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who at 31 has become the game's most dynamic offensive performer. Last year Bradshaw led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes and threw eight more in three playoff games. The Steel Curtain used to be king in Pittsburgh, but Bradshaw has usurped it.
He has the NFL's most complete arsenal at his command, and he operates behind an aging but vastly underrated offensive line. When Bradshaw wants to stay on the ground, he simply hands the ball to Franco Harris, who this year can tie Jim Brown's record of seven 1,000-yard seasons. If Harris rambles for 1,221, he will move into third place on the alltime rushing list behind Brown and O. J. Simpson. At the other running back spot, Coach Chuck Noll plans to spell Rocky Bleier, a superb blocker but hardly a breakaway threat, with third-year man Sidney Thornton and first-round draft pick Greg Hawthorne.
Defenses concentrate on stopping the Steeler ground game, though it lacks a game-breaker, so Bradshaw calls a lot of play action passes. Last season, for the second straight year, Pittsburgh gained more yardage in the air than on the ground. Wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, who caught a total of 20 TD passes, rate as the best tandem in the NFL. The targets at tight end are just as good: Bennie Cunningham was asserting himself as one of the NFL's best when a knee injury sidelined him at midseason; his replacement, Randy Grossman, came on to make 37 catches.
The Steelers' only offensive shortcoming was in the field-goal department. Roy Gerela had his worst year, hitting just 12 of 26 tries, and now has lost his job to Matt Bahr, who converted 18 of 19 field-goal attempts from 40 yards or closer while at Penn State last season.
The Steeler defense is solid and deep, too. Pittsburgh stops the run better than any other AFC club. Mean Joe Greene still makes meaningful contributions, but the standout lineman now is Defensive End L. C. Greenwood. And the linebacking corps is, in a word, the best. Jack Lambert in the middle and Jack Ham on the outside are All-Pros. Because of the strength of the Steelers' line and linebackers, most opponents are forced to go to the air. But here, too, Pittsburgh is tough. The line applies pressure on the quarterback, and Noll puts on extra heat by ordering lots of blitzes. The secondary was already the best in the division, and now it has been strengthened by the return of Cornerback J. T. Thomas, who was out last season with a blood disorder. Ron Johnson, the No. 1 draft pick in 1978, played so well that the Steelers hardly missed Thomas.
One year ago HOUSTON signed Earl Campbell to a $1.4 million contract, the richest ever for an NFL rookie. Campbell would have been cheap at twice the price. He quickly established himself as the game's best running back by gaining 1,450 yards on the ground, becoming the first rookie to lead the league in rushing since Jim Brown in 1957. He is also the No. 1 reason why the Oilers, who otherwise are just an average team, went to the playoffs in 1978 and may well go again this year. The No. 2 reason is Quarterback Dan Pastorini, whose talent is surpassed only by his urge to self-destruct. In eight seasons in Houston, Pastorini has been involved in numerous car and boat wrecks. This year he has bought a motorcycle.
Pastorini had his best season in 1978, throwing for 2,473 yards and 16 TDs. His favorite target was Wide Receiver Ken Burrough, who caught 47 passes. The Oilers can expect improved field position if the game's top kick returner, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, fully recovers from knee surgery. However, Coach Bum Phillips has no plans at present to use Johnson on kick returns, preferring to keep him healthy for pass-receiving work.
Last year the Oiler line earned the dual distinction of opening the holes for the league's top rusher and giving Pastorini the NFL's best pass protection. Then, in training camp, Houston lost Tackle Greg Sampson, its finest lineman, after emergency brain surgery for a blood clot. In addition, Guard George Reihner came down with a bad knee and will miss three games. But just as Campbell probably was wondering who would be opening the holes for him, the Oilers gave their No. 1 and No. 6 draft choices in 1980 to New England and came home with All-Pro Tackle Leon Gray, a superior blocker.
Although Houston had a 10-6 record in 1978, it gave up more points than it scored. Led by linemen Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp, both of whom will be 33 this season, and linebackers Robert Brazile and Gregg Bingham, Houston's 3-4 alignment was effective against the run, but the pass defense was strictly a no-show. Phillips used his top two draft picks for two massive defensive linemen, Jacksonville State's 6'4", 256-pound Jesse Baker and Iowa State's 6'5" Mike Stensrud, but Stensrud arrived at training camp weighing more than 300 pounds. Phillips plans to help his weak secondary in passing situations by using both Baker and Stensrud in a four-man line that should put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.