After 42 years of winding up each season with a load of zilch, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed their new mettle last Sunday by winning their first meaningful title.
You all remember the Steelers, who opened for business back in the first acknowledged Depression and stumbled through the terms of seven U.S. Presidents and three or four wars without ever winning much more than a Kewpie doll for their trophy case. Well, the Same Old Steelers are finally, and profoundly, altered. They are the champions of the American Conference.
Pittsburgh did it with a 24-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders, pro football's most celebrated bridesmaid team and one that must again endure the old croak that no matter how great their season (and this year it was better than anyone's) the Raiders cannot win the big one. They were champions of the old AFL in 1967 but were trounced in Super Bowl II by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. They made the playoffs six times in the seven seasons since and have played for the AFL or AFC title five of those years. They lost all five times. If Pittsburgh fans need a further high, they should know that every club that beat Oakland went on to win the Super Bowl.
In creating their lustrous refutation of the dreary past, the Steelers relied on an old football maxim: you score touchdowns with offense but you win championships with defense. For while they moved the ball impressively on the ground (224 yards) and adequately in the air, the key to the Steelers' victory was a defense that stopped the Raider rushing game more surely than a stone wall. Stunting into the Raiders' strength and beating them on sheer muscle, the Steelers held Oakland's ground game to a scant 29 yards, thus pressuring Quarterback Ken Stabler, the Raiders' only real offensive gun, into passing against a defense that had no reason to play him honest.
"You got to force them to throw the football when they'd rather not," said Linebacker Andy Russell, who had waited through 12 seasons to experience the nirvana that was Pittsburgh's locker room after the game. "They're a very patient team and they don't throw out their game plan when things don't go right, but I think they got very nervous when they couldn't do what they wanted to against us. Stopping their running game was the key to the whole thing. Our coaches gave us an excellent scheme of stunting to their favorite plays. We played a defense called the Stunt 4-3, which they hadn't seen us use in quite a while. And we didn't show them the 'stackover' [an alignment wherein Mean Joe Greene lines up over the center, on a bias], so their preparation for that didn't help them any. They couldn't pull their guards as much as they like."
"They gave us nothing at all on the ground," admitted Oakland Coach John Madden. "Our passing was sufficient, but we just couldn't get the run going. I can't remember when our ground game was shut down that effectively."
The Steelers had no such trouble with Oakland's defense, as Chuck Noll's club controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. With formidable blocking applied by Ray Mansfield, Jim Clack and Gerry Mullins, the Steelers blasted the middle and outran the flanks. Franco Harris, Pittsburgh's potent running star, had 111 yards and Rocky Bleier, the Vietnam vet who had come home badly wounded, poked and writhed his way for 98 more.
And the snickers and jeers about Terry Bradshaw being a dumb quarterback were put to rest, perhaps forever. While Bradshaw performed less effectively than he had in his remarkable playoff effort against Buffalo a week earlier, he was neither flustered nor stymied by the overworked Oakland defense, which he stung for 95 passing yards including a six-yard touchdown toss to rookie receiver Lynn Swann.
"Our game plan was to take it right at them," Bradshaw said. "We planned to run the ball, and our offensive line just blew those guys out. We should have scored more, but give the Raiders credit. They're a great team." Someone also may wish to give the officials credit. A highly questionable call on a Bradshaw pass to John Stallworth cost the Steelers another touchdown in the second quarter. Bradshaw added, "I probably could have thrown better today, but I wanted to use the pass as a control weapon, not as a big gun."
For all of Pittsburgh's predominance in score and statistics, the game was close up to 1:14 from the end, and indeed it seemed likely to finish, as the Oakland-Miami thriller had, with Stabler snaking the Raiders to a last-ditch victory. The score was 17-13 Pittsburgh, but Stabler, who had thrown 26 touchdown passes during the regular season and four more against the Dolphins, seemed to have fate going for him. He had been sacked for a nine-yard loss, but Steeler Cornerback J. T. Thomas was called for holding, and it was first and 10 for the Raiders on their own 32. Too often had Oakland fans seen the Snake wrest victory from apparent defeat in just such circumstances for any of them to leave the Oakland Coliseum for the consolation of a friendly neighborhood saloon. The crowd was waiting for another miracle.
