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LATE SHOW QUARTERBACK KORDELL STEWART, STARTING SLOWLY AS USUAL, RALLIED THE STEELERS PAST THE JAGUARS AND INTO FIRST PLACE IN THE AFC CENTRAL

Nov. 03, 1997
Nov. 03, 1997

Table of Contents
Nov. 3, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

LATE SHOW QUARTERBACK KORDELL STEWART, STARTING SLOWLY AS USUAL, RALLIED THE STEELERS PAST THE JAGUARS AND INTO FIRST PLACE IN THE AFC CENTRAL

The name of the play? The play that redeemed the Bus and
restored the pecking order in the AFC Central? The shovel pass
to the right from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell
Stewart to Jerome (the Bus) Bettis that beat the Jacksonville
Jaguars in overtime at Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday night?

This is an article from the Nov. 3, 1997 issue Original Layout

"Yeah, I'll tell you that," said Pittsburgh offensive
coordinator Chan Gailey after the game. "We call it Shovel Pass
Right. We're the Steelers. We keep it simple."

They would like to keep it simple. Unfortunately for them, their
quarterback doesn't work that way. Stewart does his best work
from the bottom of a deep hole, usually one of his own
excavation. He's the NFL's second-lowest-rated first-half
quarterback but its top-rated fourth-quarter quarterback. He's
6-2 in his first year as a starter. He's a duodenal ulcer
waiting to happen.

On Sunday the slow-starting Stewart threw 42 passes, completing
25 for 317 yards. His first attempt was intercepted; his
last--that shovel pass to Bettis 5:47 into OT--went 17 yards for
the touchdown that gave Pittsburgh its 23-17 victory. Because
he's strictly a quarterback these days, Stewart prefers not to
be called Slash anymore. Well, Kordell, how does Snooze Button
sound?

The Jaguars and Steelers came into this game tied for the lead
in the AFC Central, which was fitting: Jacksonville has replaced
the Cleveland Browns as Pittsburgh's most bitter intradivisional
rival. Witness the bizarre postgame exchange between Steelers
linebacker Greg Lloyd and Jaguars wide receiver Keenan
McCardell. Lloyd cheap-shotted McCardell on the game's first
play, knocking the wind out of him. When McCardell confronted
Lloyd after the game, Lloyd accused McCardell of having made
threatening phone calls to his house. McCardell denied having
made any such calls, described Lloyd's actions as "low" and
added, "That ain't nothin' but the Devil workin'."

Lloyd, for his part, didn't speak to reporters after the game,
which was a shame. It would have been enlightening to hear his
answers to these questions:

1) Greg, are you, in fact, an agent of Satan?

2) Can you tell us about your tackle on the goal line stand?

Hot topics in Pittsburgh this week will be the Punt, which came
after the Drive, which followed the Stand. With a little more
than six minutes left in the third quarter, Jacksonville,
nursing a 10-7 lead, had a third-and-one on the Steelers' two.
The Jaguars were as good as in the end zone, right? After all,
running back James Stewart had rushed for five touchdowns
against the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks earlier, and the
Jacksonville offensive line, whose average constituent is 6'6"
and 321 pounds, is the largest in NFL history.

Stewart, however, was stopped for no gain. On fourth down he got
another try. This time he took a step in the wrong
direction--because of the din, he explained later, he heard the
play incorrectly in the huddle--and Lloyd ran him down. Again,
no gain.

The Stand begat the Drive. After coolly and methodically taking
his team 97 yards in 14 plays, Kordell Stewart sneaked in from
the one for the go-ahead touchdown. The Drive chewed up
8:48--plenty of time to reflect on how far Stewart has come
since Pittsburgh's humiliating 37-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys
on opening day.

For Steelers fans, the most alarming aspects of that blowout
were the general awfulness of Pittsburgh's overhauled secondary
and the deer-in-the-headlights performance of its quarterback of
the future. "I don't want to remember it," Stewart said last
Friday. "Because of my knee [he was playing on a slightly torn
ligament in his left knee, which has since healed], I wasn't
myself. Everything was happening so fast--I was trying to drop
back, find this, do that, and it wasn't happening."

Almost as galling to him as the loss was the pity he received
afterward from some of the Cowboys, who told him "Hang in there"
and "Keep playing, baby."

"It was, like, I appreciated it, but I didn't like it," says
Stewart, who has since proved that he doesn't need anyone's
sympathy.

After throwing his third interception of the game against the
Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 5, Stewart looked at the scoreboard and
saw that 14:45 remained--in the first half. At halftime Stewart
told Gailey not to bother calling a bunch of short passes and
handoffs to help him regain his confidence, because he had not
lost his confidence. "Call what you want to call," he recalls
telling Gailey. "Be aggressive. We'll go from there."

Stewart led the Steelers to touchdowns on four of their first
six possessions in the second half, and Pittsburgh, which had
trailed 21-0, came back to win 42-34. That rally matched the
largest in team history and vindicated coach Bill Cowher, who
had staunchly defended the 25-year-old Stewart after the debut
against Dallas.

Despite the absence of three wide receivers injured in an Oct.
12 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Stewart has thrown for 563
yards in his last two games. Last Friday he ticked off the names
of his new receivers, stumbling once. "We just signed Andre
Coleman and, uh, Curtis."

