Friday, November 26, 1999

Steelers share doom, gloom

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There is a chance of snow for Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game in Pittsburgh, perhaps fitting for two franchises facing hard winters.

        The Steelers (5-5) are virtually out of the postseason picture, trailing Jacksonville (9-1) and Tennessee (8-2) in the AFC Central. It is the first time in coach Bill Cowher's eight-year tenure that Pittsburgh entered Thanksgiving week with, basically, no chance at the playoffs.

        The Bengals (1-10) must finish 2-3 just to match their all-time worst record. But if you didn't know better, you would think things were just as bad in Pittsburgh as in Cincinnati.

        Cowher is defending himself against accusations that he no longer displays a passion for coaching. And running back Jerome Bettis, much like the Bengals' Corey Dillon, laments a diminished workload as the Steelers ride a two-game losing streak.

        “I share his frustration, believe me,” Bettis said this week.

        Bettis laughed as he said it. And Cowher laughed when asked whether he had lost his jut-jawed, fire-breathing demeanor. After making the playoffs in each of his first six seasons (1992-97), Cowher will probably miss the tournament for a second straight year.

        “I like to feel I haven't changed as a person and a coach,” said Cowher, 42. “Perception is up to the eye of the beholder.”

        Two weeks ago, the Steelers suffered a 16-15 home loss to expansion Cleveland, a team it thrashed 43-0 in the season opener. After the Browns loss, a Pittsburgh columnist wrote that Cowher had lost some of his fire.

        “He seemed to accept his team's failure,” the columnist wrote. “Worse, he didn't even seem to care.”

        After the Steelers lost again last Sunday, 16-10 to Tennessee, the old Cowher snarled to life at Monday's weekly press conference. He said he was working as hard as ever, and that several players' jobs were on the line.

        “I think too much focus has been put on me,” Cowher said. “But that's the nature of this business ... This is the first time we've been 5-5, and it's a different feeling. When we do get things going, it seems like something happens to stop it, whether it's a penalty or whatever.”

        Mostly, the Steelers' annual talent losses have caught up with them.

        Former All-Pros such as receiver Yancey Thigpen and safety Carnell Lake are among those who have departed in the past two years. Other former All-Pros such as cornerback Rod Woodson, quarterback Neil O'Donnell, and linebackers Chad Brown and Kevin Greene have been gone awhile, but re main contributors elsewhere.

        Bettis, a four-time Pro Bowler himself, has regained form after struggling with knee and calf injuries earlier this season. He is on pace for his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing season with Pittsburgh, and has more touchdowns this season (five) than all last year (three).

        Yet, Bettis acknowledged that the Steelers aren't what they once were.

        “When you lose Pro Bowlers, it takes away from your depth and it's hard to replace them,” he said. “Unfortunately, our standards are pretty high around here.”

        Quarterback Kordell Stewart has not become the star Pittsburgh thought, suffering through a second straight subpar year. And there have been costly injuries, such as Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson missing the past month with a bad hamstring.

        The Steelers beat the Bengals 17-3 at Cinergy Field on Oct. 17, in an ugly game in which Bettis ran for 111 yards. Bettis has run for 100 yards in seven of his eight career games vs. Cincinnati.

        “We just try to be as physical as we can with them,” Bettis said. “We seem to match up pretty well against them.”

        The Bengals, a 101/2-point underdog, are somewhat juiced after a competitive 34-31 home loss to Baltimore last week. And Cowher himself reminded everyone that last December, a 2-12 Cincinnati team visited the 7-7 Steelers and upset them 25-24.

        “You don't put a record on the Cincinnati Bengals when you watch them play,” he said. “We all know what happened here a year ago. And certainly, we can't overlook anybody right now.”


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