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Owens-less Eagles hurt by special teams meltdowns

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- After a dreadful opening two-plus minutes that
likely will be as bad as any they see all season, the Philadelphia
Eagles could be excused for sending a lot of players home.

The Eagles got off to a terrible start following a disruptive
week of camp that led to Terrell Owens' one-week banishment for bad
behavior, letting the Steelers score the first two times they
touched the ball Monday night in Pittsburgh's 38-31 exhibition
victory.

The Steelers scored on an interception return -- of Donovan
McNabb's first pass of the preseason -- a punt return and a kickoff
return, a trifecta of return touchdowns no NFL team has
accomplished in a game that counted. Luckily for the NFC champion
Eagles this one didn't, as they fell behind 14-0, 21-7 and 28-10
before rallying to make it close in the second half with reserves
on the field for both teams.

"If we didn't understand the importance of special teams
before, we certainly do after today," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.
"You have to take that part of the game seriously, too. You have
to take care of the football and you have to block and tackle."

The Eagles' first-team offense outplayed Pittsburgh's, except
for Willie Williams' 10-yard interception return touchdown with 12
seconds gone, but that 14-0 deficit after only 2:05 elapsed was too
much to overcome with the starters playing just over a quarter.
Ricardo Colclough returned the Eagles' first punt 66 yards to
score, an uncharacteristic mistake for a John Harbaugh-coached
special teams unit that is usually among the NFL's best.

To prove it wasn't a fluke, Ike Taylor ran back a kickoff 100
yards early in the second quarter to make it 21-7 and give the
Steelers twice as many kick return touchdowns in a 19-minute span
than they had all last season.

Any coincidence that coach Bill Cowher is a former NFL special
teams coach who was disappointed there were no return scores last
season?

"Coach Cowher takes special teams real serious and he's really
big on that, and you know you have to perform well," Taylor said.

Just before Taylor's touchdown, Eagles coach Andy Reid allowed
McNabb to stay out long enough in the second quarter to throw an
8-yard scoring pass to L.J. Smith, finishing off a mistake-free,
70-yard scoring drive that covered 14 plays.

The Steelers' offense figured to get an emotional lift from wide
receiver Hines Ward's decision to end his 15-day holdout and report
just two hours before kickoff, though he didn't play. Ward, who
reported without getting the reworked contract he is seeking, was
among the first players off the bench to celebrate Taylor's return
score.

"It gives us a lot of optimism because we know that he's
here," Jerome Bettis said. "All of that other stuff is behind us,
and it's a shot of adrenaline for him to be here."

For the Eagles, McNabb's numbers -- 14-of-19 for 132 yards, a
touchdown and an interception -- were acceptable given he was
working without either of his starting wide receivers, the absent
Owens and Todd Pinkston, who is out for the season with a ruptured
Achilles' tendon. With Owens gone, rookie Reggie Brown made five
catches for 52 yards.

"I saw that we can move the ball," Brown said. "We started
off slow but once we got settled, we moved the ball up the field
and scored."

Owens is due back Wednesday after being sent home by Reid last
week, with Owens telling ESPN on Monday night that he's been sent a
letter outlining what the Eagles perceive to be his behavioral
problems. Reid did not comment on the letter following the game.

With the Eagles on offense most of the first quarter, Steelers
quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent more time on the field at
halftime accepting his team rookie of the year award than he did
during the game, finishing 2-of-4 for 13 yards. Bettis, who figures
to play little in the preseason with Duce Staley (knee surgery) out
for at least a month, carried three times for 7 yards.

"There wasn't much to it," Roethlisberger said. "A couple of
plays and it was pretty much over with. There are a lot of things
we need to improve on, but it's hard to tell when you're only out
there so long."

Ryan Moats, fourth on the Eagles' depth chart at running back,
scored on runs of 3 and 6 yards in the third quarter with Mike
McMahon at quarterback.

Game notes
Neither team had a running back gain more than 15 yards in
the first half. ... Neither Taylor nor Colclough, who are competing
for time at cornerback, has scored in a regular season game. ...
Eagles LB Greg Richmond had surgery Monday to repair a herniated
disk in his lower back. ... The Steelers' starting offense
accounted for 29 yards during its only possession. ... The Steelers
beat the Eagles 27-3 at Heinz Field during the season a year ago.