Pouncing on a Championship

Pittsburgh got the drop on Houston in the rain-drenched, fumble-filled AFC title game, smashing the Oilers 34-5 to set up a Super Bowl rendezvous with Dallas
Pittsburgh got the drop on Houston in the rain-drenched, fumble-filled AFC title game, smashing the Oilers 34-5 to set up a Super Bowl rendezvous with Dallas
January 15, 1979

It was billed as the AFC championship, but Sunday's showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Oilers could have been called the Soup Bowl. Played in Three Rivers Stadium, it might as well have been played in the three rivers themselves. Still, not rain nor sleet—both of which fell continuously—nor Earl Campbell or even Dan Pastorini's bulletproof flak jacket could stay the Steelers from a Super Bowl date with Dallas. Pittsburgh pounded Houston 34-5, causing Oiler Coach Bum Phillips to admit, "The best team won. The weather didn't beat us. Pittsburgh did."

As imposing as the Steelers were, it was impossible to ignore the way the weather affected the game. Before halftime, the Oilers and Steelers had set a championship-game record by fumbling 11 times. That was one more fumble than the New York Giants and Chicago Bears managed in 1934 in their so-called Sneakers Game, a championship played on a field that was frozen so hard the Giants switched to basketball shoes at halftime for better traction. The final fumble tally was 12, six for each team. Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris of the Steelers, and the sensational Campbell, established an additional record by fumbling three times apiece. Early in the second quarter they fumbled on consecutive plays. Shades of Larry, Moe and Curly.

The downpour and the subfreezing temperatures made life on the field so miserable that Pittsburgh Running Back Rocky Bleier was sent to the locker room in the third quarter, suffering from chills. Appropriately enough, the longest run in the game, a mere 23 yards, was made by a Steeler whose nickname is Hydroplane—Jack Deloplaine. Said Oiler Cornerback Willie Alexander, "My teeth were chattering the whole game. I wish we could have brought the Astrodome with us." Most of the Steelers tried to make light of the weather. "Hey, this was a championship game," said Pittsburgh Defensive End L. C. Greenwood. "I'd have played it in the ocean if I'd had to, and I can't even swim."

The bottom line was that the Steelers conquered the Oilers as well as the elements. They outgained Houston 379 yards to 142, displaying all the weapons that have made them the winningest team in the NFL this year. They won in the pits, too. The Oilers had allowed a league-low 17 sacks this season, but the Steel Curtain defense sacked Pastorini four times. Pastorini also threw five interceptions. And the Steelers held Campbell to 62 yards rushing, most of them after the game was out of reach.

Meanwhile, the Steelers gave Bradshaw so much protection that he could have dialed the weather bureau while waiting for Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to get open. Bradshaw was never sacked as he completed 11 of 19 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, one each to Swann and Stallworth.

Phillips summed up the flow of the game when he said. "The behinder we got, the worse we got." And the Oilers fell behind the first time their opponents had the ball. The Steelers moved 57 yards to a 7-0 lead in just five plays, Harris skirting right end for the touchdown from the seven. The scoring play was a neat piece of deception. Pittsburgh lined up with both wide receivers, Swann and Stallworth, on the right side. As the Oilers knew, the Steelers had done nothing but pass from this formation all season. So, when Swann and Stallworth cut in toward the middle of the field, the Oiler linebackers and secondary followed them. But Bradshaw handed off to Harris, who slid into the end zone practically untouched.

Later in the first quarter, Pittsburgh made it 14-0 when Bleier sloshed around right end for a 15-yard touchdown. That score was set up by Linebacker Jack Ham's recovery of Campbell's second fumble, at the Houston 17-yard line. Ham also recovered another fumble, intercepted a Pastorini pass and sacked the Oiler quarterback for a nine-yard loss.

Though showing almost no offense, Houston got on the scoreboard early in the second quarter when Toni Fritsch kicked a 19-yard field goal after Harris had fumbled the ball to the Oilers at the Pittsburgh 19. The Steelers, meanwhile, kept threatening to turn the game into a rout. Only an end-zone interception of a Bradshaw pass by Oiler Cornerback Greg Stemrick and another fumble by Harris kept Houston alive. Then, with less than two minutes to play in the half, Running Back Ronnie Coleman carried a Pastorini pass to the Steeler 30-yard line and the Oilers seemed to be on the verge of cutting into the Steelers' 14-3 lead. However, Ham stripped the ball from Coleman and pounced on it. And suddenly Houston was hit by a Pittsburgh deluge worse than anything that was falling from the skies. In the space of just 54 seconds, the Steelers scored 17 points and put the AFC championship away.

