The Atlanta Falcons did not win the game, but they denied the Pittsburgh Steelers a victory that the Steelers had well in hand. A 17-point lead in the 4th quarter used to be automatic for Bill Cowher. Looks as if such rules don't apply to budding superstar QB Michael Vick.
Pittsburgh QB Tommy Maddox threw for 473 yards and 4 touchdowns. Spike (who reminded everyone today why he has that nickname) posted 253 yards on the undersized Falcon corners. Hines Ward even chipped in 139 yards and Amos Zereoue broke 100 rushing yards for the second straight game. The Steelers even found a tight end in the end zone. This should have spelled an easy win for the rolling Steelers.
The Steelers were able to contain Vick, at least on the ground. They sacked him 4 times and used Joey Porter and Kendrell Bell to spy his every move. Porter had another huge game, leading the Steelers in tackles while forcing the ball out of Vick's hands and recovering the fumble himself. The defense generated enough big plays to win the game. Unfortunately, they gave up more big plays than they made.
Lost in the Steelers 4th quarter collapse is the number of missed opportunities. The Steelers regressed to the style of play that cost them against Oakland and New England. C Jeff Hartings returned to the starting lineup and promptly botched another exchange in the red-zone. The Steelers defense could not get off the field on third and long. And the special teams were a major handicap that Atlanta exploited to get back in the game.
In the first half, Joey Porter and Antwaan Randle El were the stars. Tommy Maddox was hitting the big plays as the Falcons insisted on man coverage in order to stop the run. There was even a Vick scramble that big Casey Hampton tracked down. On the surface, things looked very good for the Steelers who clearly outsized and overmatched the Falcons.
But the 17-7 halftime lead masked a number of Steeler shortcomings. Todd Peterson missed a 40-yard field goal attempt at the end of the half. There was the Hartings fumble. Chad Scott getting burned deep once again for a 43-yard Vick TD (the Falcons have only thrown 6 TD passes all season). The Steelers dominated the Falcons in the first half and were up by only 10.
In the second half, the Steelers defense lost focus and ultimately lost the game. The Steelers doubled their first half point total with 17 second half points, but the Falcons hung 27 points of their own on the Steelers defense. Vick came alive and looked more like an NFL quarterback than the running back he's been of late.
Vick and the Falcons converted 7 of 10 third downs in the second half, many of them third and long. There was 3rd and 24, 3rd and 9, 3rd and 22, and 3rd and 23. Mohr punted just once the entire second half. This was the Oakland Raiders all over again. The Steelers defense just couldn't get off the field.
The Steelers offense couldn't bail out the defense in the fourth quarter as Cowher went to the turtle. The Steelers were successful all day passing the ball but decided to kill the clock by running the ball. Still, 17 points is not a bad half.
Antwaan Randle El may ultimately feel the burden of this tie. His fumble on Atlanta's only punt on the second half gave the Falcons life. The one time the Steelers defense manages to get off the field, special teams put them right back on it.
The Steelers defense would pick it up in overtime, but the offense couldn't find the magic they had generated earlier in the game. The players were clearly exhausted and neither team could manage the kill shot that would claim sudden death. Peterson had his game-winning field goal attempt blocked and a holding call on Mark Bruener during a big Zereoue run ruined another chance.
The Falcons couldn't move the ball at all, but a Maddox interception put them in excellent scoring position as the overtime period wound down. The Steelers defense held and the Falcons ran down the clock before having their 55-yard field goal attempt blocked. Why didn't Cowher try to stop the clock and save his team some time for another shot at victory?
The Steelers did have one more shot, as it turned out, but the Hail Mary to Spike fell just one-yard short. Cowher seemed content with a tie, his defense already blowing the game in the fourth quarter. The Steelers have yet to establish much of a home field advantage and failed to intimidate a spirited Falcons team. Give Vick some credit for making big plays when he had to, whether through the air or on the ground.
Next week, the Steelers travel to Nashville to face the resurgent Tennessee Titans.