© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2002
TAMPA -- Hines Ward took one look at the Bucs defense and liked what he saw.
"Plaxico (Burress) and I just looked at each other and smiled," the Steelers receiver said after his team's 17-7 win against the Bucs on Monday at Raymond James Stadium. "You're going to challenge us in the passing game? They gave us an opportunity."
And Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox made sure Ward and Burress, who both have more than 1,000 receiving yards this season, took advantage of the different defensive look by Tampa Bay.
Rather than test Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp and the rest of the Bucs defensive line with a diet of Jerome Bettis carrying the ball, Pittsburgh opted to try out the NFL's top-rated pass defense early in the game.
The Steelers did it well enough that the questions regarding the omission of cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly from the Pro Bowl roster likely will cease after Maddox picked apart the Bucs secondary in the first half.
"He was on it," Kelly said of Maddox. "He took some steps and as soon as he took his five-step drop, the ball was out of his hands. It seemed like the game plan was to give the ball over to him and they executed well."
In charge of a surging offense, Maddox completed his first seven passes for 152 yards and one touchdown. Each of those completions went for first downs.
One, an 11-yard pass to receiver Antwaan Randle El, capped a six-play, 81-yard drive that gave the Steelers a 6-0 lead after their first possession.
"After that first drive, they don't mount much after that," Sapp said. "But we can't get the play that we needed to get off the field and turn this thing and get some momentum swung. We made no plays tonight."
The Steelers' pass-first approach was a distinct departure from the last time the teams played.
With a completely healthy Bettis and Kordell Stewart in the backfield, the Steelers ran 35 times for 220 yards and passed for 124 in a 17-10 win. "We knew coming in they were going to try and stop the run," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "If they were going to do that, we were going to throw the football. We were going to do it early and on early downs."
Added Kelly: "There was a lot of talk about stopping the run, but they have two 1,000-yard receivers in Burress and Ward. They felt confident, and knowing that Bettis was a little banged up, slung the ball around."
The Bucs defense, which entered as the NFL's best overall at 249.9 yards per game even after a 23-20 win against Detroit on Dec. 15, allowed 172 passing yards and 46 yards rushing by halftime and 327 total by the end of the game.
Maddox, with plenty of time to throw on almost every drop-back situation, completed passes of 41, 28, 22, 20 and 18 yards in the first half. He also completed a 24-yard pass to Burress on third and 7 in the third quarter.
Burress finished with 127 yards receiving. Ward had 78 yards on six catches.
"We've got to make plays, we've got to get turnovers. We've got to do something," Sapp said. "We didn't make the plays to win it."