The Monster had been holed up in the dark closet, along with the old high school graduation suit and the scrap-books. Every now and then you'd hear some noises, but it hadn't really bothered anyone lately. Oh, you knew it was there all right, but no one in his right mind was going to open the door to make sure.
Then, last Sunday in Three Rivers Stadium, it got loose, that Monster of a Pittsburgh Steeler defense, and the unlucky victims were the Houston Oilers. It wasn't supposed to happen the way it did, Pittsburgh 38, Houston 7, with Sidney Thornton scoring two touchdowns and Lynn Swann catching five Terry Bradshaw passes for 95 yards, and it could have been worse. You just don't treat your most respected rival in the AFC Central Division with the disdain that the Steelers showed the Oilers. But when the Monster is loose, logic doesn't hold. It eats the best of game plans, knocks out quarterbacks like Dan Pastorini, shuts down All-Pro runners like Earl Campbell.
The Monster erupted at the end of the '74 season, in the two AFC playoff games and then in Super Bowl IX, when Minnesota's runners gained a whole 17 yards and Fran Tarkenton had most of his passes slammed back in his teeth by L. C. Greenwood or Joe Greene. The Monster returned in '76, after the Steelers had lost four of their first five games and Terry Bradshaw had been put out of action by a body-slam administered by Cleveland's Turkey Jones. The Steelers had to win their last nine to make the playoffs. So they rallied around rookie Quarterback Mike Kruczek, and the Monster rose up, allowing only 28 points in those nine games, five of which were shutouts.
For Pittsburgh, 1977 was a troubled year filled with lawsuits, holdouts and turmoil that ended with an early loss to Denver in the playoffs. Of course, the only reason the Steelers were even in the '77 playoffs was that Houston had obligingly knocked off Cincinnati in the final regular-season game, a happy turn of events Pittsburgh acknowledged by buying all the Oilers $50 attachè cases. Some Steelers are still shaking their heads over that one.
Last season the running game fizzled, so the Steelers shifted gears, turned to a big play offense and ran Dallas out of the Super Bowl. During '77 and '78 the defense was duly respected, but its work did not make you gasp. In Pittsburgh Sunday there were gasps.
Note the numbers. Campbell was held to a career-low 38 yards. The Oilers' passing attack gained a net of 22 yards, mainly because of five Steeler sacks and five Steeler interceptions. Pastorini went 4 for 16 before he was taken from the field with a bruised shoulder in the third quarter; while he conducted the show, the Oilers ran 35 plays for a total gain of 17 yards—an average of 17.5 inches per play. The 14 first-down plays Pastorini called resulted in a net of minus three yards. Those are Monster numbers. Vintage Steeler numbers.
"Stuffed us, they just stuffed us," Pastorini said after the debacle. "What can you do? Your running doesn't go, you don't have time to throw. You scramble around and try to get something going. You try to stay alive out there."
He was sitting on a table in the training room, his right arm in a sling. Outside were two orange-clad members of the Mutual Aid Ambulance Squad, standing by just in case. The day had been a nightmarish scene out of a past that Pastorini is desperately trying to forget—two 1-13 seasons, when his protection would break down and the enemy would come riding in like Cossacks, and when his only significant statistics were medical ones: ribs broken a couple of dozen times, nose broken several times, hand broken, collarbone broken, cheekbone broken. And the Houston fans would sit back in the Astrodome and boo his battle for survival.
"It's like being in a street fight against 10 guys," Pastorini once said, "and everyone's rooting for the 10."
In the third quarter Sunday the Steelers were leading 17-0 and Pastorini had a second-and-20 on his own 15, typical field position for the Oilers this afternoon. He was hoping to hit his tight end, Mike Barber, slanting in from the right side, but the left linebacker, Jack Ham, knocked Barber out of his pattern. Now Pastorini was on his own, scrambling to his left, which is the direction a right-handed thrower doesn't want to go. He tried to get the ball to Barber, but Loren Toews, the right linebacker, deflected the pass, and 245-pound defensive Right End John Banaszak intercepted it. Pastorini and Campbell brought Banaszak down, but the collision left Campbell dazed and Pastorini through for the day.
"Reminded me of the old days, out there today," someone said to Pastorini.
"Yeah, me too," Pastorini said. "I was hoping I'd never see those days again."
