Still Flying

The coach may be new, but the storyline remains the same—a big victory for Big D
September 11, 1994

So tell us, Barry, how do you like your boys? How do you like being dealt a full house your very first time back at the poker table?

Yeah, we know that season openers back at Oklahoma meant 72-zip over teams like North Texas, but these were the Pittsburgh Steelers, man, at Three Rivers. Very nasty place to play, very tough defensive team when aroused. Remember what they did to the New Orleans Saints in that place last year (37-14) or the way they took the Buffalo Bills apart (23-0)? Show them any weakness, and they're on you like the hounds of hell.

And so, Coach Switzer, your Dallas Cowboys are off and running with a 26-9 victory. Sure, you've been looking at this talent since the minicamps, but did you honestly believe you would see such a collection of gamers under one roof? Did you like that 28-yard fade that Troy Aikman threw to Michael Irvin on third-and-two late in the third quarter, with Rod Woodson locked into as tight a coverage as you can get? Did you like the way your 238-pound fullback, Daryl Johnston, did a full layout on that diving catch for the first touchdown, just before the half?

Or how about Emmitt Smith gaining 171 yards on the ground and popping that 46-yarder in the first half to help break the game open? Or tight end Jay Novacek worming his way through the forest for half a dozen catches? Or that pair of 300-pound guards, Derek Kennard and Nate Newton, pulling for those long traps? Or Charles Haley making four sacks—some people didn't think he would make it out of the trainer's room this season—or 33-year-old Jim Jeffcoat coming up with three or your defense ringing up nine?

"Let's put it this way," Switzer said in his first regular-season NFL postgame press conference. "I was enjoying the moment. Just like that guy who ran out of the stands; he was enjoying the moment. Until they got him."

"Jimmy Johnson might have chewed us out for some things today," Aikman said of Switzer's predecessor. "Some of the blitz pickup in the first half, a breakdown here or there. That was his way. It kept you from getting complacent. Barry's more laid-back."

Laid-back, maybe, but nobody's fool. When Switzer arrived at Oklahoma, he inherited a team with Joe Washington and the Selmon brothers. His Sooners didn't suffer a loss until his 31st game. Switzer doesn't screw things up.

For Bill Cowher's Steelers, their strategy for taking on the two-time defending Super Bowl champions wasn't hard to figure out. Pittsburgh would try to pound the lighter Cowboy defenders with running back Barry Foster and the big guys up front, fortified by the return from a holdout of 280-pound tight end Eric Green. On defense the Steelers would have to put pressure on Aikman to break up the timed patterns off his quick drop. They would do it by blitzing people up the middle—smaller, quicker guys like Woodson from his cornerback spot or strong safety Carnell Lake. Smith, of course, would have to be dealt with, but quickness at filling the lanes could help.

And these Steelers have a history of high emotion on defense, when they're in the right mood. "You could sense ii dining the week that we were up for this one," said right outside linebacker Greg Lloyd after the game. "You could tell by the clacking of the pads."

Things looked good for the Steelers for a while. They took the opening kickoff and drove to a first down on the Cowboy 38. Then the sack parade began. Neil O'Donnell suffered three in a row, the first when Haley disrupted an attempted flea-flicker, the next when Haley got O'Donnell again, the third when Haley flushed O'Donnell and Jeffcoat forced him out-of-bounds.

"I knew Charles was going to have a day like this," Newton said. "He's coming off that bad back he had last season, but it gets to his mind when people start saying they don't know how much longer he can go on. You can't keep him down."

"Usually your rush is real structured," Dallas defensive coordinator Butch Davis said. "But we turned three linemen loose to chase O'Donnell and had the fourth stay at home, window wiping. We went to that when they started throwing early, which kind of shocked me. I'd prepared our guys for an all-out assault running the ball, you know, bloody our nose."

On defense the Steelers were hanging in, foiling Dallas on third down with their blitzes, occasionally getting burned by Novacek underneath, but holding the Cowboys to field goals on their first two drives. Then, on Dallas's third possession, Smith went to work.

When the Cowboys feel an opponent's defense is a bit soft, they run the ball right away. When they respect the opposition, they usually start out by throwing timed passes, to take that little bit of zip out of the rushers' legs. Then they come back and pound them with Smith. Against the Steelers, Smith didn't get his big pop, his 46-yarder, until seven minutes were left in the first half. The run led to Johnston's diving touchdown catch. "You can't put a price on a fullback who can make a play like that," Aikman said.

A quick three-and-out series for the Steelers gave Dallas one more shot before the half, and it produced three more points. Four possessions, four scores. The Steeler defense was wearing down. The offense, with O'Donnell running for his life and either misfiring on the go or taking the sack, was in the minus column in passing yardage. Pittsburgh's new receivers, heralded rookie Charles Johnson and second-year man Andre Hastings, weren't experienced enough to come back to the quarterback and bail him out.

By the end of the third period O'Donnell had been sacked seven times, and his passing yardage was minus one. The Steelers' total yardage was 48. The fourth quarter produced Pittsburgh's only touchdown of the day, which narrowed the score to 19-9. It was time for the two-point conversion.

At the line of scrimmage the Steelers presented Dallas with an exotic formation—a thing that used to be called the middle huddle—which caused the Cowboys to burn a timeout while they organized strategy. Pittsburgh sent five players to one side of the field, four of them wearing 80-something on their backs, and six to the other, all wearing linemen's numbers. Try to figure out who the eligible receivers are.

"Yeah, it was wild," Cowboy cornerback Kevin Smith said. "I just ran over from my spot and latched on to a guy I thought might be a receiver." After O'Donnell's pass fell incomplete, Dallas drove for the touchdown that put the game away.

So what do the 1994 Cowboys look like, compared with last year's champions?

"I think [new coordinator] Ernie Zampese might be a little bolder with our offense," said Aikman, whose 21-for-32, 245-yard day was typical.

"More trapping," Newton said. "We have guards who can run."

And what of the Steelers, who some people thought might make it to the Super Bowl this season?

"We stunk out the joint," said Woodson, who gave up four catches for 56 yards in man coverage on Irvin, not bad considering that Irvin's total was eight for 139. "We played the receivers' inside shoulder, trying to force Aikman to make the more difficult throw outside. He made some great throws."

Sound familiar? And it's only the beginning.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERAlvin Harper's only catch of the game was a gem, a 37-yard grab over two frustrated Steelers. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERCowher (right) had less to smile about than Switzer after Aikman started beating Woodson's blitzes. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSmith made it clear he takes the term "touchdown" literally on this fourth-quarter, two-yard run.

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