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Steelers Burress gets mark, not miracle

Monday, November 11, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Plaxico Burress did just about everything imaginable with the football. Tipped it. Spun it. Dove for it. And, most important, caught it -- for more yards than anyone in the National Football League this season.

Burress finished with nine catches for a club-record 253 yards and two touchdowns in the Steelers' 34-34 tie yesterday with the Atlanta Falcons. But, if he had 1 more receiving yard, the Steelers might be celebrating a dramatic victory instead of wondering how they should react after the first NFL tie in five years.

Burress caught a 50-yard desperation pass from Tommy Maddox on the final play of the overtime that came very close to being a touchdown. Burress' feet landed in the end zone when he caught the pass, but the ball did not cross the goal line because Burress had his back to the goal post.

The ball was spotted at the Falcons' 1 as time expired.

"I thought I had [a chance]," Burress said. "I kind of came up a yard short.

"I knew where I was. I was trying to shuffle my weight back as much as I could to try to get across the goal line. I wound up falling maybe 5 inches short."

It was the only time Burress fell short against the Falcons.

His performance was the best in the NFL in 2002, bettering the 214 receiving yards that Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe had against the Kansas City Chiefs last month.

And it broke the 41-year-old team record held by Buddy Dial, who had 235 yards against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 22, 1961.

"He could have had 300 yards receiving," said Hines Ward, who finished with a team-high 11 catches for 139 yards and one touchdown.

Ward was referring to a play in the first quarter in which Maddox overthrew Burress down the right sideline. Burress had badly beaten cornerback Ray Buchanan and was wide open for what would have been a 50-yard touchdown. Burress stretched his 6-foot-5 frame and dove for the ball, but the pass glanced off his fingertips.

Nonetheless, the play pointed up the Steelers strategy: Attack the Falcons corners -- Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose -- every time they played single coverage. And the Falcons put their corners in single coverage as often as the Penguins use Mario Lemieux on the power play.

"They did the things they had been doing all year -- playing a lot of single high and bringing the safety into the box," said Maddox, who threw for a club-record 473 yards -- best in the NFL this season -- and four touchdowns. "They had confidence in their corners to go out there and cover. We were able to hit some big plays."

On occasion, the Falcons would try to double-team Burress. That's what they did in the second quarter on first down at the Falcons 33 when Ambrose got help over the middle from safety Keion Carpenter.

Even that didn't work. Carpenter tipped Maddox's pass over the middle, but Burress reached out with his left hand, tipped the ball twice and hauled it in for a 33-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead

"To be honest with you, I didn't think Tommy was going to throw it," Burress said. "I had two guys on me when he threw it. He was just giving me a chance to make a play. And I came down with it."

Burress came down with another nice catch on the next series, too, this time for a 32-yard gain to the Falcons' 34. But what followed looked strangely familiar, right from Burress' rookie season in Jacksonville when he spiked the ball after a catch without being down. In that instance, the Jaguars recovered the ball and were given possession.

This was equally bizarre. Burress was not touched down by Falcons safety Gerald McBurrows, but he stood up and spun the ball like a top after the catch. Sensing Burress had committed the same crime, tight end Mark Bruener ran over and tried to pick up the ball. However, the Falcons beat him to it and recovered what appeared to be a loose ball.

However, the officials ruled that Burress "had given himself up" and the play was dead. According to the NFL rule book, Section 4, Article 1A, "an official shall declare a dead ball and the down ended when a runner is out of bounds or declares himself down by falling to the ground and makes no effort to advance."

"I know I got tackled," Burress said. "I don't want to go through one of those things again. I think I got tackled when I got pushed over, and they didn't replay it so they must have thought I was down."

Burress paused and said, "Coach Cowher told me, 'Don't spin the football anymore.' "

Falcons Coach Dan Reeves did not find the situation funny. Three plays later, Maddox threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ward -- his eighth, tying a career high -- and the Steelers had a 17-7 lead.

"The whistle never blew," Reeves said. "And I never heard of 'giving yourself up.' I know a quarterback can hit the ground ... that was a new rule, I guess. I learn a new rule every week ... gave himself up, they said. Now, if we would have hit him while he was lying there, there would have been a fine, I promise you."

Burress wasn't finished. In the third quarter, matched in single coverage again, he beat Ambrose with a nice inside-out move and caught a 62-yard touchdown, the longest of his career. That gave the Steelers a 23-14 lead, a margin they would eventually build to 34-17 in the fourth quarter.

They never dreamed they would need a near-miracle from Burress in overtime.

They almost got it.

"You play this game to win," Burress said. "You come out here, you work hard during the week and you play hard on Sunday to get a win. We didn't get a win. So we kind of feel like we didn't take a step forward. But we didn't take a step backwards."

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.

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