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The Odd Couple



Spikes doesn't have a meeting until the 9 a.m. team meeting. But since he wants to go to the Pro Bowl while taking his team to the Super Bowl, today is like most days. He checks in a little early with linebackers coach Mark Duffner to watch film.

"Duff's my man," Spikes says. "A motivator. The only coach I ever had who knew me well enough to get the best out of me was my high school coach. That's a guy who still comes up here to all my home games."

At this hour, Spikes and Adrian Ross are the only ones in Duffner's office. But Ross has to leave soon for the 8:30 a.m. special teams meeting.

So for a few moments it's just these two. Moments and relationships you only get in the NFL.

There is Duffner, the 47-year-old pepperpot who studied under Woody Hayes before making a 60-5-1 name for himself at little Holy Cross in that tiny slice of central Massachusetts.

There is Spikes, the gifted 23-year-old would be Pro Bowler. A native of the modern south (Georgia) and a product of the SEC's NFL training grounds as an Auburn icon.

At first blush, Duffner is the stereotypical stern- gruff-varsity-letter-jacket-guy. As only a Woody grad assistant could be. But his players love him because he's true to himself, because he can laugh at himself and them, and because he's got the results to show the man can coach.

The day before, Spikes and Duffner walked into the weight room with Spikes giving Duffner a hard time about playing college (William and Mary) in the '70s.

"I still think," said Duffner, who never jokes for very long, "you can get stronger as the season goes on."

On this morning, Spikes has stopped by the cafeteria to fix himself a plate of breakfast and now puts it on the edge of Duffner's desk to pick at while they watch tape.

"Thanks, Bud," Duffner says. "Thanks for breakfast. Appreciate it."

Spikes nods with a smile. Duffner has gotten him back with a nice, soft bust. Usually, it's Spikes who walks into the office, sees Duffner eating out of a Wendy's bag and says, "Thanks, Bud. Thanks a lot for lunch."

Right now, they are watching the tape of last year's first Bengals-Steelers game, in which Pittsburgh brought Cincinnati its lunch, 17-3. Duffner has his red-light pointer all over the screen.

"Give me that neck turn, look and finish off the SOB," Duffner says with a voice that's a bit raspy this morning. "Yeah. Good. Got me? See it? If that guy's in motion, you've got to be here because of this other guy over here. You with me on that?"

"Duff, your voice is annoying this morning," Spikes says.

"I can't help it," Duffner grumbles. "It's more annoying to me because I have to yell. That's the way it is. Let's go. Let's go. What's this call?"

Soon Duffner comes to a play that seems to symbolize how he wants Spikes to play Sunday. And if he plays like that, he should accomplish all the things he wants to accomplish.

The Steelers like to run 260-pound Jerome Bettis a certain way on one of his runs. Duffner runs back the tape. If Spikes is starting in a spot a foot or two away from where he is on film, Duffner says Spikes can blow up the play.

"I want you a step over, Takeo. Trust me. That's the way to go in that," Duffner says, and Spikes does. 

Watching the game brings it all back to Spikes. The relentless play of the Steelers' interior line. Spikes had a hell of a time with guard Alan Faneca in college when Auburn played LSU. And there is the athletic wunderkind in center Dermontti Dawson." 

"It's going to be physical," Spikes says. "You're doing a hell of a job in this," Duffner says a few players later. "You're ahead of schedule. Stay on it. You're getting better. You're getting healthier. You're better than you were doing this because it was last year. You're going to get there."

What began as an Xs and Os meeting ends as a power of positive thinking session.

10:10 AM**

After the full defensive meeting, Duffner has his backers back in his office. He's getting on Steve Foley a little bit. Calls him "Elmer Gantry," But that's because he knows the Bengals' talented third-year left outside backer needs to be more focused and consistent.

"The thing Duff does is build confidence," Spikes says. "Look at Foley. He's playing at a level he's never played at before. That's because of Duff. He drills you and drills you and makes you think you're a better player on the field. At the same time, if you mess up, he'll drill you again. He'll get on you."

Now he's getting on a guy in last year's game "Poor decision here," to make a point to Ross and Spikes about taking away Bettis' cut-back move: "If Takeo has to get closer and Adrian can come hard because he has help."

3:10 PM

Spikes needs help right after practice. Most players take their pads off to run the post-practice sprints. But Spikes keeps them on because after the sprints he wants to spend about five-to-10 minutes working with fellow backer Billy Granville.

The two look like they're ballroom dancing, but they're actually working on "shed-and-escape." The idea is to use your hands to ward off offensive linemen before they can devour the linebacker with a run block that opens a devastating seam.

It's all in the hands. Spikes is trying to maneuver his hands on the outside of Granville's shoulder pads while keeping his feet moving. The little things will be huge in trying to offset Pittsburgh's power game.

"Alignment is going to be important in this game," Spikes says. "Recognition. If you're not lined up where you're supposed to be and you've got an athletic linemen in front of you, he's in a better position to cut you off.

"When they were pulling guards, I was too far inside on one play," Spikes says, a reel of last year's tape still bugging him. "I could have come in deeper and forced the play if I got there quicker. I could hit (the blocker) in front instead of behind him, which forces me to skate across the top." **

3:46 PM**

There's a buzz in Duffner's office. Three backers, including Spikes, walk in a few seconds after the 5 blinks to a 6 on the wall clock

"That's $25," yelps Canute Curtis.

"That's right. That's right," Duffner says. "I gave you 40 minutes to get here (after practice).

Spikes shrugs. He got out of the training room with three ice bags just a little late.

"Just didn't make it," he says, and now Duffner is trying to hammer in the details of the game plan in the 20 minutes before he sends them home.

"Are these guys tough and physical?" Duffner asks. "Yes. But so are we. I don't want to hear about it. Just play."

For Spikes, this is when the game plan starts to click in. Friday is the day he wants to polish, when he's stopped the learning, and is putting it into place. And Friday is here.

"There's more awareness of what's going on," said Spikes of the post-practice film session. "The knowledge of it is coming easier. You remember how alert you have to be, the decisions and plays. It's got to be 1-2-3 boom!"

Like Wednesday, Duffner hands out a homework sheet and a tape as his players leave. There are 14 questions, with the last few asking for plays to be drawn off certain formations. The tape shows the Steelers' games against the Jets and Jaguars.

It took Spikes 10 minutes to do Wednesday's assignment, but Duffner doesn't have it yet.

"That would be another 25 bucks, wouldn't it?" a leering Duffner asks "Don't you have it?"

Spikes whirls around and sees the carrying case he put on a chair when he walked into the room first thing in the morning.

"Right here, Duff," Spikes says with a bit of triumph.

"All right, all right," Duffner says.

Spikes leaves and so does the gruffness when Duffner is asked how Spikes does on these tests.

"Great, great," Duffner says. "Great kid. He knows this stuff. Great guy to work with. Honest."

Downstairs at his locker, Spikes is saying the same thing about Duffner.

"He knows how to push my buttons," says Spikes, who hopes the switches are working Sunday.

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