Students of blowout football aren't asking who's going to win when the Steelers play the Rams Sunday in Super Bowl XIV. They just want to know how bad it's going to be.
Could be bad, folks. Real bad. Right now they're not betting on a decision, they're just trying to predict which round the knockout will come in. I haven't heard such negative forecasts since the Colts played the Jets in Super Bowl III.
Hey, the underdog Jets won that one straight up, didn't they? Different era, though. And that was a sociological contest. The old-line NFL faces turned to concrete in the owners' boxes. Now the sociology has gone full circle, and you find the same kind of smugness coming out of the AFC people.
The only kind of knock you hear against the Steelers is a "what if?" What if they come up flat? What if they take the Rams for granted? Of course, you heard "what if?" before they played Miami in the first playoff game, too. Sorry, Dolphins, no flats today, 34-14. Crunch. You heard it before their AFC championship game against Houston. After all, they had played the Oilers so many times before. It was interesting for a while, then 27-13. Crunch.
And it was crunch all through the Steelers' playoffs last year, too. No contest in the first two, and 35-17 over Dallas in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIII, before they loosened the reins and let the horses run. The Steelers—three for three in Super Bowls—simply do not come up flat when they smell postseason money. No, wait a minute, they did come up flat twice in their eight years of playoff history—in 1973 vs. Oakland and in 1977 vs. Denver, when Pittsburgh was a club strangely divided. Contract hassles, the coach in court, thank-you gifts sent to Houston for knocking Cincinnati out of the hunt. Very un-Steelerish. But since then it's been crunchball.
And what about the Rams? They are a 9-7 team, the first team with so many losses to reach an NFL title match. But they come into the Rose Bowl snarling and snapping at those faint-of-hearts who wrote them off at midseason, when everybody was hurt and they were sinking into the Pacific, those fair-weather fans who stiffed them when they were poor but love them now that they're rich.
After the Rams shut out Tampa Bay 9-0 in the NFC championship game, Jim Youngblood, their fine left linebacker, stared glumly at the scene in front of him. "Now we're playing Pittsburgh back home," he said, "and a lot of people are going to be jumping back on the bandwagon. We have nothing to prove to those people. We just have to prove things to ourselves. I just hope all those writers who bad-mouthed us and all the people in Los Angeles who gave up on us eat soap for the rest of their lives."
Atta boy, Jim. Buckle up your chin-strap and get ready. This is a hungry team that knows how to hold fast. When things were darkest, when the Rams were 5-6 and trailing New Orleans by a game, destiny finally smiled. They won their next four, although all against teams with losing records, three of them the dregs of the NFC West, a division known as L.A. and the Three Stooges. And the Saints chose that time to pull an el foldo.
"I guess the lowest point in my coaching career," says Bud Carson, L.A.'s defensive coordinator, "came in the Sunday-night game at Dallas in October. Everybody was going down. Dan Ryczek, our long snapper for punts and field goals, ended up trying to block Randy White from the guard position. Our defensive backs kept getting hurt. I had no nickel back to put in against their shotgun. For a while I even thought we were going to have to play a three-deep secondary. After the first quarter I told Ray Malavasi, 'It's all over.' "
The next week L.A. got killed by San Diego. Then the Rams lost to the Giants. Every day Malavasi would read the papers to see if he still had a job. Georgia Rosenbloom, the owner, had already fired her stepson, Steve, and put Harold Guiver, another one of the team's four vice-presidents, on waivers. She had mentioned that it had been a mistake to fire George Allen in the summer of 1978. George kept his bags packed, waiting for the phone call.
Dark, dark days, and when you talk about the Rams' chances against Pittsburgh, you almost have to get into the metaphysical. How can a team that had sunk so low finish so high? How, for instance, did they manage to beat the Cowboys—at Dallas—in the first playoff game? For one thing, they rallied around their veterans: Defensive End Jack Youngblood, who broke a leg in the first quarter (actually it was a hairline fracture of the left fibula); Jim Youngblood, who has recurring pain from a shoulder injury; Safety Dave Elmendorf, neck; Corner-back Rod Perry, concussion, bad knee. They all played. They'll all play Sunday.
