McNair, Titans passing attack were too much
By BOB LABRIOLA
By this point in the 2002 season – the weekend of the AFC Divisional Playoffs – the story of the Pittsburgh Steelers unquestionably was being told within the tale of Tommy Maddox.
This was the Tommy Maddox who was the former No. 1 draft pick who had been a washout in his first NFL go-round, who then tried to become an insurance salesman only to miss football so badly he rode school buses and played Arena Football for the New Jersey Red Dogs. The Tommy Maddox who got a job with Vince McMahon's ill-fated XFL for its only season of existence and then went out and won its MVP award.
This was the Tommy Maddox who sent letters to every NFL team in 2001 hoping for something, anything, and got only one reply – from the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Tommy Maddox who barely beat out Tee Martin for a backup job that summer, and then had benefited when Coach Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in the fourth quarter of this season's third regular season game.
From that moment until this day – Jan. 11, 2003 – Maddox had captivated Steelers fans with a style of football they were not used to seeing from their favorite team. It was more pitch-and-catch than block-and-tackle, and when Maddox was his alter ego of Tommy Gun, it was the kind of offense that could erase a 24-7 second half deficit to the hated Cleveland Browns in an AFC Wild Card Game to lead a 36-33 comeback win. But when Maddox was the guy whose NFL career ended with more interceptions than touchdowns, well, the defense just wasn't equipped to play the up-tempo, quick-change style.
But beyond the purely tactical, the tale of Tommy Maddox included the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2002 in Nashville, Tennessee, when he lay motionless on a patch of grass at The Coliseum after a seemingly innocuous collision with Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck. "I was trying to talk to people, and I saw my brother standing there," said Maddox in describing his first memories of being in the trauma unit at Baptist Hospital. "I started to come to at that point. They tried to get me to grip with my hands, and I remember the first time I was able to give a little pressure back. One of the doctors said, 'All right, we have something going.' And that's when I got scared, because I thought that it would all come back together. Then I realized I still wasn't moving my legs."
By 5 a.m. the next morning, Maddox was walking without assistance because he his injuries were limited to a concussion and a spinal cord concussion. On Nov. 19, Dr. Joseph Maroon, a leading neurosurgeon and a pioneer in studying the cumulative effects of concussions, said about Maddox, "His anatomical and physiological and clinical examinations are all completely normal. We discharged him from the hospital. He is on the way home and is perfectly normal upon examination this morning. The spinal cord is pristine in terms of its depiction on the MRI."
That Tommy Maddox had come back from such trauma was a big story; that he had been so magical over the last quarter-and-a-half in the previous weekend's magical win over the Browns in the wild card round made it a bigger story. That Tommy Maddox would return to The Coliseum to play on that same grass against the same Tennessee Titans in this AFC Divisional Playoff Game made it irresistible.
But the real story of that AFC Divisional Playoff Game was the Steelers pass defense. In the regular season opener against the New England Patriots, their pass defense had been exposed, and so it was that Steve McNair and the Titans attacked this very weakness in the Steelers' biggest game of the year.
It is said that the playoffs are a reflection of a team's regular season, and many of the characteristics the Steelers had developed over those previous four months were on display in the game that would eliminate them from the playoffs.
The problem with the Steelers' pass defense in 2002 was that it was unable to generate a consistent pass rush without blitzing, and it didn't have the athletes in coverage to force the quarterback to hold the ball long enough for the blitz to get there.
In the regular season meeting between these teams, lost amid the near tragedy involving Maddox, Titans quarterback Steve McNair completed 18-of-33 for 257 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and Eddie George had added two rushing touchdowns.
Tennessee's offense possessed the ball for over 36 minutes, converted 63 percent on third down (12-of-19) and took advantage of three Maddox interceptions in a performance that was every bit as dominant as the ones turned in by New England and Oakland in the Steelers' opening two games of the regular season.
Clearly, for the Steelers to have a chance to upset the Titans in this playoff game, they were going to have to play better pass defense and their offense was going to have to be mistake-free. That plan was blown to smithereens before the end of the first quarter.
Maddox threw an interception on the second play of the game, and McNair promptly drove the Titans 52 yards in seven plays for a 7-0 lead. Four plays later, the Steelers were punting, and McNair took the Titans 76 yards in 16 plays for a 14-0 lead. In that first quarter, the Titans held the ball for 12:22, converted a perfect 5-of-5 on third down and scored touchdowns on each of their possessions.
"We were fresh. We were anxious," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "I felt like they were ready to play the game a couple of days ago. I had to keep them under wraps a little bit and settle them down. We had a great first quarter, but then we lost the second quarter."
The Steelers had perfected the art of the comeback in that Wild Card win over the Browns, and they found they had something left for the Titans.