The old days officially ended for the Oilers when they got Campbell last year. Teams couldn't gang up on Pastorini anymore, not when he had a hammer of Thor like Campbell on his side. But Campbell had no place to run in Pittsburgh. He is at his best when he sees a small crack in the line, when he fires into it low and hard—a deadly stump of a projectile—breaking arm tackles like a guy going through a turnstile, cutting back, knocking over off-balance linebackers, punishing people. Campbell takes his worst beatings when the linebackers and defensive backs can meet him head-on, just on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Then no one wins. But he's least effective when he sees no daylight and has to pick and dance, the thing Franco Harris does so well. On such occasions Campbell gets overrun, as he did in Pittsburgh; only one of his 16 runs produced more than four yards, and five times he failed to gain even a yard.
"I feel fine right now; I'm not banged up or anything," Campbell said. "Maybe I shouldn't feel this way. I feel like I was kind of lucky, not getting beaten up more. They were well prepared. Their front four had the holes closed. I can't pinpoint one thing, I just didn't have anywhere to run, you know?"
Mike Wagner, the Steelers' free safety, said, "I think I have a better view of Earl than anyone on the field. When I read run, my first key is to find the hole, then Campbell. When it's him, I know it's gonna hurt, and I get ready for the jolt. But today...well, it was weird. I'd see a surge of people, and I'd be waiting for Campbell to pop out somewhere, but he didn't pop. I mean, I thought he'd pop through at least once, but he just didn't. There'd be the surge, and our defensive line would be taking the block, and then everything would close down and Campbell never came out.
"Wisdom tells me that if my front four is doing such a great job stopping the run, the pass rush has to suffer. So I thought: O.K., I'll just worry about my coverages. But then the line put so much pressure on Pastorini that he was throwing to his receivers before they were into their breaks. That's how I got my two interceptions. It was just awesome what those guys did up front. It kind of gives you a feeling of invincibility."
Strangely, the Steelers went into the game feeling anything but invincible up front. Tackle Joe Greene was coming off a sore knee that had kept him out of the Steelers' 16-13 sudden-death win over New England on Monday night. Tackle Steve Furness had a jammed toe. And an injury to End L. C. Greenwood's right knee had forced him from the New England game. On paper, Greenwood's replacement, Tom Beasley, was the weak link in the Steeler front. But as Penn State grows linebackers and Southern Cal grows tailbacks, the Steelers grow defensive linemen; Beasley, a 25-year-old, third-year man out of Virginia Tech, stopped Campbell twice on third-and-short with solo tackles—he had a remarkable 11 in all—and kept the steadiest pressure on Pastorini.
"The Oilers' favorite short-yardage play comes right at me—the 34-lead-C, with Campbell carrying and the fullback leading," said the 6'5", 253-pound Beasley, who has a light, sandy mustache and beard and. notes the Steeler press guide, is "aided by exceptionally long arms." "You play your man head-up and try to shut down Earl's lanes. You can't flag him as he comes through or he'll tear your arms off." Beasley smiled. "Just basic football, you know?"
It's a proud, intense rivalry, the Oilers vs. Steelers, and now Houston has a 38-7 rallying point for the Dec. 10 rematch in the Astrodome. The teams are old friends of a sort. Elvin Bethea, Houston's defensive right end, has lined up against Jon Kolb, Pittsburgh's offensive left tackle, 20 times. "It's amazing, we've faced each other so much and I still don't know what the man looks like behind that face mask," Bethea says. "Maybe I don't want to know."
Steeler Center Mike Webster has played against Oiler Middle Guard Curley Culp 12 times. "I've been following Curley's career ever since I was in high school," Webster says. "I was on my school's wrestling team when Curley was an NCAA heavyweight champ at Arizona State. We had an article about him posted on our bulletin board. He must be a very interesting person. Hell, he's the master of the nose-guard position. But I've only met him once. It was at the Pro Bowl. I said, 'How are you?' and he said, Tine, how are you?' and that was it."
Considering the sort of rivalry this is, the Steelers were wise to try to play down the one-sidedness of Sunday's game. "You know, 38 points can work against you, too," said Swann. "They're not going to forget it next time we play them. They're a proud team, and they got all banged up today—Pastorini hurt, Billy Johnson lost with a knee injury. You want to score points, but you don't want to rub it in."
The Oilers, meanwhile, wanted to forget the debacle. Center Carl Mauck said, "I believe this game is going to make a big difference the next time we play. But you don't want to dwell on a thing like this too long now, because it'll screw you up for the following week. I promise you we'll be ready for them in Houston. I promise you it'll be different next time around."
Webster, for one, isn't worried. "I wonder what would have happened if our defense would have played their offense the whole way today," he mused after Sunday's game. "It might have been very interesting."