Originally created 09/25/98

Are the Seahawks for real?



PITTSBURGH -- For equally compelling and contrasting reasons, they are the talk of their towns. For one team, that rarely happens in September.

In Pittsburgh, they can't get over how badly the Steelers (2-1) are playing even while winning. In Seattle, where the NFL often is an afterthought in early fall, they can't over how well the Seahawks (3-0) are playing -- and, even, winning.

No wonder Sunday's Seahawks-Steelers game, one that normally wouldn't rate much national scrutiny, has intriguing subplots that could alter the course of the season for both teams and the AFC division races.

Are the Seahawks for real after beating three teams with a combined 1-8 record? And are the Steelers really that bad?

The Steelers barely got by the moribund Ravens and Bears despite scoring only 37 points, then melted down offensively with only 78 yards passing in a 21-0 loss to Miami. It was only the second shutout in coach Bill Cowher's seven seasons, and, afterward, he looked like he might explode.

He only wishes the league's third-worst offense would.

"Our problem is everything, and I want to get answers," he said. "We're going to get this thing turned around. I look out on the field and I see too many good football players to have the kind of production we have. We have people who are frustrated and people who are pressing."

There is much finger-pointing in Pittsburgh over the Steelers' offensive worries, and many directions at which to point.

There's Kordell Stewart, who accounted for 32 touchdowns last season, but now is the league's lowest-rated passer; a corps of unproductive wide receivers; an unsettled offensive line; and offensive chief Ray Sherman's unimaginative game plans.

Stewart was close to former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, but has formed no such relationship yet with Sherman, and it shows. Stewart has looked neither comfortable nor composed while mostly staying in the pocket, dumping the ball off on short passes or underthrowing his receivers.

"He made plays last year when he scrambled, so I'm sure they'll have him moving around," Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson said.

"There is a period of transition," Cowher said. "The fortunate thing is we're sitting here at 2-1. A lot of people probably feel like we could be 0-3, but the facts are that we're not."

The facts are Stewart will draw the attention of the Seahawks' zone blitz defense, one popularized by the Steelers. Blitzing as many as 50 times a game, Seattle leads the NFL with 19 sacks, six by defensive end Michael Sinclair and four by outside linebacker Darrin Smith.

To counter the blitz, the Steelers will likely return to what they do best by running Jerome Bettis, the league's third-leading rusher last season.

"I'm preparing for one of the best teams in the NFL," said Seattle's Chad Brown, a Pro Bowl linebacker with Pittsburgh in 1996. "We always got off to slow starts when I was there."

Still, Bettis has been a forgotten man at times, carrying six times in the first half in Miami. He has been held to fewer than 50 yards twice, something that never happened last season, and he has 220 yards in three games compared to 411 last year.

"Six times a half? That's not enough," wide receiver Charles Johnson. "We've got to get back to running the ball."

The Seahawks did exactly that while beating the Eagles, Cardinals and Redskins. Ricky Watters ranks sixth with 308 yards rushing, and his effective running is taking the pressure off quarterback Warren Moon to make plays.

Seattle is only 24th in passing, but Moon is fifth in passing efficiency and has yet to be intercepted.

"We're not just a talented team on paper anymore, we're a talented team that's winning games," Seattle receiver Joey Galloway said.

Another stat of note: Moon has thrown for 4,421 yards in 20 games against the Steelers, mostly with the Oilers, and has won his last three starts against them.

If Moon makes it four in a row, the Seahawks will be 4-0 for the first time in franchise history.

"You think about a 41-year-old guy doing what he's doing and it's kind of remarkable," Steelers safety Darren Perry said. "The key is to make the game one-dimensional by stopping the running game and forcing Moon to throw and put pressure on him."

The Steelers, who don't play next week, know the pressure will only keep building until their offense breaks out.

"We're going to take heat until we start scoring some points," tight end Mark Bruener said. "Any time you go out and you don't score any points, you're going to be ridiculed and criticized."