Pittsburgh Punches It Out

Pressuring the Vikings with a vigorous attack and an overwhelming defense, the Steelers bulled their way to sweet victory in the Super Bowl
Pressuring the Vikings with a vigorous attack and an overwhelming defense, the Steelers bulled their way to sweet victory in the Super Bowl
January 20, 1975

And now, for an encore, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense will pick up Tulane Stadium and throw it into the middle of Bourbon Street. L.C. Greenwood, or perhaps Mean Joe Greene, will swallow what is left of Fran Tarkenton in a crawfish bisque. Why not? Along with Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, they have already enjoyed dining on the Minnesota running game—has anyone tasted Chuck Foreman's jersey lately?—and making Vikings fly this way and that through the frozen gray sky over New Orleans.

In the 16-6 Super Bowl victory last Sunday that Pittsburgh richly deserved, the Steeler defense was so magnificent that the Viking offense never scored a single point, except two for Pittsburgh. The Steel Curtain was physical and unyielding; at one point, with a yard to go for a first down, Tarkenton decided his best play was a long count that might lure the Steelers offside, evidently because he felt he had no hope of making the yard any other way.

The Steeler defense was so much in control of the game that the Vikings gained only 17 yards on the artificial turf, 12 fewer than Pittsburgh yielded to Oakland in the AFC championship. Tarkenton must have known it was going to be one of those days. He went to the air early and stayed there, not that it did him much good. Rolling to his right to evade the Pittsburgh defenders who kept swarming after him, he threw 27 times and completed just 11 for only 102 yards. Three of his passes were intercepted, four were deflected and many were hurried.

With defense like this, it was inevitable that the game would have a lot of insane turnaround plays, and it did. How about a safety, which made the score 2-0 Pittsburgh at halftime? Tarkenton, on his own 10-yard line, faked a quick pitch-out and tried to hand the ball to Dave Osborn on a dive. But the ball either hit Chuck Foreman's hip or Foreman's hip hit the ball, and the next thing anybody knew Tarkenton was scrambling—after the ball, which was scooting toward the end zone—and being pursued by every Steeler but Art Rooney. Fran prevented a Pittsburgh touchdown by recovering the ball and sliding across the goal line with it for the safety.

Tarkenton was in several other unnatural poses throughout the day because of the Pittsburgh defense. There was the aforementioned occasion when, with fourth-and-one at their 37, the Vikings decided to gamble. They lined up tight. Fran bent over the center and began reciting either the signals or Swannn's Way. Weeks went by and eventually the play ended up in an argument and no play at all. It was still fourth-and-one and the Vikings decided there was nothing left to do now but punt.

Then there was the time Tarkenton threw two passes on the same play. This was another of those marvelous interludes where Fran was running for life and limb, looking for Wide Receiver John Gilliam downfield where he might be interfered with—which turned out to be Minnesota's best play all day and, one might add, its only hope. Tarkenton threw the ball. It was deflected by L.C. Greenwood right back to Tarkenton, who threw another pass. This one got to Gilliam for an electrifying gain, except that there happens to be this rule that you cannot throw two forward passes on the same play.

In his behalf, it must be noted that Tarkenton did get one drive going toward the end of the first half. He moved Minnesota 55 yards to the Pittsburgh 25. At that point he passed across the middle to Gilliam near the goal line, but the ball was batted out of his hands and Mel Blount intercepted.

The final embarrassment for the Minnesota offense came after it got the biggest break of the game early in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh leading 9-0. The Steelers' Mike Wagner drew an interference call for shoving Gilliam on a deep pattern, which gave Minnesota a first down at the Pittsburgh five. Suddenly it was a ball game again, but on the first play from scrimmage, Mean Joe Greene pinched so fast on a Foreman stab at the middle that Foreman fumbled, and after poking around for a while Greene came up with the ball. As he trotted off the field, Greene, who earlier had intercepted a pass, gestured triumphantly, shaking his fist at the Vikings, a Steeler way of saying who was the boss. It was the Steeler defense.

In recent weeks, as the Steelers destroyed Buffalo and Oakland on their way to the Super Bowl, the defense had got into the habit of teasing the offense. "Just hold 'em, we'll get the points," Linebacker Andy Russell would say to Terry Bradshaw now and then.

