dmzette SPORTS Saturday, October 26, 2002 — Page 19 Bell's presence sparks defense By ALAN ROBINSON AP Sports Writer PITTSBURGH—Lee Flowers knew as soon as the game started that linebacker Kendrell Bell's return was making a big difference in the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. The Indianapolis Colts told him so. The Colts rely on quarterback Peyton Manning to make their blocking calls and pre-play adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Manning was particulajly busy Monday in the Colts' 28-10 loss to Pittsburgh, if only because he seemed to be accounting for Bell before every play. "I think teams get edgy when they see No. 97 in there," said Flowers, the Steelers' strong safety. "They jumped offsides four times, and it was because they knew he was coming on the blitz. He brings so much explosiveness." The Steelers aren't blaming Bell's four-game absence with a badly sprained ankle for the defense's terrible play early in the season, including the twin 30-point games against New England and Oakland. With Bell back, they again resembled the pass- rushing, playmaking defense that was No. 1 in the NFL last season. Bell regularly pressured Manning and took down running back Edger- rin James several times for short gains or losses on running plays. His pressure also may have led Manning to throw an interception direcdy into the hands of safety Mike Logan. "The big thing for me was to knock off the rust," said Bell, an inside linebacker and the NFL's defensive rookie of the year last season. "I watch practices, and I'm a pretty intense guy, but there was some rust. I also took some bad angles at times, but I shook it off." The Steelers may have gotten Bell back just in time, especially with running back Jerome Bettis and center Jeff Hartings going down with knee injuries Monday. Neither will play Sunday in Baltimore as the Steelers (3-3) and Ravens (3-3) duel for first place in the AFC North, a factor that puts pressure on the Steelers' "Teams have to account for him. He just goes and seems to leave a path of destruction along the way, even if it's doing something wrong." — defensive end Aaron Smith defense to make it a low-scoring game. "Teams have to account for him," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "He just goes and seems to leave a path of destruction along the way, even if it's doing something wrong." Coach Bill Cowher agreed with Smith, saying Bell is one of the rare players who has the ability to alter a play or cause a loss even when he mistakenly takes the wrong route to the quarterback on a pass rush. "He was thrashing around in the first half, and he took some bad angles at times," Cowher said. "When you watched him in the second half, his angles were much crisper, yet he was still very decisive, very aggressive. He was back to himself... not always where you would expect him to be, but very disruptive." The Steelers need him to be that again Sunday against a Ravens offense is basic but solid. Chris Redman is developing into a consistent mid-range passer, former 1,000-yard running back Jamal Lewis is back after missing last season with a knee injury and tight endTodd Heap presents matchup problems with smaller defensive backs. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis no doubt wants Bell pressuring the inexperienced Redman as much as possible, to throw off his timing routes with Heap and force him to hurry his throws. "He's such a playmaker, he makes everybody else's job easier," Smith said. "He's a remarkable player." Kendrell Bell, who missed several games due to injury, made his presence known last Monday against the Indianapolis Colts. (Gazette photo by Thomas Slusser) NOTES: With Hartings out Sunday, the Steelers re-signed former Texas center Matt Anderson to their practice squad. To make room for Anderson on the five-man squad, safety Erik Totten was released. ... Mike Schneck will return Sunday as the long snapper after missing three games with torn ligaments. His replacement, Dan O'Leary, remains on the roster. O'Leary also filled in Monday at tight end. ...The Steelers have won their last five games in Baltimore. ... They'll play at Cleveland next week. 'Sweetness' envisioned special friendship By MARK LONG AP Sports Writer . CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Jarrett Payton remembers sitting at the head of the table and making eye contact with Emmitt Smith. Payton would have been happy with a wave, a smile or even a nod. He got much more attention. Smith left his wife and kids, pulled up a chair and spent the evening talking with the son of Hall of Fame running back Walter "Sweetness" Payton. Jarrett and Smith hardly knew each other when tile NFL veteran was given the Spirit of Sweetness Award in July. But they since have become close friends — a bond Walter Payton envisioned before his death in 1999. And Jarrett Payton couldn't think of a more perfect person to break his father's 15-year-old NFL rushing record of 16,726 yards. Smith needs 93 yards to pass that mark. It could happen Sunday against the Seattle Sea- hawks. Jordan healthy entering season By The Associated Press BOSTON — Michael Jordan's right knee made it through the exhibition season without any problems, and that's the most important thing for the Washington Wizards. "My game is coming back," Jordan said Friday night after scoring 14 points in 23 minutes in a 104-95 loss to the Boston Celtics as the teams finished the exhibition season. "Each game I played, I felt like my rhythm and my timing is coming back. My knee feels good." Jordan had surgery on his knee in February, missing 22 