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Closer Look

Stewart's second-quarter fumble buried Steelers

Posted: Monday September 16, 2002 3:18 AM
  Kordell Stewart The Steelers are having a hard time overcoming a slew of Kordell Stewart turnovers. AP

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

PITTSBURGH -- It's simple, really. As Kordell Stewart goes, so go the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers don't necessarily rely on their starting quarterback to win games for them. They have a Jerome Bettis-led running game and their stout defensive tradition to fill that role. But when Pittsburgh falters, it's usually because Stewart's mistakes spell doom.

Given that the Steelers' pass defense has been overwhelmed in each of the first two games, it's hard to pin Pittsburgh's 30-17 loss to Oakland on Stewart's inconsistent play. Still, all the telltale signs of another maddeningly unpredictable season from Stewart are beginning to show themselves.

By now, we've all given up foretelling which version of Stewart is the real thing. He has been up, down and back up again. But against the Raiders, the bad Kordell was back, just days after he underwhelmed us in Pittsburgh's 30-14 season-opening loss at New England.

Against the Raiders, Stewart had two of Pittsburgh's five turnovers, including the game's most pivotal miscue: a lost fumble at the Raiders' 3-yard line just as the Steelers seemed poise to take a 14-10 second-quarter lead.

Instead, Raiders free safety Rod Woodson recovered at the Oakland 2 -- for the first of his NFL-record tying three fumble recoveries on the night -- and returned it 8 yards, sparking a 15-play, 90-yard Raiders touchdown drive to make it 17-7. The Steelers were never again in position to take the lead.

"We have a first-and-goal and we fumble the ball," Steelers head coach Bill Cowher said. "That's the same place we were a week ago. We had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line and we come out with no points."

Against the Patriots, Stewart tossed three interceptions, giving him five of Pittsburgh's 10 turnovers thus far. Through two games, Stewart's four interceptions already represent more than one-third of his 2001 season total of 11.

"We're not a great football team," said Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward, one of four Steelers to lose a fumble against Oakland. "People say we're Super Bowl contenders. Right now, we're not playing that way. Luckily, we have this off week to go back and look at it and come back with our minds right. Because in the first two games, I think we probably lead the league in turnovers. And that's not what we're accustomed to. Until we rectify it, we are going to continue to struggle."

Stewart's early-season struggles again are engendering a familiar reaction from the Pittsburgh faithful at Heinz Field: boos. Despite his stellar comeback season in leading the Steelers to the AFC title game last year, his three-interception, no-touchdown performance in that crushing January loss to New England erased any margin of error he might have enjoyed in 2002.

That's why Stewart heard from Steelers fans early and often on Sunday, as he finished 18-of-34 for 201 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and that lost fumble. Through two games, Stewart is 42-of-71, for 443 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions, five sacks and a 68.0 quarterback rating.

After this week's bye, Stewart and the winless Steelers have time to rescue their seasons and get their Super Bowl dreams back on track. The losses to the Patriots and Raiders represent what is anticipated to be the toughest two games on their schedule. For Pittsburgh's sake, the comeback had better start Sept. 29 at home against first-place Cleveland.

Then again, when it comes to these Steelers, and especially the streaky Stewart, we've learned better than to count on anything.

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