Stewart pulls page out of Elway book QB passes for 3 TDs, runs for 2 as Steelers top Broncos, 35-24

December 08, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- For the biggest game of their season, the Pittsburgh Steelers trashed their secondary, locked the media out of practice and got ready to hop on the Bus.

But when it came to crunch time, the man who inspired a 35-24 victory over the Denver Broncos was the young quarterback who'd been in a funk for a month.

Kordell Stewart out-Elwayed Denver legend John Elway yesterday, throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more in a game with huge AFC playoff implications at Three Rivers Stadium.

Stewart, who had only one 200-yard passing game in his last five, passed for 303 yards to bring the Steelers back from a 21-7 deficit. But it was his two second-half touchdown runs that spelled the difference in the second half.

If this was Stewart's breakout game in his first season as an NFL quarterback, there was significance in beating the Broncos.

"Being from [the University of] Colorado, playing for the Buffaloes, the Broncos were the team and Elway was the man," Stewart said. "He still is. You have quarterbacks you like to mimic, and I grew up liking the way he plays. His running style, the strong arm, that's the way I like to play sometimes."

The victory, coupled with the New York Jets' loss to Indianapolis, clinched a playoff spot for the Steelers. They also took undisputed control of the AFC Central lead at 10-4.

The loss was devastating for Denver, now tied for the AFC West lead with hard-charging Kansas City at 11-3. But the Chiefs have the tiebreak advantage over the Broncos and a soft finishing schedule. That means the Broncos are looking at the playoffs as a prospective wild card after waging a strong bid for home-field advantage in the AFC.

"If Kansas City slips, then we still have a chance to get home-field," said Elway, who completed only 17 of 42 passes in a performance noteworthy for the high number of dropped passes. "Chance are, they're not [going to slip]. We have to get ready for the playoffs and planning on taking the long road."

The Broncos came into this game with the best running game in the NFL (158.7 yards per game) and the best defense in the AFC (282.2 yards). Both statistics turned out to be myths, though.

Jerome (The Bus) Bettis rumbled through the Broncos for 125 yards, his 10th 100-yard game of the season. When Bettis didn't rumble, Stewart usually found the weak link in Denver's pass defense. He threw all three touchdown passes to Yancey Thigpen, all against cornerback Darrien Gordon.

On defense, the Steelers found a way to contain Broncos running back Terrell Davis, the league's leading rusher. Davis gained just 75 yards, averaging just 3.6 a carry.

But perhaps the biggest wonderment of the game was that Elway's passing game was stifled by a secondary that had been completely revamped the past week.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher benched left cornerback Donnell Woolford and replaced him with rookie Chad Scott from Maryland. Then he moved safety Carnell Lake into Scott's right cornerback spot, and changed both safeties. Myron Bell moved to strong safety for Lake and Darren Perry to free safety for Chris Oldham.

That's why Cowher closed practices to the media this week, to keep the massive shuffle a secret.

"We thought it would be the best matchup for this week," Cowher said. "We did what we thought we had to do to win the football game. We will continue to make decisions with personnel week-to-week because we think that gives us the best chance of winning."

Until yesterday, the Steelers' best chance of winning involved hopping on the Bus. But Stewart's big game opened new avenues for the offense.

"We knew [the Broncos] would put everything they had into stopping the run," Bettis said. "Kordell took so much pressure off the running game by being able to throw. Usually with Kordell out there, [the defense] isn't respecting the passing game. Today they had to."

Stewart's 69-yard touchdown strike to Thigpen late in the first half started the Steelers' comeback.

Stewart completed 18 of 29 throws, and rushed 10 times for 49 yards. His four-yard run on a quarterback draw with 2: 16 left in the third quarter put Pittsburgh on top, 28-24. Then his 9-yard run with 1: 57 left in the game put the Broncos away.

"In order to beat these guys, I had to play one of my bet games," Stewart said. "I think I did."

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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