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Steelers McNair steps in late to dig Steelers an 0-3 hole

Tennesse wins 23-20

Monday, September 25, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The story keeps changing. The subjects, the antagonists, the theme, the heroes, the anti-heroes and the venues all change. Even the seasons have changed.

 
 
More Steelers Coverage:

O'Donnell bloodied but unbowed

The Big Picture: CBS almost pulls plug on Steelers

Steelers Report Card

A gallery of game photos

Columnist Ron Cook: Give McNair all the credit

Columnist Bob Smizik: Steelers have to start playing in the first quarter

Win would massage Steelers' bruised egos

A cold cameo lets Titans burn Steelers

Steelers Report: 9/25/00

   
 

One thing remains firm: The Steelers lose. Whether it's the lowly Browns or the defending AFC champions. Whether it's winter, summer or now fall.

Yesterday, they managed to get the tying field-goal attempt off this time, but Kris Brown's 50-yard kick fell short with 18 seconds left, and the Tennessee Titans went home with a dramatic, 23-20 victory at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Titans (2-1) won because quarterback Steve McNair, who has a bruised sternum and did not start, replaced injured Neil O'Donnell with 2 1/2 minutes left and guided Tennessee 64 yards on four plays for the winning score. It came when McNair threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Erron Kinney, wide open in the right portion of the end zone with 1:25 to go because linebacker Jason Gildon did not cover him.

The loss dropped the Steelers to 0-3 this season, to 10 losses in their past 11 games and eight in their past 10 at home.

"We kind of like let it slip away again," linebacker Earl Holmes said.

The previous Sunday, in Cleveland, they came from behind and had a first down at the Browns' 8, trailing by three, but botched it up and could not get their kicking team on the field before time ran out.

Yesterday, they played their best game of the season, again overcame a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but came away last-second losers again.

They used to win games like this, but no more. Under Coach Bill Cowher, they are 28-19 in regular-season games decided by seven points or fewer, but only 2-9 in the past 11. His teams are 15-10 in games decided by three points or fewer, but 1-6 in the past seven.

"There's no question, it's an edge," said Cowher, who had tears in his eyes afterward. "It's an edge we don't have right now and it's an edge Tennessee does have, and it comes through doing it.

"When you get a football team down like that, we have to finish the game, we have to finish it on defense, and we did not do that today."

It was another game in which the Steelers' defense allowed big plays, but for a change they made some as well. Chad Scott intercepted two Neil O'Donnell passes and Dewayne Washington swiped one.

O'Donnell has not thrown more interceptions in one game since he left the Steelers as a free agent after he threw three in Super Bowl XXX.

They even had a sack, only their second this season, but that proved more costly than anything. It occurred when Gildon dropped O'Donnell for a 5-yard loss to the Titans' 36 with 2:35 left. O'Donnell hobbled off the field with a slight concussion, a cut mouth and a stiff neck.

On came McNair, injured two weeks ago. Facing third-and-11, he threw high over the middle to Chris Sanders, who stretched and caught it for a 22-yard gain at the Steelers' 42.

McNair scrambled for 9 yards on the next play, completed a 15-yard pass to Derrick Mason on the next and had an easy touchdown to Kinney on the next. The Steelers blitzed on that play.

"I couldn't believe the configuration of the defense," McNair said. "I knew it was going to be one-on-one ... I'll take Erron any day over a linebacker. It was a good opportunity for me to just make a good throw."

With 1:25 and only one timeout left, Kent Graham completed a 20-yard pass to Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala to get the Steelers going after the kickoff. On the play, defensive end Kenny Holmes landed on Graham, who left the game with hip and rib injuries.

That brought on Kordell Stewart, who had scored from the 1 on a sneak on the first play of the fourth quarter to tie the score, 13-13.

On second down at his 46, Stewart scrambled for 16 yards to the Titans' 38. He spiked the ball to stop the clock with 39 seconds left, then completed a 6-yard pass to Bobby Shaw. Linebacker Randall Godfrey nearly intercepted Stewart's next pass over the middle on third-and-4.

That brought Brown out for his kick.

"I thought I hit the ball well," Brown said. "I guess I didn't. I'm disappointed. The most disappointing part of it is, I feel like I let my teammates down."

He had company.

The Titans scored on their first series after O'Donnell threw a pass to Carl Pickens over Washington that carried 67 yards. On the next play, Eddie George ran off left tackle for a 20-yard touchdown.

Pickens' catch was another in a long line of big pass plays against the Steelers in three games.

"Most of the time it is just an inch here or an inch there," linebacker Levon Kirkland said. "Guys are there in position. Sometimes it is miscommunication. Whatever it is, we have to stop it."

They did a good job of stopping George at that point; he was held to 54 yards on his other 26 carries. And they got back into the game quickly on their next series.

Graham, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 254 yards, again had no touchdowns or interceptions -- keeping his slate clean on both counts this season. He found Hines Ward twice for 25 yards to set up Brown's first field goal, from 32 yards.

Al Del Greco kicked his first of three field goals, from 24 yards, to give Tennessee a 10-3 first-quarter lead. Scott's interception at the Titans' 40 in the second quarter led to Brown's 32-yard field goal and a 10-6 halftime score.

The Steelers had a chance to go ahead just before the half ended but Shaw, after a catch and nice run of 32 yards, fumbled at the Titans' 8 with 34 seconds left.

Del Greco made it 13-6 with a 40-yarder in the third quarter.

Finally, the Steelers tied it. Jerome Bettis, who had 77 yards rushing on 19 carries after a slow start, ran 23 yards and had another 15 tacked onto it when cornerback Denard Walker hauled him down by his facemask.

That put the ball at the Titans' 19. Two plays later, Graham zipped a pass to Ward, and as he was tackled, he seemed to stretch the ball over the goal line for a touchdown.

When the officials spotted the ball at the 1, instead, Cowher challenged the ruling. It was disallowed, and the Steelers were charged a timeout, which would prove costly at the end. Cowher sent Stewart into the game and he leaped over the line for the 1-yard score that made it 13-13.

A 46-yard kickoff return by Mason led to Del Greco's second 40-yard field goal and a 16-13 lead for Tennessee.

But another interception, this one by Washington, at the Steelers' 49 set the Steelers up for the go-ahead touchdown, a 5-yard run by Bettis.

The Steelers led, 20-16, with 7:50 left in the game.

"We came out today and we got behind," Cowher said, "but we came back."

It appeared it would stick when they stopped the Titans on their next drive and then when Gildon sacked O'Donnell, to make it third-and-11 for the new quarterback, 64 yards away.

Different story, same ending.

"Against the AFC champions, we gave them all they could handle," Kirkland said. "But it is still a sick feeling because you end up short. There comes a time and a period when you have to get tired of coming up short.

"We are at that point."

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