The days of Wild Bill, the days of yore

In Tuesday's press conference for the Pittsburgh Steelers, someone asked Bill Cowher if he saw what Dom Capers did on Sunday. Capers went for the win instead of the tie on fourth and 1 on the goal line, with just 2 seconds left in the game and down by 3. Cowher's response shows just how much he's changed since 1997.

After Bill Cowher reflected on Dom Capers' gutsy gamble a reporter then asked him, "Did he learn that from you?"

Capers used to be Cowher's defensive coordinator but Bill didn't think Dom picked up such a move from himself, "No, I don't think so. I don't think I have ever done that."

Perhaps Cowher has never done exactly what Capers did, but he's taken risks that are quite similar.

Case and point is the overtime victory against the Arizona Cardinals, in Phoenix (though you couldn't tell with all the Steelers fans that showed up) way back in 1997.

The Pittsburgh Steelers sacked Jake Plummer 10 times in that game, but a porous secondary allowed the Cardinals to hang around and force a 20-20 tie at the end of regulation.

The Steelers lost the coin flip, but the Cardinals had to punt after Jason Gildon sacked Plummer for a 9-yard loss. The Steelers then moved the ball to the Cardinals' 10-yard line. It was 3rd and 2, in overtime. Why not just kick the winning field goal?

"We weren't thinking field goal," said Chan Gailey, the Steelers offensive coordinator at the time. "It was a play to try to get a first down."

Instead, RB Jerome Bettis ran off-tackle all the way into the end zone.

We all saw last season why attempting a field goal on 3rd down can be the smart thing to do, the conservative thing. The Steelers got a second chance at the Cleveland Browns during their first match up in 2002.

However, the bigger gamble against the Cardinals occurred in the 4th quarter. The game was tied at 20, with just three minutes left to play. The Steelers faced 4th and 1, on their own 34-yard line. Don't you punt and let your defense carry you into overtime? You certainly don't want to hand the Cardinals the ball already in field goal range in the waning minutes.

"If I'm going to go down," Cowher said, "I'm going to go down with J.B."

He didn't trust the defense and rode Bettis, along with that wonderful offensive line, for a first down. The Steelers managed to eat up some more clock, but the Cardinals did get the ball back.

Anyone remember PK Joe Nedney? This time he hooked a 46-yard field goal attempt with just six seconds left on the clock. Cowher's big risk on 4th and 1 did not prevent the Cardinals from attempting a game-winning field goal, but Nedney couldn't deliver. He would later, as a member of the Tennessee Titans.

What about some of that riverboat gambling in 2003?

If Cowher is going to go down, he's not going to go down on the back of J.B. He's already made that clear. Do the Steelers have another horse to ride in those high-risk situations?

Particularly looking at the offensive problems in the red zone, the answer is no. Bettis is not the same runner that he was in 1997. Amos Zereoue or Verron Haynes are not vintage 1997 J.B. either.

But the big difference between Wild Bill of 1997 and Mild Bill of 2003 is the talent on the offensive line.

That's why on 4th and 1 on the Titans' 5-yard line, the Steelers go for three instead of six. Cowher knows he doesn't have the 1997 Bettis and offensive line to count on.

But the short yardage game isn't the only facet of the offense to suffer at the hands of the play on the line. Inside the red zone, Maddox is only completing less than 32% of his passes for a passer rating of 52.5.

Before you get ready to hang the quarterback, again, keep in mind that Maddox has great stats outside the red zone, where there is more room for the passing game (he also had superb stats inside the red zone during 2002). The low completion percentage inside the 20 suggests an offensive line that can't protect Maddox, particularly from blitzes up the middle.

Alan Faneca said as much earlier this week, "Kordell, they had to contain. Tommy, they don't have to contain. So, effectively, they're getting more of a push maybe up the middle a little more because they don't have to arc that guy wide. So, as compared to Kordell, we are seeing different blitzes."

This isn't a call for the return of Kordell Stewart, who has his own problems in Chicago. This is a call for better play from the interior of the offensive line. The biggest culprit is not the hobbled Jeff Hartings, but Kendall Simmons. The problems at the tackle position don't help either.

You want more gambling in the red zone? Maddox doesn't have the time and, right now, the Steelers don't have offensive line to pull those plays off. At this point, they're lucky to get three and Cowher knows it.

Jim Russell

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