2 Missed FGs give Jets the boot in OT
By BOB LABRIOLA
"What they don't have is more spiritual than physical, but it has come to be the difference between success and failure in a league where the distribution of talent is more level than in any other professional team sport. Call it an identity, or a chemistry, but for this Steelers team at this time it's more about getting back to a specific style of play, because they will have no chance to contend for anything during the 2004 NFL season unless they manage their talent correctly."
In the early months of 2004, that was how Steelers Digest viewed what the Pittsburgh Steelers were as they began the task of picking up the pieces of what had been a 6-10 season.
Twenty-four months earlier, the Steelers had hosted the AFC Championship Game as their conference's No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but since then they had lost their way. Their offense had finished 31st in the NFL in rushing in 2003, and their defense had allowed 20 touchdown passes for the first time since 1999, which happened to be the last time they had been 6-10.
These Steelers allowed more sacks than they recorded, more touchdowns than they scored, and they threw more interceptions than their defense had. Opponents completed a higher percentage of passes than they did, and they had a higher per carry average in the running game. The Steelers had lost their way.
In the immediate aftermath of that 6-10 finish, the normal course of an NFL offseason afforded Coach Bill Cowher the opportunity to re-make his staff of assistants, and he took advantage. When the Buffalo Bills hired Mike Mularkey as their new coach, Cowher promoted tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt to offensive coordinator and gave Russ Grimm more of a voice as the assistant head coach. Bruce Arians replaced Kenny Jackson as receivers coach, and when Tom Clements went to Buffalo with Mularkey, Mark Whipple was hired as the new quarterbacks coach.
In his interview with Whisenhunt, the first question Cowher asked pertained to a philosophy about running the football. When Whisenhunt answered like the Joe Gibbs disciple he was, Cowher knew he had his man.
ESPN's Merril Hoge, a former Steelers fullback, said this about the team's offense in 2003: "They never really committed to one thing. The coaches thought Tommy Maddox could do some things in the passing game that they hadn't been able to do in the past, and they tried to rely solely on that at the expense of the running game. That left the franchise confused, it left the players confused. But expect things to change drastically."
Enter Whisenhunt, who described himself this way: "It's about the style of offense that you've been involved with, which for me was the Washington Redskins' style of offense, which is very similar to Pittsburgh's philosophy. That's: run the ball, play-action pass, use multiple personnel in multiple situations. If the guys play physical and finish plays, then they give us a chance."
As for the defensive portion of his staff, Cowher replaced coordinator Tim Lewis with Dick LeBeau. A member of Cowher's first staff in 1992 as the secondary coach, LeBeau became the coordinator in 1995, but he left after the 1996 season to take the same job in Cincinnati. LeBeau had been very instrumental in devising and implementing the zone-blitz concepts that still are a big part of what the Steelers do defensively, and Cowher wanted to get back to those roots. Both Cowher and LeBeau desperately wanted to win football games, and they came to realize they could accomplish that better together than apart.
"A coach's job is always to be a good teacher, and we have some new faces in our defense, some younger players who are going to have to assume more responsible roles," said LeBeau. "That's going to involve some teaching, but we look forward to that."
As for the roster, Amos Zereoue was waived and Duce Staley signed to team with Jerome Bettis at running back; Clark Haggans was in at outside linebacker and Jason Gildon was cut; Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope were the new safeties, and Deshea Townsend was a starting cornerback. Veteran defensive backs Dwayne Washington and Brent Alexander were released.
And while this was happening, the Steelers extended Cowher's contract through the 2007 season. Explained Steelers President Art Rooney II: "That's what it comes down to: Do you believe your coach can win a championship for you? We certainly believe Bill can do that, and with the cast of players who are developing here, we think we will have a chance to do that, hopefully in the course of the next four years that we will have him under contract."
When it came time for training camp, Cowher conducted one that was more physical than the previous two. "Come off the ball" was screamed so much it became the unofficial motto of St. Vincent College. Instead of movie day, there was a practice in pads. Instead of veterans' day off, there was a practice in pads. Instead of a morning walk-through on the day before a night preseason game, there was a practice in pads. During the three installments of goal-line, the only live tackling drill of a Cowher camp, Whisenhunt called 14 straight running plays.
Cowher called it: re-establishing the mind-set.
But not everything about training camp was a positive. Starting right guard Kendall Simmons tore an ACL to end what had been an impressive camp for him, and that meant untested Keydrick Vincent would be starting next to untested tackle Oliver Ross. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch missed a couple of days with what was believed to be some minor knee inflammation, but a more detailed exam revealed the need for season-ending surgery.
The bad news about Batch's injury was that it left rookie Ben Roethlisberger as the backup to starter Tommy Maddox, but this would turn out to be good news some months later.
As the Steelers broke camp in 2004, they had the look of a contender, primarily because they were back to being themselves.
