Cowher breaks with tradition

Christmas comes in December. The weather in Pittsburgh is cloudy. Bill Cowher doesn't have his team ready to play in the season opener. Perhaps not quite death and taxes, but counting on the Pittsburgh Steelers to fall flat in the first game of the season was something you could almost set your watch by. After the Steelers embarrassed the Baltimore Ravens 34-15, who knows what this season might bring?

How about a Super Bowl victory?

Before you go singing that catchy little tune that was such a big hit during the 70's, keep in mind that the Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed a better opening day under Bill Cowher. That day, the expansion Cleveland Browns were served. That 43-0 victory told us little about the quality of the 1999 Steelers team.

But, before you jump on that bandwagon and the fact that rookie QB Kyle Boller was about as awful as you would expect from someone with so little experience, keep in mind that this was the Baltimore Ravens, a team that always shows up to play the Steelers. This 2003 version of the Steelers does not even remotely resemble any Cowher team that has come before it.

The game can be boiled down to a story of two quarterbacks, both starting in their first NFL opener. Boller made all the rookie mistakes you'd expect, posting a 57.5 passer rating. If it weren't for the Steelers' miscues when the game was already well in hand, the Ravens offense would have laid a big goose egg. On the other hand, Tommy Maddox was magnificent, going 21 for 29 for 260 yards passing and 3 touchdowns. And you thought the Steelers had problems in the secondary?

The Steelers still do have problems in the secondary, but Boller was not going to be the one to exploit it. Brian Billick gave this game away when he announced Boller as the starter. All the pressure was on Ray Lewis and the Baltimore defense, unless the Ravens were hiding the next Dan Marino in camp, not that Billick didn't try to hype Boller that way.

The sobering fact for all those fans of the Ravens is not that Boller was not as good as advertised, but that the defense was not nearly as good as so many people, including myself, thought. The Ravens run defense is still stalwart, but the pass defense suffered one breakdown after another. Plaxico Burress tormented Chris McAlister to the tune of over 100 yards receiving. Hines Ward caught two touchdowns and Jay Riemersma snared the third. The coverage was only there for the one fade to Ward from Maddox for six, but nowhere in Allegheny County for the other two.

Despite the consideration of the Ravens as formidable opponents for the Steelers in the AFC North (just ask Brian Billick), the outcome of the game had more to do with the ineptitude of the Ravens than with anyone on the Steelers side of the ball, perhaps save Maddox and the passing game.

The Steel Curtain hardly shut the door on RB Jamal Lewis, who didn't get enough chances because Boller could not move the chains. The better run defense looked to be with Baltimore, who consistently blew up plays in the backfield. The Steelers found yards on the ground when needed, such as the nifty counter-pitch to Amos Zereoue on 4th and 1 that went for 12 yards. However, this sounds more like Kordell Stewart and the passing game, perhaps something through the air just when needed.

As poor as the Ravens' secondary played, give credit to the Maddox and the receiving corps. There are just too many weapons to take into account, as the wide-open Riemersma demonstrates. The Steelers did not even need the no-huddle today while easily winning the time of possession battle. Mike Mularkey showed how the Steelers could control the ball with Bettis sitting on the sideline and Zereoue struggling to find room to the outside.

The Steelers were able to put on display all the warts of this Ravens team. However, the Steelers hardly looked invincible. The Ravens won the battle of special teams, with both kickers for the Steelers suffering through some bad moments. Jeff Reed's first kickoff after the short field goal was a pop fly that barely made it to the 20-yard line. He added to that another shank out of bounds, putting the Ravens on the 40. Miller hit a short one that gave the Ravens good field position once again, but luckily for him, the punt coverage team was quite good and Miller ended with a net average over 40 yards. It wasn't awful, but the special teams could be much sharper.

The red zone offense struggled early on, ending the day at 50%. This has been a problem that has dogged Cowher teams through the ages, often leading to 3 instead of 7 points. The problem is the run blocking in close. If teams dare to bring that safety into the box, something Maddox can make them pay for, the Steelers will struggle to run the ball. This year, the pass sets up the run, without a doubt.

On defense, Boller was not much of a test for the secondary that was torched last season. Trent Green and the Kansas City Chiefs will be. However, those of you screaming for more youth and speed over experience should watch the tape of the secondary in San Diego. Those young guns, just like Boller, will take a few games to get their feet under them. In the meantime, losses start piling up. That's not to say that the experience will save the Steelers next week. And given the way Jamal Lewis was able to squeeze out some quality yards (4.6 yards per attempt), the prospect of facing Priest Holmes cannot brighten the week of Tim Lewis.

We should get a good look at those Steeler warts next Sunday. In the meantime, the stars aligned and the sun rose in the west. A Cowher-coached team won the opener, spanking the Baltimore Ravens and placing the Pittsburgh Steelers all alone atop the AFC North, right back where they belong.

Jim Russell

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