One thing we know for sure about the Dallas Cowboys as they
approach Super Bowl XXX, the team's third NFL title game in four
years: They thrive on big games, love being onstage. In fact,
this season the Cowboys seemingly had to be confronted with a
big game before they could perform up to their ability. "It's
where we belong," says Dallas wideout Michael Irvin. "It's where
we're at our best. It's where we need to be."
Opponents, of course, always view the Cowboys as the big game on
their schedule, and that was the case for the Pittsburgh
Steelers in their 1994 season opener. Dallas was coming off its
second straight Super Bowl win and was playing its first game
under coach Barry Switzer. But the Steelers thought they were
more than ready for the Cowboys that day, having devoted each
Monday throughout training camp to attacking Dallas schemes and
dissecting tendencies. Plus there was the added incentive of
playing in front of their rabid fans at Three Rivers Stadium.
The final score was Dallas 26, Pittsburgh 9, and the game wasn't
that close. The Cowboys outgained the Steelers by 316 yards.
Dallas had nine sacks; Pittsburgh had none. The Cowboys scored
on six of eight full series. And the outcome of that game
provides a glimpse of what will happen this Sunday at Sun Devil
Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Dallas has lost only four of the 24 starters from that Steelers
game, and two of the newcomers--cornerback Deion Sanders and
guard Larry Allen--are among the best in the game at their
positions. Recent history tells us that unless the Cowboys
self-destruct (as they did in their five-turnover debacle
against the San Francisco 49ers in last year's NFC Championship
Game), it doesn't matter how well prepared the enemy is.
Opponents have tried various ways to beat Dallas: If we can stop
Emmitt Smith, they say, or if we can blitz Troy Aikman, or if we
can run up their soft gut.... Forget it. Beginning in 1992, the
Cowboys are 9-1 in the month of January.
On Jan. 13, the night before the Green Bay Packers played Dallas
for the NFC championship, Packers coach Mike Holmgren didn't
seem too concerned about Smith. "He's done most of his damage
late against us, when they already have a lead and they're
trying to hold it," Holmgren said of the Cowboys' tailback. The
next day Smith ripped through the Pack from the opening whistle
to the final gun, gaining 150 yards and scoring three touchdowns
on 35 carries. Green Bay had hoped to control the clock, but the
Packers had possession for all of 21 minutes and lost 38-27.
Three years ago, before Super Bowl XXVII, Buffalo Bills
defensive end Bruce Smith said, "We've got to get pressure on
Aikman and break his rhythm." The Dallas quarterback completed
22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-17 rout.
For the Steelers, who haven't made a Super Bowl appearance since
the 1979 season, any hope of beating the Cowboys and ending the
AFC champions' 12-year losing streak to the NFC champ emanates
from their improved offense. Pittsburgh averaged six more points
per game this year than it did last. The Steelers' rejuvenated
passing attack gives offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt the
variety he needs to keep his team in the game. And Erhardt knows
something about rising to the occasion in the Super Bowl.
Five years ago, in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, the underdog New
York Giants were about to face the Bills' juggernaut when Giants
coach Bill Parcells gave his offensive coordinator, Erhardt, a
simple command: "Shorten the game." The Giants set a Super Bowl
record for time of possession, 40:33, that may never be broken.
Erhardt's unit wore down the Bills' defense while keeping the
ball away from Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly and running back
Thurman Thomas as the Giants won 20-19.
The Steelers will have to do likewise against Dallas, by having
tailback Bam Morris pound away at the Cowboys' lone area of
vulnerability--their run defense. If Erhardt can play clockball
against Dallas, Pittsburgh might have a chance. But far more
likely is that Super Bowl XXX will be a desert version of that
1994 Steel City rout, for the following four reasons:
1. The Dallas offensive line will dominate the game.
Against Green Bay the Cowboys ran the ball 43 times, and the
best front five in football put on a drive-blocking clinic,
wearing down the Pack with a display of sheer strength. Again
and again the Dallas linemen moved the Packers five yards off
the ball with all the finesse of a road grader.
In December, at the team's final weigh-in of the season, left
tackle Mark Tuinei was 310 pounds, right guard Allen was 327,
right tackle Erik Williams was 329, center Derek Kennard was
331, and left guard Nate Newton rounded out the heaviest line in
NFL history at 334 pounds. Cowboys insiders say that Newton and
Kennard have topped 350 by now, and Allen has put on 10 pounds
or so. Add a few postholiday pounds to the other three, and the
Dallas front five probably average 335 pounds.
