- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Before we get all misty-eyed about the way the USFL has cut into the Steelers' offensive line, their receiving corps, their coaching staff, etc., let's look at this thing realistically. The offensive line lost Ray Pinney, a good tackle; Tyrone McGriff, a backup guard; and Thorn Dornbrook, who hadn't played since 79. More significant was the loss of Jim Smith, the heir apparent to Lynn Swann at flanker and the top long-ball threat. The departure of assistant coaches George Perles and Rollie Dotsch, just before the '82 season, was bitter, but the Steelers tightened ranks and went out and beat Dallas and Cincinnati before the strike hit.
Far more serious than any of the above is the condition of Terry Bradshaw's right wing. Last year the Steelers lost three out of four games while Bradshaw was toughing it out with a sore shoulder. He had muscle-tear surgery in March, tried to push his rehab work and the arm got sore. There's nothing wrong structurally, say the medics; it's more a case of wear and tear from 13 years of throwing major league fastballs. Terry's backup, Cliff Stoudt, has started one game in six seasons. The only bright spot is that Pittsburgh doesn't face a Central Division team until the third week; and the Steelers' first two division games are against Houston.
Bradshaw was on the shelf in 76, but the defense rose up and recorded five shutouts. That was a different defense, though, and a different era. For the last two years the Steelers have ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in overall defense. Last year they were No. 1 against the rush—the Steelers can stop the running game on memory—but passers worked them over, and in the playoffs they were bombed by Dan Fouts and the Chargers. The pass rush remains a problem, although the stats don't reflect it. The Steelers had a respectable 34 sacks last year, second-highest in the NFL, but only 14½ came from linemen. They blitzed, they stunted, they set linebackers in a down position. The old recognizable names along the defensive line—Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood—had been replaced by a shifting spectrum—Goodman, Beasley, Dunn, Kohrs, Willis. Now you can add Keith Gary, the No. 1 draft choice in '81, who's back from two years in Canada, and Gabriel Rivera, Señor Sack, this year's No. 1, a rollicking, brawling 290-pounder. The word being used to describe these people is "improving," but so far the Steelers have yet to find another L.C. or Mean Joe.
Franco Harris is still as nimble and tippy-toed and amazing as ever. In 1982, his 11th season in the league, Franco was given a new toy, the swing pass, and he showed great skill at making the first tackier miss him, and then picking up eight or nine yards out of nothing. He led the team in receiving. John Stallworth is one of the league's finest and most underrated wideouts, but no one knows who the other one will be. Rookie Wayne Capers, the No. 2 draft pick, has the speed to anchor the NFL 400-meter relay, but he and the ball have yet to make each other's acquaintance. Oh yes, the Steelers will join the trendy set this year and go to the one-back offense, possibly sending Walter Abercrombie out to the slot, or using him to spell Franco.
Leadership has never been lacking in Pittsburgh. And that could put the Steelers on top once more.
The two icy fingers of the '80s—cocaine and the USFL—reached out and grabbed the Bengals by the throat. Pete Rozelle suspended Defensive End Ross Browner and Fullback Pete Johnson for four games for buying coke ("Diet Coke, I hope," one Bengal said when he heard about the 250-pound Johnson's suspension). The new league signed Offensive Coordinator Lindy Infante and Tight End Dan Ross for '84 and Wide Receiver Cris Collinsworth for '85. "We seem to have been their target," says Assistant General Manager Mike Brown.
Infante was promptly fired and replaced by Special Teams Coach Bruce Coslett, who was replaced by no one. Those who know Paul Brown's severe method of dealing with turncoats figured Ross and Collinsworth would soon be trade bait, thus depriving Quarterback Ken Anderson of four of the best pass-catching hands in football. But discipline can go only so far, and even Brown realized that such a move might have produced a full-scale revolt on a squad already grumbling about salary policy: hard line for veterans, loose pocketbook for rookies. Middle Linebacker Jim LeClair, for one, says this is his last year in a Bengal uniform, and he's the recognized leader of the defense.
For the last six weeks no one in the front office has seen Johnson, whose weight, when and if he returns, could make the Guinness Book of World Records. Without him the Bengals are minus their one-man possession game, which had Johnson either punching the ball inside or catching the swing pass. Maybe the Bengals will try to fool people by sneaking 6'1", 266-pound rookie Running Back Larry Kinnebrew into Johnson's uniform and telling everyone he never left, but 184-pound Archie Griffin and 190-pound Rodney Tate are more logical choices to replace Johnson. At any rate, the passing game, with Anderson throwing those zingers behind a big, tough line—he completed a record 70.6% of his passes last year—will be pretty. A Branch Rickey type of trade—get rid of 'em while they're still valuable—sent Cincinnati's very competent center, Blair Bush, to Seattle for a No. 1 in '85, so the Bengals have an extra first-round pick in each of the next two years; Quarterback Jack Thompson was dealt to Tampa Bay for a No. 1 in '84. Organizationally, that's fine, but what happens if Center Dave Rimington, the 1983 No. 1 draft pick, can't cut it?