Steelers Punishing At Home

We say it often, but Sunday Randy Moss should be featured strongly while going against a shorter former Viking in cornerback Dewayne Washington.

There's an axiom in the offensive lexicon on the NFL that teams can't be too one-dimensional. If a team can't pass or can't run effectively, typically the other half of the offense eventually struggles as well, since defenses load up on the passing game if they don't respect the run and vice versa.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the exception to that rule. When the Vikings travel to Pittsburgh, they're going to face a team that has risen to the top of the AFC Central with an oppressive defense and a one-dimensional offense. While few teams have made the formula translate into season-long success, the Steelers have done it.

Pittsburgh, like the Vikings, lost their season opener. Unlike the Vikings, the Steelers recovered from the loss and have moved to the top of the AFC and seem like a shoo-in for the playoffs. At the helm of the offense is quarterback Kordell Stewart, who has shaken off the label of "Slash" and has become more of a pocket passer than merely a scrambler. While never mentioned in the same breath as the Brett Favres, Kurt Warners and Daunte Culpeppers of the NFL, Stewart has shown a lot of improvement, but he isn't the focus of the Steelers offense.

The focal point remains running back Jerome Bettis. After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Bettis has become one of the premier NFL backs once again now that he's healthy. He's among the leaders in rushing and has become a 25-carry-a-game workhorse. He isn't alone in the backfield — Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala spells him from time to time, Jon Witman functions as his fullback and Amos Zereoue is the third-down back — but this is Bettis' team and, like Curtis Martin of the Jets, he is the fuel that runs the offense. Stop Bettis and you stop the Steelers.

The receivers in Pittsburgh have been an annual joke. Ever since the days of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, the Steelers have spent more than a dozen high draft picks on wide receivers with little to no return on the investment. That has begun to change. Hines Ward has developed into a very good receiver, bringing the big play back to the Pittsburgh offense, and Plaxico Burress, a 6-foot-5 receiver viewed as a colossal bust last season, has come on strong this year.

Throw in former starter Troy Edwards and third-down specialist Bobby Shaw and the Steelers finally have a group of receivers capable of doing some damage. Veteran tight end Mark Bruener also fits into the mix, but his job is more as a blocker than a regularly used receiver.

Up front, the Steelers have built a strong offensive line that will give the Vikings all they can handle, combining free agency and the draft to create a cohesive front line — a rarity in the NFL. Guard Alan Faneca was a first-round draft choice in 1998 and right tackle Marvel Smith was taken on the second round in 2000. The remaining three — left tackle Wayne Gandy, center Jeff Hartings and right guard Rich Tylski — were signed through free agency. The group has formed one of the best run-blocking units in the league, allowing Bettis to post lofty numbers even though teams jam eight defenders in the box expressly to stop him. The Vikings will have their hands full trying to throw around these guys.

While the offense in Pittsburgh has played well enough to win games, it's the defense that has made whispers of the Super Bowl start circulating around Heinz Field. Not only have the Steelers not lost at home, teams have scored an amazingly pathetic 3, 7, 7, 13 and 7 points in games at Heinz. As the last NFL team that employs a 3-4 defense, the Steelers get the most out of their talent — and it starts up front. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Kimo von Oelhoffen have enjoyed phenomenal success, especially considering Hampton is a rookie and Smith is only in his third season. Their ability to clog running lanes and get a pass rush has made the rest of the defense better, and it makes some wonder why more teams don't employ the 3-4 defense.

However, to make a 3-4 work, you need to have large, active linebackers, and the Steelers have been a factory of such players. Even after losing Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Levon Kirkland in recent years, the Steelers haven't missed a beat. Jason Gildon and Joey Porter are both in the 6-foot-3, 250-pound range and can serve as pass rushers, run stoppers and coverage men, while inside backers Earl Holmes and rookie Kendrell Bell have both been impressive, with Bell getting consideration for AFC Rookie of the Year. They all know their specific role in the defense and have helped make the new-look Steel Curtain a feared defensive force.

What many thought was the weakness of the defense has become a strength in the secondary, as former Viking Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott have become a couple of the AFC's best cover corner tandems, while hard-hitting safeties Brent Alexander and Lee Flowers — not the most talented players — have made the most of their skills to become tooth-loosening hitters. Flowers has become something of a trash-talker in recent weeks, bad-mouthing the Buccaneers as "paper champions," as well as talking smack on Randy Moss. Expect the Vikings to take a couple of shots his way.

To watch the Steelers is to get the impression that their defense must hold an opponent to 14 points or less to win, which is essentially true. But, seeing as no team has scored 14 points at Heinz Field yet this season, the Vikings face a tall order in being the first to get that task done. VU


KEY OFFENSIVE MATCHUP
Cris Carter and Randy Moss vs. Dewayne Washington —
When Washington was allowed to leave the Vikings, the knock on him was that he got burned too often on fakes. He has blossomed in the Steelers' system, and they gave him a fat contract extension. The Vikings remember Washington and will likely go after him to see for themselves if he has made as much improvement as Bill Cowher tends to believe.

KEY DEFENSIVE MATCHUP
Vikings defensive line vs. Jerome Bettis —
"The Bus" weighs between 250 and 260 pounds, and few backs of his girth have lasted as long as he has. But Bettis seems to be getting better with age. The Steelers are content to pound him into a defensive line constantly and, unless the Vikings' defensive line can bottle him up quickly, he'll get 25-30 carries. He doesn't have many moves — he runs north and south — and the Vikings have had success against big backs. Stopping Bettis is priority one, and the defensive line will be assigned to keep him in check.

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