Pittsburgh's defensive front seven average 267 pounds--10 pounds
lighter than the Green Bay unit that spent most of the game
against Dallas on its collective rear end.
"Sumo wrestling is a great illustration of what happens in line
play," says Dallas offensive line coach Hudson Houck. "The guy
with the bigger mass wins. And a great offensive lineman is one
who beats his opponent when they're both dead tired." Against
the Packers in the fourth quarter, Smith and fullback Daryl
Johnston ran the ball 10 times for a combined 58 yards.
The Cowboys expect to see a lot of stunting and movement along
the Steelers' defensive line, a tactic that worked for the
Minnesota Vikings when they played Dallas in Week 3. The
Vikings' defensive front gave the Cowboys fits before Dallas
pulled out a 23-17 win in overtime. "The Vikings stunted so
much, it was hard for us to get into a rhythm, and you never
look very good when you can't get into a rhythm," says one
Dallas coach. "You become less aggressive. And we need to be
Green Bay tried the Vikings' approach in the NFC title game, but
this time the Cowboys were ready. They neutralized the Packers'
stunting with their running game and were on their way to Arizona.
2. The Cowboys are healthier than they've been in years.
Looking back on last year's NFC Championship Game at San
Francisco, Dallas trainer Kevin O'Neill says, "We had so many
guys hurt, we took over a hotel suite and turned it into a
trainers' room. We were working around the clock, patching guys
together just so they could make it onto the field for that
Smith was suffering from a pulled left hamstring, and he
received more than 70 home remedies from fans, including
something called Topozone, a skin oil that is purportedly good
for everything from headaches and hemorrhoids to gout and
parasitic worms. Eschewing the Topozone, Smith struggled for 74
yards before popping the other hamstring. Going into Super Bowl
XXX, Smith is virtually pain-free. After 433 carries in 18
games, he just has a little tightness in his right calf.
Defensive end Charles Haley, who underwent back surgery on Dec.
6, is the only hurting Cowboy, and he might well play half the
game. The Cowboys could use him. He had four sacks in that 1994
opener against Pittsburgh.
When it comes to injuries, some teams just get lucky. The
Cowboys played 18 games (including the preseason) on artificial
turf last year and wound up resembling a M*A*S*H unit. They
played 18 games on the plastic and concrete this year and came
out almost without a scratch.
3. Aikman will be Aikman.
Throughout his seven-year career the Cowboys' quarterback has
been a 63% passer in the regular season. In 10 NFC playoff games
he has completed 68% of his throws. And in his previous two
Super Bowls he has connected at a 71% clip. Aikman is helped
enormously by having a running game that sets up a lot of
second-and-three plays. Combine Aikman's postseason track record
with the fact that the Pittsburgh secondary surrendered 24
touchdown passes this year, and Sunday's game could get
downright ugly. Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson, who will
attempt to play his first game since blowing out his right knee
in the season opener, won't be much help in collaring wide
receivers Irvin and Kevin Williams.
For Pittsburgh to keep the game close, linebacker Kevin Greene
will have to harass Aikman consistently. The Steelers believe
that the Cowboys may be vulnerable to the blitz, especially when
Smith and Johnston leave the backfield on short-pass routes, and
if inside linebacker Greg Lloyd (page 174) and Greene can steam
through unblocked, Aikman could be in peril.
4. Been there, done that.
"I've walked through some big tunnels,'' says Irvin. "I've
walked through tunnels for national-championship college games,
for big pro games. Let me tell you, walking through the tunnel
at a Super Bowl is a big deal. I'm a strong brother, but at my
first Super Bowl, in Pasadena, my knees got weak."
There probably hasn't been a single player in that situation who
wasn't in awe. "You never know how much it means until you stand
in that tunnel," says former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, the
MVP of Super Bowl XXI. "You may think tension before the game is
overrated, but when you're waiting to run out for the game, you
can smell it, taste it and feel it."
No starting player on the Steelers' roster has ever played in a
Super Bowl, and that may be telling against the championship
experience of the Cowboys.
Thus, Steelers coach Bill Cowher's mission is simple: Figure out
how to penetrate the largest offensive line ever and stop Smith
and Aikman, a pair of future Hall of Famers who are in their
prime. Then he has to find a way for his offense to score in the
high 20's against a solid Dallas defense, which is getting its
best player back.
The call here: Dallas 30, Pittsburgh 18.