In fairness to Pittsburgh," said Denver Coach John Ralston afterward, "we caught them at an ideal time. They just had three emotional games. We were in the right spot on their schedule."
On their schedule? In their entire history! It must be noted, in fairness to the Broncos, that they played well last Sunday in beating the Steelers 23-13. But they had the good fortune to be encountering Pittsburgh on the one weekend in the team's 41 and 10/14ths seasons when it was sitting pretty.
The Steelers were sitting, more specifically, on their first 8-1 record ever and a reasonably cosy lead in their division. They had a 13-game regular-season home-field winning streak going and they were playing in their own Three Rivers Stadium, which the Steelers believe is inhabited by "the great god Tar-Tan"—an allusion to the Tartan surface on which visitors have been stumbling.
The Broncos, however, pawed it, galloped over it and ate it up. Denver Running Back Floyd Little managed in the dressing room to confuse the metaphor as well as he had the Steelers' defenses on the field. "The hungry dog," he explained, "hunts best."
Steeler Coach Chuck Noll was advised of Little's remark. Noll does not waste words. "That's said well," he said. "We were either tired or fat."
How about that? The Steelers, after all those lean years, suddenly found fat, reminded that they put their pants on one leg at a time, more or less like everybody else. (Cus D'Amato, the fight manager, used to hold his pants low and jump into them with both feet to refute any conceivable speculation that he was ordinary. He may be doing it yet.)
Furthermore, it could be argued that the Steelers' greatest strength, their pass rush, had not been sapped but instead had been used against them. "They have the best defensive line we've seen," said Little, who ran for 88 yards through and around it. "We didn't want them flying about in the backfield. We made them commit themselves, and then ran away from them."
Traps, draws and 13 passes whose combined length was only 86 yards, all orchestrated by the Broncos' wily veteran quarterback, Charley Johnson, left the Steelers in a mighty but misdirected lurch. Lending a helping hand were the Steelers, who fumbled three times. One, by Rocky Bleier on the opening kickoff, resulted in the first of Jim Turner's three field goals; another, by Steve Davis returning a fourth-period kickoff, resulted in Denver's final score, a two-yard touchdown pass, Johnson to Riley Odoms. Pittsburgh had but one moment of glory, Terry Hanratty hooking up with Ron Shanklin on yet another of their long, prayerful touchdown plays, this one covering 42 yards early in the fourth quarter to tie the game 13-13.
"You're always supposed to stop the run first and make them pass," reflected Pittsburgh Defensive Tackle Tom Keating. His emotions as a former employee of Al Davis had been gratified in the previous week's win over Oakland, during which the Steeler rush reached a great crest. Against the Broncos, said Keating, "We started out rushing the passer." And the rush's wave broke.
That left the Steelers, the parvenus of the NFL, gasping on the beach. Noll, whose first season record with the Steelers was 1-13 and who has patiently steered them to their current prosperity, had warned of such a possibility during the preceding week.
It was a situation entirely new to the city of Pittsburgh, as if the Allegheny were to run blue with potable water or mango trees should be discovered, their limbs heavy with fruit, in the Fort Pitt tunnel. The head coach of the town's professional football team was actually cautioning against complacency.
"You start thinking you've got it made, that's when you're in trouble," said Noll.
Trouble, yes. That Steeler fans know about. Boils, locusts, receivers spiking the ball on the five-yard line. But having it made? Throughout their history the Steelers have had it at all only once, last year, and then it appeared not to have been made so much as caught in a bottle. In '72 Noll's forces came from nowhere—or, more precisely, from just ahead of Houston in the experts' minds—to edge out Cleveland in the AFC Central Division for the Steelers' first championship in 40 years. Then they beat Oakland in the playoffs when some sixth sense, or an angel, directed Franco Harris to catch a deflected pass and run it in for a last-second touchdown, only to lose 21-17 to Miami in the AFC title game.
But going into the Denver game last week the Steelers at last had a reason to feel like an entrenched NFL power. In addition to their 8-1 record, they sported a 2½-game division lead over the Browns and a warm glow from successive victories over the Bengals, Redskins and Raiders. Of course, the Steelers were trying to regard the situation as a challenge. "This game will be an interesting test," said Hanratty. "We've never had a cushion before."
"Last year we were always surprising people," added veteran Center Ray Mansfield. "Now everybody is coming up out of the ground after us. The top always seems secure when you look up at it, but when you're looking down from it, the foundation feels shaky."
Mansfield remembered an earlier, darker time when off the field, or for that matter on it, one was reluctant to identify oneself as a Steeler and one made public appearances gratis—"to be badgered," as team Vice-President Dan Rooney gently puts it.
"These days we seem to do whatever we need to do to win," said Mansfield. "We used to do whatever we needed to do to lose. It's not just that things are averaging out. Before, we always had an impending feeling of doom. That kind of feeling makes you cautious. A big theme in Noll's coaching is that cautiousness creates mistakes."
Or maybe the explanation is more spiritual. "The Lord has His hand on our shoulder," Steeler President Art Rooney was saying recently. "I hope He doesn't take it off."
The proper way for a New Steeler to feel, then, is uncocky, incautious and gratefully anointed. It all adds up to an impending sense of glory. But the Steelers last week were not coming right out and saying, "Well, in all respect to our opponents, I believe we are going to be fortunate enough to eat up the NFL and live in the memories of football fans forever, the Lord willing, and you can quote me on that."