As it happened, Minnesota's defense wasn't bad, either, and it did get the only points the Vikings scored. The touchdown came, typically for this day, on a blocked punt. Matt Blair crashed through to knock down Bobby Walden's punt, the ball bouncing neatly into the hands of Viking Terry Brown in the end zone. But, just as typical of the whole 1974 pro season, Fred Cox saw his placement try for the extra point strike the goalpost and bounce back.

For those who enjoy the mystique of pro football technique, let it now be recorded that the violent Pittsburgh defense was a basic 4-3 with a singular stunt; Greene and Holmes played over the Minnesota center and crushed him, pinching first one way, then another. The result was that Minnesota's guards could not pull, and thus the Vikings had no blocking for their ground game. Foreman got all their sad handful of rushing yards. Osborn was minus a few. Minnesota's Bud Grant, having now lost a third Super Bowl, was more bitter than after the other two. He said it was not a good football game. He said, in fact, "There were three bad teams out there. Us, Pittsburgh and the officials."

That was not accurate. Pittsburgh did what it had to do on defense, and in the meantime a couple of guys on the Steeler offense—Terry Bradshaw, the "dumb quarterback," and Franco Harris—did not have at all a bad day. Harris continually tore away at the Vikings, especially in those interludes when Pittsburgh's right guard, Gerry Mullins, was in the process of knocking down Doug Sutherland or Wally Hilgenberg. A fumble on the second-half kickoff gave Pittsburgh the ball at Minnesota's 30, and in four plays the Steelers had a touchdown, largely because of Harris. He rumbled for 24 yards, lost three and then scored from the nine after Mullins got him around the corner with a block on Hilgenberg. Harris scored standing up. He stood up quite a bit on a day when the wind blew at times up to 25 mph and turned a 46° day into a thing where the "chill factor" was 22° for the 80,997 who sat shivering in what was maybe the last game to be played in creaking Tulane Stadium. Harris gained 158 yards in 34 carries to break Larry Csonka's Super Bowl records of 33 and 145. The Steelers gained 249 all told on the ground, with Rocky Bleier running for 65 and Bradshaw adding 33 more.

And it was Terry who saved the day for the Steelers. With the score 9-6 following the blocked punt and more than 10 minutes remaining, plenty of time for the Vikings, who had the wind at their backs, to go ahead and win, Bradshaw took Pittsburgh 66 yards in an 11-play scoring drive that consumed more than seven minutes and ended all real hope for Minnesota. Three times he completed third-down passes, the last a four-yard bullet to his tight end, Larry Brown, for a touchdown. In all, Bradshaw hit on nine of 14 for 96 yards.

Bradshaw said afterward, "I've looked at all sides—being a hero and being a jerk. I think I can handle this very well." Something will probably be made of the fact that Bradshaw changed his shoes at halftime, slipping into a pair that had longer cleats, the better to stand up, drop back, roll out or bootleg on the fake turf. (Slippery spots, caused, some claimed, by-pockets of air and water beneath the surface, had Steelers slipping repeatedly.) Yet all that needs to be said of Bradshaw is that he has risen to the challenge of his team's three playoff games—against the Bills, Raiders and Vikings—and left each as the best quarterback on the field and, not incidentally, the winning one.

A typical example of Bradshaw's competitiveness was the last play of the first half. He scrambled to his right and gained 17 yards before running into a knot of players at about midfield. It appeared that everybody on both squads was there trying to find Bradshaw and the football. He was in there somewhere. But not really. Suddenly, there he was, still with the ball under his arm, way down the field, running toward the Viking goal. The officials had blown the play dead, and the half was over, but the confident Bradshaw had extended it with a flourish.

Overall, the Steelers' attitude was best reflected by Russell, who had known the dreary days years ago in Pittsburgh. "This team has been loose and casual all year and all this week," he said, "but just before we went out on the field there was a period of quiet. Somebody said, 'Hey, what the hell's all this?' And we started yucking it up again."

But despite the Steelers' determination not to change their team personality, the Super Bowl is more than just a football game, of course. And when you put it in a city like New Orleans it becomes something like the social equivalent of a Middle East war. In a sense, the week was a party-off. The NFL threw one for an intimate gathering of about 5,000 in a place called the Rivergate. The food was so far away from the entrance that John Gilliam would have had to sit down and pant after jogging there. CBS had a room in the Royal Sonesta that showed film loops of such things as the 1958 Colts-Giants game. You got to watch Johnny Unitas watching Johnny Unitas. There was a party in the still-to-be-completed Louisiana Superdome, where an unlikely combination of personalities—Fred MacMurray, Ray Bolger, Reggie Jackson, Vin Scully and the Steelers' Russell—stood around tossing shrimp shells on the stadium floor that one day, the publicists assure us, will be covered with "Mardi grass."

