Bill Cowher says the officials' putting the ball on the wrong hash mark was 'inexcusable.'
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- When a team throws two interceptions in the final three minutes of a seven-point loss, it's hard to point to one play in the first half as crucial.
Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers say the sequence of events that led to Troy Brown's 55-yard touchdown on a punt return proved very costly.
The Steelers claim an officiating error after a first-half punt was called back by a penalty played a key role in Sunday's loss to New England.
Nine minutes into a scoreless game, Steelers punter Josh Miller boomed a 64-yarder out of bounds to the New England 23. Miller's mission was to keep the ball as far from Brown as possible.
However, the Steelers' Troy Edwards was penalized for stepping out of bounds and running back onto the field.
After the penalty, referee Ed Hochuli put the ball on the right hashmark at the Pittsburgh 8, much to the chagrin of Steelers coach Bill Cowher who angrily confronted the official.
"It was about the placement of the ball," Cowher said of the argument. "The ball was placed at the wrong hash. That, in my mind, is inexcusable.
Argument: "We were trying to tell that guy to re-place it, but they wouldn't listen," said Cowher, who fell to 1-3 in AFC title games. "Certainly, we didn't want to take a delay-of-game penalty because of the field position."
Miller's second punt went down the middle of the field to Brown at the Patriots' 45, from where he broke free for the touchdown.
"That was ridiculous," Miller said of the spotting mistake. "It was on the left hash on the first punt.
"I was telling [the official] the whole time until the snap and he kept telling me I was wrong," Miller said. "On the right hash, it adds about 15 more yards when you're angling [a punt] out of bounds.
"Being 10 [yards] deep in the end zone, I just couldn't get it left," said Miller, who added he should have made a better kick to the sideline.
Big block: As the holder for field goal kicker Kris Brown, Miller also was involved in the Patriots' other special teams touchdown.
Early in the third quarter, the Steelers were trying to cut into New England's 14-3 lead when defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell blocked Brown's 34-yard attempt.
The Patriots' Brown and Antwan Harris returned the block 60 yards for a 21-3 lead.
Asked what he saw on the play, Miller said, "Not much. The snap was fine. Kris got a real good piece of the ball."
Kris Brown said he "didn't get a chance to see [the block]. Somebody came up the middle.
"The most dreaded sound a kicker hears is 'thud, thud.' " Brown said. "They out-played us on special teams -- that was the difference."
Shutdown: Despite those plays and an 18-point deficit, the Steelers had their chances even though they struggled to run with the football.
After seeing the NFL's top rushing attack in the regular season limited to 58 yards on 22 carries, Cowher said the Patriots "didn't do anything that we had not anticipated seeing. We got bogged down.
"I don't think it was so much our running backs -- they just did a good job of taking away the running game," Cowher said.
Jerome Bettis gained 9 yards on eight carries. The speedier Amos Zereouere had 11 yards on four tries. Quarterback Kordell Stewart led the team with 41 yards on eight carries. One of his first-quarter efforts produced 34 yards.
"It's hard to swallow, but they just played better," said Stewart, who completed 24 of 42 passes for 255 yards and three interceptions.
"They just out-played us. They did some things up front that kind of confused us," Stewart said. "It just didn't seem like we were the same offense today."
Off the bench: Drew Bledsoe, who was the Patriots' quarterback in the Super Bowl five years ago, came to the rescue starter Tom Brady was knocked out of the game with ankle injury late in the first half.
Bledsoe completed 10 of 21 passes for 102 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown to wide receiver David Patten on his fourth play.
"I was pretty fired up when I got out there," said Bledsoe, who lost his starting job when he injured his ribs in Week 2. "[It] had been a long time, obviously, since I played."
Disappointment flooded the Steelers locker room after only their second loss at Heinz Field.
"It is a very confusing state," offensive tackle Wayne Gandy said. "Very empty, very lonely. To get to this point the way we did [and] to go out like this is a very, very lonely feeling."
"The further you go, the greater the disappointment and the harder it hurts," Cowher said. "It's very disappointing."