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QBS ON THE HOT SEAT <br> JOHNSON, STEWART SEEK TO REVERSE TRENDS

Two quarterbacks looking to get their seasons and their careers pointed in the right direction are preparing to hit the field Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1) meet the Buffalo Bills (0-2), the game is more likely to come down to which quarterback can avoid losing the game rather than which quarterback can take the game by the throat and win it.

The Bills are taking the optimistic view that Rob Johnson made progress in their 42-26 loss at Indianapolis last week. The Steelers are taking the optimistic view that even though Kordell Stewart did not play well in their season-opening, 21-3 loss at Jacksonville, he appeared to revive his career over the second half of last season.

"We're kind of going through a new system, a lot like Buffalo's going through," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher on Wednesday. "And with that you have to apply a degree of patience."

Johnson hit 24 of 37 passes for 257 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the loss to the Colts. That was markedly better than his three-interception showing in the debut of the Bills' West Coast offense against New Orleans.

"I think he got more comfortable," said Bills quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe. "He had a game under his belt. For the most part he did a good job of distributing the football, particularly in the first half when the game was in the balance and we were able to run and pass the ball. In the second half we got a little bit behind and that changed the flow of the game."

"I think the one thing that you saw from the first game to the second game is that he was probably a little more decisive," Cowher said of Johnson. "He did not hold the ball as long. . . . Rob Johnson is a very tough guy. He has taken a lot of hits and he keeps coming back."

The Bills want to be patient with Johnson and their new offense, but they also desperately need a win with more tough games looming on the first half of their schedule.

Ditto for the Steelers, who aim to improve on their 9-7 finish of last season.

Stewart, in his seventh year, has had one really good season as the Steelers' QB -- in 1997. He lost his job late in the '99 season and was on the bench the first three games of last year until Kent Graham got hurt. Stewart then took over and went 7-4 as the Steelers' starter.

Stewart, who like Johnson has a contract that runs out after the 2002 season, didn't set the league on fire with his passing last year.

He completed just 52 percent of his throws, and his passer rating of 73.6 was only 25th best in the league. Accuracy always has been the knock on him. He's a 54 percent career passer. But counting rushing scores, he produced an impressive 18 TDs and gave up eight interceptions last year.

Stewart is operating under his fourth offensive coordinator in five years. Mike Mularkey took over this year for Kevin Gilbride, whom Stewart did not like.

"I can go down in history for not having the best stats in the world," Stewart told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently. "But you will consider me one of the most productive as far as winning quarterbacks. That's what I want to be remembered as."

"We've kind of changed philosophies on the offensive side," Cowher said. "We've been more definitive with some of the things we've tried to do with our pass routes and receivers (by eliminating option routes). Kordell has worked very hard. I like his mind-set. We didn't get off to a good start in Jacksonville. But I like the preseason he's had and where he's at. Hopefully we can develop a rapport with our young receivers and with our offense. We recognize there's going to be ups and downs."

"He's right up there near the top of the fastest quarterbacks in the league, and once he gets out of the pocket he makes plays with his feet," said Bills coach Gregg Williams. "I saw him in the preseason play very well, and there were patches against Jacksonville where he played well, also. He made some plays with his feet and had some really good down-the-field throws, but then would make a throw that was pretty tough to explain."

Eliminating those tough-to-explain mistakes will be the key for both quarterbacks this week.

"I have to get it to the go-to guys," Johnson said. "I have to play better. I expect to play better every week. I expect the offense to improve. I think everyone has to step it up."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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