After taking the kickoff on the final play of the first quarter, the Steelers moved to a first-and-10 at the Titans 30-yard line with the big play being a 22-yard completion to Plaxico Burress. But then back-to-back penalties – holding on center Jeff Hartings and a false start on tackle Wayne Gandy – combined to sabotage the drive. Tom Rouen's punt was downed at the Tennessee 8-yard line by Chidi Iwuoma, and the Steelers defense rose up and made the first of three big plays.
On first down from there, George was met in the backfield, and his fumble was bounced around a bit before being recovered by safety Lee Flowers. On the next play, Maddox hit Hines Ward for an 8-yard touchdown, and it was 14-7.
Two plays into Tennessee's next possession, the Steelers defense came up big once again. Trying to go deep to Derrick Mason, McNair was intercepted by cornerback Chad Scott, and on the Steelers first offensive play of the ensuing drive, Maddox went deep to Burress for 40 yards to the Tennessee 19-yard line. There the drive stalled, and the Steelers settled for Jeff Reed's 30-yard field goal; they would add another field goal on the final play of the half to close the deficit even more, to 14-13.
The Steelers defense had one more big play up its sleeve, and it came on the opening play of the third quarter. Nose tackle Casey Hampton broke through and smashed George in the backfield, and Aaron Smith recovered this fumble at the Tennessee 31-yard line. Amos Zereoue burst through a huge hole over the right side on the next play, and his touchdown gave the Steelers a 20-14 lead. The Steelers weren't about to surrender, especially to a former division rival, and the Titans were back on their heels a bit after that quick start in the first quarter.
But now, at this critical juncture, the Titans went back to what had been successful for them against the Steelers. Trying to run the football had led to two fumbles by George, and the Steelers had turned both into quick touchdowns. Finding themselves behind for the first time in the game, Tennessee's offense returned to a proven formula, and in a 10-minute span of the third quarter it was used to restore their control of the game.
The Titans' proven formula had McNair in an empty set, meaning all of his eligible receivers were flanked to one side or the other of the formation. On an eight-play drive after Zereoue's touchdown, McNair completed all four of his passes and ran the ball twice himself. The touchdown came on a 7-yard toss to H-back Frank Wycheck.
After a three-and-out by the Steelers, McNair went right back to the empty set, and this time he completed 5-of-6, and he also converted a third-and-1 from the 4-yard line with a 2-yard run. With 4:38 left in the third quarter, the Titans were back up by 28-20.
"Everybody was man-to-man, and they really couldn't adjust to our empty set," said McNair. "Frank was sometimes inside in the slot, and they really left some guys open – they even left Derrick open a couple of times and I couldn't find him."
By this point, the game had developed an undeniable rhythm. The Titans were able to exploit the Steelers defense with McNair throwing out of an empty-set formation, and the Steelers offense – mostly through Maddox's passing – kept bringing the team back. The Steelers tied the game, 28-28, and then they actually took a 31-28 lead with 8:30 to play on a 40-yard field goal by Reed. Then almost predictably, McNair went back to the air and after he completed three straight passes on the ensuing possession, the Titans were in range for the tying field goal by Joe Nedney with 5:40 to play in regulation time.
The game was going to come down to mistakes, and the Steelers seemed to make a few more at critical junctures. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's illegal block penalty nullified a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown by Antwaan Randle El in the fourth quarter, but this seemed to be balanced out by Nedney's miss from 48 yards on the final snap of regulation. But the most critical mistake by either team was yet to come.
The Titans won the coin toss to start overtime, and McNair wasted little time. After an incomplete pass on first down, McNair hit two in a row, both to wide receiver Justin McCareins, for a combined 53 yards that put the ball at the Steelers 16-yard line. As Nedney was lining up for the game-winning field goal attempt from 31 yards out, the Steelers called a timeout at the last instant but the Titans went through with the mechanics of the attempt anyway. Nedney made the kick, fireworks were set off, but the officials ruled the timeout had been called before the snap.
On the next attempt, Nedney was wide right on the attempt, but as the ball was settling into the net behind the goal post, cornerback Dewayne Washington brushed by Nedney, who promptly flopped to the ground. Referee Ron Blum threw the flag for running into the kicker, and with this second chance Nedney made the 26-yard field goal that ended the Steelers' season, 34-31.
The Steelers and Titans had battled for almost four hours in a game that included 62 points and over 750 yards of offense, but the outcome came down to an official's decision to throw a flag, a decision that looked somewhat foolish after the game when Nedney bragged about how it was his acting skills that drew the penalty.
"They shouldn't have made that call," said linebacker Joey Porter. "It's obvious the guy missed the field goal and then did an acting job, and the refs gave it to him. I can't believe the ref fell for that. A playoff game in overtime … a roughing the kicker after the kick … the play was already over. You just don't make that call."