Re-built Steelers become a dominant team
By BOB LABRIOLA
There was a lot of construction taking place at the dawn of the new millennium in the small corner of the world the Pittsburgh Steelers called home. Heinz Field was being built. The football team was being rebuilt.
Bill Cowher had been hired in January 1992 to replace Chuck Noll, and each of his first six seasons as the team's coach ended with a spot in the playoffs. Three times in those six seasons, the Steelers served as hosts of the AFC Championship Game, and they had played in Super Bowl XXX at the end of the 1995 season. To Steelers fans, the postseason had become an expectation.
When that expectation was met with a 7-9 record in 1998 and followed with a 6-10 encore in 1999, Cowher, Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis were the ones most often in the fans' crosshairs, but there was enough vitriol to go around. When the Steelers opened the 2000 season this way: getting shut out by Baltimore at home; losing in Cleveland to a Browns team that had re-entered the NFL the previous year with a 2-14 record; and folding at home in the final seconds against defending conference champion Tennessee, fans had to be wondering where the bottom was.
But by the end of 2000, the Steelers had righted themselves, at least to the extent they seemed to have found their way back to the proper path. They still weren't good enough for the playoffs, but a five-game winning streak through October and a four-out-of-five end to the season had them back above .500 at 9-7 when it was all over.
The corner had been turned, but there still was work to do. On Feb. 11, 2001, Three Rivers Stadium was imploded so that Heinz Field could be completed, and around that time Cowher was doing similar work on his coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was fired and line coach Kent Stephenson retired. Receivers coach Bob Bratkowski left to become the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, and Cowher took advantage of it all to re-make the offensive staff.
Mike Mularkey was promoted to offensive coordinator and Ken Whisenhunt was hired to replace him as tight ends coach. Russ Grimm was hired to coach the offensive line, and Tom Clements became the Steelers first quarterbacks coach since Babe Parelli was fired in 1973.
The Steelers rewarded both Cowher and Bettis with contract extensions, and they signed Jeff Hartings to replace the retiring Dermontti Dawson at center. The pick of Casey Hampton on the first round of the draft allowed them to move Kimo von Oelhoffen from nose tackle to defensive end. Because Dawson was retiring and defensive captain Levon Kirkland was released for salary cap reasons, the Steelers were in need of a presence in the locker room and Cowher let everyone know he believed he had one in Bettis.
"Jerome is a leader. He's been accountable, he's been a stand-up guy, a leader in the community and the locker room," said Cowher. "All that is based on the fact he has been a producer on the field. It's important to keep a player like him, who has instant credibility based on what he's done and how he goes about it."
Still, not much was expected of the Steelers as the summer of 2001 drew near, because the AFC Central Division also included the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and the 1999 AFC champion Titans. In addition to those home-and-home series, the Steelers also had NFC playoff teams Minnesota and Tampa Bay on the schedule. If the playoffs were an expectation in 1997, they seemed to be little more than a dream in 2001.
As training camp began to unfold, however, it became evident to daily observers that this Steelers team had the potential to do something special. The re-made offensive staff had a real appreciation for running the football, and Mularkey had invested the time to develop a relationship with Kordell Stewart that involved more than criticizing. Then came that fateful Saturday at St. Vincent College.
It was a day that ended the Steelers' first week at training camp, and with the preseason opener not set until the following weekend, Cowher had plans for a spirited afternoon session. He got way more than he could have anticipated.
It began in a non-descript fashion, with rookie free agent Joey Getherall beating starting cornerback Chad Scott with a double-move and hauling in a long touchdown pass in team drills. The play elicited a loud cheer from the assembled fans lining the sun-splashed hills surrounding the practice field, and the defense – particularly safety Lee Flowers – took umbrage.
Flowers may have vocalized the defense's anger, but Scott was the one who personified it. He intercepted four passes over the next six offensive plays, and two of those four he returned for touchdowns. After the second one, Scott punted the ball up onto the surrounding hill lined with fans as Flowers screamed at them to show similar enthusiasm for big plays by the defense.
Next up on the day's schedule was goal-line, the only live tackling drill of a Cowher camp, where the ball is placed on the 5-yard line and the offense gets four downs to score. While not specifically outlawed, pass plays are frowned upon.
