Steelers kicked out of Super Bowl XXXVI
By BOB LABRIOLA
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News is one of the preeminent NFL writers in the country, a man who sits on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Board of Selectors, someone who spends at least six months of every year skipping from one to another of the league's cities to chronicle the events that make up a season. He had watched the best the NFL had to offer in 2001, and he was at Heinz Field for the AFC Championship Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.
"If the Steelers don't win here today," Gosselin said on a pregame radio show, "everybody in this press box will be writing about special teams for their papers tomorrow."
Gosselin got no argument, because the Steelers were a powerhouse. Ranked No. 1 in rushing offense even though Jerome Bettis had missed the final five games of the regular season. Ranked No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, and their 55 sacks tied a franchise record. They were fast and they were physical and they were nasty. And they were not very good in the kicking game.
"It's like when you have two brothers. One's a doctor, one's a lawyer, and you're just a salesman," said special teams coach Jay Hayes. "Your parents introduce you: 'And this is our son the salesman.' It can be like that some days, but there is going to come a time – we all know it – when we're needed and we're going to have to come through."
By the time the Steelers had completed a 13-3 regular season and then hung a decisive physical beating on the Baltimore Ravens to knock the defending Super Bowl champions from these playoffs, it no longer was a matter of special teams "coming through." It was a matter of special teams not costing the Steelers a game.
"It's one thing after another," said Hayes in looking back on the regular season, "but that's just how it is in the game of football. The ball bounces funny. You have to do the best you can and get people in position to make plays, and then you have to make those plays."
An honorable sentiment and a justifiable approach, but throughout the season the Steelers had not been able to meet the minimum requirement for acceptable special teams.
In the first of three games that season against the Ravens – on Nov. 4 at Heinz Field – Kris Brown had missed four field goals and Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis had 112 return yards. After that 13-10 loss, Coach Bill Cowher said, "We were good on offense, good on defense. We lost the special teams element of this game."
The following weekend, Brown came through with a field goal in an overtime win in Cleveland, but it was his miss from 45 yards with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter that led to overtime in the first place. The next week – Nov. 18 – the only points the Jaguars scored in a 20-7 loss at Heinz Field came on a 95-yard kickoff return by Elvis Joseph.
Three weeks later – on Dec. 9 – Brown missed two field goals and an extra point in an 18-7 win over the Jets. In the rematch against the Ravens on Dec. 16 in Baltimore, Brown missed a 42-yard field goal and Jermaine Lewis returned a put for 62 yards. The Ravens finished with more return yards than net offense (225-207) in that Steelers' win, 26-21.
Against Detroit on Dec. 23 at Heinz Field, Brown missed two more field goals, and in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Ravens Jermaine Lewis returned a punt 88 yards for Baltimore's only touchdown. But it was in an overtime loss in a regular season game in Cincinnati on Dec. 30 when the Steelers special teams performed an eerie preview to the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
On a field goal attempt, holder Josh Miller muffed the snap, and Cincinnati's Robert Bean picked up the loose ball and lateraled to Brian Simmons who ran 56 yards for a touchdown. Brown later missed another extra point, his third of the season, and the team's inability to recover an onside kick with a 23-17 lead allowed for the game-tying touchdown drive that sent the game into overtime.
"Special teams, man, we need to pick it up a little bit," safety Lee Flowers had said on the eve of the playoffs. "That's going to be a big element in the postseason."
And so add Flowers' name to Gosselin's as football versions of Nostradamus as the Steelers found themselves within four quarters of a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots who would serve as the Steelers' opponent for this conference championship had rebounded from a 5-11 season in 2000 to 11-5 and an AFC East title in 2001. Coach Bill Belichick had been forced to play second-year quarterback Tom Brady when Drew Bledsoe had sustained a serious chest injury early in the season. By the time Bledsoe healed, Brady was playing too well to replace.
As the No. 2 seed in these AFC playoffs, the Patriots had hosted Oakland in the Divisional Round after the Raiders handled the Jets, 38-24. Only a bizarre interpretation of something that came to be known as "the tuck rule" had allowed the Patriots to squeeze past Oakland in a New England blizzard to advance to this championship game at Heinz Field in the first place, and so there weren't too many people picking against the Steelers on Jan. 27 for the spot opposite the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
This game served as one of the first examples of what became Belichick's approach in big games: take away the opponent's strength and make them try to win using a style with which they're less comfortable.