games and cutting short his latest NBA comeback. This season, he's planning to come off the bench for the first time in his career to avoid the wear and tear on his 39-year-old body. Jordan said he was planning to play 30-32 minutes per game. In three exhibition games, he played 15, 23 and 23. Washington fell to 5-3, with just one win in the three games Jordan played in. "This is another one we can learn from," he said. "Everything now counts." Paul Pierce scored 31 points and Antoine Walker had 13 with nine assists as the Celtics finished the preseason 4-4. "I'm happy to get it over with," Celtics coach Jim O'Brien said. "I'm sure the players are happier than I am. Now it's the real thing." Jerry Stackhouse scored 36 for the "A couple of years ago 1 didn't want anybody to do it," said Jarrett Payton, a junior tailback for No. 1 Miami. "But if anybody is going to do it, I would like it to be Emmitt, because he's a great guy." When the record is broken, he plans to be one of the first to call and congratulate the 33- year-old Smith. "People close to me don't want to see him break it," Payton said. "They get all upset. They think I'm going to get upset. But that's just not how I am." Not with a friend. Payton and Smith call each other a few times a month, sharing stories about football and life. Payton called Smith before Miami played Florida in September and assured the NFL star that the Hurricanes were going to dismantle his alma mater. After die game, he called again to point out to Smith that Miami did. Smith tried to call Payton several times in recent weeks, but got a message saying his mail- box was full. Smith then complained to Payton's mother, Connie, who quickly tracked down Payton. And not long after, he called Smith back. They even have nicknames for each other: Payton calls Smith "22," his NFL jersey number. Smith calls Payton by his initials. "I told him whenever he needs anything to give me a call," Smith said. "He calls me, and I check on him." Their relationship isn't by chance. Walter Payton planned it just before he died, handpicking Smith to watch over his son. "We were talking one day and he said, 'E, I want you to do me a favor,' " Smith said. "I said, 'What is it? Anything you want.' He said, 'I just want you to talk to my son Jarrett. I want you to talk to him and be there for him as much as you possibly can.' I said, 'Wow. OK. I'll do that. No problem.' That's a relationship that he wanted me to actually spend some time with, and I've done that." They talked several times, but the bond really started to strengthen this summer in Chicago after the Paylon family gave Smith the second annual Spirit of Sweetness -Award. It began at the dinner table — with just a glance. "He said, 'I'm going to be someone you can talk to. If you ever need somebody, I'm going to be here,'" Payton said. "That's when he just resembled my dad in a way. It kind of scared me, the way he talked to me, the way he was, and the way he joked around. He's just been a help for me. There's other things that drive him besides football, and that's what 1 like." And that's why Payton has no problem with Smith breaking the record — a feeling he believes his father would share. "I know if he was around right now, he wouldn't say that much about it. That just wasn't him," Payton said. "When I was growing up I would be like, 'Dad, I don't want anybody to break the record.' He would be like, 'Records are made to be broken and someone's going to break it.' That's the way he was. So it won't make me sad at all." Eagles' Akers still perfect By ROB MAADDI AP Sports Writer PHILADELPHIA — When the Philadelphia Eagles called David Akers almost four years ago, he was waiting on tables at a steakhouse in Georgia. Now, Akers is an All-Pro kicker who hasn't missed a field goal or extra point this season. "I have confidence in my ability, but does that mean it isn't an awesome achievement? Sure it is," Akers said. Entering Monday night's game against the New York Giants, Akers is one of just two perfect kickers in the NFL. The other is the Giants' Matt Bryant, who is 10-for-10 on field goals and 8-for-8 on extra points. Akers has 12 field goals and 19 extra points. "We don't want to jinx him, but we feel that we have the best kicker in the NFL," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "David Akers, every time he steps out onto the field, no matter where he's kicking, we feel confident that he'll make it." Just three of Akers' field goals have been less than 30 yards. He has four over 40 yards, including a 51-yarder against Dallas in Week 3. "Words can't describe the feeling and gratitude I have toward my teammates," Akers said. "If you can get their respect, that's an awesome feeling, especially for a lacker. Alot of times you are looked down upon because you don't run around and do as much practicing like the other guys. But it's not feasible for a kicker to be out there kicking for two hours." Unlike many kickers, Akers is quite athletic. