The Undisputed lead of the AFC central hung in the air on Sunday as the wind swirled through Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and Houston Oiler kicker Al Del Greco got set for a 39-yard field goal attempt with six seconds to play. The hitting had been vicious, a throwback to the days when the Oilers and the Steelers battled regularly for big stakes. Pittsburgh had come back from 13 points down and led 21-20. Houston had lost quarterback Warren Moon in the third quarter on a thunderous helmet-to-jaw hit by blitzing cornerback Rod Woodson.
But backup Cody Carlson, who had taken the Oilers in for one touchdown, had just moved his team from the Houston 14 to the Pittsburgh 22 against a Steeler defense that had lost two defensive backs to injury. It was that kind of a day. "A classic," Pittsburgh's rookie coach, Bill Cowher, would say later.
Both teams called timeout before Del Greco's kick. On the Oiler sideline there was an uneasy stirring, a feeling that the offense had played it too cozy. Houston had been at the Pittsburgh 47 with 1:57 left but then had let the clock run. In the next 1:38 the Oilers ran only three plays, which moved the ball to the 21.
"I thought about calling timeout," Cowher said, "but I figured, what the hell, we'd live or die with the field goal."
November 9, 1992
With 19 seconds remaining the Oilers had run one more play—running back Lorenzo White lost a yard—to position the ball for Del Greco's kick, which would hardly be a gimme in that wind. Houston could have worked a couple more of those little run-and-shoot hitches or hooks into the last two minutes and gotten 10 yards closer, into the range where kickers don't worry about compensating for the wind. Instead they chose to let the game ride on a 39-yarder.
And then Del Greco's kick hooked wide left, and the Steelers were winners, 6-2 on the season and one game up on Houston. "O.K., maybe I should have moved it closer," said Carlson afterward. "Maybe I should have used the clock more wisely. It wasn't fair to Al—a long kick in all that wind—but you can look back on anything. If he had made it, no one would be saying a word right now."
A step back in time, please. New York Giants versus Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV: With the Giants sitting on a one-point lead, Buffalo made a run at them at the end, but Scott Norwood's field goal was wide. The Giants' offensive coordinator that day was Ron Erhardt. The offensive coordinator for the Steelers on Sunday...the same gentleman. "I was standing next to Billy Cowher on the sidelines," Erhardt said of the moment when Del Greco was ready to kick, "and I told him, 'He ain't gonna make it. It's the Super Bowl all over again.' "
If you're wondering why the Steelers are now tied with the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins for the best record in the AFC, consider that Pittsburgh's operation mirrors that of the Giants. No, we're not speaking of the Ray Handley Giants, the object of so much handwringing in New York these days, but of the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick-Ron Erhardt Giants who won the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Six days after Steeler president Dan Rooney hired the 34-year-old Cowher to succeed Chuck Noll last January, Cowher hired Erhardt to bring in the grinding, punishing hog offense that had been so successful for the Giants. Cowher had spent five years as an NFL linebacker and special teams wacko and then another seven as an assistant coach (two on special teams. live on defense). "Most defensive coaches favor a ball-control offense," says Cowher, who was the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator for the past three seasons. "It's in our blood."
When he studied tape of his new team, Cowher found that he had an active, aggressive defense led by a couple of All-Pros, Woodson and outside linebacker Greg Lloyd, a kind of junior Lawrence Taylor who made big plays. Cowher also had an undeveloped young quarterback. Neil O'Donnell, and inexperienced wide-outs, but he was rich in tight ends, with 280-pound Eric Green and 270-pound Adrian Cooper, a clutch possession receiver and one of the best blockers at his position in the league. And there was a third-year runner who caught his eye, Barry Foster, a 214-pound former wishbone fullback at Arkansas, who could bang into a hole in serious fashion.
"It seemed that a ball-control offense made the most sense," Cowher said two days before the Houston game. "When I hired Ron, I knew what I was getting."
He was getting the Giants' offense. At the Steelers' practice last Friday, Parcel Is. who was working Sunday's game as an analyst for NBC, watched an offense that he and Erhardt had created. "We ran the ball in '86, our first Super Bowl year, but we did it differently," Parcells said. The big play that year was the toss to Joe Morris, a small back who would run behind agile linemen who could get out and lead. "Then teams started scheming us with complicated defenses," Parcells said. "We couldn't get our running attack blocked. We had to simplify it."
So Parcells drafted bigger linemen, hog types, and let them bang straight ahead. He gave the ball to O.J. Anderson, a bigger back than Morris, a guy who could smack into a hole and complete a run with a burst. Parcells also loaded his offense with two, sometimes three, tight ends. After Parcells retired in May 1991, Erhardt was phased out of the operation by Handley, so he was only too happy to bring the whole package to Pittsburgh.
The concept wouldn't work without a defense that could keep the Steelers out of shoot-outs or a steady run of games in which they would have to play catch-up. In its season opener Pittsburgh beat Houston 29-24 by intercepting five of Moon's passes. On Sunday the Steelers held the Oilers to 283 yards—Houston's lowest total of the season.
Pittsburgh's offensive linemen, trap blockers during Noll's tenure, had to bulk up for the straight-ahead game. And, of course, a keynote tailback was essential. Foster, who was the 19th running back drafted in 1990, had shown flashes, but he missed almost half of last season with an ankle injury. When he got another shot this year, he started putting big numbers on the board. After he rushed for 190 yards against the New York Jets in Week 2, someone asked him what his goal was for 1992. "Oh, let's say about 800 yards," said Foster. But his 118 yards on 31 carries against Houston gave him six 100-plus games for the year (Franco Harris's Steeler record is seven), and he leads all AFC rushers, with 865 yards.
"Everyone on the team knew what he could do," says Pittsburgh tackle John Jackson. "He runs hard and he runs low. Guys miss him if they try to tackle him high, and if they go low, they'll take some real punishment."
"I was upset when I wasn't playing in the past," Foster says. "I didn't think I'd ever become the featured back. I don't have blazing speed, and I'm not your stereotype halfback. What I can do; though, is run hard and finish a run hard, and those are things that can't be coached. You have to have them in your heart."
Maybe those are the things that first caught the eye of Cowher, who was never a star in the NFL but was usually the first man down under kickoffs. Born and raised 15 minutes from Three Rivers Stadium, Cowher and his smack-'em-in-the-gut style have exceeded everyone's wildest hopes for a team that was 7-9 last year.
"When we won our first three games," says Cowher, "my wife, Kaye, and I would go out shopping, and everyone wanted to congratulate us and pat us on the back. Then we lost two, and people would see me coming and look the other way. Then we beat the Bengals and Chiefs, and everyone was friendly again. I feel as if I've been through three seasons."
With many more to come.