The Rams went into a seven-back prevent defense against Roger Staubach and the Dallas shotgun. It worked. "We're prepared for it, but I don't think they'll use it against us," says Rollie Dotsch, the Pittsburgh offensive line coach. "There's no running threat off the shotgun, so you can play the pass exclusively. But we'll run the ball on third-and-long." Translation: Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton and Rocky Bleier would ruin a seven-back prevent.
Finally, the Rams beat the Cowboys with their two-minute offense. In the first half it consisted of four pass plays, ending in a circus TD catch by Ron Smith. In the second half, with 2:16 left, L.A.'s two-minute offense consisted of one pass, a 50-yard TD play from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy. The Rams' two-minute offense is built on the miraculous, or as Steeler Assistant Head Coach George Perles says, "They go deep, fast and long and try to outfight you for the ball. They're not going to try to pick you. They want to get it done in a hurry, and that's what you have to worry about with Ferragamo, the tone he can put on the ball when he throws deep."
There's nothing smooth about the Rams' offense, although it has looked a little better since Wendell Tyler got his sea legs. The key to the Rams' attack used to be the Slob Sweep—everybody pull out and look for the strangle. The linemen would push off on their blocks and lie all over you. Octopus left, octopus right. High school coaches in the stands would cover their linemen's eyes. The Rams have tried to clean up the Slob Sweep this season, bringing in Dan Radakovich to teach the linemen formal techniques and also to put in the intricate trap-block system he helped perfect at Pittsburgh. At times the linemen show their new precision, but at other times it looks like the same old Slob Sweep.
Radakovich is one-third of the Pittsburgh Connection on the Rams' coaching staff; he worked there for four years. The other two parts are Carson, who ran the Steelers' defense for six years, and Lionel Taylor, who coached their receivers for seven. There is little about the Steeler operation that will be unknown to the Rams. Radakovich is known as the Mad Scientist and has a mind totally tuned in to the gridiron. When Terry Bradshaw used to call the press box from the sideline, he'd say, "Earth to Rad. Earth to Rad. Come in, Rad." They tell the story of Radakovich coming home from practice one night totally exhausted, going into the kitchen for a beer and turning on the TV set—and then realizing he was in the wrong house.
But the strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers does not lie in formations or even techniques. It's the people. Pittsburgh is a mighty rolling dynasty that's built to last. Unplug one man, plug another one in. Reserves wait to get a chance. The Steelers' great success this year has tended to obscure their injuries. Bradshaw has been down a few times—against St. Louis they took him off the field on a stretcher. Lynn Swann has been hurt, so have John Stallworth and Sidney Thornton. They lost their great All-Pro linebacker, Jack Ham, going into the playoffs, and not a ripple was felt. Ditto for Jon Kolb, their left tackle, and Gerry Mullins, their right guard. Unplug one, plug another one in.
Let's talk about Dirt and the Sweeper. Dirt is Dennis Winston. For three years he has been a special teams' whacko, dishing out many blows, receiving few. He had gotten his nickname—Dirty before it was shortened—at the University of Arkansas, where, as he says, "I think I passed out some pretty good licks from the noseguard position." The problem at Pittsburgh was toning him down. No, no, Dennis, you must learn to differentiate between the ball and the man's head. Finally he was ready, and when the linebacking corps suffered injuries this year, Winston was turned loose. Game ball against Dallas. Game ball against Houston. On another team they'd be pushing him for the Pro Bowl. At Pittsburgh he's simply the man filling in for Jack Ham at left linebacker.
The Sweeper is Steve Courson, who came in for Mullins at right guard. The Steelers like their offensive linemen short and compact, built for pulling and trapping. You don't see the Slob Sweep at Pittsburgh. When the Steelers run a sweep or a screen, the linemen get out there quickly and throw their bodies. "When you take on a man standing up, the back has the option to run to only one side," Center Mike Webster says. "But when you wipe that man out, the back can go anywhere he wants."
