SAN FRANCISCO -- Terrell Owens had been ordinary so far this season, with drops, distractions and double coverages all conspiring against one of football's most exciting players.
Under the prime-time spotlight, Owens finally broke free with one spectacular play after another -- perhaps because the San Francisco 49ers' All-Pro receiver knew all eyes were on him.
"They're giving me the opportunity to make some plays," Owens said. "The first half of the season, I was really putting pressure on myself. I dropped some passes and I wasn't playing T.O.-like. That was when we went on a losing skid, and I was just trying to do too much."
Helped by two superb downfield blocks by Owens, Kevan Barlow rushed for a 78-yard score in the third quarter to break open San Francisco's fourth straight home victory. While Barlow's teammates mobbed him in the end zone, Owens strutted back to the sideline with his swagger that's growing as quickly as the 49ers' playoff hopes.
"T.O., he played really, really well," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "The block he made on Kevan Barlow's run might be the most impressive thing I've ever seen do, and he's made some plays."
In the teams' first meeting since a rain-soaked game at Candlestick Park in 1999, San Francisco (5-5) dominated the matchup of defending division champions who have struggled this season.
Fully aware of the national audience for his talents, the would-be actor and basketball star got San Francisco started with one of the big plays he has provided only sparingly this fall.
On the third play of the Niners' second drive, Rattay lofted a perfect pass down the left sideline. Owens accelerated away from cornerback Chad Scott, stopped at the goal line and did a slow pirouette into the end zone before breaking into a dance.
"He's so big and strong that when they have to single him, it's a mismatch," Rattay said. "We did a good job calling plays for him."
Fullback Fred Beasley also caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Rattay, who added more spice to the 49ers' quarterback controversy with a second straight near-flawless performance in place of injured Pro Bowl player Jeff Garcia.
"It ultimately comes down to Jeff's health," Rattay said. "If he's healthy, he'll go. I love to play, I love to be out there, but right now, my role is the backup."
Tommy Maddox was 25-of-44 for 327 yards for Pittsburgh (3-7), which lost its sixth in seven games thanks to key defensive errors and Antwaan Randle El's fumble on a kickoff return, which allowed San Francisco to score two touchdowns in 14 seconds.
"All night, we were an inch away here and an inch away there from converting some real big plays," Maddox said. "It's frustrating to know that we were moving the ball, then we start to hurt ourselves. We just aren't making the plays."
The Steelers periodically moved the ball well with inventive play-calling -- but at other times, their execution was equally inventive. Pittsburgh made too many small mistakes, including a 7-yard loss on a pass by Randle El and a 10-yard setback on a double reverse.
Randle El had a 32-yard TD catch in the fourth. Though Pittsburgh is in one of the most dismal stretches of coach Bill Cowher's 12 seasons, the Steelers still are just two games out of first place in the AFC North.
"We hurt ourselves with our mistakes, and we also gave up too many big plays," Randle El said. "That is tough to overcome. This is a big loss, but we'll bounce back."
Niners safety Tony Parrish intercepted a tipped pass early in the second quarter and returned it 48 yards, setting up a 32-yard field goal.
After gaining just 125 yards in the first half, Pittsburgh made a 79-yard drive to open the third quarter. Jerome Bettis scored on a 1-yard plunge to pull the Steelers within 10-7.
But after Owens paved Barlow's way to the end zone, Randle El fumbled the ensuing kickoff. On the next play, Rattay made another perfect throw down the sideline to Beasley. The fullback made a tough catch and dove across the goal line to give San Francisco a 24-7 lead.
Former Steelers kicker Todd Peterson also made three field goals for the Niners.
- Barlow was held out of the fourth quarter with a concussion, though he remained on the 49ers' sideline.
- Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker attended with 4-year-old former batboy son Darren, who watched his first live football game. "I like when they make the touchdown," the boy said.
- Pittsburgh WR Hines Ward left in the third quarter after hitting his head on the turf while dropping a pass, but he eventually returned. He had four catches for 44 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
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