After 42 years of winding up each season with a load of zilch, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed their new mettle last Sunday by winning their first meaningful title.
You all remember the Steelers, who opened for business back in the first acknowledged Depression and stumbled through the terms of seven U.S. Presidents and three or four wars without ever winning much more than a Kewpie doll for their trophy case. Well, the Same Old Steelers are finally, and profoundly, altered. They are the champions of the American Conference.
Pittsburgh did it with a 24-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders, pro football's most celebrated bridesmaid team and one that must again endure the old croak that no matter how great their season (and this year it was better than anyone's) the Raiders cannot win the big one. They were champions of the old AFL in 1967 but were trounced in Super Bowl II by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. They made the playoffs six times in the seven seasons since and have played for the AFL or AFC title five of those years. They lost all five times. If Pittsburgh fans need a further high, they should know that every club that beat Oakland went on to win the Super Bowl.
In creating their lustrous refutation of the dreary past, the Steelers relied on an old football maxim: you score touchdowns with offense but you win championships with defense. For while they moved the ball impressively on the ground (224 yards) and adequately in the air, the key to the Steelers' victory was a defense that stopped the Raider rushing game more surely than a stone wall. Stunting into the Raiders' strength and beating them on sheer muscle, the Steelers held Oakland's ground game to a scant 29 yards, thus pressuring Quarterback Ken Stabler, the Raiders' only real offensive gun, into passing against a defense that had no reason to play him honest.
"You got to force them to throw the football when they'd rather not," said Linebacker Andy Russell, who had waited through 12 seasons to experience the nirvana that was Pittsburgh's locker room after the game. "They're a very patient team and they don't throw out their game plan when things don't go right, but I think they got very nervous when they couldn't do what they wanted to against us. Stopping their running game was the key to the whole thing. Our coaches gave us an excellent scheme of stunting to their favorite plays. We played a defense called the Stunt 4-3, which they hadn't seen us use in quite a while. And we didn't show them the 'stackover' [an alignment wherein Mean Joe Greene lines up over the center, on a bias], so their preparation for that didn't help them any. They couldn't pull their guards as much as they like."
"They gave us nothing at all on the ground," admitted Oakland Coach John Madden. "Our passing was sufficient, but we just couldn't get the run going. I can't remember when our ground game was shut down that effectively."
The Steelers had no such trouble with Oakland's defense, as Chuck Noll's club controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. With formidable blocking applied by Ray Mansfield, Jim Clack and Gerry Mullins, the Steelers blasted the middle and outran the flanks. Franco Harris, Pittsburgh's potent running star, had 111 yards and Rocky Bleier, the Vietnam vet who had come home badly wounded, poked and writhed his way for 98 more.
And the snickers and jeers about Terry Bradshaw being a dumb quarterback were put to rest, perhaps forever. While Bradshaw performed less effectively than he had in his remarkable playoff effort against Buffalo a week earlier, he was neither flustered nor stymied by the overworked Oakland defense, which he stung for 95 passing yards including a six-yard touchdown toss to rookie receiver Lynn Swann.
"Our game plan was to take it right at them," Bradshaw said. "We planned to run the ball, and our offensive line just blew those guys out. We should have scored more, but give the Raiders credit. They're a great team." Someone also may wish to give the officials credit. A highly questionable call on a Bradshaw pass to John Stallworth cost the Steelers another touchdown in the second quarter. Bradshaw added, "I probably could have thrown better today, but I wanted to use the pass as a control weapon, not as a big gun."
For all of Pittsburgh's predominance in score and statistics, the game was close up to 1:14 from the end, and indeed it seemed likely to finish, as the Oakland- Miami thriller had, with Stabler snaking the Raiders to a last-ditch victory. The score was 17-13 Pittsburgh, but Stabler, who had thrown 26 touchdown passes during the regular season and four more against the Dolphins, seemed to have fate going for him. He had been sacked for a nine-yard loss, but Steeler Cornerback J. T. Thomas was called for holding, and it was first and 10 for the Raiders on their own 32. Too often had Oakland fans seen the Snake wrest victory from apparent defeat in just such circumstances for any of them to leave the Oakland Coliseum for the consolation of a friendly neighborhood saloon. The crowd was waiting for another miracle.