The Sweeper came in the same year Winston did. The first thing Courson asked was, "Where's the weight room?" He stands 6'1" and weighs 262. He can run a 4.8 forty and bench-press 515 pounds ("On double rep...I don't know how much I could do on just one"). He has a vertical jump of 36 inches. The Steelers brought him along slowly. That trap-block offense takes time to learn.
"Now, coach, now?"
"Not yet, Steve. Soon."
So Courson would go back to the weight room and pump more iron, pile on more muscle. And when Mullins got hurt, he was ready. The Steelers used a straight-block offense against Miami in the playoffs. The Dolphin linemen don't penetrate, they wait and read. Courson blasted big holes in the middle of the Miami line.
"We were watching him from the sideline," Joe Greene says. "When he went after 'em, all you'd see were feet in the air or guys on their backs, crumpling up. He's got an arm he can put right through you. When we got into short yardage we yelled, 'Go over the Sweeper!' We call him that because he sweeps 'em up. We were standing there making sweeping motions, like we had brooms." Unplug one, plug another one in.
Joe Greene remains. Perles says the game Greene had against the Oilers in the championship was vintage Greene, his best in five years. Greene himself admits that he has changed his style as he nears the end of his career. He had always been a quickness guy, relying on tremendous anticipation to foul up a play. Now he's working on his strength. For the first time he's lifting weights for more than exercise. Strength is what he'll fall back on when the quickness goes. Against Miami, he used that strength to stabilize the middle, forcing his man back into traffic. Against the Oilers, he made big plays on his old quickness, twice knifing in to spill Earl Campbell for losses.
The Steeler defense presents the biggest problem for L.A. Only five of the Rams' offensive starters were in the line-up for their NFC championship game against Dallas a year ago. Quick turnovers could be disastrous. Too many three-and-out series could keep the L.A. defense—proud and tough, but battered—on the field too long. The Rams' defense will probably start off giving Bradshaw & Co. problems—in the three games in which Bradshaw has faced L.A. (all losses), he has been intercepted eight times—but the L.A. defense has got to have help.
In three straight playoff seasons a fine defensive team suffered a blowout—or near blowout—because the offense just couldn't do it. Pittsburgh went into the 1976 AFC championship against Oakland with a great defense and an offense that had only one healthy running back; the defense kept Pittsburgh in it for a while, but finally the Steelers were overrun. The next year Denver's Orange Crush defense had Dallas on the ropes at the beginning of Super Bowl XII, but every time Craig Morton got his hands on the ball he turned it over, and the final score looked like a blowout. Then, there was last year's NFC title match—L.A. vs. Dallas. Ram runners kept hobbling off the field and the offense died, and a heroic defense that had held the score to 7-0 for three periods crumbled. Result: 28-0.
The Rams need a consistent offense on Sunday or the game might turn into a runaway in the second half. Against Tampa Bay they went into a revised formation—Cullen Bryant on the wing, blocking down for Tyler—but they'll probably junk it and go against the Steelers straight up. No one sweeps Pittsburgh; the Steeler linebackers are simply too quick. Any success on the ground against Pittsburgh has come between the tackles.
Another problem for L.A. might be its wide-receiver shuttle system of sending in plays. This puts a strain on an offense fighting the 30-second clock and cuts down the audible time. It's not so bad when the Rams are between the 40-yard lines, but when they're near the goal the shuttle man can have a 40-yard run to the huddle. Against the Bucs they were called for an illegal formation on the four-yard line and had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
There will be some 105,000 people in the Rose Bowl, and as Jim Youngblood says, it will be the front-runners who'll be roaring. The few loyal Ram fans who stuck with them when they announced they were packing up and leaving for Anaheim, who hung tough when everybody was hurt and L.A. couldn't beat a decent team, probably will be too busy praying.
The Steelers have beaten that game plan, too. Pittsburgh 27, L.A. 10.