No, they were more circumspect. After all, their original starting quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, was still out with a partially separated shoulder, and his successor, Hanratty, had been having, as one local writer put it blithely, "more trouble with his ribs than Adam." Resplendent Running Back Frenchy Fuqua was out of his sequined arm sling, and thus need no longer complain that anything he wore—such as his multicolored tasseled Serbian yarmulke—"might look attractive, but I couldn't win any dress-offs with my arm like that." Nonetheless, the Frenchman was still not sufficiently recovered from his cracked collarbone to play. Franco Harris had only in recent games been secure enough on his bruised knee and in his starting role to run magically again—gliding laterally to pick and choose his holes, even taking a step into one before backing out and finding a better one, and then, after all that fastidiousness, going on to bowl a couple of people over.
The Steelers were aware that Anything Could Happen still. So Linebacker Jack Ham, when asked for a comment appropriate to this high-water mark in Steeler history, stated simply, "Say 'It's a jungle out there.' " And then he looked up from his losing gin game to shout, "Van Dyke is a bleep!" Guard Bruce Van Dyke was being interviewed a few feet away by a fidgety youth with a tape recorder.
"Just say that Roy Gerela is the greatest ever to play this game," was Hanratty's observation.
"No," said Placekicker Gerela, who happened himself to be standing nearby. "The greatest Canadian."
But if the Steelers were disinclined to assess their own eminence too grandly, an observer need not be so reticent. It may be stated confidently that Pittsburgh has the following:
A front four that can whip any 47 people in the United States, hand-to-hand, on a given Sunday. Usually.
An offense capable of vivid and even explosive running and passing and which will score—sometimes on its own initiative but most often when presented with the right opportunity, such as a first down inside the opposing 20 after an interception.
The Lord's hand on its shoulder.
The front four are Mean Joe Greene, Dwight (Mad Dog) White, L. C. (Hollywood Bags) Greenwood and either Ernie (Fats) Holmes or Keating. As a group they have no name. The Steel Curtain and The Anvil Chorus have been proposed. The Pittsburgh Courier uses The Baaaaaad Black Front, but that sounds like a weather condition and would seem to exclude Keating who, although a great deal of his face is covered by a brown mustache, is otherwise white. Since Greene, White, Greenwood and Holmes wear gold shoes, in defiance of Pete Rozelle's recommendation that everyone on a team dress the same in order to provide fans with a standard uniform product, the names Golden Goodies and The Gold Rush have been suggested. But no one has been heard to call the front four either of those things.
Whether they are called or not, however, they come. "Last year," says White, "offenses did obvious things to us and we did obvious things back. This year they're playing all kinds of games with us, and it's funky. But if it's third down and 20, I don't care if you know exactly what I'm going to do. I'm going to jack my tail way up, get that sprinter's start and you know I'm coming."
Against Oakland the front four (how about The Nameless Dread?) knocked red-hot Quarterback Ken Stabler out of the game early and sacked his replacement, Daryle Lamonica, four times. White also picked off two passes, one that Greene tipped into the air and one that he swept right out of Lamonica's hands. The other rushers were nearly as devastating, even though the footing was so bad where the sod had been filled in over Charlie Finley's infield that Greene said, "Once my head slid under a piece of turf. I thought I was playing baseball and my head was under second base." One of Greene's most terrible charges, featuring his noted forearm uppercut, came after he complained to an official that the guard opposite him had Vaseline on his shoulder pads (the Lord may have placed His hand on the Raiders' shoulder that Sunday and it slipped off).
Cornerback Mel (Supe) Blount and Safety Glen (Pine) Edwards also intercepted Oakland passes. It was Edwards' sixth interception, tying him with Safety Mike Wagner for the team lead. The Steelers lead the NFL in interceptions.
And a good thing, too. But if the Pittsburgh offense has not been as consistent as the defense, it has provided thrills. Three times Hanratty has entered a game and thrown his first pass for a long touchdown. In fact, 27% of Hanratty's completions have been scoring ones. And a remarkable nine of Shanklin's 23 receptions have been for six points.
So the offense has not offended heaven, whose influence works in mysterious ways. Thus it is that Steeler games this year have tended to hinge back and forth on wild assortments of breaks, the most providential ones being the Steelers'.
For instance, when Hanratty had to leave the Washington game after a rusher crunched his aching ribs, backup man Joe Gilliam entered coolly and filled the air with sizzling, often strikingly incautious passes. The Steelers caught three, the Redskins two, and that was a winning edge, thanks considerably to the Steelers' last defensive play. The Redskins' Larry Brown caught what might have been a game-winning pass on the Pittsburgh one, but Wagner hit him so hard the ball squirted away and Edwards caught it, and when Edwards fumbled it Wagner fell on it, and when Wagner lost it Greene recovered it. In effect that ball has been rolling all year, and the Steelers keep coming down on top of it.
Against Denver, Greene was out most of the game with a back spasm and the closest Edwards and Wagner came to getting together was when Wagner so nearly intercepted a pass that he apparently obstructed Edwards' view of the ball, and Edwards dropped it. In fact, the Steelers did not take the ball away from the Broncos once.
The Broncos said they were fired up after Offensive Tackle Marv Montgomery broke his leg in the third quarter. All the breaks seemed to go against the Steelers this time. They are better fighting their way out of poverty. That cushion didn't suit them.