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Steelers Play of the Game: Texans' first interception

Steelers too generous with expanded gift list

Monday, December 09, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

In keeping with the same gratuitous spirit they have displayed for most of this season, the Steelers wrapped up another gift, put a nifty bow around the middle and handed the present to another unsuspecting National Football League team. The recipient this time was the Houston Texans, and they couldn't have been more appreciative.

Texans cornerback Aaron Glenn blows by Tommy Maddox on his way to a 70-yard interception return. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

It is one thing to hand the worst offense in the NFL free points. Make no mistake, that is like equipping the flies in your backyard with screen cutters.

But to do it twice.

Then three times.

"Turnovers for touchdowns will kill you every time," linebacker Joey Porter said.

It was bad enough the Steelers spotted the Texans, the most anemic offensive team in the NFL, a 7-0 lead when cornerback Kenny Wright returned a Tommy Maddox fumble 40 yards for a touchdown on the first offensive series.

But to do it again, to hand the Texans 14 points when their offense had been on the field for only eight plays, was well beyond the generous donations made by the Steelers through 13 games.

"We knew that when they're negative in the turnover battle, they hardly win," Texans cornerback Aaron Glenn said.

Add this one to the list.

The Steelers lead the American Football Conference with 31 turnovers, but they were at their accommodating best in a 24-6 upset loss yesterday to the Texans at Heinz Field. Not only did they commit five turnovers against the Texans. Three were returned for touchdowns.

Glenn, a former Pro Bowl cornerback with the New York Jets, delivered the most debilitating of all -- jumping on Maddox's slant pass for Plaxico Burress and returning the interception 70 yards for a touchdown on the Steelers' second possession.

The touchdown did more than give the Texans a 14-0 lead. It allowed them to lapse into a rope-a-dope style of offense that produced just three first downs and 47 yards offense -- the fewest yards by a winning team in NFL history.

And it exposed yet another flaw in a Steelers team that has seen many of its warts uncovered this season -- they don't have the talent to overcome their own ineptness.

"We just didn't turn it over," Coach Bill Cowher. "They scored when we did. We are not going to win games like that."

The Steelers have proven that many times this season. Six, to be exact. Of their 31 giveaways, 22 have come in games the Steelers didn't win.

"When you got a team of this caliber, with this many athletes, the only thing you can do is beat yourself," safety Brent Alexander said. "You got enough guys who can make plays at any time. But it's difficult to always battle back out of it."

For the record, Glenn added another interception return for touchdown in the fourth quarter, this time returning a Maddox pass 65 yards for a score. But it was nothing compared to the debilitating effect his first scoring return had on the Steelers. Even in a game when the Steelers managed to post ridiculous margins in first downs (24-3) and offensive yards (422-47).

"You put a team in a hole 14 points, it's kind of hard," Glenn said. "It scrambles the game plan and forces them to do other things."

"Anytime you turn over the ball, that's one thing," safety Lee Flowers said. "But when you turn over the ball and they get six points out of it, that's hard to come back from. It's already 14 points down before defense really played 10 plays."

The Steelers knew their defense could have a good game against the Texans, who had produced an NFL-low 157 points in 12 games and were ranked last in nine of 17 offensive categories in the league.

And they did.

The Texans had two first downs on their first offensive series and didn't get another until David Carr completed the longest pass of the game -- 15 yards -- to tight end Billy Miller in the third quarter. Their only offensive score was a 43-yard field goal by Kris Brown, and that came after a fumbled punt gave the Texans the ball at the Steelers' 20.

"Turnovers are going to happen, but you have to minimize them," Porter said. "And you can't let them go for touchdowns. That's the whole score. That's 21 points right there. We looked up and we were like, Dang, we're down 14 points and we haven't given up a point yet."

That's why Glenn's touchdown, on a second-and-11 play from the Texans' 35, proved to be so crippling.

After Wright returned Maddox's fumble for a touchdown, the Steelers managed to steady themselves with a couple of third-down conversions on the next series. But, after Jerome Bettis lost 1 yard on first down, Maddox called for a quick slant to Burress on second down.

"I tried to get as flat as I could," Burress said.

That is football parlance for running a route more across the field, rather than on an angle up the field. But, before Burress could flatten his route, Glenn read the play and jumped in front of him. When the ball arrived from Maddox, Glenn was already in position to make the interception at the Texans' 30. From there, he ran 70 yards for a touchdown, not getting touched along the way.

"He was looking for that the whole game," Burress said.

"He guessed right," Maddox said.

Actually, Glenn said he knew the Steelers were coming to Burress on that play. The second touchdown -- he stepped in front of a pass for Terance Mathis -- was a guess.

"I'm glad I guessed right," Glenn said.

Those weren't the only Steelers sins. They had three false-start penalties on the offensive line, two fumbles from Randle El, and a holding penalty on Hines Ward that wiped out a 17-yard run to the Texans' 1 by Amos Zereoue. That does not include five dropped passes from Burress, the worst of which came early in the fourth quarter that could have been a 25-yard touchdown.

"This is probably one of the roughest days I've had in my life," Burress said. "I can honestly say I left a few plays out on the field that would have really boosted our offense and might have changed the outcome of the game. I won't make excuses. My team expects me to go out there and make plays. And I didn't do that. It's a very humbling game. You got to have thick skin and keep going."

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

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