Notebook: Sharpe kind to Steelers this time

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> When Shannon Sharpe was with the Denver Broncos in 1997, he quieted a raucous crowd in the AFC Championship Game by catching a third-down pass from John Elway to end a comeback attempt by the Steelers. <br><br> A few years later, as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, it was Sharpe quieting the Steelers again, but this time with his pointed comments after a 16-0 win on opening day of the 2000 season.

"They've got a lot of problems," Sharpe said of the Steelers from the visitor's locker room at Three Rivers Stadium. "They have some issues they'll have to address. They've got some serious problems over there."

This year, Sharpe is back with the Broncos and the Steelers are coming to town 2-3 and riding a two-game losing streak that's given them the look of a team on the precipice of a free fall. Does Sharpe see it that way again?

"No," he said during a Wednesday conference call with Pittsburgh reporters. "I do know one thing: This is the best defense we will see all year. Kendrell Bell is unbelievable. If I had to take three linebackers, I think I might take him. I might take Ray Lewis first. I would probably take Derrick Brooks and I would take Kendrell Bell third."

"Over Brian Urlacher?" Sharpe was asked. He let a long pause sink in before saying "Next question."

How do these Steelers compare to the 1997 Steelers?

"This team here, I think they are better," Sharpe said. "There's no question they're a better football team. I don't know if anybody was there but Jason Gildon. I think that they are more athletic. They are a lot faster than that team was. I think, offensively, they are a lot better because they can do so many different things."

Denver quarterback Jake Plummer is having a career season, but a separated throwing shoulder, aggravated in last week's game, may prevent him from playing against the Steelers today. Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan didn't rule Plummer out, but 38-year-old backup Steve Beuerlein took nearly all of the first-team reps this week and expects to play.

"I expect that to be the case right now, yeah," Beuerlein told Denver reporters on Friday. "With the reps I took today, and the general feeling I get, yeah."

Beuerlein started three games last season and the Broncos won only one of them. He had a passer rating of 82.7. This season he's completed 7 of 16 passes for 98 yards. He's been sacked twice. "You know, (Pittsburgh) runs a 3-4 defense and it's been good to have gotten as many reps as I have, just to see that defense. I've gotten good work as the week has gone along, so I feel good about it."

Beuerlein last faced the Steelers in 1999, when his Carolina Panthers lost at Three Rivers Stadium, 30-20. He completed 18 of 35 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns, including a career-long 88-yard score to Patrick Jeffers as well as a 43-yard Hail Mary pass to Jeffers with seconds remaining in the first half.

The win broke a six-game losing streak for the Steelers, who won one of their final seven games that year.

Last season, only one of the NFL's top 10 rushers made the playoffs, but No. 7 Tiki Barber of the New York Giants was eliminated in the first round.

The only top-twenty rushers to reach the second round of the playoffs were Eddie George (14) of Tennessee, Curtis Martin (15) of the New York Jets, and Duce Staley (16) of Philadelphia. Of those runners, Staley and George reached the final four but didn't make it to the Super Bowl. Team-wise, the best rushing team in the second round of the playoffs last season was fourth-ranked Atlanta, while the highest-ranked rushing team in the final four was No. 7 Philadelphia. Apparently, running to win was just an old cliché your dad used, but it appears as if running is back in vogue. This season, the league's top rushing teams - Baltimore, Carolina, Denver, Minnesota and Kansas City - have a combined record of 20-3.

The final word must always be directed to the Steelers' coverage teams. This week, they rank 22nd in defending punt returns (10.8) and 31st in defending kickoff returns (26.9). Their priorities this week are Deltha O'Neal, who ranks 20th in the NFL in punt return average (8.0), and Chris Cole, who ranks 8th in kickoff return average (25.6). O'Neal is better known by fans, but Cole is the one who worries the Steelers.

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