The muggers took on the pickpockets in Denver Sunday, and the muggers won ugly, 24-17, which is what hardnosed football teams often do when they lure foes into the trenches. The muggers were the new-breed Pittsburgh Steelers, a little green, perhaps, but ever ready to play the tough old way, coach Chuck Noll's way.
That's the way they played it against the Broncos, who had been favored by a touchdown mostly because their pictures were plastered all over the NFL's Most Wanted posters. And, probably, because the Steelers went an excuse-me 9-7 while winning the woefully weak AFC Central.
In taking the tougher AFC West with a 13-3 mark, Denver unleashed a defense that seemed ready for parole, not All-Pro. The Bronco D finished second only to San Francisco in touchdowns allowed (24 to 26) and second (to Seattle, which had 63) in takeaways with 55, eight of which—recovered fumbles or interceptions—were legged back for scores.
Well aware of the Broncos' fondness for separating a runner from the ball, Noll had his defenders try to strip the Steeler runners all week in practice. The flip side of Denver's ballhawking tactics was clear to Steeler running back Walter Abercrombie. "Because the Broncos are more conscious of stripping the ball than tackling," Abercrombie said, "sometimes you can slip away for a big gain."
To Noll's horror, six minutes into the AFC championship semifinal, Denver's designated hitters had already scooped up two fumbles by quarterback Mark Malone. "One Malone fumble," Steeler center Mike Webster corrected afterward as the Steelers headed for Miami for the conference championship. "The second one was my fault. The play was on an audible and I didn't hear the color [for the snap]. So, I was late getting the ball back to him."
The first recovery, by Andre Townsend at 9:44, resulted in a missed 39-yard field goal attempt by Denver's Rich Karlis. After the second, covered by Tom Jackson at 8:45, Denver moved 13 yards to the Pittsburgh nine. Now, quarterback John Elway called "Double Down And In."
While Elway faked a hand-off to All-Pro running back Sammy Winder, wide receivers Steve Watson and Ray Alexander fired down the right side and then cut to the post. Meanwhile, Jim Wright, the H-back (a tight end disguised as a slot back), came in motion from the left and slipped into the area cleared by the receivers. When Steeler free safety Eric Williams bit on a fake to Winder, Wright was alone to gather in Elway's touchdown pass. Denver 7-0.
The game was just six minutes and 30 seconds old. "Right then, after those two fumbles, that's when a lot of teams would have stopped trying to run on Denver," said Frank Pollard, the Steelers' other running back. "That's why they looked so good on paper against the run, because after a fumble or two, other teams went to the pass." Denver finished fifth in the NFL against the rush, holding 11 rivals to under 100 yards on the ground. "But the running game was always there," said Pollard. "New England gave them a lot of trouble on the ground."
Undaunted, the Steelers stuck to grunt football. Webster and the kids on the offensive line began to open wide gaps in the confused Bronco defense. All season, Pittsburgh had made a fair living with the pulling guard trap. For Denver, the Steelers switched to the longer developing but equally devastating tackle trap. Pollard poured through for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Abercrombie added 75.
Between runs, the unsung Malone completed 17 of 28 passes for 224 yards and a third Steeler touchdown, on a 10-yard, third-quarter toss to rookie speedster Louis Lipps.
The mental state of Denver's shredded defenders was summed up best by end Rulon Jones. "I just can't think of a time when we really knew when they were going to pass," he said. "There were a couple of times when we thought they were, and they burned us. I was never able to tee off. I was always off balance. I was kind of waiting for them to come to me, instead of me going to them."
Pittsburgh had the ball for 70 offensive plays, 34 of them first downs, and that's when Denver was hurt the worst. Three times on first down the Steelers were thrown for losses, four times Malone threw incompletions. But on the other 27 they gained 223 (for an 8.3-yard average) of their total of 381 yards.
Even so, Denver might have pulled the game out. Five times the Broncos drove to the Steeler 22-yard line or closer, but the best they could produce was 17 points. Twice they got as close as the six; the first time an Elway pass was picked off by nose tackle Gary Dunn, the second time Karlis kicked a 21-yard field goal.
"We knew going in that was the key," said Denver coach Dan Reeves. "When we got down there we had to get it in, or get three. We didn't."
The last Denver score came midway through the third quarter, with the game tied 10-10 and Pittsburgh chewing up both the clock and the field, but unable to score. Elway, limping as the result of a pulled groin muscle, sustained earlier in the period, had brought the Broncos to the Pittsburgh 20. Looking at Steve Watson, Elway called "18 Double Out Take Off." That's a double post route on each side. Watson, who finished with 11 catches for 177 yards, put a double fake on cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, eluded strong safety Donnie Shell, caught the ball in the end zone and fell on his back.
But before the Broncos could relax, the Steelers retaliated with a 66-yard scoring drive that began and ended with Malone passes (for 23 and 10 yards) to the amazingly quick Lipps.
So the score was tied at 17, there were still 18 minutes to go, and now the two antagonists began to play as though they would need 18 days to settle the issue.
Elway operates best on the run, but now, further hobbled by a sprained left knee, he was forced to stay inside the pocket. For Denver, an Elway without legs is like trying to race a Ferrari in first gear—you go no place.
Pittsburgh was moving the ball. One fourth-quarter drive used up eight plays; a second consumed 10. The first ended in a punt, the second in one of Gary Anderson's three missed field goals.
All season Denver had lived by the turnover. Now it died by it. Taking over on their own 20 after Anderson's 26-yard attempt sailed wide left, the Broncos picked up five yards on a Winder run, his last of the game. He finished the day with 37 yards, making him the sixth 1,000-yard runner Pittsburgh had held to less than 100 yards this season.
Having studied the Pittsburgh zone coverage, Reeves sent in a play called 74 Flare, a short pass to Alexander.
Said Elway, "I never saw the guy. I saw Ray. The last time I saw him he was open."
The guy Elway didn't see was Williams, the Steeler who had been burned on the touchdown pass to Wright. Stepping in front of Alexander, the free safety gathered in the ball and ran it back 28 yards to the two. Three plays later, Pollard followed Webster into the end zone—and the Broncos were history.
"When the clock ticked down," said Elway, "I said, 'Well, the dream is over for now.' But I'm still going to the Super Bowl. Only now, my Dad is going to buy me a ticket."