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Pittsburgh has a major problem: the NFL won't let Chuck Noll have a 60-man roster. Personnel men around the league watch the Steeler cut lists like stockbrokers studying the ticker. The time-honored way of keeping dynasties alive is to trade away your reserves for high drafts, but it's tough for the Steelers to play that game. Everyone knows they have to cut quality people, so why pay for something you can get free? Pittsburgh may have had a few better front-line players here and there during its four Super Bowl seasons in the '70s, but it has never been as deep as it is in 1980. It's embarrassing, really. The camp roster listed 30 players who started in one or more Super Bowls, 14 who played in the Pro Bowl. Where do the Steelers find them all?
More to the point, what can possibly keep them from winning another championship? Well, they missed out in 1976 when all their runners were injured during the playoffs. That's a long shot in '80. In 1977 there was turmoil. No problem in that area so far this year. Coach Chuck Noll says it has been a happy team—except on cut day. Terry Bradshaw admits that the breakup of his marriage has been depressing, and he wasn't always able to keep his mind on football this summer. But he's 32 and has been through a divorce before. And he's a competitor.
And what an arsenal of weapons Bradshaw has at his disposal. He has one of the best lines in the business blocking for him, one that makes the sophisticated trap-block running game work and clears the way for such people as Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier and Sidney Thornton. And if that bogs down, as it did in Super Bowl XIV, Bradshaw can switch gears and throw to the best pair of wide receivers in the NFL, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
The Steelers are one of the few teams in football history that can hurt the opposition just as badly in the air as on the ground. Didn't those bombs to Stallworth bail Pittsburgh out when things looked darkest against the Rams? But we're looking for weaknesses, right? The defensive line had nine quality performers in camp, but no real superstar. We're reaching now; the defensive line won't be a problem.
Everyone knows this team—Swann and Stallworth and Kolb and Greene and Greenwood and Ham and Lambert and Blount and Bradshaw and Bleier and Harris and Webster and.... And now we come to the emerging stars. The right side of the offensive line, with Steve Courson at guard alongside Tackle Larry Brown, who's up to 270 now, could be Pro Bowl caliber. Dennis Winston is a dynamic linebacker now, if his bad back holds up. Halfback Greg Hawthorne, the No. 1 draft choice in 1979, was impressive in the preseason.
How can a rookie break in? He can't. The top 1980 pick, Mark Malone, is teething at quarterback behind Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt, who owns two Super Bowl rings but has never played a down in three NFL seasons. It's tough to earn a varsity letter at Steeler U.
Maybe HOUSTON can devise a way to get the divisions realigned so it can meet the Steelers once in the Super Bowl instead of in the AFC playoffs. Wouldn't it be nice to have Bum Phillips spinning yarns during a week of Super Bowl press conferences rather than on the practice field at Three Rivers Stadium, squinting into the snowflakes and saying, "If anyone knows how to play Pittsburgh, it's us."
It's no secret that Phillips is sending it all in this season. Every move Houston made was aimed at that mighty giant to the north. Phillips traded Quarterback Dan Pastorini to Oakland for Ken Stabler, who has beaten the Steelers the last three times he has faced them. Phillips also acquired Oakland Safety Jack Tatum for two, possibly three, games: he'll use Tatum as a nickel back stationed 10 yards deep, and let's see Pittsburgh run Swann and Stallworth on those crossing patterns then! Bum even went the Steeler bloodline route in the draft, picking Bradshaw's younger brother, Craig, despite the fact that he'd been a backup quarterback in college.
Everyone's cashing in on the Oilers. Some 150 different LUV YA BLUE items have been marketed, including a piano. They all luv Kenny the Snake. Fans lined up to buy little rubber snakes. No boos have been heard in the Astrodome. Stabler responded by upping his work load during the exhibition season. In the first game he was supposed to go a quarter, and he played a half. In the second game he was supposed to play a half, and he went three quarters.
Stabler has been spreading his passes around, too, getting all the receivers, including Earl Campbell, into the act, which will earn him no enemies on the offense. His soft passes have been just right for Box Office Billy Johnson, who's now a genuine receiving threat. The Oilers need a healthy Johnson because Ken Burrough is hobbling on a bad knee.