Bettis gained 3 yards on first down; on second down the Bus had his foundation buckled by linebacker Kendrell Bell, a rookie who often didn't know which way to go but always went there with malice in his heart. The hitting was fierce and the competition bubbled over into a slew of verbal confrontations. But when it was over, the players lingered on the field and debated winners vs. losers instead of rushing for their cars to get a start on their one day off.
"When the offense wins, the team wins," said Bettis. "When the defense wins, the team wins. It's all about the team."
Their preseason ended with a 3-1 record that included a loss to the only good team they played, and as the 2001 Steelers honed in on the Sept. 9 opener in Jacksonville there still were two distinct visions of their team.
The optimistic version went like this:
If Jerome Bettis stays healthy, and if the offensive line develops into a cohesive unit, and if the young nose tackle plays like a veteran, and if the defensive line can generate a pass rush, and if Chad Scott's knee doesn't inhibit him from performing as he did throughout training camp, and if the play in the middle of the dime defense improves …
Then, this was the opposite view:
Marvel Smith is a weak link in the offensive line, and the running game is too predictable, and there's no vertical passing game, and none of the wide receivers has difference-making speed, and the defensive line will get pushed around, and there's no pass rush without a blitz, and Kordell Stewart never will be a big-time quarterback …
Nobody really knew anything for certain, including Cowher.
"Who knows how this thing is going to unfold. I really don't," said Cowher. "I do like the approach that they've taken; the way we have come out the past couple of weeks and played the game and prepared for the game. We've got to be able to sustain that focus.
"We're going to have some adversity. It's going to happen. We have to be able to overcome those things. The tough times are ahead of us, not behind us. As long as we understand that and take a very even keeled approach to things, then I think we'll be fine. We're getting there."
That seemed like so much hooey when the Steelers went to Jacksonville and stunk out the joint.
Four turnovers, three sacks, a fumbled snap at the Jacksonville 6-yard line, a cornerback playing so soft that he actually was behind a receiver who caught a pass in the end zone. Their defense managed one sack, no takeaways, and four starters were knocked out with injuries. Plaxico Burress dropped a third-down pass, and on the next play Josh Miller's punt was blocked to set up the touchdown that gave Jacksonville a 14-3 lead. Bettis gained 28 yards on 12 carries, and Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith caught eight passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns. It was 21-3 when it was over.
"It's disappointing, but there's no reason it should burst our bubble," said Flowers. "I've been around this league a long time. I've seen good teams and bad teams. This is a good team. You hate to start out like this and then have to say, 'It's a long season. We'll get it together.' We've said that a lot around here, and the next thing we knew the season was over and we were nowhere. Shame on us if we do it again."
A quirk in their schedule and the tragic events of Sept. 11 meant the Steelers wouldn't get a chance to do anything about that opening loss for 21 days. The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., forced the NFL to postpone all games on the weekend of Sept. 16-17, and the Steelers were scheduled for their bye on Sept. 23. Three weeks was an unusual amount of time to spend together, especially at that time of the year.
"In times of tragedy, you can see the true colors of the people who are around you," said tight end Mark Bruener months later. "We're friends with our teammates, but we don't know them on a very personal level. We come in, do our jobs and go home. Very few of us hang out outside of football. A situation like Sept. 11 allowed us to see more than just the football side of our teammates. That truly allowed us to get to know our teammates on a more personal level. To see them show their emotion, I really think brought us closer. I really do."
But the coming together of the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers was a process. It began with a win over an injury-ravaged Bills team in Buffalo, and then the momentum began to build.
Bettis cracked the 10,000-yard mark for his career and the team rushed for 274 in a win over the Bengals. They rushed for 203 the following week in another win, in Kansas City. The next week, it was 220 yards rushing against the annual preseason darling Buccaneers in Tampa, the same game in which the defense rolled up 10 sacks.
"I'm tired of Tampa Bay; I'm tired of all those guys who talk all the time. They aren't nothing but paper champions," said Flowers. "That's all they were; that's all they've ever been. They have All-Pros, but you still have to step up and play the game. People aren't going to bow down just because you went to Hawaii. This was a team we needed to beat."
