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"We lose three games by a total of four points and all of a sudden we're old and we can't rush the passer," says Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert, who has been on the sidelines for two weeks with a sprained knee. "If we'd won those three, we'd still be a dynasty, or whatever the people want to call it."
"Everybody's an expert on what's wrong with us," Noll says. "They all point to the lack of a pass rush. O.K., that's an obvious thing, easy for people to see. There's a lot more to it than that, but until we win, whatever they say is right. Until we win, they're absolute experts, and nothing we say can refute it."
But the numbers speak. After eight games this year the Steelers had 10 sacks, only one more than the worst sack total in the NFL. Last year after eight games they had 21, on their way to a very healthy total of 49. Also, opposing passers were hitting the Steelers for 218 yards a game—Green Bay's total was 266. Sure, the Steelers led the NFL in interceptions with 17, but if you give the opposition that much time to throw, it's only a matter of time until your secondary is on a psychiatrist's couch.
Noll studied the figures and then did something he didn't want to do: he reinstated team pass-rush drills. "We've always worked on our pass rush," says Noll, "but it has been one-on-one, two-on-two at the most. It's risky to work on an entire four-man rush, especially at almost full scrimmage conditions, like we're doing now. You're gambling on an injury, on somebody falling across someone's leg, or something like that."
At last Thursday's practice, Pittsburgh paid the price. John Goodman, a rookie defensive end from Oklahoma, a sack specialist who was ready to come off injured reserve, was running a stunt to the inside and collided with Greenwood, the defensive end on the other side. Goodman's knee got whacked again, and he remains on injured reserve.
Noll's drills started to pay dividends on Sunday. The Steelers sacked Green Bay's Lynn Dickey three times, tying their high for 1980. O.K., it was only the Packers, but one thing Green Bay has been able to do of late is protect the quarterback; in his four previous games Dickey had thrown for 1,045 yards and been sacked only six times. The Steelers had to get to him.
"In fairness to our defensive line," Greene says, "we'd lost our pass-rushing skills. We'd been so conditioned to play the run that they had eroded. When you rush the passer, you have to live dangerously. You have to gamble and get off the ball. You have to have a big heart and commit yourself 100% to the fighting and clawing you need to get in there."
Greene recorded his first sack of the year against the Packers, and it was a showcase job. He spun inside off the guard's block, then he split the guard and center, who had come over to help, and got to Dickey. "I can feel it coming back, the moves and the quickness," Greene said. "It's not going to come back all in one week, but it's coming. I can feel it."
Greene said he free-lanced on the play. He was supposed to take an outside route. Greenwood, another blast from the past, said he free-lanced for practically the whole game, flying down the line from the outside, chasing the ball. He had eight individual tackles, a sack and a half, a deflected pass and put heavy pressure on Dickey a couple of other times. Greenwood called it his best game since the 1979 Super Bowl.
"Maybe that's what it takes, freelancing like that, getting away from a pattern," he said. "You know you get stereotyped, and people get a hook on you. Well, I'll probably catch hell from the coaches when they look at the films and see what I was doing out there. But for the last few years we shut down the run and figured the pass rush would take care of itself. This year it hasn't. Maybe the answer now is to go into every game thinking pass rush first and assuming we can play the run from memory."