At least this week, Joe Gibbs wouldn't mind being Bill Cowher

Saturday, November 27th 2004, 10:15 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Joe Gibbs couldn't have enjoyed a much better life. He coached the Redskins to three Super Bowl championships then, after temporarily leaving football, won two NASCAR Winston Cup titles as a racing team owner.

At least this week, Gibbs wouldn't mind being someone else as he begins winding down the first season of his second run as Washington Redskins coach. He wouldn't mind being Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

Gibbs is envious of the Steelers (9-1), whose eight-game winning streak includes one-sided victories over Super Bowl hopefuls New England and Philadelphia.

So, asked if a proven winner like himself welcomes the challenge of sending an underachieving 3-7 Redskins team against the Steelers on Sunday, Gibbs gave a candid answer.

``Do I welcome it? I would prefer to just have it easy,'' said Gibbs, whose team has yet to score more than 18 points. ``I would prefer to be 9-1 right now. I would like for coach Cowher to have to go through this, not me. But in life that doesn't happen, you have to earn it. So far, we have not earned it.''

The Redskins have earned respect for a blitzing, run-stuffing defense that is No. 2 in the league behind only Pittsburgh. The defense so impresses Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who despite being 8-0 as a starter calls this game ``our biggest challenge of the year.''

Right now, the Redskins have an equally big challenge _ getting into the end zone, something they've done with so little regularity it probably makes Gibbs yearn for the days when he worried about compression ratios rather than quarterback ratings. The offense was so bad for so long Gibbs finally sat down ineffective quarterback Mark Brunell to start 2002 first-round draft pick Patrick Ramsey last week against Philadelphia.

Ramsey was OK, completing 21 of 34 passes for 162 yards and an interception while being sacked only once, yet the Redskins were held without a touchdown in a 28-6 loss as running back Clinton Portis gained just 37 yards on 17 carries. That loss made Gibbs appreciate the Steelers' 27-3 rout of the Eagles on Nov. 7 all the more.

``We looked at that film and studied it hard and they are very, very physical,'' Gibbs said. ``They knock you back.''

Or they knock you over. Jerome Bettis is coming off three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, 149 against the Eagles, yet is headed back to the bench as Duce Staley returns after being out with a sore hamstring.

But while the Steelers are healthy again at running back _ Staley says he and Bettis are the NFL's best 1-2 combination _ they are depleted at wide receiver. Plaxico Burress, their top downfield threat, will sit out with a hamstring injury, leaving the much smaller Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El as Roethlisberger's primary targets.

Ward and Randle El had only three catches between them after Burress left during last week's tight 19-14 victory at Cincinnati, and Roethlisberger was sacked seven times as he tried unsuccessfully to find receivers open downfield or abandoned the pocket prematurely.

The Redskins will similarly try to pressure Roethlisberger, hoping to rush him into incompletions that will leave the Steelers in long-yardage situations and make it difficult for them to run successfully.

``They're definitely a team built around their defense, and they've got an awesome defense,'' Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said.

Maybe that's why Cowher seems unusually cautious about a game the Steelers should be expected to win easily at home, where they are 5-0 with an average winning margin of nearly 13 points. The Steelers will be trying for their first nine-game winning streak since 1976.

``I don't think we are that much better than the teams we have played,'' Cowher said. ``I look at the Redskins, who have seven losses and six of them by seven points or less, and there is a team that realistically could be 7-3.''

That the Redskins have been so close so many times is one reason why Ramsey said, ``At some point, I know we're going to get this thing rolling.''

It also may be why Gibbs hasn't second-guessed his decision to return to coaching following a 12-year layoff.

``I said to everyone when I came back, I am starting all over again. The past buys you nothing,'' Gibbs said. ``The other thing I said was I feel this is where I am supposed to be, but it may well be I am here to go through a lot of adversity, too. I don't know. ... Certainly, this is a tough thing to go through.''