Steelers must pressure Johnson -- again

PITTSBURGH – Clark Haggans only covered kicks the last time he and the Pittsburgh Steelers faced Brad Johnson, but Haggans remembers it well.

"Joey had about 30 sacks that game," he said.

Close. Joey Porter had four of the Steelers' 10 sacks that October day in 2001. Neither Porter nor the Steelers have had that many since. It was a career-high for Johnson, as well.

"It was a very interesting game," Johnson said of the Steelers' 17-10 win. "We stayed in the same formation every time and they blitzed us the same. I had about 12 beers after that game."

Those were Johnson's Tampa Bay days. He's now with the Minnesota Vikings, and a savior of sorts. He was the back-up to Daunte Culpepper the first seven games of the season and the Vikings were 2-5.

Culpepper injured his knee in the seventh game and was replaced by the 37-year-old Johnson. The Vikings haven't lost since.

While Culpepper was sacked 32 times in those first seven games, Johnson has been sacked 17 times in the last six games. And while Culpepper threw 12 interceptions in seven games, Johnson has thrown three. The Vikings turned the ball over 18 times with Culpepper, and only eight times with Johnson.

Obviously, the Steelers are hoping the Vikings revert to their early-season form Sunday at the Metrodome. "Pressure's always the key," said Porter, who probably understands how pressure affects Johnson better than anyone.

"They had a rookie up against me, and when it rains, it pours," Porter said of his career day against Johnson and rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker. "It was one of those games where I had inside, outside, whatever I wanted to do to get to the quarterback."

At the time, Jason Gildon was in his pass-rushing prime and the Buccaneers slid their protection away from Porter.

"They couldn't leave Jason alone, so they left me with their No. 1 pick and I made them pay for it," he said.

A similar scenario could unfold this week. The Vikings, who rank 31st in sacks allowed, will match rookie right tackle Marcus Johnson up against Haggans, who leads the Steelers with eight sacks.

Last week against Leonard Little of the St. Louis Rams, the Vikings used their tight end or running back on every pass play to help Johnson, so it's unlikely that he'll be left alone against Haggans, who leads the Steelers with eight sacks.

"He's definitely coming into his own," Porter said. "It's his work ethic. He's probably in the gym right now working out through his lunch break. That's what he does. He works out every morning. At 7 o'clock, he's here. He does all the little things that a lot of people don't want to do, like after practice he's still here taking care of his body, whether it's in the steam room, using the ice tub, lifting weights. He does all the things you have to do to keep yourself going because it's a long season. You're going to have success when you put in that much work."

The work has turned Haggans into the NFL's best pass-rushing linebacker. His eight sacks lead all linebackers, but he's not impressed.

"I've only got feelings about 8 and 5 right now," he said of the Steelers' won-loss record. "Going into the year it was not expected."

Frankly, neither was Haggans' breakout as a pass-rusher. His previous high was 6.5 sacks in 2002. Last year he had 6 and combined with Porter for 13. This year, the two outside backers have 15 sacks with three games remaining. Steelers starting outside backers haven't had as many since 2002 when Porter and Gildon combined for 18.

The high under coach Bill Cowher -- whose 3-4 alignment is designed for pass-rushing outside linebackers -- is 24. It was achieved twice: once by Gildon and Porter in 2000 and once by Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd in 1994.

Of course, Haggans and Porter combined for 28 sacks in 1998 when they were bookend defensive ends at Colorado State.

"In college, we just pinned our ears back and rushed every down," said Porter. "But being an outside linebacker you have much more responsibility than that."

Maybe Porter and Haggans can relive their more carefree days this Sunday. After all, the precedent has already been set against Brad Johnson.


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