Cowher called Lewis into his office late Tuesday, during a week off for the staff, and informed him of his decision.
Through a press release that was issued after 4 p.m. Tuesday, Cowher said, "My intent all along was to sit down, evaluate the entire season and not make any hasty decisions on any members of our coaching staff. After discussions with the coaches, it was apparent these changes were necessary in the best interest of the team."
The decision on Jackson, 41, was not surprising. Sources close to the team wondered whether the three-year NFL coaching veteran even wanted to return to the team. Prior to his hiring in February 2001, Jackson had spent eight years on the coaching staff of his alma mater, Penn State.
The firing of Lewis, on the other hand, was surprising in that the 42-year-old had one year remaining on his contract and oversaw a unit that not only improved its statistics from a year ago, but substantially improved those numbers during the last four games of the season.
Lewis joined the Steelers in 1995 as defensive backs coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator in February 2000. The Steelers ranked first in overall defense in 2001 by allowing 258.7 yards per game. The defense slipped to seventh in 2002 (302.2) and dropped to ninth this season even though both the average yardage allowed (298.9) and average points allowed (20.4) had improved over the previous season.
Lewis was part of a coaching staff that was openly criticized by players such as Joey Porter and Jason Gildon the last two years. The outside linebackers felt they were being asked to drop into coverage too often, however, the Steelers feared leaving cornerbacks Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott in man-to-man coverage during blitzes. Even Cowher encouraged Lewis to call fewer blitzes. According to a source, the two coaches squabbled during games when Cowher felt Lewis was blitzing too often, but once told the players after a game that Lewis should have blitzed more.
The squabbling between the two men was likely the main reason for Lewis' firing, since the defense allowed an average of 9 points and 275.8 yards the last four games of the season. Those games coincided with a season-ending injury to Scott.
From the Steelers' coaching staff, the top candidate to replace Lewis is defensive backs coach Willy Robinson, 47, who was the defensive coordinator at Oregon State under Dennis Erickson prior to joining the Steelers in February 2000. Robinson had previously coached defensive backs for the Seattle Seahawks under Erickson.
Outside candidates include recently deposed head coaches Dick Jauron, Dave McGinnis and Gregg Williams, as well as former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who coached under Williams in Buffalo last season.
It's likely the Steelers will turn to a former NFL player as its next wide receivers coach. One possibility might be Terance Mathis, who played with the Steelers in 2002.
The changes come on the heels of a 6-10 season, Cowher's third losing season in 12 as Steelers coach.
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