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There are still a dozen veterans on the Steelers who know what it's like to win four Super Bowls. There are lots of youngsters running around. There isn't a lot in the middle.
It has just worked out that way. Those great drafts of the early 1970s produced the nucleus of Super Bowl talent; now those players are showing some mileage, but they remain the stars of the team. The new crop of youngsters still hasn't come of age, and the middle group represents medium talent.
The formula could work this year if injuries are minimal, but it's iffy. The Steelers are a tightly wired mechanism, and in the last two years some of those wires snapped at exactly the wrong time. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are gifted receivers, but every time they run more than 20 yards downfield, you wonder if they're going to pull something. Terry Bradshaw got the club moving last year, crushing people, homing in on a playoff spot, but then he broke his hand in a Monday nighter against Oakland. His backup, Cliff Stoudt, had already gone on injured reserve after losing a bout with a test-your-strength punching bag, so the fate of the Steelers was left to young Mark Malone, hobbling on a gimpy knee. Still, the Steelers didn't go down without a struggle. They lost their last three games by a total of 11 points.
The Super Bowl gang is breaking up. Joe Greene and Jon Kolb retired, J.T. Thomas and Dirt Winston were traded, and L.C. Greenwood is now a part-timer. George Perles, the assistant coach who created the great Steel Curtain defensive lines, went to the USFL and took the 4-3 defense with him. Chuck Noll will bite the bullet and go 3-4, for a while anyway.
A few stars still twinkle in the Steeler defense, but it's far from the theater marquee lineup it used to be. The three defensive Steelers who made the last Pro Bowl—Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert, Strong Safety Donnie Shell and Cornerback Mel Blount—are 30, 30 and 34, respectively. Jack Ham, the left linebacker, missed his first Pro Bowl in nine years. Robin Cole, on the right side, is an upcoming superstar, they say, but they've been predicting great things for him for five years. Gary Dunn graded out highest of all the defensive linemen last season, but now he's at a new position, middle guard. The liveliest rookie defender is Edmund Nelson, an end, but he's still learning. The Steelers' defense is ordinary at best, and last year it finished 22nd in the NFL, its worst ranking since Noll's first season—the 1-13 horror show of 1969. It should be improved, but the offense will have to carry it, at least part of the time.
The thing that could brighten the whole picture, and put some new verve and dash into the offense, is a rookie—a special one, the kind the Steelers haven't had since Franco Harris came prancing out of Penn State 10 years ago. Walter Abercrombie, the No. 1 draft pick out of Baylor, was the star of training camp until he twisted his left knee in the second exhibition game. He still might start in the opener, or his spot might go to steady, unspectacular Frank Pollard. Abercrombie runs like a dream, he catches passes...he blocks? Well, uh, not really. He's not called on to do that much blocking, and that's where the picture gets complicated.
The Steelers have a great offensive line that returns intact, a line on a par with the Super Bowl units. Noll still feels there's room for a high-level running game in this era, but the only time the equation really worked was when Rocky Bleier was out there blocking for Franco. No other combination has done it. The last runner the Steelers drafted in the first round, Greg Hawthorne, is now fighting to make the club as a backup wide receiver. So who blocks for whom in a Franco Harris-Walter Abercrombie backfield? Or will that be only a "situation" unit? Stay tuned.
For years the Bengals have been a bomb ready to explode. All the ingredients were there, all those high drafts, stockpiled from season after season of trading away veterans. All they needed was somebody to light the fuse, and last year Forrest Gregg was the perfect man for the job.