Punt return recalls '01 playoff gaffe

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There were painful reminders abounding about players running out of bounds on punt coverage and second kicks being returned for a touchdown. And it resulted, like it did in the 2001 season, in another disappointing defeat to a team the Steelers were favored to beat.

But, as Clark Haggans was quick to remind, "That game had higher stakes."

It is difficult to compare the scope of the Steelers' 21-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals yesterday to the magnitude of the demoralizing loss to the New England Patriots in the 2001 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field. This was merely the Steelers' first loss of the season after a 3-0 start.

The 2001 loss ended the Steelers' season and deprived them of a chance to go to the Super Bowl. It also marked the beginning of the Patriots' amazing run in which they won three Super Bowl trophies in four years.

"I remember what happened," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "Watched it on television."

Nothing with such historical implications occurred in the climate-controlled University of Phoenix Stadium, unless you consider that Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt outfoxed his former team with the same type of play-calling that helped produce a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl title during back-to-back seasons as offensive coordinator with the Steelers.

Or that Mike Tomlin, faced with the possibility of becoming the first Steelers coach to win his first four games, lost for the first time since beating out Whisenhunt and former offensive line coach Russ Grimm for the head-coaching position.

But what did occur in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 7-7, was certainly reminiscent of what happened six years ago against the Patriots, a game and a play that remains etched in the consciousness of Steelers Nation.

"It did for me," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, a 10-year veteran. "When they ran the kick back."

The Steelers lost by a touchdown to the underdog Patriots (24-17), and they lost because of a 55-yard punt return for touchdown by Troy Brown -- a return that took place because the Steelers were penalized on the previous punt, a 64-yarder by Josh Miller, when Troy Edwards illegally ran out of bounds and returned to the field of play.

The ramifications certainly weren't as severe against the Cardinals, but the situation was eerily similar. The Steelers lost to the underdog Cardinals because rookie Steve Breaston, a former Woodland Hills High School star, returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, breaking a 7-7 tie. And he did it because wingback Carey Davis was penalized on the previous play -- a 59-yard punt by Daniel Sepulveda in which Breaston was stopped on a 3-yard return at the Arizona 25 -- for leaving the line of scrimmage too early.

"They said I slid down too early," said Davis, a first-year free agent who is a wingback on the right side of the formation.

It wasn't the same gaffe committed by Edwards, who ran out of bounds to avoid a block. That no-no, though, did occur against the Cardinals when rookie linebacker Lawrence Timmons was penalized for running out of bounds without being pushed on a punt in the second quarter, a penalty that did not carry the same ramifications as Davis' mistake. Timmons' penalty merely carried an additional 5-yard step-off.

But the impact of the return had the same effect.

"That was the big play for them," Haggans said. "It changed all the momentum."

"Even when I was on special teams, I always hated to re-kick," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "One, you're always tired, and two, you have to run back down the field. It was similar to the runback we had last week. It was the big play in the game."

In hindsight, Tomlin said he should have put fresh gunners on the field when Sepulveda was forced to punt again after the Davis penalty. Gunners are the players who line up to the outside in punt coverage. They are the only players allowed to leave the line of scrimmage before the punter kicks the ball.

"When you punt back-to-back times, you put your coverage in harm's way," Tomlin said.

Several players, though, disagreed, saying it's the same disadvantage for both teams.

"Both sides are winded," Deshea Townsend said.

"We still got to go make that play," Davis said. "They're tired, too. No excuses."

Breaston, though, didn't look tired when he took Sepulveda's punt, broke up the middle and headed to the right side. The only gasps may have come from Cardinals' fans unaccustomed to seeing one of their players return a punt for touchdown. It hadn't happened since Sept. 12, 1993, a span of 14 years. Breaston was 11 at the time.

"You always hate to re-kick because your guys cover a lot of ground," special teams coach Bob Ligashesky said. "They gear up for the play and run full-speed, sometimes have to run across the field to make a tackle. Then they have to run another play and run another 40 yards. It's easier on the return team."

Just as it was for the Patriots.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.


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