Miller goes to great lengths to stop Lewis return Ex-Stallion's 68-yard punt in last minute pins Ravens in hole too deep to recover

September 07, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

This was the matchup Pittsburgh Steelers punter Josh Miller wanted most to avoid yesterday: kicking to the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis with room to run.

Yet, with 37 seconds left and the Steelers protecting a seven-point lead, that's precisely the dilemma Miller faced. Standing inside his own 20, the third-year veteran had to give the ball up to one of the NFL's most dangerous punt returners. And hope he didn't have to make the tackle.

"A fastball to McGwire and he gets to swing for the fence," Miller said later, opting for a baseball analogy to describe the threat that Lewis represents.

Miller launched a towering 68-yard punt that bounced inside the Ravens' 10 and ultimately was downed at the 4.

Fastball? Unhittable, even by Mark McGwire. Uncatchable by Lewis. Unbelievable for the Ravens.

On a day when opportunity after opportunity was jerked away by the Steelers, this was one final cruelty the Ravens were forced to endure in a 20-13 loss.

"All this week, we said the thing we can't do is kick to this returner," said Miller, whose first pro kicking job was for Baltimore's Canadian Football League team in 1994-95.

All week, Steelers coach Bill Cowher told Miller to kick the ball out of bounds instead of to Lewis.

"It took me out of my game," said Miller, who averaged 36 yards on three previous punts. "I'm good at getting the ball to the sideline, but not out of bounds. It's like splitting atoms."

But on the final punt, after the Ravens had trimmed a 17-point deficit to seven on Lewis' 64-yard touchdown catch, Cowher told Miller not to worry about angling the ball. It was enough at that point simply to get the ball away and as far downfield as possible.

The Ravens covered 60 of the 96 yards they needed for a tie before time ran out.

"He's got a strong leg," Cowher said of Miller. "I was happy for him. I wanted to be the first one to congratulate him."

The Steelers needed Miller's heroics after Jerome Bettis was held to 41 yards rushing on 23 carries. Then they were forced to win this game with Kordell Stewart's passing and a series of special teams breaks, none bigger than the gift touchdown they got when Baltimore severely botched a punt attempt in the third quarter.

After Harper Le Bel's snap bounced through the legs of punter Kyle Richardson, and after Richardson was smothered at the 5, the Steelers still needed three plays to get a touchdown. That's how tough it was to run on the Ravens' defense.

"They did a good job of blitzing in the holes and Jerome was trying to cut back," Stewart said after throwing for 173 yards. "They really solidified some areas in there."

Stewart threw two first-half interceptions and should have had a third. But ex-Steeler Rod Woodson muffed a certain touchdown when he stepped in front of Charles Johnson and dropped the ball.

"That would've turned the momentum their way," Johnson said. "They were playing exceptionally well."

Johnson, a flanker, came up with Pittsburgh's biggest offensive play when he beat linebacker Peter Boulware to the end zone to make a sliding 20-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. That opened a 20-3 lead.

"We stayed patient," Johnson said of the Steelers' struggles. "We played a horrible first half, but we were still in the game. It was like 0-0, and we hadn't even played close to what we can play."

Cowher will settle for the victory, however unattractive it might seem.

"We knew it was going to be a grind for us coming in here," he said. "Just coming in here [Saturday], this city. I mean, I have never seen a city get as excited about a game."

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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