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Steelers Play of the Game: Washington’s fumble return

Steelers' defense recovers big-play form

Monday, October 01, 2001

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y -- Awash in the emotion of what he had seen before the game and what he was witnessing on the field, Bill Cowher walked a tenuous tightrope between passion and anger and wasted little time reverting to form as the jaw-jutting, spit-spewing, frothy-mouthed coach of the Steelers.

Dewayne Washington returns a fumble 63 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter yesterday. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

He became excited and animated when his strong safety, Lee Flowers, was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct for pushing Buffalo wide receiver Peerless Price in the back. Problem was, Cowher became excited and animated on the playing field, a good 10 yards from the sideline area where he is supposed to be standing.

For that, the coach who once was portrayed as a sideline madman in a television commercial, angrily tugging on a cheerleader's pompom, was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. The back-to-back penalties provided the Bills with their greatest offensive thrust -- 30 yards to the Steelers' 40.

"That was their chance," said safety Brent Alexander. "They got down there close to put points on the board."

But a weird thing happened for the Steelers, a team accustomed to having weird things happen to it.

Two plays later, after linebacker Joey Porter jumped offside to move the Bills even 5 yards closer to the end zone, the Steelers turned around a game by getting something from their defense they had not been getting from their offense -- a touchdown.

Cornerback Dewayne Washington picked up a fumble by Bills running back Travis Henry and ran 63 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

"This team is always involved in some weird-type play, going all the way back to that game in Detroit with the coin flip," Washington said.

As a matter of history, that was Thanksgiving Day, 1998, the day Jerome Bettis started to call 'heads,' said 'tails,' and the Steelers lost more than the overtime coin flip.

Yesterday, the turnaround was equally dramatic, but with more positive results. Just like that, the Steelers went from a team that looked to be unraveling emotionally to a team that went on to a 20-3 victory against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.


"We needed that at that point in time," Porter said. "We had like four or five penalties in a row. That was the perfect answer."

It certainly was, especially on a day when the offense provided more questions than answers about how to get into the end zone. The offense finally managed its first touchdown of 2001 when Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala scored on a 22-yard run in the fourth quarter, but until then it appeared as if Washington, an eighth-year corner, would be the team's leading scorer.

"More than anything, that was a big momentum swing," Alexander said. "That kind of took the wind out of them for a while."

"The defense came up with a big play that was the turning point," Cowher said.

Said inside linebacker Earl Holmes, "That's what [defensive coordinator] Tim Lewis is always talking about -- we've got to create turnovers."

The Steelers had two against the Bills, each going for big yardage.

Washington's 63-yard touchdown was the seventh scoring return (five interceptions, two fumbles) of his career and first by a Steelers player since Jason Gildon returned a fumble 22 yards for a touchdown in Week 12 last season against the Cincinnati Bengals. And cornerback Chad Scott, playing for the first time since his knee was sprained in an Aug. 25 preseason game, picked off a pass by Alex Van Pelt and returned the interception 62 yards to the Buffalo 15 with 1:44 remaining.

Washington had a little help. Henry, a rookie from Tennessee, had the ball knocked loose by Alexander, who came up to make the tackle. Porter was also there, but he was behind Henry.

"I didn't see it come out," Alexander said. "I heard people yelling. By the time I realized the guy didn't have the ball, I held onto him so he couldn't get the ball."

That's when Washington swooped in, picked up the ball on one bounce and started streaking the other way. Price, the Bills' third-year receiver, tried to close the gap and almost caught Washington.

"Oh, I heard him," Washington said. "Once I felt him, I hauled it to the end zone. To be honest, I was tired the rest of the game after that."

So was Rob Johnson, the Bills quarterback. He was sacked four times and had little time to throw behind an offensive line that was already missing starting tackles John Fina and Jonas Jennings and lost backup tackle Kris Farris with a fractured lower leg in the first quarter.

Once the Steelers got the lead, they could afford to bring more pressure, perhaps take some more chances, with Johnson.

"We knew if we had the lead it would be tough for him," Porter said

They can thank Washington.

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