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For Steelers, the rain must fall

| Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It was just an observation by Kordell Stewart and although it was a tad cheeky, you can understand why. It came after a loss in the opening game of the season, and, well, you know.

Stewart and center Jeff Hartings missed connections on a snap Sunday afternoon, and it resulted in a fumble midway through the third quarter. The fumble didn't decide the game, but it probably cost the Steelers a score, so Stewart was asked about it after the game. A game in which the Jacksonville Jaguars won, 21-3, much to the consternation of everyone who thought the final eight quarters of the Steelers' exhibition season would be indicative of things to come.

Stewart and Hartings had center-snap problems in training camp, but the assumption was they had done what good Steelers always do: Work things out in the heat of Latrobe.

So, why the fumble yesterday after all that flawless work in camp•

'It wasn't raining then,' Stewart said.

It's raining now. It always does in the NFL regular season.

Sure, things were different yesterday at ALLTEL Stadium from most opening days. President Bush was on the big screen doing the coin flip. Replacement referees were on the field overseeing the action. A Steelers team, perceived to be on the rise, was playing a Jacksonville team presumably heading for a big fall.

Those were the expectations, but there were others. There was the usual one that follows the Jaguars about them not being physical enough to stop the Steelers. And the perennial one about the Steelers finally having an offense that suits their personnel.

Only it wasn't raining when those assumptions were made. It was nice and sunny as it always is in the preseason. Then, the real games begin and we realize that the Steelers offense has some serious deficiencies, such as a distinct lack of weaponry. And the Steelers defense doesn't have quite the depth everyone assumed it did.

And, as always, it's wise not to assume anything about a division rival.

'When I was with Pittsburgh,' said Jaguars defensive back Ainsley Battles, 'we always put that stigma on Jacksonville that they were a finesse team.'

The Steelers who still are Steelers say otherwise, of course. It's always a battle when we play Jacksonville, they tell you. 'It's a war,' Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said yesterday.

But you know the label is out there. Why else would Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin make it a point to repeatedly praise his team's physical play which resulted in six Steelers players being knocked out of action• You get the feeling that he doesn't always think his team is as physical as it should be.

As for the sense that the Jaguars are starting to slide, well, that's out there, too. You could tell by the way Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell became almost defiant when he addressed the point.

'I don't think we have to prove anything to anybody,' he said. 'To hear that we don't have any talent and we're not the team we used to be is ridiculous.'

Well, it is semi-ridiculous because Brunell still is a top quarterback, and wide receiver Jimmy Smith is still one of the best in the league and the same goes for other stars such as Kevin Hardy and Tony Boselli. But when they failed to do much in preseason, it raised questions.

The Steelers did what they had to do in preseason, which raised expectations. We can only assume that the raised expectations did not cause the Steelers to underestimate their opponents yesterday. After all, the Steelers were playing in a stadium where they have won only once in seven years.

Last year, the Steelers had a knack for knowing how to cut their losses and stay in games, even the ones that ultimately ended badly for them. They knew how to deal with an 0-3 start and stay in the playoff race.

They knew how to live with rain. They only can hope they haven't forgotten.

Bill Modoono is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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