September 26, 2012

1999: Defense and Special Teams Propel Seahawks Over Steelers

Coming into the 1999 NFL season the Seattle Seahawks had not finished with a winning record in nine years and they had last qualified for the postseason in 1988. After two straight 8-8 records, Head Coach Dennis Erickson was dismissed in favor of Mike Holmgren, who had won two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl in Green Bay.

Among changes for the Seahawks was the insertion of 27-year-old Jon Kitna (pictured above) as the starting quarterback. A backup in his first two seasons, Kitna was largely untested, having appeared in nine games and gotten his most extensive action in the World League of American Football. There was established talent on offense as well, however, in veteran RB Ricky Watters and WR Joey Galloway.

The Seahawks lost their opener to Detroit and just squeaked by the Bears in Week 2. On September 26 they faced a big test as they traveled to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. Seattle was 1-5 overall at Three Rivers Stadium and the Steelers had won big just two weeks earlier, moving the ball with ease in a 43-0 blowout of Cleveland, and improved to 2-0 with a close win at Baltimore.

Under Head Coach Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh had made it to the playoffs in six consecutive seasons, including an AFC title in 1995, before dropping to 7-9 in ’98. The Steelers had an effective ground game featuring “The Bus”, RB Jerome Bettis, and the defense was tough. The biggest question remained at quarterback, where Kordell Stewart was as inconsistent as he was an impressive athlete.

It was the home-opening game for the Steelers and there were 57,881 fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium. It didn’t take long to deflate their enthusiasm. The Seahawks scored the first two times they touched the ball – without running a play from scrimmage.

Kordell Stewart’s second pass of the game was deflected off the hands of WR Will Blackwell and intercepted by Seattle safety Merton Hanks, who returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. Just two minutes later, RB Charlie Rogers fielded Josh Brown’s high 62-yard punt at his six yard line and ran down the sideline for a 94-yard touchdown. Seattle was ahead by 14-0 with only 3:20 run off the clock and the home crowd booing.

On their first offensive play, the Seahawks proved they could move the ball effectively when Jon Kitna connected with WR Mike Pritchard for a 51-yard gain. It set up a 45-yard Todd Peterson field goal and the score remained 17-0 at the end of the opening period.

It was all anticlimactic from there. Peterson kicked three field goals in the second quarter, from 51, 41, and 26 yards, the last following an interception by safety Jay Bellamy. The ineffective Steelers, error-prone and dominated by Seattle’s defense, didn’t make it inside the Seattle 38 until the third quarter.

Kordell Stewart was pulled at halftime and replaced by backup QB Mike Tomczak, although he fared little better. Two drives inside the Seattle 25 came up empty when Tomczak tossed interceptions, snuffing out any comeback hopes for the home team. Kris Brown finally got the Steelers on the board in the fourth quarter with a 33-yard field goal and, after Peterson kicked his club-record fifth field goal from 38 yards out, Tomczak threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to WR Troy Edwards. It did little to soften the blow of losing badly to Seattle by a score of 29-10.

While they didn’t score any offensive touchdowns, the Seahawks had the most total yards (341 to 272) and first downs (16 to 15). The Steelers turned the ball over five times, all on interceptions, to two suffered by Seattle.

Jon Kitna completed 18 of 29 passes for 265 yards, and while none were for touchdowns, none were intercepted either. Ricky Watters ground out 98 yards on 29 carries. Mike Pritchard caught 6 passes for 90 yards and WR Sean Dawkins gained 105 yards on his 5 receptions.

For the Steelers, Kordell Stewart was successful on just 7 of 14 throws for 61 yards with no TDs and three interceptions while Mike Tomczak went to the air 27 times and completed 14 for 159 yards and a TD with two picked off. Jerome Bettis was held to just 39 yards on 11 rushing attempts. Troy Edwards led the receivers with 6 catches for 72 yards and a TD and WR Courtney Hawkins contributed 5 receptions for 63 yards.

“That was huge for us,” said Jon Kitna of the big win. “We talked all week about wanting to start fast. And it didn’t matter if it was on offense or defense.”

“I thought our quarterback performance was very bad,” summed up Bill Cowher.

Seattle won again the next week and six times in the next seven games before closing out the season with six losses in the final seven contests. Still, it was good enough for a 9-7 record and first place in the AFC West. The Seahawks lost to Miami in the Wild Card playoff round.

Pittsburgh lost its next two games on the way to a dismal 6-10 record and fourth place finish in the AFC Central. Kordell Stewart’s struggles at quarterback continued and he lost his starting job for the last six games and was used as a wide receiver.

Jon Kitna had a promising but uneven season, throwing for 3346 yards and 23 touchdowns, but of his 16 interceptions, 10 came in the last six regular season contests and he was picked off twice in the playoff game.

Todd Peterson had a good year kicking the ball, setting a club record with 16 straight successful field goals on his way to booting 34 in 40 attempts. Charlie Rogers led the NFL with a 14.5-yard average on his 22 punt returns – the 94-yard return against the Steelers was his lone touchdown.