Mr. Sunshine Ponders
the 2001 Schedule
Article by Tom Hayes (7/3/01)
Graphics & Layout by McMillen & Wife
Having already waxed poetic about our division foes, I thought I'd fill in
the blanks regarding the other six teams we'll play this season (the ones
that we KNOW about, anyway - heh heh heh). As you can see for yourselves on
the front page of this very fine web site, we've got three early season road
games against the Bills, Chiefs and Bucs (weeks 4,6 & 7) and three late
season home contests against the Vikes, Jets and Lions (weeks 13 14 & 16).
A few general comments before I slog through team by team thing:
- Sure glad we get another early season bye. Thanks Mr. Tagliabue. The
Steelers will really be looking for a break after playing that grueling two
game opening stretch.
- Chiefs at Arrowhead again? This is totally unfair - and confusing. Our
guys have played that venue so often they think KC is in our Division.
- We get preseason peeks at three of these teams - the Vikings, the Lions
and the Bills. Kinda cool.
In week 4, the Steelers shuffle off to Buffalo (8-8 in 2000) following their
week 3 bye. Meanwhile, the Bills will have just completed a week 3 road
game at Indy and might be looking forward to their week 5 contest vs. the
Jets. Can't complain about the timing. Speaking of which, this team will
likely still be adjusting to new head coach Greg Williams, the West Coast
offense, a switch to a 4-3 defense and life without a host of free agents
and cap casualties including DE Marcellus Wiley, QB Doug Flutie, NT Ted
Washington, LB Sam Rogers, RB Antowain Smith, P Chris Mohr, starting RT
Marcus Spriggs and OL Joe Panos. On the flip side, the Bills main free
agent gain so far is pass catching RB Larry Centers. Others? Well, Tom
Donahoe has brought in ex-Steelers Kris Farris, Lance Brown and Pete
Gonzales as well as Bengal cast-off OL Craig Heimburger. I don't know about
you, but I have to call this a net loss. Top three draftees CB Nate
Clements, DE Aaron Schobel and RB Travis Henry might make some impact and
the team's offense could put up some points later in the year, but these
guys look vulnerable to me.
Two weeks later, after a home contest vs. the Bungles, our guys pack their
bags for KC where the Chiefs (7-9 in 2000) will be returning after playing
the previous week in Denver. Once again, timing could be worse. And this
is also a team with new coaches (starting at the top - Dick Vermeil) and new
philosophies on both sides of the ball. When last we saw Dick, he was
bawling his eyes out over having won the Superbowl with a team built on pure
speed. He wants to do the same thing again and has some pieces, but
probably not enough. Maybe not even enough to stay afloat in his own
division. Like last year, KC will throw a lot mainly 'cause they can't
figure out how - or who - to run. This time Trent Green will pull the
trigger, but the only new receivers of note to unburden Tony Gonzales and
Derrick Alexander will be Ram transfer Tony Horne and former Raven RB Priest
Holmes, who is - for those of you who haven't been paying attention - NO
Marshall Faulk. On the defensive side, coordinator Greg Robinson, who
presided over some really soft play in Denver last year, takes the reigns of
a squad that was already weak against the run before losing Chester
McGlockton. The other free agency comings and goings smack of treading
water and the team didn't have a pick in the draft 'til the third round.
You figure it out.
The very next week, the Steelers are on the road again - this time to Tampa
- and begin a particularly nasty three game stretch (the next two being vs.
the Titans and Ravens). But first thing's first. This Bucs team (10-6 in
2000) is tough and has Superbowl aspirations. After failing the past two
seasons primarily for lack of a passing offense (Hmm, where have I heard
that before?) and lack of effective long undies, the Bucs believe that the
addition of Brad Johnson will enable them to get Keyshawn the damn ball and
get the team over the hump. Fact is, they have to believe that because
aside from adding BJ, they are essentially standing pat - unless you want to
be premature and count the changes at DE, where Simeon Rice comes aboard as
Chidi Ahanotu leaves, as major improvement. The Bucs lost a couple other
guys, but feel they've already groomed replacements. And unless first round
pick LOT Kenyatta Walker comes on very fast, the Steelers will likely
encounter new Buc draftees only during special teams skirmishes. BTW - It's
not by accident that these two teams sport some similarities. Ex-Steeler
Tony Dungy is said to use our great seventies teams as models for his. So
the game might well come down to which team spiffs up it's passing attack
better. With Johnson & Johnson lining up for the Bucs and the contest being
on their turf, on paper at least this may be their game. But then Mr.
Alstott could get careless with the football and... who knows?
