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Steelers Steelers settle for tie as Vick rallies Atlanta from 17-point deficit in fourth quarter

Monday, November 11, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The greatest passing and receiving performances in Steelers history weren't enough to beat the Atlanta Falcons?

Plaxico Burress comes up half a yard short of the end zone after catching a desperation pass from Tommy Maddox on the final play of overtime. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock returned from the dead to direct this one and called it "The Dirty Birds." Just when the Steelers seemed safe at home, their feet up on the ottoman, they came under attack by a swarm of angry Falcons wresting away what looked like a comfortable victory.

The Steelers blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and then did not play for the win when they had the chance and wound up with the first NFL tie in five years and their first in 28, 34-34 at Heinz Field yesterday.

Coach Bill Cowher, who testily proclaimed he would not second-guess coaching decisions that were ripe for it, tried to convince his players that "it is not a loss." But they weren't buying it.

"Being down by 17 and coming back for a tie, it's a win for them and a loss for us," said linebacker Joey Porter, who did everything a defensive player could do to prevent it. "It's a win for them and a loss for us. They're out there celebrating."

Said receiver Hines Ward, "Personally, it's a loss to me. We should have won the game."

Their offensive punch was so staggering it was difficult for them to believe they did not win. Quarterback Tommy Maddox had the most prolific throwing game in Steelers history. He completed 28 of 41 passes for a team-record 473 yards, the most in the NFL this season. He threw four touchdown passes and one interception but said afterward, "I will take 150 yards and a win every day of the week."

 
 
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Post-game audio, including comments from coach Bill Cowher, quarterback Tommy Maddox and wide receiver Plaxico Burress.

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Plaxico Burress set a team record with 253 yards receiving, the most in the NFL this season, on nine catches, two of them for touchdowns. To go with that, Ward caught 11 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, and Amos Zereoue ran 37 times -- the second-most in team history -- for 123 yards.

"I always tell myself every Sunday on the field," Burress said, "I tell Tommy the same thing: Don't be afraid to be great."

All for naught, at least the way they treat it in the standings. The Falcons and Steelers left yesterday's game with identical 5-3-1 records, exhausted with their five full quarters of work and not even able to remember all that happened.

"I have been part of some exciting games," said Atlanta's Warrick Dunn, who rushed for 129 yards, "but this is crazy."

Near the end of overtime, both coaches played for the tie.

Cowher went for the win when he ordered Todd Peterson to try a 48-yard field goal into the wind in overtime on a mushy, sandy field some Falcons called the worst in the league. It was fourth-and-2. The kick was blocked.

Then, after Maddox threw his only interception of the game from his 44 with 1:48 left in overtime, Atlanta moved to the Steelers' 37. Porter, who played as well as any linebacker could yesterday, stopped quarterback Michael Vick on third down, setting up a fourth-and-3 at the 37.

There were 48 seconds left and the Steelers had one timeout. Cowher decided to let the clock run because he was worried the Falcons might go for it. Atlanta Coach Dan Reeves wasn't the aggressor either. He let the clock run to eight seconds, then called timeout to have Jay Feely try a 56-yard field goal.

But linebacker James Farrior blocked it and the Steelers got the ball at their 49 with one second and one prayer left. Maddox threw a Hail Mary pass that Burress caught -- half a yard short of the goal line.

"It just ended like that," Ward said. "It was that type of day; you catch a Hail Mary and land on the 1."

It was another day in which the Steelers ran out to a big lead -- which should have been bigger -- and then went into a conservative mode on offense and defense and blew it. It happened the past three weeks but only this time did they pay for it.

They lost two chances when a fumbled snap from center on first down at the Atlanta 4 was recovered by the Falcons, and when Peterson missed a 40-yard field-goal try when the ball glanced off the right upright -- both in the first half.

Those 10 lost points seemed inconsequential as they poured it on. Peterson kicked two 34-yard field goals, Burress caught a 33-yard pass in the end zone that was tipped three times -- once by a defender and twice by him as he dived and caught it. Ward caught a 5-yard scoring pass and Burress hauled in a career-long 62-yard touchdown reception. Even tight end Jerame Tuman got into the act with an 18-yard touchdown catch.

The Falcons scored on Shawn Jefferson's 43-yard reception, Dunn's 59-yard run and a 36-yard field goal by Feely.

The Steelers changed their offense and defense in the fourth quarter. They tried to run the clock out on offense and they went into their dime -- or prevent -- defense. It was disastrous.

Vick, held relatively in check for 3 1/2 quarters, feasted on that prevent defense, using both his feet and his arm. Of his 294 yards passing, 114 came in the fourth quarter, as did 30 of his 52 yards rushing, including his 11-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds left that sent the game into overtime.

The Steelers allowed the door to open when Antwaan Randle El fumbled a punt return and the Falcons took over at the Steelers' 31 with 10:18 to go and leading by 17 points.

"I thought we did a pretty good job at that point," Cowher said.

Then it all unraveled.

Fullback Bob Christian plowed over from the 1 to cut the lead to 10 with 7:44 left.

Trying to use up the clock, the Steelers ran Zereoue twice for minus-5 yards and then Maddox's pass on third down fell incomplete.

Atlanta took over, putting together a long drive that ended with Feely's 40-yard field goal with 2:26 left.

Again, the Steelers' offense tried two runs by Zereoue that covered 7 yards and Maddox's third-down pass to Ward was deflected by linebacker John Holecek.

"We had the opportunity to win," Ward said. "If we make that conversion right there, it's over with."

The Falcons' Allen Rossum returned Josh Miller's punt 34 yards to the 50 and the Steelers' defense, which has not played up to its No. 1 ranking from last season, gave up the tying drive.

But on a day in which the Falcons produced 447 yards on offense and the Steelers 645 yards, the coin flip to start overtime was crucial. Atlanta called tails. It came up heads and the Steelers moved with authority downfield after getting the kickoff.

Ward caught a pass from Maddox and had an open field in front of him but stumbled in part because of the poor playing surface and because he said he was leg-whipped by a Falcons player.

They reached the Falcons' 29 and had second-and-1. But after Zereoue lost a yard on two carries they faced fourth-and-2. Cowher decided it was less risky to attempt a 48-yard field goal into the wind than go for the first down.

"We wanted to give ourselves the chance to win the game," he explained. "If we had not made it on fourth down, I think I would have deprived our football team of the opportunity to win the game."

Brian Finneran, a 6-foot-5 receiver inserted for the first time on the blocking team, blocked it with his elbow.

The Steelers managed another threat on their next series and seemed to have it locked up when Zereoue ran 19 yards around left end to Atlanta's 7. But tight end Mark Bruener was called for holding, forcing them back to the 33. On fourth-and-12 from there, Cowher ordered a punt rather than a 51-yard field-goal attempt.

The next time the Steelers got the ball, Maddox threw his interception and both coaches seemed more interested in avoiding a loss than in winning as they let precious seconds tick down in the final minute.

"When you're putting up career days you expect to win the ballgame," Ward said.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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