After five games, the Steelers had 21 sacks, and their sixth game was against a Titans team against which they had lost seven straight. They dominated the Titans, 34-7, to the degree that backup quarterback Tommy Maddox even got to play.
They were 6-2 at the midway point, and Bettis already had rushed for 866 yards with a 5.3 average, and come the end of November Kordell Stewart caught fire.
In the rematch against the Titans, in Tennessee, he completed 19-of-31 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and he also ran eight times for 54 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown. Bettis injured his groin against the Vikings on Dec. 2 after gaining 81 yards, he had 1,072 yards on 227 carries, and so even more of the offensive load fell to Stewart.
In the first half vs. the Jets Stewart had 167 yards passing and converted 7-of-9 on third down. In Baltimore, against a great Ravens defense in its prime, the Steelers rolled up 476 yards of offense, converted 9-of-15 on third down and controlled the ball for over 41 minutes. Stewart completed 20-of-31 for 333 yards with touchdown passes of 25 yards to Plaxico Burress and 90 yards to Bobby Shaw. The Steelers clinched the division title on the defending champion Ravens home field.
"To be able to go to Baltimore and answer some of the questions that may have been asked was important," said Cowher. "It was surprising to be tied for the best record in football and still find yourself being an underdog going into a game. Maybe we haven't proven ourselves to a lot of people, but at some point you have to realize we're not a bad football team."
As the playoffs began, the Steelers were a good enough team to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They were No. 1 in rushing offense and No. 1 in total defense, and their 55 sacks tied the franchise record. They had a 1,000-yard rusher in Bettis, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress and three starting linebackers – Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and Kendrell Bell – with at least nine sacks apiece. After the Ravens dispatched Miami in a Wild Card Game, the Steelers learned they would open their playoffs with a rubber match their hated rival at Heinz Field.
"Our division really gets you ready for the playoffs," said Bettis. "You have physical offenses and physical defenses, and when you play those types of teams and win those types of games it toughens you up as a football team. It teaches you to be ready for anything."
Speaking of Bettis, he hadn't played since injuring his groin against the Vikings on Dec. 2, but he was supposed to be ready for the Ravens.
As it turned out Bettis didn't play against the Ravens because a mis-aimed injection to numb his injured groin less than an hour before kickoff numbed his entire leg instead. That left Bettis in tears and his teammates inspired.
"When we found out Jerome couldn't play, you could see a sparkle in the eyes of the defensive guys because then we knew we had to dominate this game," said Flowers.
It didn't take long for them to put that knowledge into action. On the game's third play, the on-rushing Porter was flipped into the air by Ravens running back Moe Williams, but he still got up and hit quarterback Elvis Grbac, whose errant pass was intercepted by Scott. That set the tone for a performance that lived up to Flowers' pregame expectations.
The Ravens had qualified for the playoffs and then gotten past Miami in the Wild Card round on the strength of their rushing attack, but they managed only 22 yards on 11 attempts against the Steelers. That, plus 1-of-12 on third downs meant the Ravens punted eight times, and when the Steelers offense did its part by rushing for 154 yards and controlling the ball for 40 minutes the outcome of the game never was in doubt.
By halftime, the Ravens had seven offensive possessions – three turnovers, three punts and a field goal – and the Steelers held a 20-3 lead. "We made too many mistakes early in the game, and our running attack really wasn't clicking," said Grbac. "And then, we couldn't make it up with our passing."
In the second half, Baltimore punted five times and turned the ball over once in six offensive possessions. At the end, the Steelers had a 27-10 victory and the grudging respect of Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, who always had been in the middle of every war of words between these teams.
"They are the better football team, and that's really frustrating," said Sharpe. "I looked up midway through the third quarter, and we had 78 yards of total offense and they had possessed the football for almost 30 minutes. That won't win football games. We were prepared, and it's painful to say this, but they have a better football team than what we've got. And that's basically what it comes down to."
Brown 21 FG
Zereoue 1 run (Brown kick)
Zereoue 1 run (Brown kick)
Brown 46 FG
Stover 26 FG
J.Lewis 88 punt return (Stover kick)
Burress 32 pass from Stewart (Brown kick)
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.