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Steelers Steelers finally taste victory in Jacksonville with dominating performance against Jaguars

Monday, October 02, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Steelers have been coming to Alltel Stadium to play football for six years now, and never had their prospects been as bleak as they were yesterday.

 
 
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Their starting quarterback could not play because of a hip injury, they were winless in three games, they had their first punt blocked in nearly seven years, and their star rookie turned knucklehead on a fourth-quarter play.

Playing against the team with the best record in the conference last season and playing in a stadium where they have never won, it should not have been close.

It wasn't. The Steelers held Jacksonville without a touchdown until nine seconds left and stunned the Jaguars, 24-13, yesterday. They hope it was the beginning of a turnaround after they had lost 10 of their previous 11 games.

"With all the drama we've gone through, what better way than to come to a hostile environment and a place where we've never won and beat Jacksonville?" safety Lee Flowers said.

Kordell Stewart, making his first start at quarterback in the past nine games, got the call when Kent Graham could not overcome a hip injury. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 132 yards, but he joined a rushing attack that produced 209 yards, led by Jerome Bettis' 97 yards and two touchdowns and included 61 by Stewart and 51 by Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who ran for the game's first touchdown.

"It was good enough to get us a win," Stewart said.

Coach Bill Cowher said Graham will return to start when he's healthy, which could be Sunday against the Jets in New York, but "it's nice to know that Kordell came in and played an excellent game and made good decisions."

The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars, even when they were put in difficult circumstances. The Jaguars rushed for only 26 yards, the least in their in history, and the Steelers sacked quarterback Mark Brunell seven times -- after having just two sacks in the first three games. They held the NFL's leading receiver, Jimmy Smith, to just two catches for 20 yards.

"We have to turn this thing around," Flowers said. "We have to have some more fun in this city. Inside our locker room, inside our world, we know we're a good team."

For one day, at least, they showed everyone else they did not forget how to win and defeat a good team to boot, although Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin might argue one point with them.

"We're not a very good football team right now," he said of the two-time defending AFC Central champions who are 2-3, below .500 for the first time since 1996.

Perhaps the Steelers had something to do with that. They dominated the first half, and they did it with a defense that refused to budge after being charged with giving up too many big plays in the first three games.

It began when Josh Miller had a punt blocked for the first time in his career. Donovin Darius did it on the Steelers' first series. The Jaguars took over with a first down at the Steelers' 4 but could only get to the 1 and settled for Steve Lindsey's 19-yard field goal.

That gave the Jaguars a 3-0 lead and a sick feeling because they could not get into the end zone.

"We blocked a punt, and we had every opportunity to score inside the 5 and maybe give ourselves a shot in the arm when we need it, and we don't score a touchdown," Coughlin said.

It would be a theme for the day.

 
  The Steelers turned QB Mark Brunell upside down. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

The Jaguars also reached the Steelers' 14 in the third quarter and did not score, reached their 6 and their 26 in the fourth quarter and did not score. They scored their only touchdown when backup quarterback Jamie Martin completed a pass that was tipped to Keenan McCardell for an 11-yard touchdown on fourth down with nine seconds left.

Jacksonville's only other score was Lindsey's 48-yard field goal near the end of the first half.

By then, the Steelers had grabbed control of the game like none since they won at Cincinnati last October.

"We get back off the snide, man," said Bettis. "It means a lot. We've been playing good football and to come up short the last two weeks was frustrating. You play well enough to win football games and don't do it; you start questioning yourself and what we were doing wrong."

They did nearly everything right yesterday, even when they were doing them wrong. The blocked punt was one example in which it might have turned in their favor because it provided their defense with an early opportunity to set a tone.

Fuamatu-Ma'afala gave the Steelers a lead they never relinquished at 7-3 when he scored on a draw with 41 seconds left in the first quarter.

There was another wrong-turned-right on their next drive when tight end Cory Geason dropped Stewart's pass, but the ball tipped into the air, and Hines Ward caught it for a 15-yard gain. Stewart scrambled out of the pocket for a 34-yard gain on the next play.

The Steelers could not score from the 1 on two tries, but Kris Brown's 19-yard field goal put them ahead 10-3.

Flowers' first interception of the season on Jacksonville's next play and an inexplicable decision by Coughlin helped stake the Steelers to a 17-3 lead.

Flowers' pickoff gave them a first down at the 24. They had a third-and-7 when Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran for 5. The Steelers were ready to kick a field goal, but wide receiver Troy Edwards was caught for holding on the play, and Coughlin, for some reason, accepted the penalty. Cowher said he was glad he did.

Given new life at the 15, Stewart threw a screen pass to Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who ran 14 yards for a first down at the 1. Bettis scored on the next play.

"We made a commitment," Bettis said. "We're going to run the football. There were a few times when I didn't get touched until the secondary. That makes a big difference."

When the Steelers took a 17-6 halftime lead, Cowher had one message. They had lost too many close ones, and he wanted to put this one away.

"He said we need a score right off the bat," fullback Jon Witman said.

It came on their second series of the third quarter. Stewart completed a 20-yard pass to Troy Edwards, and Bettis rattled for 20 more yards to the 15. Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran 12 yards from there, and Bettis got the final 3 for a 24-6 lead.

It was over.

"It kind of took the last breath out of Jacksonville," Witman said. "You could see it."

Not even a boneheaded move by Plaxico Burress, the Steelers' high-priced rookie receiver, could help breathe any life back into the Jaguars.

He caught a 19-yard pass in the fourth quarter for a first down at the Jacksonville 29, where he slipped and fell without being touched. Burress stood up and spiked the ball, which popped high into the air. Alert linebacker Danny Clark picked off what was ruled a fumble and ran 44 yards to the Steelers' 27.

But the Steelers' defense held the Jaguars, who missed on fourth-and-3 when linebacker Earl Holmes tackled Brunell, who was scrambling, and spilled him head over heals a yard short of the sticks.

"I'm just glad it didn't cost us the game," a sheepish Burress said.

"With this young team, there are a lot of things I'm experiencing for the first time," Cowher said.

Including, at long last, a victory, and in Jacksonville to boot.

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