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Steelers Smizik: First quarter haunts Steelers

Monday, September 25, 2000

The plays everyone was talking about, the plays that are popularly believed to have cost the Steelers yet another game, were the excellent ones orchestrated by Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair when he entered the game with less than three minutes remaining. McNair was stunningly brilliant in moving his team 64 yards in four plays for a touchdown that gave the Titans a 23-20 victory.


But, if the truth be known, the Steelers lost this game in the first quarter, not the last.

In fact, they've lost every game this season in the first quarter.

The team that has become the master of the heartbreaking defeat might not be tied to such a fate if it could become the master of first-quarter performance.

The problem with the Steelers is not so much that they collapse at the end but that they're not ready to play in the beginning.

"In the first two games we played eight quarters and probably won six of them," Coach Bill Cowher said. "The first two quarters we've not be able to win."

It was exactly the same yesterday as the Steelers allowed the Titans to take a 10-3 lead in the first quarter. The Steelers won the rest of the game, 17-13, but that was of no consequence.

This is no one-game phenomenon. The Steelers have been outscored 34-3 in the first quarter this season. They have outscored the opposition, 37-28, in the final three quarters.

The Steelers seemed to take some small measure of satisfaction out of the fact they played the AFC champion Titans so well, that they limited Eddie George to less than 3 yards per carry and that they intercepted three Neil O'Donnell passes. But all that is wasted until they begin playing all four quarters.

Their ineptitude in the first quarter and their on-going problem with big plays is dragging them down to the bottom of the league.

"It's sometimes because of a lack of focus," said defensive end Kevin Henry. "You have to be consistent, and, for the most part, we haven't been for four straight quarters."

Take away a small number of plays and the Steelers were quite good defensively against the Titans. But those plays, particularly on third down, ruined them.

On a third-and-9 from his 13 on the Titans' first possession, O'Donnell threw 67 yards to Carl Pickens to set up a touchdown.

On their next possession, the Titans had a third-and-8 from their 32 when O'Donnell passed 44 yards to Frank Wycheck, a play that led to a field goal.

On the final drive, McNair entered the game on a third-and-11 from the Tennessee 36 and passed 22 yards to Chris Sanders.

"You sit there and look at it and you say, 'On 50 of 54 plays, boy, we played well,' " Cowher said. "But those four plays come back to haunt you.

"When you get a football team down like that, we have to finish it on defense. We didn't do that today. We work so hard on first and second down to put ourselves in [a good] third-down situation. We can't allow that to happen."

Levon Kirkland had no explanation for the frequency of big plays against the Steelers.

"Most of the time it's an inch here and an inch there, guys out of positions, a miscommunication. Whatever it is, we have to stop it. We have to get better."

With road games against Jacksonville and the New York Jets just ahead, the Steelers are looking hard at an 0-5 start. Some might look at that as positive in terms of securing a high draft choice, but, as the Steelers have learned, losing breeds losing. It is significantly more important for the Steelers to start winning than for them to select high in the draft.

Cowher seemed disturbed with the defeat but pleased with the effort of his team.

"It's disappointing and it's frustrating," he said. "I couldn't give them any words to overcome the hurt.

"The effort they put forth in preparation and the way they laid it on the line and the way I saw them respond last week [in practice], it's unfortunate that the residue of the that effort isn't showing up. But it will. I believe it will."

Tall words, but they would be more easily believed if this team had a recent history of winning. But they've lost 18 of their past 24, and the cumulative effect of that can be enormously damaging.

There is reason to believe that when such effort results in defeat, it is often difficult to summon that kind of effort again.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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