Test time at hand for Steelers D

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> It went beyond the use of basic psychology. Steelers Coach Bill Cowher had a different look on his face when he was asked what he expected from the Kansas City Chiefs offense. <br><br> "This offense will spread you out, shift, motion," he said. "We're going to get some empty sets. There's no question. That's coming. At some point that is coming. It's a matter of time." The spread offense. It's coming. A matter of time.

Well, the moment of truth is at hand. Generally, the Cincinnati Bengals are credited with being the first team to spread the Steelers out and make their outside linebackers and safeties cover man-to-man. But actually, the Chiefs may have been the first in 2001, and its been the chink in the Steelers' armor ever since.

On Oct. 14, 2001, the Steelers had the Arrowhead Stadium crowd nice and quiet as it headed into the fourth quarter with a 20-2 lead. The desperate Chiefs took their fullback off the field and went with one running back, a tight end and three wide receivers on offense. The result was two touchdown runs by the back, Priest Holmes, in two drives. If Amos Zereoue hadn't received a big crackback block from Hines Ward on defensive end Eric Hicks on a late third down, the Chiefs would've gotten the ball a third time and quite possibly won the game.

The Chiefs, who had gained 153 yards through three quarters, gained 133 in the fourth quarter of the 20-17 loss.

"That may have been when they figured out it was best to run Holmes out of a spread," said Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "You'd better believe we're going to see it again." Holmes certainly hasn't lost a step. After missing training camp in a contract dispute, he rushed for 85 yards and caught seven passes for 98 yards in a 27-14 opening-day win over San Diego. As for their other main weapon, Tony Gonzalez is still with the Chiefs. But the big-play tight end isn't the only target anymore. The receivers are veterans Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison, with explosive Dante Hall in the slot.

The quarterback, Trent Green, enters his third season with the Chiefs with a much greater command of the offense. In the 2001 game, Green completed 16 of 33 passes for only 127 yards. Last week, he completed 21 of 32 passes for 282 yards. He barely resembles the unsure rookie who used to mop up against Jim Miller in the old Steelers-Redskins practices at Frostburg State College.

"I remember when he came out from Indiana," said Cowher, "and I don't think I envisioned him with the crew that he has and the type of player he's become. He's a very, very efficient player, very accurate. I guess he's more accurate than I remember the guy. He's got great anticipation, sees the field well. He really is a perfect fit for that offense.

"He's come a long way. He's without a doubt one of the top quarterbacks in the league." But there may be an even bigger difference in the Chiefs since the Steelers played them some 23 months ago.

"Their offensive line is a lot better," said Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "Back then they had good linemen, but right now they've got three All-Pro, potentially four All-Pro linemen. They've got Will Shields, John Tait, Willie Roaf and their center (Casey Wiegmann). In the preseason, he was kicking everybody's butt."

Shields, the right guard, has been to eight Pro Bowls. So has Roaf, the left tackle. Tait, the right tackle, was drafted one pick after the Steelers' choice of Troy Edwards in 1999. Left guard Brian Waters is considered by scouts to be underrated. The same scouts consider Wiegmann to be the weak link, but still a good player.

Those five players set the stage for Holmes, who rushed for 1,615 yards as the Associated Press' NFL Offensive Player of the Year last season.

"The key will be getting penetration on the line, getting up field so Holmes doesn't have time to make cuts and read," said the other Steelers defensive end, Aaron Smith. "He's a good patient runner. He sees the field so well. You've got to go get him. If you don't penetrate the line he's got all the time in the world to see the field and make a cut and choose where he wants to run the ball.

"It'll be tough. It'll be tougher than last week."

By Jim Wexell
SteelCitySports.com

Steel City Insider Top Stories