Foes' big plays a Heinz Field playoff staple
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When its gates opened in 2001, Heinz Field generated no unusual atmospherics, no portent other than what the place merely figured to be. As the lair of typically inhospitable Steelers defenses, it loomed as a very difficult place for teams to win, particularly in January.
Which it has been -- for the Steelers.
It is truth that they won the first playoff in Heinz Field history handily, 27-10, against the Baltimore Ravens, whose only touchdown that day came on an 88-yard punt return by Jermaine Lewis. But in Greek mythology, Ravens were notorious carriers of omens (or at least they should have been), and though no one suspected it at the moment, long, spectacular opponent touchdowns with the Steelers' decorated defenses watching helplessly from the sideline have become a postseason staple on the North Side.
Since Lewis' 88-yarder, the Steelers have played five playoff games at Heinz Field, and very nearly lost them all. The two they've won, 20-17 against the New York Jets in the 2004 divisional round, and 36-33 against Cleveland in a 2002 wild-card game, required miracles. To beat the Browns, the Steelers needed two touchdowns in the final 2:24. To beat the Jets, the Steelers needed Jets kicker Doug Brien to miss two field goals in the final 2:02, the first of which clunked the crossbar from 47 yards, the other whistling wide left from 43.
Aviation officials would call the Jets incident a double near miss, but it was classic Heinz Field in January. New York scored only two touchdowns, one on 75-yard punt return by Santana Moss, the other on an 86-yard interception return by Reggie Tongue. The Steelers had a great defense, but you can't defend from the sideline.
A week later, Rodney Harrison took an interception 87 yards as New England swiped its second AFC championship in four years at Heinz Field, the first one having included a 55-yard punt return by Troy Brown and a 49-yard touchdown run by Antwan Harris with a blocked punt.
In six Heinz Field playoff games, the Steelers effectively have allowed seven touchdowns for which their vaunted defenses had no culpability, three punt-return touchdowns, three more on interception returns, and ...
"Maurice Jones-Drew last year," remembered special-teams ace Gary Russell yesterday before practice.
The Steelers had just gone ahead, 7-0, against Jacksonville last January when Jones-Drew took the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the 1, from where Fred Taylor erased the lead in a game the Steelers eventually would lose by two points.
"It's more about the person than the scheme," Russell said of the Steelers' excellent coverage teams this season. "If someone goes out of their lane though, there might be some room there."
This Steelers team has pretty much kept to its lanes all season. Mike Tomlin's guys led the NFL in kickoff coverage, allowing only 19.1 yards per return. The punt-coverage unit has allowed only 6.2 per return. No opponent has returned a kick for a touchdown, and no one has returned any kick longer than 43 yards.
"Knock on wood!" said Anthony Madison, who led all special-teamers with 25 tackles. "We've got to continue to be an asset and not a liability. The biggest thing this year has been continuity. It's a lot of the same guys from last year."
With, of course, the critical addition of Keyaron Fox, the free agent from Kansas City who has 21 tackles on coverage teams. But the Steelers are only as overdue to give up a long return as their own return units are to produce one. The Steelers haven't returned a kick for a touchdown since "Awesome" Rossum took a kickoff back 98 yards Sept. 23, 2007.
You might be wary then, again, of much of the backstory on the playoff meeting Sunday with San Diego, as it will doubtless center on a Steelers defense that has allowed a league-low 223 points, a league-best 33.3 percent touchdown percentage in the red zone, a league-best this and a league-best that. Historically, it has meant little this time of year, at least in this town.
Yet no one seems terribly superstitious about it.
Kicker Jeff Reed has changed his hair color to bright pineapple, which some would fear might avert the established karma of no long returns.
"He does goofy stuff all year long," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who will continue to cover kicks. "It's more a matter of us just keeping our good habits."
Reed acknowledged that someone might bring this up if any Charger bolts 95 for a touchdown Sunday.
"Somebody else would say that," he said. "I wouldn't."
Just in case, linebacker LaMarr Woodley walked over and rubbed the kicker's head.The game
• Matchup: No. 2 seeded Steelers vs. No. 4 seeded Chargers.
• When: 4:45 p.m., Sunday.
• Where: Heinz Field.
• TV: KDKA.
• Left: No question that New York Jets kicker Doug Brien deserves a special place in Steelers postseason lore.
First Published January 8, 2009 12:00 am