Against the 2001 Steelers, this meant stopping their running attack and forcing Kordell Stewart into a drop-back passing contest. Belichick's plan would work early, and then the events of the game would conspire against the Steelers and allow New England's plan to continue to be effective.
The Patriots used some different alignments plus the one-on-one dominance of Richard Seymour to confuse the Steelers blocking patterns early in the game, and it was 0-0 into the latter stages of the first quarter. Josh Miller boomed a 64-yard punt to get the Steelers out of a hole and put the Patriots on their own 23-yard line, but the play was nullified when Troy Edwards, acting as a gunner on the kick, was flagged for running out of bounds intentionally to avoid being blocked. That incredible lapse in judgment forced a re-kick, and Disaster I struck.
While standing in the end zone and lining up the re-kick, Miller realized the official mistakenly had moved the ball to the right hash-mark, which made a kick to the left sideline more difficult for a left-footed punter.
"There was a cross wind that really favored my left," said Miller. "It turns over that way, and so going left was more conducive to me, but then again, being 10 yards deep in the end zone you can't walk the line as fine as you'd want. You've got to get the ball off, but that's no excuse. It was a lousy kick."
In this case, lousy is defined as a 50-yard kick down the middle of the field without much hang time. New England receiver Troy Brown fielded the ball cleanly, and in the process of returning it 55 yards for the game's first touchdown, he only needed to make one tackler miss – special teams captain John Fiala.
"It was supposed to be a left return," said Troy Brown. "The guys overplayed it to the outside, and when I saw the seam up the middle I just hit it."
Added Fiala, "It's a horrible feeling. You've got to break down and make the tackle, and I didn't make enough of them."
The Steelers answered with a field goal to cut their deficit to 7-3, but the Patriots would take a 14-3 halftime lead thanks to their old starting quarterback.
Brady was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury following a completion to Troy Brown, and Bledsoe was sent in for his first meaningful snaps since his chest injury. Bledsoe finished off the last 40 of the 70-yard touchdown drive, and he capped it with an 11-yard pass to David Patten for the score.
Midway through the third quarter, the Steelers offense again had moved into scoring position and stalled, which meant Kris Brown came onto the field to attempt a 34-yard field goal that would have cut New England's lead to 14-6. But defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell shot through a gap created by Seymour to block the kick, and when Troy Brown scooped up the ball and lateraled it to Antwan Harris to complete a 49-yard touchdown play, Disaster II had put the Steelers in a 21-3 hole. Instead of an 8-point deficit, it was 18.
"The most dreaded sound a kicker can hear is, 'thud, thud,'" said Kris Brown. "Nothing more needs to be said."
With a quarter-and-a-half still to play for a trip to the Super Bowl, special teams had put the Steelers' chances to win on life support.
"That's atrocious," said Miller. "You're playing in the championship game, and there's a 17-point swing. We gave up two touchdowns, and we should have had an extra field goal. You can't win like that. We're not good enough to spot anybody 14 points in a championship game."
As they had all season, the Steelers responded with a fury when it seemed as though they were finished. Even though the offense would manage only 58 yards rushing for the game, Stewart started to make some plays and move the chains. On successive possessions, the Steelers scored touchdowns – a 79-yard drive was capped by a plunge by Bettis and a 32-yard drive, set up by a 28-yard punt return by Edwards, was capped by an 11-yard run by Amos Zereoue.
Early in the fourth quarter, a 44-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri restored New England's lead to 24-17, and the Steelers offense could find no more answers. On their final three possessions of the game, the Steelers punted once and turned the ball over twice on interceptions. It would be the New England Patriots representing the AFC in the Super Bowl, and one Steelers player who had gotten a toe-hold in the NFL by virtue of good special teams play couldn't hold his tongue.
"My whole thing is, if you have a job to do, you do it. Period," said Flowers. "You don't consider being an offensive player or a defensive player more important than being on special teams. When I was on special teams, that was my job, that paid my bills, that put food on the table for my kids and family. That's all you have to do. You're getting paid a lot of money just to run down the field and tackle one guy. It sucks, man. They had better special teams than we did today."
T.Brown 55 punt return (Vinatieri kick)
Brown 30 FG
Patten 11 pass from Bledsoe (Vinatieri kick)
Harris 49 return of blocked FG (Vinatieri kick)
Bettis 1 run (Brown kick)
Zereoue 11 run (Brown kick)
Vinatieri 44 FG
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.