"I just want us to get the right mind-set," said Cowher on the eve of the season. Maybe the last couple of years we've gotten away from some things. It's kind of like a re-focusing that needed to be done. I like where we are as we speak, and certainly we have a long ways to go. I don't think we're as far away from being a pretty good team as maybe our record from last year indicates."
It's doubtful even Cowher could have anticipated what was about to unfold: the best regular season in franchise history.
With four takeaways and three sacks, the reconstituted defense was a big part of an opening win over the Raiders at Heinz Field, but the offense did its part with Staley rushing for 91 yards and Bettis scoring three touchdowns. The next week, the Steelers would lose in Baltimore to the defending division champion Ravens, and in the process they also would lose Maddox for six weeks with an injury to his throwing arm. Suddenly, all of the repetitions Roethlisberger had been getting as a result of Batch's injury became an advantage.
But could a rookie quarterback keep the Steelers in the playoff hunt? "We will certainly find out," said Cowher. "I don't see any reason why he can't."
For his part, Roethlisberger just didn't act like a rookie. From the first day of minicamp, Cowher had said one of the qualities he really liked in Roethlisberger was that he wasn't overwhelmed by being an NFL quarterback or the pressures accompanying it. Now, that quality became apparent to all.
Roethlisberger's first start was to come in Miami vs. a bad Dolphins team made worse by the sudden "retirement" of Ricky Williams, but this game would be complicated by a hurricane named Jeanne.
Hurricane Jeanne caused a lot of damage to the South Florida area; at one point 1 million people were without power. The Steelers spent 47 hours in a Fort Lauderdale hotel weathering the storm before the game was allowed to be played, which was on Sunday night following a seven-hour postponement. Roethlisberger's first pass that night was intercepted, but the Steelers rushed for 158 yards in the muck and their rookie quarterback iced the outcome with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter of a 13-3 win.
"The more you are around the kid, the more you realize he has a good demeanor about him, a good presence about him," said Cowher about Roethlisberger. "He's not overwhelmed by it. He understands the responsibility that comes with that. I think he is more looking forward to it than he is worried about it. Like I said before, this is not just about Ben. It's about our football team."
Cowher may have said it was about the football team, but the addition of Roethlisberger had an undeniable impact. After beating the Bengals and Browns to get to 4-1, the Steelers went to Dallas and put together two separate comebacks to post a 24-20 win. Their rookie quarterback completed 21-of-25, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and he left Texas with the best fourth-quarter passer rating in the NFL. The bad news: the Steelers lost nose tackle Casey Hampton for the season to a torn ACL; cornerback Chad Scott's knee injury would sideline him for months.
But this was a special, special Steelers team, and this was illustrated graphically during the ensuing fortnight, the part of the schedule that brought New England and Philadelphia – back-to-back undefeated opponents – to Heinz Field.
The Steelers crushed both the Patriots and the Eagles by a combined 71-23. In these two games, the Steelers had more first downs, 50-26; more yards rushing, 473-28; more time of possession, 85 minutes to 35 minutes; more sacks, 8-2; more takeaways, 5-2; their rookie quarterback had outplayed both Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb by a significant margin; and when Staley had to sit out with an injured hamstring against the Eagles, Bettis responded with 149 yards on 33 carries.
Now 7-1 at the midway point, the Steelers were the new bullies on the NFL block, and they maintained that status through the rest of a regular season where they became only the fourth team in NFL history to finish 15-1.
"It's a nice achievement, it really is," said Cowher as the Steelers prepared to enter the playoffs as the top seed in the AFC. "It has been a collective effort on everybody's part for us to get to this point. So we achieved that … but we don't need to sit back and reflect on anything."
The Steelers opened these playoffs with a rematch against the New York Jets, whom they had defeated on Dec. 12, 17-6, when Bettis threw for one touchdown and ran for the other. It looked to be an easy path for them to the conference championship game, but the great equalizer in the NFL, especially come playoff time, is turnovers.
Upon kickoff of this AFC Divisional Playoff Game on Jan. 15, the Steelers controlled the play during the entire first half, but they ended up in a 10-10 tie because of a couple of kick returns by the Jets.
The Jets' opening three possessions netted two punts and an interception by Troy Polamalu, and at the time the Steelers took over at the New York 25-yard line after his 14-yard return, they already had a 3-0 lead and Bettis was averaging 4.5 yards a carry. He carried three more times for 16 yards and a touchdown on the possession set up by Polamalu's interception, and the Steelers seemed to be in command, 10-0.
Things often are not what they seem in the NFL, and Jericho Cotchery gave the Jets a spark when he returned the ensuing kickoff 30 yards to the 38-yard line. Chad Pennington completed a mid-range pass to Justin McCareins and then another to tight end Anthony Becht, and that plus Cotchery's return were enough for the Jets to be close enough for Doug Brien's 42-yard field goal. It was 10-3 with 10:33 left in the first half.
