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STEPPING UP IN A DOWN YEAR While Steelers falter, O'Donnell blossoms at QB

PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH -- If the Washington Redskins are coming to town, it usually means the opponent's best player or quarterback is on the bench.

That's why it's not surprising that Bubby Brister won't start today when the Redskins, at 10-0 the only unbeaten team in the NFL, play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.

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After all, the Redskins have played the Detroit Lions without Barry Sanders, the Philadelphia Eagles without Randall Cunningham, the Phoenix Cardinals without Timm Rosenbach, the New York Giants without Phil Simms and the Atlanta Falcons without Chris Miller and Deion Sanders.

But the Redskins may not be able to celebrate Brister's absence.

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That's because Neil O'Donnell, in his second season from the University of Maryland, stepped in last month when Brister was felled by a knee injury and has virtually taken the job away from him.

He certainly has impressed Redskins assistant coach Richie Petitbon, who runs their defense.

"He looks really good for a guy who's only played four games," Petitbon said. "He reminds me a lot of Bert Jones. He's a big, strong guy who can really throw."

O'Donnell was thrust into the limelight a month ago. He brought the Steelers back from a 20-0 deficit in the fourth quarter against the Giants on Monday night to tie the score before Matt Bahr won it for New York with a field goal.

"To come in against the Giants on national TV . . . you don't know how anybody is going to react," Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Joe Walton said. "He showed a lot of poise."

There's been no official passing of the baton to O'Donnell -- technically, he has been filling in for Brister the last four games.

Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll said only that Brister isn't 100 percent yet, but could play. Walton also dodged the issue when he said, "We're taking it week by week."

O'Donnell is good friends with Brister and isn't worrying about who's No. 1.

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"I feel pretty comfortable," O'Donnell said. "I don't get caught up in all that. I'm worrying about just being a better quarterback. The coaches make all of those decisions."

He is ranked fourth in the American Football Conference with an 87.1 quarterback rating. He has thrown eight touchdown passes, including three last week in an overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

O'Donnell will be one of three former Maryland quarterbacks starting today -- the other two are Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals and Stan Gelbaugh of the Phoenix Cardinals. Former Terrapins Frank Reich of Buffalo Bills and Scott Zolak of the New England Patriots are reserves

O'Donnell gives the credit for the bumper crop of Maryland quarterbacks in the NFL to Terrapins coach Joe Krivak.

Although Krivak has been getting a lot of heat for Maryland's poor record this season, he gets nothing but bouquets from O'Donnell.

"I just think Coach Krivak prepares his quarterbacks for the next step or the next level," O'Donnell said. "I have to give a lot of credit to Coach Krivak. He teaches you every type of coverage and what to expect out of certain defenses.

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"He was very good on teaching me techniques. I remember we'd work on techniques for a half an hour every day. It it wasn't drops, it was reads. After a while it got monotonous, but it did pay off."

When asked if he knew that Krivak has received much criticism lately, he said, "That's what I hear. I'm so busy here myself, I haven't had a chance to sit down and talk with him, but I think he's a great coach. He taught me so much."

But one thing about O'Donnell's career with the Steelers brings back memories of his Maryland days: He hasn't gotten a lot of victories. He was 10-15-1 as a starter at Maryland and is 1-3 with the Steelers.

He hasn't had a good supporting cast with either team, and in Pittsburgh there has been a continuing controversy about Walton's complicated offense.

Brister has complained about it from time to time. Last week, the editor of the Steelers' weekly paper called it "ridiculous" because it includes too many plays and doesn't fit the skills of the players. Since the paper seemingly reflects the views of management, Walton's future seems to be up in the air.

"If it comes to that, so be it," Walton said.

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There's been speculation that Dan Rooney, the team president, will demand that Noll fire Walton, and that Noll could be in jeopardy if he refuses. The scouting department has complained that rookie receivers Jeff Graham and Ernie Mills weren't being used enough after being late to camp because of holdouts.

Rooney brushed all this off, saying there was no rift in the organization. He also said the paper's editor was granted "freedom of expression" and that his articles don't necessarily reflect management's views.

O'Donnell, though, says he has no complaints about Walton's offense.

"At first, it was complicated -- no doubt about it," he said. "But now I think everyone feels comfortable with it. It's a very effective offense. I studied a lot in the off-season with Coach Walton and he's been great with me."

Noll was stoic when he was winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He remains that way.

"You have to do what's right," Noll said. "You have to have the conviction that what you're doing is right. There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. What we're after is producing a winner. Winning is the bottom line."

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But the Steelers haven't been winning lately. They are 4-6 this year and have made one playoff appearance since 1984.

All this puts more pressure on O'Donnell as the Steelers face the Redskins. The Steelers like to point out that in 1984, when the 49ers went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl, their only loss was to the Steelers. An upset victory over the Steelers would erase a lot of this season's frustrations. It also would help solidify O'Donnell's position as starting quarterback.

Beating the Redskins would be something to savor, but O'Donnell will take any victory these days.

"We're fighting for wins right now. No doubt about it, it'd be great to get two back-to-back," he said.

AFC top 10 rated quarterbacks

Player, team.. .. .. .. .. ..Att.. Com.. . Yds.. TD.. Int.. ..Rat.

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Jim Kelly, Buffalo.. .. .. ..301.. 195.. .2738.. 22.. .10.. .104.5

Bernie Kosar, Cleveland.. .. 304.. 187.. .2146.. 11.. ..1.. ..93.4

Steve DeBerg, Kansas City.. .259.. 159.. .1717.. 12.. ..5.. ..88.3

Neil O'Donnell, Pittsburgh.. 155.. .88.. .1164.. .8.. ..4.. ..87.1

Ken O'Brien, Jets.. .. .. .. 292.. 180.. .2153.. .6.. ..5.. ..83.9

Warren Moon, Houston.. .. .. 405.. 254.. .2965.. 14.. .13.. ..83.0

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Dan Marino, Miami.. .. .. .. 326.. 182.. .2305.. 12.. ..7.. ..81.4

John Elway, Denver.. .. .. ..289.. 153.. .2110.. .8.. ..5.. ..78.6

Jeff George, Indianapolis.. .319.. 203.. .2005.. .6.. ..9.. ..75.8

Hugh Millen, New England.. ..198.. 124.. .1474.. .4.. ..8.. ..75.2



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