Maddox looks for Tenn. KO of his own

Steelers QB returns to site of injury to oust Titans

Nfl Playoffs

January 11, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The rematch of an emotionally charged rivalry will test Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox's ability to rebound from a knockout and deliver the big punch.

Today's AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans marks the return of Maddox to Nashville's Coliseum, where he lay paralyzed for 20 minutes from cerebral and spinal concussions less than two months ago. Maddox lost feeling in his arms and legs after a fourth-quarter hit by Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck on Nov. 17 and left the field on a gurney.

Maddox's focus and toughness in the pocket will weigh heavily when the third-seeded Steelers (11-5-1) and second-seeded Titans (11-5) battle for a trip to next week's AFC championship game.

"You go on and you move past it," Maddox said. "It's not tough at all. I've played five games since then, and it doesn't really matter what stadium you're in, what field you're on. It's all playing football. There will be a lot of things on my mind, but it won't be the injury."

Maddox believes his injury is being blown out of proportion.

He needed only a couple of days to get over his concussions and was playing again in three weeks. The Steelers have rallied around Maddox, winning four of five games since his return.

For Maddox, his Nashville nightmare occurred before the hit.

In a 31-23 loss to Tennessee, Pittsburgh could do little after Maddox threw a 72-yard touchdown to Hines Ward on the first play of the game. He was intercepted three times as the Steelers fell behind 31-7, and only a late rally led by Kordell Stewart made the score respectable.

The key to beating the Titans' defense - which stacks the line of scrimmage with eight men - is going over the top with big passing plays downfield. That means Maddox must be patient in allowing his receivers to get open and must have a fearless attitude in staring down Tennessee's pass rush.

If Pittsburgh wants a chance to upset Tennessee, Maddox has to have a better performance than his previous effort against the Titans, when he produced his worst quarterback rating (44.9) of the season.

"I'm probably more looking forward to going back for that reason," Maddox said. "Obviously, they played a great game the first time we went down there, and we know the things we've got to do against them."

While the Steelers trust Maddox's arm, they aren't as confident about him moving past the painful incident in Nashville.

"It's still in the back of his mind, but he's been playing great football lately," Ward said. "I don't think it's going to have an effect on him."

The Titans have always tried to show compassion to Maddox's injury. After their last meeting, Bulluck called Maddox's hospital room, and running back Eddie George and coach Jeff Fisher both visited him.

Nevertheless, Bulluck intends on being ready if Pittsburgh decides to come after him.

"It wasn't a dirty hit, so they wouldn't have any reason to. But if they want to take it there, that's on them," Bulluck said. "If they want to come after me in some kind of retaliation thing - they know where I'm at. No. 53 ain't going nowhere. Wherever the ball is, that's where No. 53 is going to be. So it is not going to be hard to find me."

A Nashville radio station has stirred up controversy with a "Rush Tommy Maddox To The Hospital" contest. The race, which was scheduled for Friday, would pit three teams of two people - one dressed as a doctor and the other as an injured Steeler - competing for free tickets to the game.

"Most of the people down there have been very supportive - the doctors, the medical staff, were unbelievable in the way they handled the whole situation," Maddox said. "You can't worry about what a few people do."

The attention on Maddox continued a season-long trend of overshadowing Titans quarterback Steve McNair.

The NFL's 11th-rated passer, McNair threw for 3,387 yards and 22 touchdowns, but failed to get a Pro Bowl invitation. Now, he has fully recovered from toe, rib and back injuries and can take out his latest snub on a struggling Pittsburgh secondary.

"I am not out to prove anything," McNair said. "If this team makes it to the Super Bowl, that's satisfying enough for me to overcome all the things that happened during the course of the year."

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