PITTSBURGH -- Homecoming is supposed to be a cause for celebration, but you might have a hard time proving that to Joe Walton. A native of nearby Beaver Falls and college star at Pitt, Walton returned to southwestern Pennsylvania this February to become the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator after seven years as head coach of the New York Jets. His tenure to date has been as uneven as this hilly city's topography.

Most recently, the Steelers had an up week, beating the New York Jets, 24-7, at the Meadowlands on Sunday. They improved their record to 6-5 and moved into a first-place tie with the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers in the AFC Central Division. For Walton the game was a visit to familiar turf, and the Jets fans acknowledged him as they had many times in recent years: with derision.

A lightning rod for criticism in New York, at first Walton found Pittsburgh no more hospitable. His offense, a marked change for Coach Chuck Noll's Steelers, failed to produce a touchdown during the season's first four weeks and the team went 1-3. Media and fans, whose expectations had been raised by Pittsburgh's playoff appearance last season -- its first since 1984 -- clamored for instant success from the man sometimes called an offensive genius.

When it didn't happen, Walton was pilloried. Fans booed him and -- echoing Jets fans before them -- chanted that "Joe must go." National media visited Pittsburgh to report on the Steelers' ineptitude, and a newspaper ran a contest in which readers tried to predict the exact time of the 1990 Steelers' first touchdown. Harsh treatment for a former hometown hero, an all-America tight end and linebacker at the University of Pittsburgh, 1954-56, before going pro with the Washington Redskins, for whom he eventually became offensive coordinator until hired by the Jets.

Of the criticism, Walton said simply that "I'm getting used to it."

Early in the season, confusion on offense resulted as the team struggled to learn Walton's complex schemes.

"It was like a cram session," quarterback Bubby Brister said of the first month of the season. "We would practice a play on Wednesday, then practice a different play on Thursday and Friday. On Sunday, we weren't executing the Wednesday play well."

"We weren't playing well," said Walton. "Offensive football is an 11-guy sport. Everyone {was} not on the same page. We didn't get clicking."

The Steelers' early offensive troubles were aggravated by confusion over play calls. Walton would send in his call via substitute, but since some plays are designated by 10 or more words (including information about formation and specific instructions for several players), it was not uncommon for the messenger to forget part of the message by the time he reached the huddle. In addition, Brister was having some difficulty assimilating all the information in time.

So the Steelers began signaling in the offensive formation from the sideline, before the substitute had arrived with the play. For Brister, the change has made a world of difference.

"I can visualize where everybody is before the line of scrimmage," he said.

Walton also "condensed" the offense, said Brister, by concentrating on the plays that were working best.

The changes seemed to help because, in Game 5, Walton's offense awoke in a 36-14 victory over San Diego, scoring four touchdowns. From that watershed, Pittsburgh improved its record to 5-4 and climbed into first place.

Walton believes the team's improvement was a direct result of its early struggles.

"I think one of the keys was changing personnel, changing formations, a lot of people in motion," he said.

In other words, those features of the offense that had confused the Steelers began instead to confuse opposing defenses.

In the five-game stretch that started with the San Diego win, Brister's improved performance keyed the Steelers' surge. In that period, he completed 71 of 105 passes (67.6 percent) for 902 yards, with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He was named the AFC offensive player of the month for October and the first week of November.

The Steelers were on the move but, following an off week, reverted to their earlier futility in a first-place showdown with Cincinnati and lost, 27-3.

"The delay might have had an effect," said Walton. "We had a good rhythm going."

Despite the defeat, there was no repeat of the grumbling that had accompanied the Steelers in September. After the season opener, Brister was reported to have made some uncomplimentary remarks about Walton's offense.

"I was misquoted," Brister said. "I never criticized the play calling."

Brister did admit to questioning the practice of "changing players to bring in plays," which deprived him of his top offensive weapons at times.

But Brister and Walton have since had a meeting of the minds and are "getting along good," said Brister. "We have a player-coach, not a buddy-buddy, relationship. We're getting on the same page."

For his part, Walton said before the loss to Cincinnati that Brister and the offense just needed "a little success" to get going.

The Steelers are back on the winning track, but a little success won't be enough to get them into the playoffs. Pittsburgh is 1-5 against teams with winning records and has yet to play a game decided by fewer than 10 points -- win or lose. This Sunday, the Steelers get another chance to win when it counts, not just after they have been counted out, in a rematch with the Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium.

Despite the peaks and valleys, Walton is not regretting his decision to return.

"My wife {Ginger} and I are enjoying it," said Walton. "I think you can come home."