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Steelers Stewart returns a measure of assurance

Monday, October 02, 2000

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There was the calamitous final series in Cleveland, where they didn't attempt a pass to their newest weapon in the end zone, their quarterback committed the cardinal sin and was sacked with no timeouts remaining, and the officials failed to give them an extra five seconds that might have permitted a shot at a tying field goal.

A week later, they made the mistake of knocking the wrong quarterback from the game, blew a coverage that yielded the winning touchdown then came up short on a tying 50-yard field-goal attempt. On top of that, the National Football league gave them another apology, this time for a blown call that robbed them of an extra timeout they could have used on their final ill-fated drive.

That's why yesterday's 24-13 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars was so big for a Steelers team that was 0-3 and headed for deep depression. Beyond that, it was immensely big for a quarterback named Kordell Stewart.

Remember him?

"There've been a lot of things going on, and I've had to stay very professional about it," Stewart said after the Steelers had finally won in Jacksonville for the first time since the series began in 1995. "When you have the opportunity, you just want to seize the moment. My opportunity came and we all, as a team, jelled together. We've been through a whole lot as a team, not just me. Hey, 24-13 is not too bad."

Stewart had not started a regular-season game for the Steelers since he was yanked in the second quarter of a 27-20 loss to Cincinnati Nov. 28, but he got his chance yesterday when Kent Graham, who ruptured his bursa sac making a handoff in practice Friday, was unable to play.

Stewart did not post the fanciest statistics, nor did he throw a touchdown pass, something the Steelers have failed to do in four games. But he completed 10 of 16 passes for 132 yards, ran nine times for 61 yards and converted several big third-down opportunities.

He re-established a measure of confidence with his teammates because he was able to do something that Graham has been unable to do in three games: win.

"It was real important for him," said wide receiver Troy Edwards, who had just one catch for 20 yards but it was a big one. It helped set up the second of Jerome Bettis' two touchdown runs. "People need to take a look at Kordell and see he can play. Last year, he didn't know the offense. Nobody really knew the offense, but you feel a lot more comfortable when you know the offense and you've been in the offense.

"I told Kordell, ever since Kent got the [starting] job -- nothing against Kent, I think Kent is a great quarterback -- but I kept telling Kordell that God's got a plan for him, and today he stared me in the eyes and said, 'Hey, I got my chance.' "

Despite the victory, Coach Bill Cowher said Graham will start Sunday's game against the New York Jets, provided he is healthy.

"If I'm ready to go, I'll play," Graham said.

Graham knew he wasn't going to be able to play when he came out for pregame warmups, tried dropping back and stepping up in an imaginary pocket, and winced so bad from the pain that he had to bend over to get relief. It was much the same way he felt Friday when he was making a handoff to Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala in practice and, all of sudden, was doubled over in pain.

The Steelers said Graham strained a muscle in his hip, which was badly bruised after defensive end Kenny Holmes knocked him from the Tennessee game. Graham, though, said he didn't pull a muscle, that the bursa sac ruptured and his hip began swelling and filling with fluid.

He spent the game on the sideline, helping Stewart and cheering him on. Despite their rivalry at quarterback, Stewart and Graham have become good friends and always joke with each other in the locker room.

"I was happy for him," Graham said. "He did a great job scrambling and making plays. That was a big difference out there."

Perhaps the biggest came in the second quarter with the Steelers leading 7-3. Stewart looked like his old self when he took off up the middle of the field, put on a burst past Jaguars linebacker Hardy Nickerson for a 34-yard gain.. That set up a 19-yard Kris Brown field goal that put the lead at 10-3.

On the next series, after Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin accepted a holding penalty against the Steelers and gave them an extra down, Stewart converted a third-and-12 at the Jaguars' 15 with a 14-yard screen pass to Fuamatu-Ma'afala. That set up Bettis' 1-yard touchdown and a 17-3 lead.

"When you have the opportunity to scramble and make some things happen and get on the edge, it makes them tired," Stewart said. "That's what made it so fun. It's been a tough time, especially for me, but to come out and perform at will, that was really exciting.

"It was always there. It was just a matter of time."

Even in the fourth quarter, Stewart converted a third-and-8 from the Steelers 30 with another screen to Fuamatu-Ma'afala, this one gaining 25 yards.

The Steelers might have scored on that drive, too, but that ended when Plaxico Burress got up and spiked the ball after a 19-yard catch and run, thinking he was down by contact.

"It's big for him, but it's big for our football team," Cowher said of Stewart "I really look at the whole thing because you keep working, they keep listening, they keep responding, and yet they keep looking up [at the scoreboard] and we were falling short. It was like we imposed our will today."

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