Last Year, the Minnesota Vikings finished 11-5 and were cruising in the
playoff fast lane when they blew a tire in New York during the NFC
Championship. By the looks of the team this year, they must have stopped in
a bad part of town because they're missing a lot of parts. Ya know, this
defense sucked BEFORE DL John Randle, DT Tony Williams and LB Dwayne Rudd
left town. The addition to offset all this? Lance Johnstone and some draft
choices who are - even on this unit - long shots to reach the field much
this year. But the real damage was done to the offense when Robert Smith
retired. Other guys left too - including OT Todd Steussie, WR Matthew
Hatchette and backup QB Bubby Brister - but it's the loss of Smith that will
hurt the most. The Vikes drafted speedster RB Michael Bennett in the first
round and will give him every opportunity to fill the void. Like many
Viking offensive skill players, he's got homerun talent but he's also very
green and, as a result, is likely to cause the offense to sputter on
occasion. That Jake Reed is back and the team added TE Byron Chamberlain is
good news for 3rd year QB Duante Culpepper 'cause he'll have to carry more
of the load this season. It'll be interesting to see if, by week 13 when
they come to Heinz Field, these guys still have a legitimate shot at the NFC
The following week, Vinny and the Jets (9-7 in 2000) come to town. Here's
yet another team with new coaches (Head Coach Herman Edwards, OC Paul
Hackett, DC Ted Cottrell) and new schemes to implement (West Coast offense
and 4-3 defense). Can we take advantage of that? Well, this late in the
season you have to figure that most of the major gaffs will have been
eliminated except perhaps for the most important: Can Vinny Testaverde, who
when given a seven step drop to think about it often chooses to connect with
opposing defensive backs, make better decisions in less time? Like many
teams, including our own, the Jets hope that the supporting cast will help
and they've got a good one. In addition to RBs Curtis Martin and Richie
Anderson and WR Wayne Chrebet, they'll field first rounder Santana Moss and
ex-Viking #3 WR Matthew Hatchette as targets. The loss of Dedric Ward, the
only offensive loss of any consequence, was rendered moot by the addition of
Moss. On defense, more familiar names have departed - especially LBs Bryan
Cox, Roman Phifer and Dwayne Gordon - but this is more about clearing dead
wood and switching schemes than serious damage. Adding Damien Robinson to
the safety mix is of value mainly because he knows Cottrell's system.
Anyway, bottom line? As Vinny goes, so go the Jets. OK by me.
In week 16, the Steelers come home from perhaps a season defining game in
Baltimore to host the Detroit Coin Toss Lions (9-7 in 2000), who will be
travelling after playing at home vs. the Vikings. Hey, here's something
unique: the Lions have a new coaching staff and are installing the West
Coast offense! Marty Mornhinweg has some work to do, starting with the
continuing shuffle of the offensive line. Jeff Hartings is now a Steeler
and the team has also parted company with Ray Roberts and Mike Compton.
Hartings will be replaced by Brendan Stai(!) and the draft yielded OT Jeff
Backus and C Dominic Raiola in the first two rounds, but too much youth and
inexperience could be problematic. The skill positions (RB Stewart, WRs
Morton, Crowell and Moore, TE Sloan) remain the same. Additions are role
players RB Amp Lee and TE Pete Mitchell. In what is by now a repeating
theme, the success of this group will rest on the shoulders, and in the
head, of the QB. Last year, Charlie Batch had accuracy problems stemming
from his recovery from a broken leg. Should that continue this year under
the new precision scheme, this offense will sputter. On defense the Lions
continued to pour talent into the line with the addition of DT Shaun Rogers
in the 2nd round. On the corners, they add ex-Ram Todd Lyght and welcome
back Robert Bailey from his one year stint in Baltimore because of the
health uncertainty of talented starters Bryant Westbrook and Terry Fair.
Safety and linebacker are said to be problem areas due to lack of speed. On
the whole, this is another team with many "ifs".
So what about the Steelers chances? Of these six teams, four have new head
coaches and new systems to absorb. There has been significant player
turnover on several of these teams as well. In other words, just as it is
within our Division, opportunity might be knocking. All of a sudden, we're
a team with continuity on our side. And maybe the late season weather in
Pittsburgh won't be too kind to the dome-boys of the NFC Central. Setting
any new injuries aside, I don't see why the Steelers can't take four of
these. In fact, I'd say they OUGHT to take at least four of these. Add
four against Ohio and one each from Jax and the Titans and you've got a 10-6
season without even having to challenge the Ravens - and I'm not saying we
can't - or otherwise play over your head. Looks pretty good from here.
Here's hoping the view improves as we approach the season.
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