Back in 2002 the Steelers became a team that threw the ball even more than now, as Tommy “Gun” Maddox took over for Kordell Stewart at the QB spot early in the year after he struggled. The team had a matchup in their 9th game of the season against the Falcons, the last time we saw Atlanta at Heinz Field.
The game, which was a classic, became a chapter in my book “100 Things Steelers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” which is available at all major bookstores now, as well as online in places like Amazon. You can also contact me direct at Matt@NFLGridironGab.com for a copy of the book at a discounted rate.
Here is the chapter of the book – Chapter 85, entitled “Maddox and Vick 2003 Wild West Shootout at Heinz” – Enjoy!
The 2002 season was one of transition for the Steelers. The team had reached the AFC Title game the season before, but fell short of their goal of playing in the Super Bowl after a 24-17 upset loss to the heavy underdog New England Patriots. The 02 season started slowly, as the team fell to the champion Pats on a Monday night to start the year 30-14, then the following week on a Sunday night were carved up by Rich Gannon and the Raiders at home 30-17.
Part of the issue was the play at quarterback. Head coach Bill Cowher had lost confidence in starter Kordell Stewart, who had played so well a season before, but was unable to duplicate that at the start of the 02 season. In week three vs. Cleveland at home the team was stale again, and trailed late 13-6. Cowher made a bold move, benching Stewart for former Arena League QB and former first-round bust Tommy Maddox, who of course being the backup QB was the apple of every fans eye.
The move paid off, as Maddox lead the team to a score to tie the game, then in OT was able to put a drive together to lead the team to a 16-13 much needed win. It was evident that whatever magic Maddox had the offense responded to, and the talk of the league quickly turned to how this former XFL’er was tearing up the league.
The Steelers season turned around, as they went on a four-game winning streak to turn a 1-3 start into a 5-3 mark heading into an early November game at home against Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons. What Steeler fans who went to Heinz Field that day didn’t know was what a show they were in for as Vick and Maddox lit the Pittsburgh sky with footballs and points in a game that would go down as one of the most memorable in Steeler history.
The game didn’t start out as a barn burner, as the Steelers led just 3-0 after the first quarter. That’s when things quickly got going. First it was the Falcons with a score as Vick hit Shawn Jefferson with a 43-yard score to make it 7-3 Falcons before two minutes had even passed in the second quarter. The Steelers came right back, as Maddox hit Plaxico Burress for a 33-yard score to make it 10-7, and the fireworks had truly begun.
Maddox less than two minutes later had the ball again, and found Hines Ward from five yards out to extend the Steeler lead to 17-7 with 7:15 left in the half. That’s how the half would end, and things seemed to be headed clearly in the favor of the Steelers. The first half numbers were staggering. The Steelers had already 15 first downs and 270 yards, with Maddox throwing for 188 yards and two scores.
Atlanta wouldn’t go down easily, as Warrick Dunn put on a show in the second half. It started with him going for a score from 59 yards out to make it 17-14. But Maddox, again playing the gunslinger, found Burress again, this time from 62 yards out to put the Steelers back out in front 23-14 after the extra point was blocked. Burress set records all day, which we’ll get to later.
A Falcons field goal with 6:07 left in the third made it 23-17, and again here came Maddox and the Steelers offense. Maddox led the team on a 7-play drive that covered 67 yards, and found tight end Jereme Tuman for an 18-yard score. The two-point play was Maddox to Ward, and the Steeler lead with 2:25 left in the quarter was up to 31-17.
Things really seemed to go the Steelers way when Todd Peterson hit a 34-yard field goal to make it 34-17 with 12:34 left, but little did the Steeler faithful know that Michael Vick and company were about to put on an offensive show of their own. The Falcons QB led the team on a quick 2:34 drive that ended with a short TD pass to make it 34-24. Then five minutes later Vick put together a long 10-play drive to make it a 7-point game with 2:26 left at 34-27 after a 40-yard Jay Feely field goal.