Neither team's offense had been able to muster much to this point in the game, primarily because neither had much success converting on third down. After one of those failed conversions for the Steelers, Santana Moss took Chris Gardocki's punt at the 25-yard line and went 75 easy yards for the tying touchdown. The Steelers lost the 2001 AFC Championship Game because their special teams had allowed two kicks to be returned for touchdowns, and the same issue sent them to the locker room of this 2004 AFC Divisional Playoff Game on their heels.
As the second half began, it initially appeared that Roethlisberger had finally found a rhythm. Just 4-of-12 for 48 yards in the first half, Roethlisberger converted the initial third down of the third quarter with an 11-yard pass to Lee Mays. On the Steelers next possession, Roethlisberger opened with a 12-yard completion to Hines Ward; followed it with a 17-yard strike to Plaxico Burress; and then he converted another third down with a pass to Mays down to the Jets 33-yard line. But then he made a rookie mistake.
"It was one of those plays where I stepped up in the pocket and probably could have run," said Roethlisberger. "I saw Antwaan Randle El, he cleared a linebacker and looked at me, so I was ready to throw it to him quick. Then he saw the safety coming and tried to go behind the safety, but the safety came up because the ball was in the air. It was one of those things where I tried to do too much. I should have run and got a 5-yard gain and kept the drive alive."
Instead, Jets strong safety Reggie Tongue intercepted the pass and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown. Thud. Jets lead, 17-10.
The Steelers' next possession proved, however, that even veterans sometimes make rookie mistakes.
Using both Bettis and Duce Staley to hammer at the Jets defense, the Steelers drove from their 18-yard line to a first down at the Jets 22-yard line one play into the fourth quarter. Bettis already had accounted for 33 of these yards when he tried to make a quick move through the middle of the line of scrimmage and fumbled the football.
"I fumbled the football, and that's something I cannot do," said Bettis. "I was reckless with the football, and you can't do that. It was a terrible feeling I had in my stomach."
But the Steelers defense rose up and allowed the Jets offense nothing, just as it had pretty much the whole game. Remember, the Jets had 17 points, but both touchdowns had come via returns.
"We gave up three points, but they did get some yards," said linebacker James Farrior. "The only way we had a chance to win the game was to not give them anything, and that's what we did."
In fact it was Farrior, earlier in the week voted Steelers MVP by his teammates, who broke up Pennington's third down pass to Moss on the possession after Bettis' fumble to force yet another punt by Toby Gowin.
Starting at their 34-yard line, down 17-10 with 12:41 left in the fourth quarter, the Steelers put together 12 snaps of offensive efficiency to tie the game. To start things off, Roethlisberger tucked the ball and ran – for 20 yards – when he broke the contain of the Jets pass rush. Then he converted a third down with a pass to Burress, another with a pass to Ward, and then Bettis and the offensive line took care of third-and-1 from the 8-yard line. One play later, Roethlisberger finished things off with a shovel pass to Ward for the 4-yard touchdown. Tie game, 17-17.
"We never ran that play out of that formation before," said Ward. "Ben did a great job of concealing the ball like he was rolling out, and when he threw the shovel pass the middle was wide open."
The Jets answered with a drive that ended when Brien hit the crossbar from 47 yards out, and then Roethlisberger seemingly made a killer mistake for the first time in his brief NFL career. Of all the characteristics Roethlisberger exhibited while posting a 13-0 record as a starter, the one that made him truly special was he never prevented his team from having a chance to win by doing something careless with the football in a critical situation. But with 1:58 to play, from the Steelers 37-yard line, to the 64,915 at Heinz Field that's exactly what it seemed he did.
"As a quarterback, when you have two minutes in a tie game with timeouts left, you love that situation," said Roethlisberger. "It was a mis-read on my part. I thought Plax was going to go a little higher than he did, but he came (across the field) flat, which was the right thing to do. I made a mistake and threw it too high."
Cornerback David Barrett made the interception, and then just as damaging, he returned it 24 yards to the Steelers 37-yard line. Two plays later, the Jets had moved the ball to the 25-yard line, and their actions indicated they were content to put the outcome of the game on a field goal attempt from there. They ran three plays designed to do little except take time off the clock, rather than make any attempt to use the 56 seconds they had left to get the ball any closer.
"I had confidence in him," said Jets coach Herman Edwards about Brien. "I thought we could kick a field goal. He just missed it left."
The Jets had two chances in the final two minutes of regulation time to kick the winning field goal, and Doug Brien missed them both. When the Jets won the overtime coin toss but managed only one first down before being forced to punt, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome.
Jeff Reed justified the feeling when he kicked a 33-yard field goal at the conclusion of a 72-yard drive that included 40 yards on the ground. The Steelers had survived, 20-17 in overtime, to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth time in Cowher's tenure as their coach. It also would be the fifth time they would play the game on their home field, and it would be a rematch of their last appearance in a conference championship – the 2001 version against the New England Patriots.
"It's just great to be able to continue playing," said Ward.