For 55 minutes and 50 seconds Sunday in the Orange Bowl, the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino was a mere mortal, a struggling young quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers were leading 20-17 and Marino's last two series had ended chaotically. He was intercepted deep in his own territory, setting up the field goal that put Pittsburgh ahead, and then he was intercepted at the Steeler 22, killing a chance at a score that could win or tie it. Now the Dolphins were on their own 25 with 4:10 left.
Zip, nine yards to Tony Nathan in the right flat. Zip, 27 to Mark Clayton, the ball finding the open spot in what had been a very nasty zone defense. The Steelers had come into the game with the NFL's No. 1 pass defense, and this afternoon they had shown Marino why.
Zip, 22 yards to Bruce Hardy, an anonymous tight end for eight seasons, and this was the prettiest play of the day because Mike Merriweather, the All-Pro linebacker, had Hardy blanketed. Hardy had to extend to his full 6'5" to make a diving catch of a pass that was low and away, the only place it could have been thrown.
"I don't even think he saw the ball," said Steeler strong safety Donnie Shell. "I mean, he stuck out his hands and the ball was there."
"How do you figure it?" said David Shula, the Dolphins' receivers and quarterback coach. "Here's a guy who runs a 5.2 40 being covered by another guy who runs a 4.6. The pass and the catch had to be absolutely perfect."
The ball was on the Steeler 16. Four plays and two completions later, it was on the two, and when Lorenzo Hampton scored on a sweep left behind guard Jeff Toews's block that wiped out two Steelers, the Dolphins had the lead with 47 seconds remaining; the hunt was over.
Final score, 24-20, and another chapter in the Marino legend was completed. He had looked bad at times. He had misfired, and he had forced the ball into areas where there wasn't any room. He had made some poor decisions, but when it came time to do it, well, there it was.
"I wasn't patient. I wasn't taking what was there," he said. "You have to learn from it." He was standing on a bench next to his locker, talking through a forest of microphones. The people in back were straining to hear what he was saying.
"They didn't rush more than three guys," he said. "They were playing lots of people in coverage and taking the deep stuff away. They had a great defensive scheme against us."
Across the way Tony Dungy, the Steelers' young defensive coordinator, was waiting to get on the team bus to the airport. Sunday was his 30th birthday.
Last year, in Dungy's first season as coordinator, the Steelers lost to Miami 31-7 in the regular season and 45-28 in the AFC Championship game. They had blitzed Marino and made him throw on the run. But then, as the championship game was slipping away, they had rushed three and dropped everyone else back into coverage, and Marino had licked his chops and eaten this setup alive. But it was a different situation then. It was a mixer, a change-up, something the Steeler defenders weren't really married to. They weren't comfortable playing that kind of slow-death football.
Before Sunday's game, quotes from Dungy had appeared in the Miami papers indicating that Marino was going to see all manner of Steelers shooting at him from all angles. "The Blitzburgh Steelers," one paper called them. Dungy is young, but he learns fast. The Steelers blitzed zero in the game. Oh, they occasionally sent in a linebacker to complement the three-man rush, but in the lexicon of pro football a four-man assault is not considered a blitz. You have to come with more than four people to qualify.
Instead, Dungy decided to play head games with Marino. Most of the time Pittsburgh didn't even go into a four-man line, the traditional starting point of nickel and dime defenses. Instead, Dungy devised a bewildering assortment of schemes, never repeating a coverage on successive downs.
"It's difficult to blitz Marino and think you're going to get to him," Dungy had said the day before the game. He was sitting in his hotel room, staring out at the little pleasure boats in Biscayne Bay, knowing full well that Sunday would be a big day in the life of a young and ambitious defensive assistant. "He sees the blitzes as well as anyone. You blitz him to make him throw early, not to sack him. The key thing is the mixture in your coverages, to give him something different every play. A formation might work for a while, but then he gets a bead on it. You've got to be patient, too. If they make five yards, you can't throw up your hands. The best thing, of course, is to get enough pressure on him with your front four, so everybody else can play coverages. That's what San Francisco did in the Super Bowl."
Marino put together two drives for touchdowns in the first half against Pittsburgh, and a field goal drive on the opening series of the third quarter. However, in the first half he tried to go up on top to Clayton, into double coverage, and free safety Eric Williams intercepted. The interception that set up the final Steeler field goal came when Marino tried to lay the ball in to Nat Moore over linebacker Robin Cole's deep drop, and Cole leaped high, tipped the ball with one hand and then caught it. Marino's third interception, matching his single-game high, came when cornerback Dwayne Woodruff snapped up a short sideline pass to Clayton with a great closing burst.
Marino's numbers looked decent, 27 completions in 45 attempts for 277 yards and a TD (with 18 of the completions going to backs or tight ends), but using the NFL's rating formula he wound up with a grade of 57.36, well below average, thanks mainly to the three intercepts. Most defense coaches would be very happy to concede a 57.36 score to Marino.
Even with Marino's last-minute heroics, the Steelers put enough defense on the field to win the game if their offense had been anywhere near as proficient. But it struggled all day. Mark Malone's passes were off target (he was 14 for 33 for 145 yards and one score). Two drives were killed when the snap from center was fumbled. Pittsburgh's first four series basically consisted of three downs and out.
The defense that Miami threw at Malone was almost a mirror of Pittsburgh's. Chuck Studley, the Dolphins' defense coach, has been around. He put together the 49er defense that beat Cincinnati in the '82 Super Bowl. Fifty-six years old, six kids, 17 years in the NFL, doesn't like to shave late in the week before games...oh yes, he's been over the course. His idea was to blitz on early downs to try to foul up the Steelers' ground game, but on passing downs rush only three or four and drop everyone else back into coverage.
Malone is a fine athlete, able to scramble away from a blitz, but the idea was to get him thinking, to give him a lot of defensive people to worry about downfield, and the plan worked beautifully.
The loss left the Steelers 2-3 and wondering where their next meal is coming from, while the Dolphins are 4-1 and facing a Monday-night showdown against the 4-1 Jets—followed by the soft part of their schedule. Best of all, they've got an older and wiser Marino to lead them through it.