Much ado about Steve McNair

You've likely heard all the hype about how Steve McNair has emerged as every NFL analyst's favorite tough guy. Whether you buy that or not, or perhaps you are just plain sick of hearing about it, the truth is that McNair has been a Steelers killer.

Perhaps McNair's signature game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was one in which he hardly played at all. The Tennessee Titans were the reigning AFC champs coming into Three Rivers to face a struggling 0-2 Steelers team during the early part of the 2000 season. Steve McNair was out with a bruised sternum and Pittsburgh gave Neil O'Donnell and Tennessee all they could handle for 57 ½ minutes.

Then the Steelers defense made the mistake of knocking O'Donnell out of the game and in trotted the dinged up McNair that so many Steelers fans have either come to hate or fear.

"We kind of like let it slip away again," Earl Holmes said.

McNair moved the ball 64 yards in just 4 plays, taking the lead by hitting rookie TE Erron Kinney, who was wide open in the end zone thanks to oversight of LB Jason Gildon.

Gildon was the one who earlier knocked O'Donnell out of the game with a sack that left the Titans in a big hole, 3rd and 11 on their own 36.

McNair opened up his dramatic entrance with a 22-yard gainer to Chris Sanders, who was open over the middle. The Steelers pressured McNair on the next play only to see him scramble for 9 more yards. He followed that up with a 15-yard strike to Derrick Mason, putting the Titans on the Steelers 18-yard line.

Once again, the Steelers went after McNair, "I couldn't believe the configuration of the defense. I knew it was going to be one-on-one... I'll take Erron any day over a linebacker. It was a good opportunity for me to just make a good throw."

Another heartbreaker for the Steelers, who had harassed and confused O'Donnell all day only to watch helplessly as McNair took over the game and notch a big win in Pittsburgh.

The drama of last season's two games has already been well recounted over this past week. What image I would like to bring to the fore is the one of Larry Foote, in for the injured Kendrell Bell, failing to bring McNair down on a number of occasions during the playoff loss in Nashville.

It is easy enough to knock O'Donnell out of a game, but it is almost impossible to bring McNair down and stop him from making plays either with his feet or his arm. Despite 4 Tennessee turnovers, the Titans held on to the ball for over 37 minutes and converted 12 of 18 third down opportunities.

Simply put, McNair made plays when he most needed to make them and Foote, along with the worn out Steelers defense, could do little to stop him.

The Steelers will score enough to win this Sunday as long as McNair doesn't get the last say. The key to assuring this will be Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell.

Hampton knocked RB Eddie George out of the game last January. The Titans had big problems with Casey then and now throw in rookie center Justin Hartwig, who reportedly has trouble handling the bigger defensive tackles. RG Benji Olson is hampered by a knee injury, exposing a weak interior of the offensive line. This is Bell's specialty. Despite the two sacks last week coming from the outside, Bell is most effective blitzing up the middle and he has the strength and speed to bring down the bull McNair, who is having trouble holding onto the ball with a broken finger (3 fumbles lost in 3 games).

Add to that how the Indianapolis Colts demonstrated how to beat the Titans to the outside in order to get to McNair and a healthy Joey Porter, and the Steelers should be able to slay the Steelers killer.

However, there's one more part to this equation, the ability of the Steelers offense to hold onto the ball. Bell and Hampton are seeing more field-time than ever and have looked fatigued at times. Will the defense have enough gas left in the tank to fend off any late 4th-quarter heroics by McNair?

The Titans will try to stay close and control the clock, looking for that McNair magic late in the game that has bewitched the Steelers more than a few times before. Pittsburgh will need to run the ball and Tennessee will cheat to stop it. Big plays from Tommy Maddox, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward may not be enough. Zereoue and Bettis will have to reprise their success in Cincinnati and Alan Faneca needs to continue to abuse the opposition.

All of this points to a typical physical and bruising Steelers-Titans match up. That would seem to favor tough guy McNair over Maddox. That is unless Hampton and Bell make their presence known and give Steelers fans time to think about what might have been if Kendrell had been healthy last January.

Jim Russell

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