The first seven points came on a perfectly thrown 29-yard pass from Bradshaw to Swann. On the following kick-off, Houston's Johnnie Dirden returned the ball 11 yards and then, even though no one had touched him, dropped it. Rick Moser of the Steelers recovered at the Houston 17, and two plays later Bradshaw hit Stallworth for a touchdown. The Oilers didn't fumble on the next kickoff, but on their first play from scrimmage Coleman did, again. This time the ball was stripped from him by Defensive Tackle Steve Furness, who recovered at the Houston 24. Four seconds before the half Roy Gerela booted a 37-yard field goal to make the score 31-3. An Oiler official said, "Now I know how Jim Bowie must have felt at the Alamo."

The second half was played for no ostensible reason. After Gerela made the score 34-3 with a 22-yard field goal, the Oiler defense added Houston's other two points on a third-quarter safety, Linebacker Ted Washington tackling Bleier in the end zone. In the remaining minutes, the Oiler offense contributed four more turnovers, bringing its total for the game to nine.

Like the Cowboys, the Steelers now are in a position to become the first team to win a third Super Bowl. If Pittsburgh beats Dallas in Miami, which the Steelers did in Super Bowl X three years ago, it will be the ultimate tribute to a front office that is as efficient as any in the NFL, yet, unlike the Dallas front office, is virtually unsung.

The Steelers' chief executive is 46-year-old President Dan Rooney, the oldest son of the team's founder, 77-year-old Art Rooney. There is no biographical sketch for Dan Rooney in the club's media guide. "I stay in the background," he says. "A lot of owners in football think they have to say something profound, particularly to explain a win or a loss. I think the less you say, the better off you are. My job here is to make everyone else's job easier. The Steeler players get the recognition, and that's the way it should be. That's better than having Chuck Noll or Dan Rooney get it. The players are the characters, if you look at football in the entertainment sense."

While he was growing into his current job in the '60s, Dan and his brother Art Rooney Jr., who is in charge of the team's personnel department, determined that the Steelers, who had a history of trading away draft choices, should build through the draft. Only three of the Steelers on the roster for last Sunday's game—placekicker Gerela, reserve Defensive Back Ray Oldham and reserve Tight End Jim Mandich—started their careers with other franchises.

Pittsburgh's scouting operation differs from that of many clubs in that the Steeler coaches play an active role in the evaluation and selection of talent. The final say on all choices belongs to Noll, who was hired by Dan Rooney in 1969. "Just as important as drafting is the development of the players," says Dan Rooney. "I really think that is where Noll's genius comes into play. He gives every football player a chance to prove he can't do the job."

Despite an ongoing series of brilliant drafts, when the Steelers lost in the first round of the playoffs to Denver last year, most observers felt they were on the decline. The 1977 season had been marred by injuries, holdouts, walkouts and a lawsuit. "Last year was just a mess," admits Pittsburgh's All-Pro Center Mike Webster who, like Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert and Swann and Stallworth, is a product of the 1974 draft. "We just didn't care enough for one another."

The Steelers have had a personality change, and now for the first time they are known as much for their offense as their defense. In 1976, with Harris and Bleier each going over 1,000 yards, Pittsburgh rushed for more yardage than all but three teams in NFL history, gaining 64% of its yards on the ground. But this season, with Bradshaw, Swann and Stallworth leading the way, the Steelers gained more than half their yardage by passing.

At the start of 1978, the Steelers' once-impenetrable defense was considered over the hill. Mean Joe Greene's chronic back problems spurred rumors that he was washed up, and Greenwood and Dwight White, the defensive ends, were showing signs of age. It was even suggested—perish the thought—that the Steel Curtain should be dismantled and replaced by a 3-4 defense.

So the Curtain regrouped and had an intimidating year. The Steelers allowed the fewest points in the NFL (195) and the fewest yards rushing in the AFC (110.9 per game). Greenwood had his finest season, while Greene, once his back miseries were at least temporarily healed, played like a demon. A year ago, for the first time in four seasons, Greene didn't play in the AFC championship game. Instead, he sat home and watched Oakland and Denver play on TV. During the telecast a camera focused on a sign in the stands in Mile High Stadium that read, JOE MUST BE GREENE WITH ENVY.

Quietly, Greene got his two Super Bowl rings out and placed them on top of his television set. Now he plans to add a third ring to that collection.

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)