But it didn't occur. Said Russell, "We told Thomas in the huddle, 'Don't let the officials intimidate you. Keep playing your aggressive game.' " Thomas, reassured, did just that. Stabler, pressured by the Steeler defense, lofted a pass that Thomas picked off—the third Pittsburgh interception—and returned 37 yards to the Oakland 24. Two plays later, with 52 seconds left, Harris blasted through the middle for 21 yards and his second touchdown, and the Steelers were New Orleans-bound.
"It's tough to come this far and lose," Madden said in the gloomy Raider locker room. "We had the feeling everything was going our way. We had the best record in the NFL, we beat Miami and we were playing at home."
The Raiders, who had a home record of 51-10-3 since opening Oakland Coliseum in 1966, apparently were traveling destiny's path through much of the season, and for a long while it appeared that luck had stayed with them against the Steelers. Despite several mistakes and a running game that produced no gain longer than four yards, they had a 3-3 standoff at halftime after three Steeler penetrations of the Oakland 10-yard line generated only a field goal. Having beaten Pittsburgh 17-0 in September, the Raiders came out for the second half expecting to win.
Madden, optimistic, had said before the game, "I think there will be more scoring this time. I think it will be more like our game with Miami. Pittsburgh's defense is very physical, and I think it will be a physical battle earlier and that things will happen in the second half."
The Oakland expectations at no time looked brighter than midway through the third quarter when, after a Pittsburgh punt, Stabler took his team to a touchdown by completing four of five passes for 76 yards. The big play of the drive was a 38-yard scoring pass to Cliff Branch, the human bullet Oakland uses as a wide receiver. Branch faked Cornerback Mel Blount toward the middle of the field before simply outrunning him. It looked so easy, and now Oakland was leading 10-3.
But Oakland's touchdown was only a prelude to what Noll called the game's turning point. As though incensed by Branch's reception, Pittsburgh reacted with an eight-play, 61-yard march. For the fourth time, the Steelers moved inside the Oakland 10, but this time they were not to be frustrated, and Harris crunched in from the eight for the score. The extra point by Roy Gerela made it 10-10. Little more than three minutes later, after Jack Ham intercepted Stabler, the Steelers were inside the 10 again. This time Bradshaw rifled a pass to Swann at the back of the end zone to put Pittsburgh in the lead to stay.
"When you lose," Madden said, "you're open to anything they want to say about you. Until you win the Super Bowl, you have to just sit there and take it. You can't play a team like Pittsburgh and do just one thing. You have to mix the run with the pass and have confidence when you run. Winning means being the best on the field that day. We weren't the best today."
"This was the culmination of what I have been working for ever since I came here," said Noll, who took the Steeler job at the same time Madden became Oakland's head man. "Our offense was super, the defense was super, the kicking game was great. We feel you win the big ones on basic fundamental football, and that's what we used. Even when we made mistakes in the first half, no one was discouraged." Then, referring to Assistant Coach Dick Hoak and Reserve Quarterback Joe Gilliam, Noll said, "We had a little something going for us today. We won the division on Dick's birthday and we won today on Joe's birthday. We'll have to switch somebody else's birthday to the Super Bowl."
As for Super Bowl IX, Madden said, "It will be a defensive battle. If it goes into overtime, they may play a week."
Which wouldn't upset Art Rooney, the Steelers' cheerful 73-year-old owner, who has rooted vainly for his club since he founded it in 1933, as long as Pittsburgh finally came out on top.
"Now that you've won it after 42 seasons," a reporter asked, "how do you plan to celebrate?"
"The same way we did when we were losing," Rooney said through his ever-present stogie. Then he admitted, "Well, in the old days we'd have a great celebration, but I took the pledge about 15 years ago and things are different now."
They sure are. Just look at the Steelers.