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder doesn't shy away from contact and has even proved to be a weapon on offense. Akers ran 10 yards on a fake field goal against the Cowboys, hurling his body to get extra yards after he already had gained a first down. He got 15 yards and a first down on his only other rushing attempt against Arizona in 2000. "I'm kind of a lineman stuck in a kicker's body mentality-wise," Akers said. "I like to get after it, grappling, sparring, that's the type of stuff I like to do." Akers played four seasons at Louisville, establishing a school record with 36 field goals. He was cut by Carolina, Washington and Atlanta and worked as a substitute teacher and waiter before signing with the Eagles on Jan. 11,1999. After a season as Philadelphia's kickoff specialist and long-yardage kicker, Akers took over as the No. 1 kicker in 2000. He made 34 of 36 extra points and missed just four of his 33 field goal attempts in his first season as the starter. In a four-week span that season, Akers hit two game-tying field goals in the final minute and made three game-winning field goals, including two in overtime. Last year, his 35- yarder with seven seconds remaining lifted the Eagles to a division- clinching 24-21 victory over the Giants in December. Yao gets painful welcome to NBA Michael Jordan, who missed 22 games last season because of a knee injury, pronounced himself fit after making it through the regular season without any problems. (AP photo) Wizards, getting 15 points in the first quarter, 20 by halftime and 12 more in the third. Fox, Christie scuffle LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings couldn't wait for the regular season to express their dislike for each other. The Lakers' Rick Fox and the Kings' Doug Christie fought each other in the tunnel near the court after they were ejected from Friday night's preseason game. Neither player appeared to be seriously hurt. The scuffle began with a little more than two minutes gone in the final exhibition for both teams. Christie drew an offensive foul when Fox turned and knocked him down with an elbow. After Christie got up from the floor, the players exchanged words. Fox pushed Christie in the face with an open hand, and Christie responded with a left-handed punch to Fox's jaw. After they were ejected, the players left the court in opposite directions, but Fox apparently went around the back and met up with Christie in the tunnel that leads to the locker room • area. Fox grabbed Christie in a headlock, and they had to be separated by security, as well as the entire Kings bench. The episode detracted from what ordinarily is a go-through-the-motions finale to the preseason. "I thought it was going to be fun," Kings center Vlade Divac told ESPN. "The last game of the preseason, you try to work on your game and get ready for the regular season." The teams have become rivals only in the past few years, as the Lakers started winning titles and the Kings started challenging them behind Chris Webber. Last season they battled to a seventh game in the Western Conference finals before the Lakers prevailed. Los Angeles went on to beat New Jersey for their third straight title. The teams don't play each other in the regular season until Christmas Day, and Friday night was their first meeting of the preseason. By MICHAEL A. LUTZ AP Sports Writer HOUSTON — Yao Ming spent more time sprawled on the court than he would have liked in his first two NBA outings. Despite the body checks that knocked him down and some gaps in his game, the No. 1 overall draft pick did make a good initial impression with the Houston Rockets, revealing a soft jumper, a terrific baseline spin move and a willingness to learn. Anyway, no one expects the 7-foot- 5 Yao to be a finished product soon. "We've got a lot of work to do," coach BudyTomjanovich said Thursday night after the Rockets' final preseason game, a 93-89 loss to Philadelphia. "It's been tough on him. He's had a whole bunch to absorb. It's going to take some time." San Antonio forward Tim Duncan, the NBA's MVP last season, knocked Yao down seconds after he got into his first game Wednesday night. The Chinese center bounced up and made the free throws. The 76ers didn't pamper the center either, but they were impressed with his potential. "He has a combination of some of the best big men," 76ers veteran Olden Polynice said. "He has Shawn Bradley's height, Shaquille's weight and he's able to play like (Arvydas) Sabonis, the way he handles the ball. He's a little of all of them." Yao played 13 minutes against the Spurs, after just two practices with the Rockets. He joined the team Sunday night. Against Philadelphia, he was given a standing ovation and cheers each time he touched the ball. He responded with 13 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. One trend quickly established in his first two appearances: Yao was whistled for eight fouls in a total of 37 minutes. "This is the NBA, we're not going to change the way we play for him," Polynice said. "He took some hard fouls. That's going to happen. It doesn't mean we're going to start World War III." Yao hasn't had a chance to learn the Rockets' offense. His best quality so far has been his outside jump shot, which he unveiled right away, making one over the Spurs' David Robinson for his first NBA basket. "So far, he's reacting very well, but he has to learn their offense," Polynice said. "Once he learns the offense, he's going to be awesome." Yao's calm exterior belies his competitiveness. "I was nervous both nights, but once I got on the court, I got involved in the game," Yao said. "I definitery felt it. I'm happy I could get so much support. "It's a lot more physical than I thought it would be." Yao hasn't had much time to relax since arriving from China. He was up early Thursday for a trip to College Station, about 100 miles northwest of Houston, to meet Chinese president Jiang Zemin. "This is the closest I've been to President Jiang. If I can bring honor to my country, that will make him feel great," Yao said. Yao made it back through bad weather in time to play against the 76ers. He played 24 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter.
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