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Steelers Play of the Game: Blocked field goal for TD

Second special-teams gaffe cost Steelers points, maybe AFC title

Monday, January 28, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Everyone knew it would come down to this.

Even the Steelers.

Patriots defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell blocks Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter yesterday. The Patriots returned the blocked kick for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

In the glow of their remarkable run through the regular season, even during the giddiness of a playoff victory against the Baltimore Ravens, a cloud as dark as Starbucks coffee hung over their collective heads, waiting to dump water on their parade.

It wasn't the defense, not even the secondary, which had tire marks on their jerseys after performances against Tennessee, Minnesota and Cincinnati.

It wasn't the offense, not even without Jerome Bettis.

In their most important game of the season, the one thing the Steelers feared most came back to haunt them one more time.

Special teams.

"It came back to bite us on the butt," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "We struggled with special teams all season."

It was one thing to overcome an 88-yard punt return for touchdown by Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis in last week's AFC divisional playoff victory.

And it might have been enough to withstand a 55-yard punt return for touchdown by New England's Troy Brown in the first quarter of yesterday's AFC championship game.

But to endure that and have a 34-yard field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown in the same game?

Cancel the Super Bowl parade.

"To give up 14 points, that's unheard of," Ward said. "That is not how we play football around here. We do not give up points on special teams."

Actually, they do. Twenty-eight points in their past four games. Two punt returns, a botched snap on a field goal and a blocked field goal.

The Steelers' penchant for self-destruction finally took its toll in their 24-17 loss to the Patriots, a defeat that will sit with them for a long time because of the manner it which it occurred.

And the play that will haunt them is Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter, a kick that would have cut the Patriots' lead to 14-6. Perhaps it even would have given the Steelers a small measure of momentum on a day when they needed all the energy boost they could get.

In their sleep, they will hear the same recurring sound.

"Thud, thud," punter Josh Miller said. "And they're running the other way."

Just like that, the Steelers watched their season go tumbling down the drain as fast as it took defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell to block Brown's field goal and have safety Antwan Harris run 49 yards -- after a lateral from Troy Brown -- for a touchdown.

The 10-point turnaround was fitting for the Patriots, a team that has landed in the Super Bowl after an 0-2 start. It was emotionally destructive for the Steelers, who never recovered.

"No question," Kris Brown said. "We go probably from putting three points on the board to turning around and they score a touchdown. That's the turning point of the game."

Miller, though, looked at it a little differently.

"Actually, it was a 17-point swing," Miller said. "Two touchdowns on special teams and we should have had a field goal."

Troy Brown's punt return -- the second in as many weeks against the Steelers and his third this season -- was early enough that the Steelers had plenty of time to recover.

But Harris' touchdown was the ignominious culmination of a season in which the Steelers allowed three scoring returns for touchdowns (two punts, one kickoff), saw their kicker miss a league-high 15 field goals and had four kicks (three punts, one field goal) blocked or altered.

By now, the three extra points missed during the regular season look like just another scratch on the fender.

"You're walking off the field thinking three points and the guy comes in and blocks the kick," Ward said. "That hurt us."

It's almost as though the Steelers have become conditioned to something failing on their special teams. Since their Dec. 30 loss in Cincinnati, when a botched snap on a field goal resulted in a 56-yard scoring return by linebacker Brian Simmons (also on a lateral), the Steelers have allowed as many touchdowns on defense as they have special teams (4).

"Sometimes you go three, four, five years without that happening," Kris Brown said, referring to botched field goals, "and here it's happened twice in a year,"

Twice in one month, to be exact.

This one occurred when Mitchell, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive tackle, ran through a gap created by defensive tackle Richard Seymour, got a little help from linebacker Teddy Bruschi and came free up the middle. Mitchell was able to block Brown's kick with his left hand. What happened after that was just a nightmare for the Steelers.

"Teddy Bruschi was behind me, pushing me," Mitchell said. "There was great penetration and it got me to the block point."

Troy Brown, already accustomed to scoring returns against the Steelers, deftly picked up the ball on the run, scooping it from the ground the way Ozzie Smith handled a two-hopper to short. Brown ran 11 yards before he was corralled by Kris Brown.

"I was trying to run over and tackle him," Kris Brown said.

As he did, Troy Brown lateraled the ball to Harris, who was coming up from behind.

"I saw Troy pick up the ball and I yelled Troy's name about six times," Harris said. "He pitched me the ball and it was history from there."

Harris had a cheerleader in tow -- Mitchell, the player who started it all.

"I was running behind them, jumping and laughing and screaming," Mitchell said. "It was a beautiful thing to watch."

Not for the Steelers, who have grown accustomed to such special-teams disasters. It's an area that began plaguing them in November, when Brown missed four field goals against the Ravens. And it ended up haunting them in the biggest game of the season, just as they had feared.

And, perhaps, just as they had expected.

"Devastating," said tight end Jerame Tuman, a member of the field-goal unit. "You work so hard ... special teams is just as big as the offense and defense. That was real big."

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