QBs armed with running ability defuse blitz-happy defenses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It seems fitting that on the day Randall Cunningham resurfaced as a starter in the NFL, running quarterbacks were playing havoc with defenses around the league.

Absent his best running back, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young ran 10 times for 31 yards and a critical touchdown in a 28-17 win over the Minnesota Vikings.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart shredded Denver for three first-half touchdown passes, then scored twice in the second half as a rusher to secure a 35-24 victory over the Broncos.

Kansas City's Rich Gannon ran just three times against the Oakland Raiders, but his 5-yard scoring run in the second quarter opened a 20-0 lead that ballooned to a 30-0 Chiefs rout.

Week 15 reinforced a league-wide trend of running quarterbacks that deftly answers the blitz rage of 1997. Six different quarterbacks ran the ball at least six times on Sunday -- and five of them went home winners.

No team used the quarterback run as well as the Steelers, though. Stewart had 10 carries for 49 yards to raise his season total to 399 yards. He bedeviled Denver on rollout plays in the second half.

"I think that's what kept some drives alive, using my mobility to get out on the corner," he said. "So instead of third-and-10, we're third-and-four. And it gave Courtney Hawkins a chance to catch the ball in the flat."

One of Pittsburgh's best offensive plays was a fourth-down shovel pass to Hawkins off a rollout. It went for 20 yards and a first down. The Steelers came back to try it again on fourth down later in the period, and when intended receiver George Jones was taken out of the play, Stewart kept the ball for a 19-yard gain and another first down.

Stewart's two touchdowns give him 10 for the season, tying Greg Landry (1972) for second-most.

He is a worthy successor to Cunningham as the NFL's most feared running quarterback. Cunningham is the league's all-time leading rushing quarterback with 4,447 yards, most of them for the Philadelphia Eagles.

He started for injured Brad Johnson for the Vikings on Sunday, his first start since Sept. 24, 1995. And just to show he hasn't lost his touch, Cunningham ran three times for 24 yards.

The Titanic syndrome

Things are getting very ugly in Oakland, where players are quitting on the field and pointing fingers in the locker room.

Disgusted with the Raiders' 30-0 loss to Kansas City, perennial Pro Bowl receiver Tim Brown told reporters that he would change plays in the huddle if play-calling didn't improve immediately. That finger was pointed directly at offensive coordinator Ray Perkins, as well as head coach Joe Bugel.

"You have my word that in the next couple of weeks, it ain't going to go down like that," Brown said. "If I have to have my own wristband with plays on it, then that's what I'll do. If I have to watch more film to have some more plays for us to exploit certain things, then that's what I'll do. If I don't like the game plan, then I'm going to have plays ready to run."

Brown was upset that the Raiders consistently kept eight people in to block the Chiefs' blitzes on first and second down. As it was, those eight blockers allowed quarterback Jeff George to be sacked six times for the second straight week.

There is probably some substance to Brown's complaint, though. In their past three games, the Raiders (4-10) have been outscored 95-19 and the offense has gone in the tank. Oakland averaged 26.6 points in its first eight games, but only 13.5 in the past six.

For whom the bell tolls

Not surprisingly, Bugel is on the short list of coaches almost certain to be fired after this season. Others who don't figure to save their jobs are Lindy Infante in Indianapolis, Dennis Erickson in Seattle and, more than likely, Dennis Green in Minnesota.

Payday postponed

Chicago Bears running back Raymont Harris couldn't have had worse timing when he broke his left leg on a 20-yard run in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills.

That's because Harris is going to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and as a 1,033-yard rusher for a 3-11 team, he would have commanded a megabuck contract offer. But that probably isn't going to be the case.

He will be two months deep in a four-month rehabilitation after surgery when the free-agent season officially opens Feb. 13. He'll have to wait beyond that to see what he can get, and then only after he proves he is over the injury.

Measuring Favre

How remarkable is Brett Favre's NFL record of throwing at least 30 touchdown passes in four consecutive seasons? Favre is in his sixth year as a starter for the Green Bay Packers.

By comparison, Dan Marino threw for 30 touchdowns three seasons in a row (1984-1986) for the Miami Dolphins. In his 15th season, Marino has hit 30 a total of four times.

Audibles

The Steelers had not given up a rushing touchdown at home in 60 quarters when Denver's Terrell Davis finally ended the streak. Why the Broncos are in trouble as a wild-card team: They're only 4-3 on the road. Why the Tampa Bay Bucs aren't going to go very deep in the playoffs: They've been held under 10 points in four of their past eight games. Billy Joe Hobert's third-quarter touchdown pass was the New Orleans Saints' first in 27 quarters.

Best and worst

Best use of the imagination: When asked how he'd tackle himself, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis had this reply: "My first thought is to go low, but then I'd say to myself, 'You'd probably have to go high.' But if I go high, I'd probably run myself over."

Most appropriate game ball: The one the 49ers awarded embattled owner and CEO Eddie DeBartolo Jr. after a 28-17 win over Minnesota. Architect of the 49ers dynasty, DeBartolo resigned last week in anticipation of an indictment on gambling charges.

Worst win: Chicago's 20-3 win over Bills. It tentatively dropped the Bears to the third draft slot behind the Colts and Cardinals. If the first two picks are quarterbacks Peyton Manning of Tennessee and Ryan Leaf of Washington State, the Bears, who need a quarterback desperately, are out of luck.

Best fake: The Oilers' Reggie Roby turned a fake punt into a 12-yard, first-down run last Thursday in Cincinnati. As Roby went through the kicking motion, he tucked the ball behind him, back into his left hand, and took off around left end. At 260 pounds, it was sleight-of-hand magic.

Best turnaround: At the halfway point, the Falcons were 1-7 and getting drubbed every week. Now they've won four in a row under Dan Reeves, and five of their last six. If they beat the Eagles and Cardinals, they'll have an improbable .500 season.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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