Curtis who?

"Hey, Rodge," he yelled to equipment manager Rodgers Freyvogel.
"What's Curtis's last name?"

"Marsh."

"Marsh. We signed Curtis Marsh."

Marsh pulled down one pass for eight yards against a
Jacksonville defense that stubbornly spent most of the game
bringing up a safety to help contain Bettis. Despite the special
attention, the Bus, who came in averaging 117 rushing yards,
bulled for 99, although his fourth-quarter fumble at the
Pittsburgh 17 led to the touchdown that put the Jaguars ahead
17-14. The focus on Bettis opened up another offensive option:
Yancy Thigpen, Stewart's go-to receiver, who found himself in
single coverage most of the game and responded with a career
day--11 catches for 196 yards.

"Kordell's made believers of all of us," right tackle Justin
Strzelczyk allowed after Friday's practice. Strzelczyk was in a
bit of a hurry to get home. He and his wife, Keana, were hosting
their annual Halloween party.

Carnell Lake arrived for the affair in a matador's outfit and
looked dashing. Lake is a strong safety by trade, but given a
few hours to hone his technique and break down tape of the
opposing bull, he could probably do a pretty good job with a
cape. Considering the job he has done filling in as an emergency
cornerback the last three weeks, he deserves to have roses
thrown at his feet.

The transfer of Lake to corner is one of several moves that have
settled down a Steelers defense that two weeks into the season
looked as if it were in big trouble. The source of those woes
seemed to be the frugality of the Steelers' owners, the Rooney
family. Generally unwilling to pay market value to retain its
unrestricted free agents, Pittsburgh loses a lot of them. The
exodus after last season was particularly heavy; it included
outside linebacker Chad Brown and cornerbacks Rod Woodson,
Willie Williams and Deon Figures. The players who remained had
to become accustomed to first-year defensive coordinator Jim
Haslett and to the fact that Lloyd isn't the player he was
before blowing out his left knee in the 1996 opener.

The Steelers can win while in transition because they retain
what Cowher calls a core of veteran leaders. One of them is the
30-year-old Lake, who two days after the game against the
Ravens, with Pittsburgh down to two healthy cornerbacks,
received a call at home from Cowher. "I wanted to get you before
you ate dinner," said the coach, "because you might want to
think about eating light."

Translation: We're moving you to corner. Lake had been through
this before. Midway into the Steelers' 1995 Super Bowl season,
Cowher had made the same change. This time, to carve five pounds
from his already chiseled 6'1", 210-pound frame, Lake cut out
snacks. Roaring in on a corner blitz on the Sunday after getting
Cowher's call, Lake stripped Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh of
the ball and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. Against the
Cincinnati Bengals a week later, he turned in the biggest play
of the game, punching the ball from the grasp of wideout Carl
Pickens, who, with Pittsburgh leading 23-10 early in the fourth
quarter, was racing for the end zone.

Lake's most memorable plays on Sunday: He forced another fumble
(Jacksonville recovered); gave up a 29-yard pass that set the
stage for the Stand; and then, on a third-down blitz with 1:54
left, pressured Mark Brunell into throwing the incompletion that
forced a punt by Bryan Barker, which was followed, four plays
later, by the Punt.

Barker's Pittsburgh counterpart, Josh Miller, wasn't having a
good day. His first two punts had traveled 24 and 25 yards, and
though he had partially atoned for those with a couple of
46-yarders, it was with a sense of foreboding that he jogged
onto the field with 1:18 remaining and the Steelers facing a
fourth-and-five at their 18. The score was tied 17-17, and
Miller--this isn't unusual for a kicking specialist--was having
a conversation with himself. "I told myself, This is your last
punt as an NFL player, so you might as well make it a good one,"
Miller, a second-year player, recalled after the game. With that
he blasted a 72-yarder that was downed at the Jaguars' 10. "When
I saw that punt come off his foot, I said, 'You go, big fella,'"
said Stewart, who had run eight plays in overtime when he heard
these words crackle out of his helmet radio: "Shovel Pass Right."

Gailey later explained the unusual call. On a crucial
third-and-two in the fourth quarter of their Sept. 22 game at
Jacksonville, a 30-21 loss, the Steelers had lined up in the
same formation. Stewart had sprinted to the right--and had been
stopped one yard short of a first down. On Sunday, on
third-and-two at the Jaguars' 18, Stewart took two steps to his
right and then flipped the ball forward to Bettis, who shook off
three tacklers on his way to redemption and victory.

As he walked off the field, Stewart saw a reporter. "You like
that?" he said. "Never a doubt, baby. Never a doubt."

He had earned the right to be cocky. As the game ended, so had
the first half of his season. And Stewart is always better in
the second half.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Stewart overcame early pressure by Tony Brackens and the Jaguars to finish with 317 yards passing. [Kordell Stewart and Tony Brackens in game]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Courtney Hawkins got Pittsburgh on the scoreboard in the third quarter with a 28-yard TD catch. [Courtney Hawkins and opposing player in game]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The Bus negotiated unusually heavy traffic en route to 99 yards rushing and the winning score. [Jerome Bettis in game]