Cowher is 'bailed out' by Steelers' defense 2

Coach apologizes for 4th-and-goal call in 7-6 win over Patriots

January 04, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- Bill Cowher is an emotional coach. He kisses and curses his players. He hugs them, scolds them, at times accidentally spits on them and joins in touchdown and game-winning celebrations.

But yesterday Cowher apologized to his players after an emotional decision almost cost the Pittsburgh Steelers a 7-6 win over the New England Patriots in an AFC divisional playoff game before 61,228 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Cowher said the emotions of the home crowd and his players were factors when he went for a touchdown instead of a field goal on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard-line with 3: 24 left in the game and the Steelers up 7-6.

Linebackers Ted Bruschi and Ted Johnson dived over the top of the pile of players to stop Kordell Stewart on a quarterback sneak, but the Steelers came up with their own big play minutes later.

Defensive end Mike Vrabel slapped the ball out of Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe's passing hand as Bledsoe rolled to his right; outside linebacker Jason Gildon recovered at the New England 34 with 1: 44 remaining to virtually end any chance the Patriots (10-7) had for a second straight Super Bowl appearance.

"The first thing I want to tell you, as I told the players, I'm a young coach and I screwed up," Cowher said. "I should have kicked the field goal. I really feel that way. There is no way I shouldn't have. I got caught up in the emotion of the game. I'm 40 years old. I made a mistake. They bailed me out.

"My reasons aren't good enough to give you to warrant what I did. I was wrong, flat wrong. I'm going to be the first one to admit it. It was dumb, dumb, dumb."

The Steelers (12-5) easily forgave Cowher because this was a typical, ugly Pittsburgh win, though without the punishing ground attack from Jerome Bettis, who was held to 67 yards on 25 carries.

The Steelers held New England's offense to 280 yards, got some help from Bledsoe's inconsistency and second-half injuries to tight end Ben Coates and receiver Terry Glenn, and came up with big plays from Stewart and their defense.

Two of the biggest came early and late in the game, the first a 40-yard touchdown run by Stewart down the left sideline on the Steelers' first possession, the latter on the fumble forced by Vrabel.

"There was no need for the coach to apologize," Vrabel said. "All the players wanted us to be aggressive and put the game away. We've got the best run offense in football. It all showed a lot of confidence in our defense.

"I knew we had to make a play after they stopped us and I was fortunate enough to find some kind of speed around the corner and keep rushing. The coaches said all week keep going hard because Bledsoe, when he rolls right, doesn't throw back to his left and he never looks back."

Gildon said: "Mike did a great job of beating his man. I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye. He got in there so quick and when I saw the ball on the turf, my first thought was just, 'Fall on it, dummy, and don't do anything stupid.' "

Bledsoe, who completed 23 of 44 passes for 264 yards and was intercepted twice, agreed with the call. "It was a good call," he said. "I was trying to throw but my arm went backward. I wanted to get rid of it, but he came in and caused a fumble. I'm kind of at a loss for words. I believed in my heart we were going to win."

The Patriots had their chances, but they couldn't come up with the big plays, only big enough to lead to a second-quarter field goal of 31 yards by Adam Vinatieri, and another of 46 yards with 12: 16 left in the game.

Stewart scored the game's only touchdown with 9: 49 left in the first quarter when he faked a handoff to Bettis around right end, then bootlegged around the left corner. Stewart got a great block from tight end Mark Bruener on cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock that sprung him at the line of scrimmage, then tiptoed down the line of scrimmage and past linebacker Todd Collins.

Collins had a clear shot at Stewart but didn't try to tackle him, he said, because he thought Stewart was out of bounds.

"I don't want to relive it," said Collins, who tapped Stewart lightly on the shoulder pads while running by him on the play. "Yeah, I thought he was out of bounds. That play, I just kept trying to block it out the whole game. Why I hesitated, I don't know. I could have taken him out."

It was one of the few defensive mistakes the Patriots made all afternoon. They constantly had eight or nine players around the line of scrimmage and blitzed a lot on first down, clogging gaps, slowing Bettis and holding Pittsburgh to 279 yards of total offense.

The Steelers' second-best drive of the first half ended with Stewart being intercepted by cornerback Steve Israel with 45 seconds left in the second quarter, killing a drive at the New England 22. Pittsburgh never had a serious threat for the rest of the game until Cowher made his critical blunder.

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