Ron Cook: Steelers 'slobber' at prospect of a newbie
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By 1983, the Steelers' defense had lost much of its Steel Curtain strength, but it still looked plenty formidable to a young, hotshot quarterback from Stanford making his NFL debut at Three Rivers Stadium.
"He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself," John Elway would say later of Jack Lambert. "I'm thinking, 'You can have your money back. Just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant ...' "
Wouldn't it be great if San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has some of those same thoughts tonight when he looks at the Steelers' defense and sees the Most Feared Player In The NFL -- or so some say -- glaring back at him?
It's not out of the question that Joey Porter and pals will put a little fright and confusion into Rivers, a young, hotshot quarterback who will be making his fourth NFL start. That's typically been the impact a Dick LeBeau-coached defense has on inexperienced quarterbacks. It's especially been true the past two-plus seasons when LeBeau has played evil tricks on opposing offenses by calling on the versatility of such players as Porter, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu.
"We run so much stuff and we do a great job disguising it," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "It can get a little complicated. It can be a little overwhelming."
A little complicated? A little overwhelming?
A LeBeau defense has so many intricacies that it took the great Polamalu a full season to understand it and learn how to play it.
Imagine what that defense must look like to an untested quarterback.
Since LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in 2004, the Steelers have gone 5-0 against quarterbacks in their first season as a starter. Only the New York Giants' Eli Manning had any success against them. Last season, Chicago's Kyle Orton and Cleveland's Charlie Frye combined to complete just 50 percent of their passes, were sacked 11 times and converted only 5 of 29 third-down situations. In 2004, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, seeing the Steelers' defense for the first time, had his second-lowest passer rating of the season (52.1).
"We've got a whole bunch of blitz packages ready for [Rivers]," defensive end Brett Keisel said, grinning wickedly. "We're going to try to get after him.
"It's hard to play against our defense if you haven't seen it before. You never know what Troy is going to do. He'll come up in the box and, it's like, 'I'm coming.' Then, at the last second, he'll drop back into coverage. It can get pretty confusing for a young quarterback."
Rivers figures to have a better chance than most. He's more like Palmer and Manning -- a guy who has big-time quarterback written all over him -- than Orton and Frye. He was picked fourth overall in the 2004 draft, seven spots ahead of Ben Roethlisberger. It wasn't just the Chargers who loved him. The Steelers would have taken him over Big Ben Roethlisberger had they had the chance.
Not that anyone at Steelers headquarters will admit that now.
Not after Roethlisberger has gone 27-6 as a starter and won a Super Bowl.
Not after Rivers spent his first two pro seasons on the bench behind Drew Brees.
The Chargers have been careful not to ask too much of Rivers yet. Coach Marty Schottenheimer was heavily criticized last week for going conservative in his play-calling in a 16-13 loss at Baltimore. After leading, 13-7, at halftime, the Chargers called running plays on 19 of their first 23 plays in the second half. For the season, they have run the ball 64 percent of the time, a much higher number than the normally run-oriented Steelers (48 percent).
But Schottenheimer's handling of Rivers has merit. It's not just Rivers' inexperience. The Chargers have the NFL's best all-around running back in LaDainian Tomlinson. Why not give him the ball?
The problem is that might not work against the Steelers. In a 24-22 victory at San Diego last season, they held Tomlinson to 62 yards on 18 carries. It was the fourth-lowest total of his 1,462-yard season.
"You hold that guy to 60-some yards," Smith said, "you've had a good day."
Added Farrior, "He didn't run all over us the way he runs over everyone else."
Few backs have big days against the Steelers. In the past 35 games, they have allowed just one 100-yard rusher -- the Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James last season. Since 2000, only 13 backs have done it against them. No NFL team has been consistently better against the run.
The Steelers love their chances tonight if they can take away Tomlinson and make Rivers beat them. A first-year starting quarterback against a defense that already has 10 sacks, five interceptions and a fumble recovery? Not to mention a slobbering Porter?
Hey, wouldn't you know Rivers has a business degree from North Carolina State?
You don't think he'd consider a new career as an ...
Nah, that's probably too much to ask even from a LeBeau defense.
First Published October 8, 2006 12:00 am