John Stallworthhas spent most of his career being thought of as the other Pittsburgh Steelerwide receiver. But last Saturday in Three Rivers Stadium it was Stallworth, notLynn Swann, who was soaring up there into the mist to bring down the TerryBradshaw passes that destroyed the Denver Broncos, 33-10, in an AFC playoffgame that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.
Stallworth comesfrom Alabama A&M, which obviously stands for Acrobat & Marvel. Youcould ask Steve Foley, the Bronco cornerback, about that. Foley had a wonderfulview of practically everything Stallworth did, including all 10 of hiscatches—a playoff record—for 156 yards and one touchdown. Stallworth's effortsalso set up a couple of other touchdowns and one of Roy Gerela's two fieldgoals.
Foley was supposedto be covering Stallworth, but to say that he played him loose would be anunderstatement. Stallworth did catch several balls underneath Foley, who wasseldom closer than five yards away, but Stallworth also spent a lot of timeleaping into the air in the manner of his friend Swann to pluck the ball out ofthe sky.
The fact is, Foleywas victimized as much by the Broncos' brain trust as by either Bradshaw orStallworth. Denver came into the game Swann-conscious, which made sense. In theregular season, Swann had grabbed 61 passes (20 more than Stallworth), andSwann, after all, was the All-Pro. Denver therefore decided to double-coverSwann with a zone, which left just one man, Foley, to deal with Stallworth.
January 8, 1979
For its part, thePittsburgh brain trust had astutely figured out that Denver might just set itsdefense to shut Swann down, and had in mind a game plan that made Stallworththe primary receiver. Even so, Denver's scheme might have worked had theBroncos put more pressure on Bradshaw. But the Broncos rarely got a strong passrush, and when they did, Bradshaw would drift outside and eventually find old82 running clear.
Stallworth madehis presence felt early. With the Steelers trailing 3-0 in the first quarter,he got them rolling on a 66-yard drive by catching a 19-yard pass fromBradshaw. Then he got so wide open on a flea-flicker that the Broncos' BernardJackson could do nothing but desperately interfere with him. The penalty putthe ball on the Denver 12. Four plays and a penalty later, Stallworth caught a16-yard pass to set up the first of Franco Harris' two touchdowns, which hescored from one yard out.
Stallworth set upthe next touchdown with perhaps his best catch of the day, jumping as high asthe crossbar to bring down a 22-yard toss. On the next play, Harris, who gained105 yards for the day, rumbled in to score for a 13-3 lead.
Stallworth's lastcatch was an equally beautiful thing to see—unless you happened to be SteveFoley. This was in the fourth quarter with the Steelers leading 19-10, and thechief suspense was whether Stallworth would make a 10th grab to set the record.Rather than sit on the lead, Bradshaw chose to try to put the game away. So hefired a 45-yard pass into the end zone, where Stallworth was racing a stepahead of Foley.
It was as close asFoley had been to his nemesis all day, but when they went up after the ball, itwas Stallworth who got his hands on it. Stallworth failed to come down withboth feet inside the end line, but he did get one shoe inside. The officialssignaled touchdown, ruling Foley had forced Stallworth off the field.
Apart from thedazzling performance of Stallworth, the game ran pretty close to form. TheSteelers resembled the club with the best won-lost record in the league, andDenver looked like the team that had played .500 ball the previous month. TheSteelers' balance of rushing and passing was impressive, and both their offenseand defense were overwhelming. Defensively, they chased Craig Morton from thegame before the second quarter was over, and when Norris Weese, the MississippiCPA, took over, they had him running for his life.
Weese had ledDenver to its second-quarter touchdown, primarily by means of a couple ofpasses to Jack Dolbin. This gave the Broncos some hope, as it made the score16-10. But the only other Denver threat of the afternoon was as much the resultof penalties as the efforts of Weese or the Broncos. That came in the thirdquarter, when Denver drove goal-ward on the wings of an L. C. Greenwoodoffside, an illegal Ron Johnson chuck of Haven Moses and an unnecessary JackLambert roughness on Weese after a scramble. The Denver surge ended when MeanJoe Greene blocked a 29-yard Jim Turner field-goal try.
So now Houstonmust worry not only about Bradshaw, Harris and Swann but Stallworth as well.Swann, who scored the final Steeler touchdown on a 38-yard heave from Bradshaw,was talking about the newfound Steeler threat: "About halfway through thegame I kept looking at John and saying to myself, 'Hey, that's supposed to beme doing that!' "