Steelers' defeat a team effort Missed chances doom Pittsburgh

January 29, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- There was more to the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss in Super Bowl XXX than quarterback Neil O'Donnell.

The Steelers were a team that played with jitters early and found themselves with a 10-point deficit by the end of the first quarter. They couldn't capitalize on scoring opportunities and waited too late to open up their offense.

The Steelers still outplayed the Dallas Cowboys last night, but could not overcome O'Donnell, the X-factor, in their 27-17 loss. O'Donnell was streaky again yesterday. He was hot. He was cold.

And, at times, O'Donnell was horrendous, especially on his two critical interceptions. One was his fault, the other was a miscommunication.

But both times, the former University of Maryland star was picked off by cornerback Larry Brown, which led to two Dallas touchdowns.

That's what great teams are about. Converting turnovers into points.

"Any game, not just the Super Bowl, if you lose the turnover battle, you can't win the game," said Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson. "When two teams battle like we did, that's the single most important element."

The first O'Donnell interception came with 7:18 left in the third quarter, when O'Donnell threw an out pattern to two receivers. One problem: Both receivers curled inside, and O'Donnell rushed the pass, afraid of taking a hit.

Brown returned it to the Pittsburgh 18, and the Cowboys scored two plays later.

The second interception came with about 4 1/2 minutes left, and Pittsburgh down 20-17. O'Donnell read the play one way and receiver Andre Hastings another, and Brown returned the ball to the Steelers' 6.

Two plays later, Emmitt Smith rushed 4 yards for a touchdown.

Game over.

"It just got away from me," said O'Donnell of the first interception. "The first one slipped out of my hand. Those things happen.

"There was a little miscommunication between the receivers and the quarterback," O'Donnell said of the second pickoff. "But we're all in this thing together. You just can't single out one

individual and say that was the reason why we lost this game."

True, but the biggest difference between the Steelers' and Cowboys' offenses is at quarterback. Neither makes a lot of mistakes, but O'Donnell makes the type that can doom a team, and Aikman has enough weapons that the Cowboys can get back into a game quickly.

Pittsburgh came back, but that was when the Steelers decided to open up the offense. They should have done that sooner.

The tone of the game was set early. Very early. On the Steelers' first two offensive plays, they ran the ball straight up the middle.

What happened to keeping the Cowboys off-balance?

What happened to the four- and five-receiver packages?

"Even if you aren't running against the Cowboys, you have to try to keep them honest," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

The only time the Steelers used the packages in the first half was on their last drive of the second quarter. Pittsburgh went 54 yards in 13 plays. O'Donnell had completions of 19, 7, 6, 17 and 6 yards. The Cowboys couldn't handle it, and the Steelers scored on a 6-yard pass to Yancey Thigpen.

The Steelers had the momentum coming into the second half, and they got some big runs from Bam Morris. But the Steelers stuck with the conservative approach too long again.

They became predictable, at one time running the ball on four straight first-down plays. And then came the debacle late in the third quarter, when the Steelers needed 2 yards for a first down at their 47, but ran Morris three straight times for no gain, giving Dallas possession with 1:26 remaining in the third period.

They ran Morris without a lead blocker. They ran Morris on a "slant draw," where he was the lone back.

That's not good.

But the Steelers did open it up after they recovered an onside kick after Norm Johnson's 46-yard field goal with 11:20 left.

The result was another touchdown, set up by passes of 12, 11, 7, 6 and 5 yards from O'Donnell.

"We're a team in transition," said O'Donnell. "I think we're going to have to find the right approach and stick with it on a full-time basis."

That's just one problem. The Steelers are a team that needs some help in the secondary and some aggressive corners who can play tough man-to-man defense. Early in the game, Dallas took advantage of the Pittsburgh corners, who were playing 7 to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers also need to decide if O'Donnell, who will be a free agent, is their quarterback of the future or if they're going to be a run-oriented team.

Right now, they're in limbo, but they are a team that now has Super Bowl experience.

"Once we got the jitters out, we outplayed them in the second half," said Steelers cornerback Carnell Lake. "Now that we have experience, we'll be back."

Any team that holds Smith to 49 yards rushing should win the game. But the Steelers were tight, O'Donnell was inconsistent and at times the Steelers' coaching staff was indecisive.

It showed last night.

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