The French Quarter began to fill up Thursday night, and the whole thing was like one gigantic cocktail party with the edible world of Jacques Cousteau on a plate. The tiny streets were loaded with gangs of people wearing Viking hats with horns sticking out of them, or plastic Steeler hard hats. Someone as recognizable as Howard Cosell or Frank Gifford or Pete Rozelle took chances with his safety if he ventured out of his room. Cosell walked out on a balcony one day and gazed down on Royal Street. "There he is!" somebody shouted. "Get him!"' Cosell disappeared. A writer said, not altogether in jest, "Howard won't come back out. Too many snipers."

Teams in the past have complained about the distractions of Super Bowl Week, but the Steelers, in it for the first time, seemed to relish the pregame nonsense. On Tuesday, as Pittsburgh practiced in a light drizzle, the offensive line threw mud balls at the defense and players rolled around in puddles like children. They even liked the mass press conferences.

"I can't understand why guys complain about the press," said Steeler Center Ray Mansfield. "For 10 years, nobody ever knew who I was."

One of the running jokes of the week among reporters was that the intense Chuck Noll was the only guy in the world who could make the unsmiling Grant sound like a comedian, and it was true that Grant was the more quotable coach. For example, in defending his policy of not allowing wives to stay with players (Noll did), Bud said, "They'll have all day after our morning meeting to go sightseeing, shopping, bitching...whatever they do."

Otherwise, the news coming out of the press conferences was gripping. Grant said, "Rain is better than snow." Noll said, "We had Tuesday's workout Tuesday." Grant said, "These are two real fine football teams." Noll said, "Terry Bradshaw is not dumb."

Poor Bradshaw had to devote most of the week to defending himself. "If we lose it's because I'm dumb," he said. "If we win it's because everyone played well and I got caught up in the action. The only thing that's going to change my image is the press. People are funny. If you talk slow, you're dumb. If you talk fast, you're a sharpie. If you dress one way, you're a hippie. Another way, you're a conservative. I'm sick of it. Even when I play well I'm a dumbbell. I go to the trouble to have lunch with a lady reporter this week and the first thing she asks me is, 'Terry, are you really that dumb?' I just walked away."

He also said, "I think it's O.K. for kids to idolize football players. You need idols so you can daydream."

When Bradshaw was not getting the attention, Joe Greene was. He, too, spoke of images. "I'm not mean," he said. "I avoid violence. We got a lot meaner man on the team than me. Jack Lambert. He's so mean, he don't even like himself."

So it went until Saturday when the coaches and players finally got a reprieve from interviews, and everybody's attention turned to the problem of survival in the streets. From noon Saturday until game time Sunday there was anarchy in the French Quarter. On Saturday night NBC captured the "best party" award with a band and seafood event in a courtyard of the Royal Sonesta. People found themselves standing in line for drinks with Hubert Humphrey or Rogers Morton or Pete Rozelle, or listening to the Steelers' Art Rooney saying, "In the old days when there were just a few of us owners, the only guy who ever cared about winning was Halas. So we let him win because he got mad if he didn't. It was fun just to own a team."

And there were other snatches of conversations that told how it was:

"Bobby Layne's over at Moran's with Stautner, McGee and Hornung. It's not safe anywhere."

"This is Rozelle's fifth party tonight."

"That's the Secretary of Interior? He's the guy who took my cab."

"I saw four fights in one block."

"Most of us who live here have bottled water delivered to our homes."

"What do you eat crawfish with?"

"Namath's asking for two million."

"I saw this couple from Minnesota propping up a wino so a friend could take their picture with him."

"Somebody said this is Rozelle's eighth party tonight."

"Chuck Noll says there's no such thing as a dull football game."

Sunday finally came, and once again there was little of the drama one hopes for in a Super Bowl. Yet the Vikings' Carl Eller, who was playing in his third, may have explained the reason for this earlier in the week.

"It is the Super Bowl, so I guess some guys try to do super things," he said. "Run over people. Catch a ball 10 feet in the air. Kick 80 yards. But they can't. Because when we finally get around to playing it, it turns out to be just another football game. I guess that's what's wrong with it."

The only thing wrong with this one, as it turned out, was the Pittsburgh Steeler defense, which made it seem slightly unfair.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)