Half Moon Is Not Enough for Oilers : AFC: Pittsburgh intercepts five passes, holds Houston scoreless in second half of 29-24 victory.


Warren Moon keeps saying that at 35, he isn’t an old quarterback. He keeps saying that he hasn’t lost a thing.

But in the season opener at the Astrodome Sunday, he lost five interceptions to the Pittsburgh Steelers. And in a major upset, the Houston Oilers lost the game, 29-24, as Bill Cowher won his first start as Pittsburgh’s second coach in three decades.

Cowher, also 35, is the NFL’s second youngest coach and was an NFL linebacker as recently as 1984.

“I’ve seen Warren Moon when he was sharper,” he said, and that more or less sums up a strange game for heavily-favored Houston, which broke on top, 14-0, and held on through a 24-16 first half, but failed to score in the second half.

As one of the NFL’s great quarterbacks, Moon has led the Oilers for eight seasons, taking them to the playoffs in each of the last five. These days, however, he isn’t getting much loft on his long passes. Unhappily for the Oilers, he is throwing everything on a line, and the Steelers had a sound defense for that.


Their tall defensive forwards either deflected Moon’s line drives, or their fast defensive backs, their eyes on Moon, beat Houston’s receivers to the long ones.

“I deserved the boos,” the Houston quarterback said. “We lost the game because I didn’t make the plays, but I’ll be back stronger and more accurate next week.”

He and Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell matched touchdown passes, delivering two apiece, in a game that O’Donnell won when Moon led him in interceptions, 5-0.

The decisive plays weren’t O’Donnell’s passes, though, straight as they were, and thrown as hard as they were. The decisive plays were Cowher’s gambles, which included a run on fourth and four, a fake punt, and other unexpected calls. The fake punt was a pass. It set up the touchdown that changed Houston’s first quarter advantage from 14-0 to 14-7 and kept the Oilers from running away.

“I grew up under a great coach,” the young Pittsburgh leader said of Marty Schottenheimer, the conservative Kansas City Chief leader he served until this season. “But I may have answered some questions about (Cowher’s own conservatism) today. The great thing about being the head coach is that you get to call your own plays.”

He relished his first victory in his first opportunity as Chuck Noll’s successor.

“We were an 11-point underdog today,” said Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, son of an insurance salesman who has been a lifetime Steeler fan.

“I’m not sure that anyone in America gave us a chance. Except us.”

Houston Coach Jack Pardee, impressed, said of Cowher’s defensive players: “They gave us some different looks, but we’ll get over this. Everybody is disappointed, but we’ll get over this.”

It was still Houston’s game after 45 minutes, 24-22, and in the first series of the fourth quarter, it was still Moon who was driving. Throwing run-and-shoot bull’s-eyes, he drove the Oilers to a first down at the Pittsburgh three-yard line.

There, on second and goal, after halfback Lorenzo White failed to gain on first down, Cowher sent in Pittsburgh’s base pass defense, which features five cornerbacks and a safety.

Against all those defensive backs--even though White had just been stopped by a running play-oriented defensive alignment--it seemed a great place for another draw play. White gained an even 100 yards on 13 prior draw plays, averaging 7.7. And with one more good one, the Oilers were looking at a 31-22 lead with 10 minutes left.

Instead, Moon retreated on second down to throw into the heavily-populated Steeler secondary, whose close coverage forced him to scramble and look around for an open target. When he didn’t find one, he threw the ball anyhow.

It was a throwback pass to his left after he scrambled far to his right--a rookie’s kind of desperation pass--and it didn’t connect with an Oiler.

The man who got it was Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson, a Pro Bowl player making his second interception of the afternoon, and this time Woodson ran it back 57 yards.

On the next five plays, O’Donnell drove the Steelers to the winning touchdown, sustaining the drive for 43 yards through the suddenly dispirited Houston defense, and throwing the game-deciding pass nine yards to tight end Adrian Cooper.

O’Donnell, picked by Cowher to succeed Bubby Brister this season, had a 223-yard day as a passer, completing 14 of 23, rivaling Moon, who completed 29 of 45 for 330 yards.

Still, for most of the afternoon, the Oilers seemed much stronger. This was a game that was Moon’s to win or lose, and he lost it for good at the end of the fourth quarter after driving the Oilers 55 yards to the Pittsburgh 23. There, on second down, he threw another interception.

Both of Moon’s scoring-position interceptions were sent on second-down plays. Good quarterbacks, as a rule, don’t do that.

Moon continues to be at his best on two-minute-drill plays, when the defensive backs are deep in the secondary, forcing him to rifle the short ones.

He got another two-minute-drill touchdown Sunday, successfully marching the Oilers 83 yards at the end of the half.

In the final 15 games of the season, what Moon has to prove is that he still has the touch to arc long passes the way he used to.

The Steelers have intercepted 14 of Moon’s passes in the last four Houston games, and they another five just last November.

“I think we understand Houston’s offense,” Woodson said after his second interception.

Could be.