Hello again everybody! I hope you are sufficiently recovering for that pathetic display put on by the Steelers last Sunday in Houston. I for one required a sufficient cat nap after criticizing Bruce Arians’ ridiculous play-calling all game long. As I reflect on the utter ridiculousness of some of those calls (like the 3rd and 2 draw call from the Shotgun! WTF?!), I’m seriously wondering if Arians designs his game plans on construction paper with crayons! But enough about whether or not Arians’ playbook is as crafty or intelligible as a 5 year old’s book of Mad Libs, let’s put some smiles on our faces because there is a game to play on Sunday. As per usual, here is my Wednesday history article, and this time it’s my Top 5 Games from the Steelers vs. Titans series. So hit that “More” button because there’s some real good one’s in there:
5. September 24, 2000
Struggling Steelers Fall Short due to “McNair Magic”
Titans 23 – Steelers 20
As die-hard of a Steelers’ fan as I am and always have been, it was tough to watch what unfolded during the 1999 offseason. It seemed as if the franchises’ fortunes kept going from bad to worse. It was bad enough after Kordell Stewart was benched late in 1999, and the Steelers limped to the proverbial barn with a 6-10 record. Then in the offseason the Steelers lost not only their top Free Agent DE Orpheous Roye to the Cleveland Browns, but they dismissed their longtime and successful Director of Pro Football Operations (G.M.) Tom Donahoe. Granted Kevin Colbert took Donahoe’s place, and he has done a spectacular job at rebuilding this franchise and making it one of the best in the N.F.L.. Yet I’ll never forget the uncertainty that surrounded the Steelers’ franchise as they headed into the 2000 season.
To add insult to injury, the Steelers started off the season with two straight weeks of for lack of a better term “craptastic-like” play. Granted I’ll always give them a pass for getting shut out at home by Baltimore 16-0 in Week 1, but the loss to Cleveland the following week was truly a dumpster fire of epic proportions. The Steelers mismanaged the clock so poorly at the end of the game in Week 2 that they were denied even a shot at a game tying Field Goal after QB Kent Graham was sacked to end the game! Sitting at 0-2 things only looked worse for the Steelers as they trudged back to Three Rivers Stadium from “The Mistake By The Lake” to play the team that considered the Steelers to be their own personal whipping boys. For the cherry on top of their feces-sundae the team they were playing was the best team in the N.F.L. during the regular season in 2000: The Tennessee Titans. For one more well placed kick to the groin by the Football Gods, the Titans weren’t starting their usual “Steeler Slasher” in the form of Steve McNair who was supposedly unavailable due to a bruised sternum. So Tennessee went with arguably Pittsburgh’s all-time sports goat at QB that day in the form of Neil O’Donnell.
O’Donnell went right to work on the Titans’ opening drive and moved them down the field. Some strong running by Eddie George and efficient passing by O’Donnell (including a bomb to Carl Pickens) allowed for the Titans to draw first blood. Eddie George dashed into the end zone from 20 yards out and the Titans found themselves up 7-0 with 11:24 remaining in the 1st Quarter. The teams ended up trading Field Goals, Kris Brown kicked a 32 yarder and Al Del Greco hit a 24 yarder and the 1st Quarter ended with the Titans leading 10-3.
The Steelers Defense really stepped it up in the 2nd Quarter and began to play with some intensity that hadn’t been seen in a long time. They forced Frank Wycheck out of the game, snagged two Neil O’Donnell INT’s (both to Chad Scott), and really imposed their will on the Titans Offense. Unfortunately all the Steelers could get out of the Quarter was another 32 yard Field Goal by Brown with 10:11 remaining. The Steelers came close to scoring at the end of the Half, but a fumble by WR Bobby Shaw negated any positive the Steelers had going forward and the Half ended with the Titans in front 10-6.
The 3rd Quarter was a lot like the 2nd in terms of the limited amount of scoring. At the 6:12 mark Del Greco made his second Field Goal of the day, from 40 yards that time, and Tennessee took a 13-6 lead. The Steelers and Kent Graham responded with an efficient drive of their own though and made things interesting as the drive lasted into the 4th Quarter. The Steelers drove the ball all the way to the Titans 1 when Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride called for a little bit of razzle dazzle and sent then-backup Kordell Stewart into the game for Graham. Kordell punched it in for a 1 yard out and the game was tied 13 all with 14:58 left in the game.
Derrick Mason then took the ensuing kickoff 46 yards to give the Titans some terrific field position. Thankfully the Steelers’ Defense again held firm and Del Greco was called upon to kick his third Field Goal of the day. Del Greco’s kick from 40 yards out was true and Tennessee regained the lead at 16-13. After the Steelers’ Offense stalled on the following drive Dewayne Washington made the play of the day for the Steelers. Washington INT’d an O’Donnell pass and gave Graham and the Offense the ball back! Graham marched his team towards the goal line, and it looked like the Steelers might end up pulling off an upset of epic proportions. Three Rivers Stadium finally erupted when Jerome Bettis took a handoff from 4 yards out and scored a TD that put the Steelers in front by a 20-16 margin!
After both Offenses couldn’t get it together after the Bettis TD run, the Titans were in need of a miracle with just over 2 minutes to play. The Steelers were in a position to win the game and end their six game losing streak to the Titans. Sadly for them, they let Steve McNair back into the game. Steeler OLB Jason Gildon sacked Neil O’Donnell and knocked him out of the game which drove the stadium bonkers. There was 2:35 left in the game and one of the most reviled and hated sports persons in Pittsburgh history had to leave the game. Unfortunately, the injured Steve McNair had to suit up. And like so many times in his career McNair was money against the Steelers.
The drive itself was a microcosm of how McNair just mercilessly broke the hearts of Steelers fans throughout his career. At the Tennessee 36 on 3rd and 11, McNair threw a 22 yard strike to Chris Sanders and then scrambled for 9 more on the following play. McNair then went to Mason for 15 and found TE Erron Kinney all alone for an 18 yard TD pass with 1:25 to play to put the Titans ahead 23-20! It took freakin McNair 65 seconds to drive his team 64 yards and he was 3-3 for 55 yards with a TD to boot! He accounted for all 64 yards himself! It was mind-boggling how the Defense just wet the bed when McNair entered the game.
Regardless the Steelers still had time to put together one final drive to tie or even win the game. Kent Graham injured his hip with just over a minute remaining and Kordell Stewart entered the game. To his credit Kordell actually moved the ball well, and the Steelers got it all the way down to the Tennessee 32 before Kris Brown attempted the game tying Field Goal. Of course, Brown missed and the Titans won the game and the Steelers had lost 10 of their last 11 games to that point.
Despite McNair’s awesome off-the bench performance, the Steelers proved that day that they weren’t going to just lay down for anybody and everybody like they did late in 1998 and in 1999. They rebounded the following week to win in Jacksonville and reeled off 4 more wins in a row to stand at 5-3. While they had a mid-season slide and finished the year at 9-7, I’ll always remember this year as the one where the Steelers stopped the slides of ’98 and ’99 and Kevin Colbert really righted the proverbial ship and got this franchise believing that they could compete for championships again.