Steelers stun Oilers,win, 29-24 Cowher successful in 1st try after Noll

September 07, 1992|By Bob Oates | Bob Oates,Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON -- Warren Moon keeps saying that at 35, he isn't an old quarterback. He keeps saying that he hasn't lost a thing.

But in the season opener at the Astrodome yesterday, he lost five interceptions to the Pittsburgh Steelers. And in a major upset, the Houston Oilers lost the game, 29-24, as Bill Cowher won his first start as Pittsburgh's second coach in three decades.

Cowher, also 35, is the National Football League's second youngest coach and was an NFL linebacker as recently as 1984.

"I've seen Warren Moon when he was sharper," he said, and that more or less sums up a strange game for heavily favored Houston, which broke on top, 14-0, and held on through a 24-16 first half, but failed to score in the second half.

As one of the NFL's great quarterbacks, Moon has led the Oilers for eight seasons, taking them to the playoffs in each of the last five. These days, however, he isn't getting much loft on his long passes. Unhappily for the Oilers, he is throwing everything on a line, and the Steelers had a sound defense for that.

Their tall defensive forwards either deflected Moon's line drives, or their fast defensive backs, their eyes on Moon, beat Houston's receivers to the long ones. "I deserved the boos," Moon said. "We lost the game because I didn't make the plays, but I'll be back stronger and more accurate next week."

He and Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O'Donnell matched touchdown passes, delivering two apiece, in a game that O'Donnell won when Moon led him in interceptions, 5-0.

The decisive plays weren't O'Donnell's passes, though. The decisive plays were Cowher's gambles, which included a run on fourth and four, a fake punt, and other unexpected calls. The fake punt was a pass. It set up the touchdown that changed Houston's first-quarter advantage from 14-0 to 14-7.

Cowher relished his first victory in his first opportunity as Chuck Noll's successor. "We were an 11-point underdog today," said Cowher, a Pittsburgh native and son of an insurance salesman who has been a lifetime Steeler fan. "I'm not sure that anyone in America gave us a chance. Except us."

It was still Houston's game after 45 minutes, 24-22, and in the first series of the fourth quarter, it was still Moon who was driving. Throwing run-and-shoot bull's-eyes, he drove the Oilers to a first down at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.

There, on second and goal, after halfback Lorenzo White failed to gain on first down, Cowher sent in Pittsburgh's base pass defense, which features five cornerbacks and a safety. Against all those defensive backs -- even though White had just been stopped by a running play-oriented defensive alignment -- it seemed a great place for another draw play. White gained 100 yards on 13 previous draw plays, averaging 7.7. And with one more good one, the Oilers were looking at a 31-22 lead with 10 minutes left.

Instead, Moon retreated on second down to throw into the heavily populated Steeler secondary, whose close coverage forced him to scramble and look around for an open target. When he didn't find one, he threw the ball anyhow.

It was a throwback pass to his left after he scrambled far to his right, and it didn't connect with an Oiler.

The man who got it was Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson, a Pro Bowler making his second interception of the game, and this time Woodson ran it back 57 yards.

On the next five plays, O'Donnell drove the Steelers to the winning touchdown, sustaining the drive for 43 yards through the suddenly dispirited Houston defense, and throwing the game-deciding pass nine yards to tight end Adrian Cooper.

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