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Steelers Texans maneuver around Steelers for upset, 24-6

Had three defensive TDs, 47 total yards

Monday, December 09, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

They are no longer complaining that the grass is the worst thing at Heinz Field anymore. That wasn't the grass but the Steelers' offense that came up in clumps yesterday.

Tommy Maddox is swarmed under by the Texans' defense, which recorded six sacks in the upset victory yesterday at Heinz Field. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"That," said receiver Hines Ward, "was the most crappiest performance."

The expansion Houston Texans, 13 1/2-point underdogs, possibly knocked the Steelers' season for a loop with a 24-6 victory so stunning in how they accomplished it that they set an NFL record.

The Texans (4-9) scored just three points on offense and were held to three first downs and 47 yards in total offense. Those are the fewest yards by a winning team in NFL history.

Neither offense scored a touchdown, even though the Steelers piled up 422 yards. But it was the many dropped passes and the 175 yards that went the other way that buried them. Houston cornerback Aaron Glenn returned two Tommy Maddox interceptions for touchdowns of 70 and 65 yards, and Maddox lost a fumble -- without getting hit -- that was returned 40 yards for a touchdown by Kenny Wright.

"Hold a team to under 50 yards offense, you'd think you'd have a chance to win at least," dumfounded linebacker Joey Porter said. "To get blown out when that happens, it's tough.

"It's hard for a fan to sit there and watch, let alone the defense. Anybody who watched that game, you think what's going on? Not only turnovers, but turnovers for touchdowns! That will kill you."

 
 
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It might even ruin their playoff hopes. With three of their remaining four games at home and with a 1 1/2-game lead, the Steelers looked like a shoo-in for the AFC North Division title. Now they need a shoe horn for their half-game lead over Cleveland, which won to go 7-6. The Steelers are 7-5-1 and looking like anything but champions.

As tackle Wayne Gandy put it, because they lost at home to an expansion team, "people are going to question where our hearts are."

"It's just going to be a dog race. We're going to have to come through the back door. We're going to have to dig deep and figure out a way how to win this division and go from there," he said.

"But all that other stuff about just walking into the playoffs and waltzing to the Super Bowl, I hope my teammates don't feel like that."

Numb was how many of the Steelers felt. Not one Houston wide receiver caught a pass. Rookie David Carr completed just 3 of 10 for 33 yards, all to tight end Billy Miller. The Texans ran 26 times for 37 yards.

"I don't think you can ask for a better performance by a defense," said Coach Bill Cowher, who added that his offense "self-destructed."

No one might know if Maddox returned to play too soon after his temporary paralysis two weeks ago in Nashville, Tenn., but he looked out of sync from the beginning. Houston blitzed him often and he did not respond well.

He scrambled to his right away from pressure on his first series, stumbled without getting hit and lost the ball. Wright scooped it up and ran 40 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

On the next series, Maddox completed two key third-down passes to keep a drive going at the Houston 35, then threw to Plaxico Burress to the right that Glenn quickly jumped on and returned 70 yards for a 14-0 first-quarter lead for Houston.

Glenn scored his second touchdown -- only two Steelers receivers have more touchdown catches this season -- with 2:02 left when Maddox was desperately trying to bring the Steelers back.

"They scored 24 points and I gave them 21 of them," Maddox said. "You can put it on my shoulders. I will take the heat."

Cowher never told backup Kordell Stewart to get ready, although he said he thought about it.

"Sure I did, but we would start moving the ball and we would have something else happen," Cowher said.

He said Maddox would start next week, but then seemed to back off.

"We will sit down and look at it."

It was the second poor performance in a row by Maddox, who threw three interceptions and one touchdown pass before he was injured in Tennessee. In his past three games, the Steelers are 0-2-1.

But he wasn't the only one who played poorly yesterday.

Burress surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the second season in a row but he dropped four passes, including one when he was wide open at the 2 that would have been a 25-yard touchdown reception when they trailed by eight early in the fourth quarter.

Ward and Terance Mathis also had one drop apiece, and Antwaan Randle El lost two costly fumbles, one as a receiver and one as a punt returner.

"This is probably one of the worst days I've ever had in my life," Burress said.

No one argued with him, but he wasn't alone.

Ward, who led the Steelers with nine receptions to set a season record with 98, was called for a holding penalty that nullified a 17-yard run by Amos Zereoue to the 1 in the fourth quarter when they were trailing by eight. They failed to score on that drive.

"Dude ran me over," Ward said of linebacker Kailee Wong. "I told the ref, it's too close of a game to call something like that. It just went their way the whole way. We had some pre-snap penalties, we jumped offside, we kept killing ourselves."

The only Steelers player who scored was rookie Jeff Reed, who kicked field goals from 40 and 31 yards. But even he missed from 43.

The perfect kicker yesterday was Houston's Kris Brown. His 43-yarder with 3:35 left, after Randle El fumbled a punt return, put his team up by 11 and put the Steelers in desperation mode.

It was Brown's first game back at Heinz Field, where he missed 10 kicks last year with the Steelers. He joined Houston as a restricted free agent in part because of the terrible kicking conditions here.

"The playing surface actually was probably the best I've seen it," Brown said.

While the Steelers' defense played flawlessly, it could not come up with a turnover. Still, they sacked Carr four times on 14 pass drop-backs, with linebacker Jason Gildon getting two of them. Carr has been sacked 68 times, four short of the NFL record.

Maddox was sacked six times. He completed 30 of 57 passes for 325 yards and might have had his second 400-yard game if his receivers had held on to half of their drops. His passer rating was 55.1.

"We moved the ball, we were down there a lot of times," Maddox said. "That is why it is so frustrating."


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

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