"Last year, I don't think we were entirely comfortable about being in the playoff's," says Baltimore Coach Ted Marchibroda. "We probably were a little too young as a team, and I think the playoffs may have come up too soon for us." The Steelers promptly bounced the Colts from that postseason frolic, and when the two teams square away again on Sunday—this time in Baltimore—Marchibroda will discover that his club finally has come of age—or that the playoffs have come too late.
Analyzing late-season games, one suspects that time may again be out of joint for the Colts. They finished 11-3 but lost two of their last five games—to New England and St. Louis, both by a touchdown—when Quarterback Bert Jones and the explosive Colt offense had a lamentable number of turnovers.
The Steelers, meanwhile, recovered from all their early-season identity crises—and a horrendous 1-4 start—to win their last nine games, just as Baltimore did a year ago. Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain was indomitable during that winning streak: Mean Joe Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Smilin' Jack Lambert and friends had five shutouts and did not allow the opposition a touchdown in eight of the nine victories. Offensively, rookie Mike Kruczek replaced the injured Terry Brad shaw at quarterback and led the Steelers to six wins by simply handing the ball off to Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier, both of whom ran for more than 1,000 yards. Now Bradshaw is back in one piece, and the often spectacular Wide Receiver Lynn Swann has rejoined the Pittsburgh attack, too.
Bradshaw, though, will not be the best quarterback from Louisiana on the field, at least not at the opening kickoff. Jones, the 25-year-old snuff dipper who is a neighbor of Bradshaw's back home, completed 207 of 343 passes for 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. As always, he will try to strike Pittsburgh's low-yield defense with the big play. Jones' favorite target is Roger Carr, the swift wide receiver; who caught 11 TD passes and averaged 25.9 yards per reception. Lydell Mitchell is the Baltimore running attack: he rushed for 1,200 yards, second only to O.J. in the conference and 72 yards more than Penn State classmate Harris gained for the Steelers.
December 20, 1976
How much success Jones, Carr and Mitchell have against Pittsburgh may well depend on the result of an All-Pro matchup between Colt Right Tackle George Kunz and Steeler Defensive End L. C. Greenwood. Mitchell runs mostly to the right side, behind the blocking of the 6'6", 266-pound Kunz, and Jones will count on Kunz to keep the 6'7", 250-pound Greenwood off his back when he sets up to find Carr downfield.
"Greenwood has been a tough opponent for me because of his exceptional reach," Kunz admits. "He's got long arms, and it's difficult to lock him up. The best way to handle someone like Greenwood on pass blocking is to drop off the ball and see what stunts he's using. Then it's a matter of trying to keep him away from Bert the best way possible. If he decides to grab, I'll just try to keep away from him while keeping him away from Bert. If he doesn't grab. I may want to stay up in his face so he won't be able to see what kind of play is developing. Basically, you see what he does best, then you try to take it away."
Kunz, a cum laude graduate of Notre Dame who spent six seasons in seclusion at Atlanta before joining the Colts last year in the deal that allowed the Falcons to draft Quarterback Steve Bartkowski, considers pass blocking his most important function. "On running plays I can make a mistake and maybe we'll still get a few yards," he says. "If I make a mistake on a passing play, the other team gets a sack. Running is something we do to help us prepare to pass. If a team can't stop us on the ground, they'll try to put more manpower on the line, and that's when we throw it over the top. If we can move the ball down the field five or six yards a play on the ground, that's great. That means we'll score. But the minute a team tries to shut us down to two or three yards a play, it means they've got more people up close to the line, and that's when we get our big plays."
Despite Baltimore's success, Kunz has little renown. He says, however, that he has come to terms with his lack of celebrity. "Quantitatively, Bert Jones is known by just about everyone in the country, and that's a lot of people," he says. "Qualitatively, the people who know football know our offensive line and know me. Actually, it has never really bothered me because all I've ever wanted to do is play."
This outlook helped Kunz win his wife, Mary Sue. They met in 1969 when she jumped into the swimming pool of an Atlanta hotel and landed on George. Kunz was in Atlanta to play in the Coaches All-America game, and Mary Sue was the queen of the game. "I really wanted to take her out," he says, "but I was fiat broke because my bonus check from the Falcons hadn't come. So finally I said to her, 'Listen, I've got 322. Would you care to go for an ice-cream cone?' "
Kunz is equally forthright about the Colts. "We're one of the better teams in football," he says, "but we'll have to pick up the level of our performance if we hope to get to the Super Bowl."
The Colts have a lot going for them, but timing and fate seem firmly aligned with the Steelers.