Defense key to Steeler rise; Ram turnaround credited to Robinson

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who carried a double albatross around their necks when the season started (meaning injuries to key veterans plus several defections to the rival United States Football League), have been winning primarily because of their defense. Pittsburgh, as someone wrote earlier this season, can stop an opponent's running game on memory.

As the National Football League's hottest team, the 9-2 Steelers have won seven in a row; are 5-0 on the road; and lead their division by three games.

Pittsburgh's problems started early this year when quarterback Terry Bradshaw was unable to play because of injuries. Those problems were compounded when the USFL hijacked part of the team's offensive line plus flanker Jim Smith, the heir apparent to Lynn Swann and a player who can jump high enough to catch the bomb even in heavy traffic. The fact that backup QB Cliff Stoudt had started only one game in six years, did not indicate how much he had learned while watching Bradshaw and listening to head coach Chuck Noll. And just to make sure Cliff would consistently get the time he needed, Noll created multiple options for him on every pass play.

While this is standard operating procedure in pro football, Chuck insured his move by nearly always having Franco Harris in position to receive a swing pass. With a running back the quality of Harris to worry about, opposing defenses have been a little less eager to blitz. Last Sunday, during a 24-13 victory over Baltimore, Stoudt threw for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Give the Colt offense some credit, however, for scoring the first touchdown against the Steeler defense in more than 11 quarters of action. On any given Sunday. . .

The most often heard cliche in pro football is that anything can happen on any given Sunday - or Monday night for that matter. All it takes is for the supposedly superior team to go mentally flat and operate below par while the underdog plays maybe a touchdown and a field goal over its normal production. Well, it happened again Sunday when San Diego, loser of seven of its first 10 games, beat Dallas 24-23. The Chargers made that lead stand up even though the Cowboys regained possession of the football with more than six minutes left - normally plenty of time for one of their patented comebacks. The Dallas loss, coupled with Washington's 33-17 victory over the New York Giants, leaves the Cowboys and Redskins tied atop the AFC East with 9-2 records. Robinson's winning formula

Asked about the job new Coach John Robinson has done in rebuilding last season's 2-7 Los Angeles Rams into a winner, veteran offensive lineman Russ Bolinger replied: ''Most new coaches come in with the idea that the veterans are the problem, try to get what they can for them in trades, and start to rebuild with younger players. Believe me that's a mistake, because no one group is ever at fault. You always need a certain number of vets around to break in the kids and correct their mistakes. I'd say the Rams are winning because Robinson kept the veterans he knew could do the job, and now he's got a very effective mix of the old and the new. John is also very popular with his players because he never points the finger at anyone when we lose or allows anyone else to do it either. Usually, he just takes the blame himself.''

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