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Steelers Steelers likely to face O'Donnell

Friday, September 22, 2000

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Say this about Neil O'Donnell: At least he knows how and when to throw the fade pass.

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He did it to the Steelers two years ago when he rallied one of his other former teams, the Bengals, to a last-second, 25-20 victory in Cincinnati. He faked a spike and threw a high 25-yard touchdown to Carl Pickens in the corner of the end zone.

It was either going to be a catch or an incompletion. There was no pass over the middle. No sack.

That was the last time O'Donnell started against the team he led to Super Bowl XXX. But he has not started a game in Three Rivers Stadium since he left after the 1995 season. That, though, will probably change Sunday when the Tennessee Titans (1-1) come to town.

Steve McNair has resumed throwing and done some light practicing with the Titans. But the bruised sternum he sustained two weeks ago against the Kansas City Chiefs will probably keep him from playing against the Steelers. And why not?

The Titans look as though they might be a better offensive team with O'Donnell, who was 4-1 as a replacement starter last year when Tennessee made it to the Super Bowl.

"I know this," said Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, "when Neil came in last year, they won a lot of football games with him."

O'Donnell won the most recent one, too, rallying the Titans from a 14-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to a 17-14 overtime victory against the Chiefs after McNair was injured. O'Donnell did it with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Yancey Thigpen with 56 seconds remaining in regulation, then completing 3 of 3 passes for 57 yards on the first series of overtime to set up the winning field goal.

Now he returns, in all probability, to start a game in the stadium where he established himself as the Steelers' second all-time leading passer (12,867 yards) behind Terry Bradshaw. And against a team that is trying to lift itself from the doldrums of a 23-20 nightmare in Cleveland.

The Steelers say they can't even worry about which quarterback they're facing -- McNair or O'Donnell.

"We know what both can do and what we have to do is execute what we're doing," said inside linebacker Levon Kirkland. "We can't worry so much about if this quarterback is in here, we got to play this style, or if this quarterback is in here, we got to play that style. I don't think so. You got to play your style of defense and let that dictate what they're going to do."

McNair and O'Donnell are a modern-day odd couple, a lot like Kordell Stewart and Kent Graham. One is very athletic and mobile, not afraid to improvise. The other is conventional and stationary, less likely to make mistakes but also less willing to run with the ball.

With the Steelers' propensity for allowing the big pass play, it might be more beneficial to face the quarterback who has been struggling with his passing game. That would be McNair.

"When you talk about McNair, you talk about a guy holding the ball who might turn around and run it," said inside linebacker Earl Holmes. "O'Donnell is pretty much a throwback quarterback -- he's in the pocket and he's trying to see who's going to get open."

"They both have great arms, but O'Donnell will stay in the pocket more," cornerback Dewayne Washington said. "With McNair, you have to stay with your coverage a little longer."

O'Donnell is 1-0 against his former team, but he has not played in Pittsburgh since he threw two interceptions in the Super Bowl-loss to the Dallas Cowboys and signed a big free-agent contract with the New York Jets.

O'Donnell beat the Steelers two years ago in Cincinnati with his late-game dramatics -- completing a 50-yard pass to Pickens on fourth down to keep alive the drive, then tricking the Steelers with a fake spike-and-throw to Pickens for the winning touchdown with 20 seconds remaining. But he did not play in the return game in Pittsburgh because he had an injured hand.

Last year, when the Titans beat the Steelers, 47-36, in the season finale in Pittsburgh, O'Donnell relieved McNair after the first quarter and threw two touchdowns to tight ends Frank Wycheck and Michael Roan.

This time, O'Donnell is expected to start the game, and the reasons are two-fold: 1) There is no need to rush McNair back with a backup who has O'Donnell's credentials; and 2) There are those who think the Titans' offense runs more efficiently, though perhaps not quite as dangerously, with O'Donnell.

"He's got a very good read of what's going on," Kirkland said. "He throws it when he needs to throw it. He's one of those quarterbacks, when you look at him, there's not a great arm, there's not great speed, but he knows how to win. He has the knowledge to get it done."

The Titans have been sputtering under McNair the first two games of the season. He has not thrown for a touchdown, been intercepted three times and his average gain per attempt is a meager 5.0 yards. O'Donnell, meantime, was 11 of 17 for 132 yards and one touchdown in less than a quarter against the Chiefs.

"He's very accurate with his passes," Lewis said. "He's got a very calm, cool demeanor. He knows how to deliver the ball, when to deliver it, and he delivers it on time. He doesn't take many sacks because he knows where his people are and he knows how to read coverages."

O'Donnell was a free agent after the 1999 season and had a big offer on the table from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But O'Donnell said after the January game in Pittsburgh that he would like to stay with the Titans, and he did, signing a three-year, $7.6 million deal with Tennessee. The Titans are glad he did.

Just two games into a new season, they've already needed him.

"I am very impressed with the fact that he came here for less money, just to come back because he enjoys the surroundings, the city, the state, and he thinks we have a pretty good team," Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said. "He did what we expected him to do, what we have him for, against Kansas City in the fourth quarter. Those are the things that backup quarterbacks should be able to do for you."

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