The most spectacular matchup of Super Bowl XIII will not take place in the body-battering pit, where such big-name, big-bucks players as Pittsburgh's Mean Joe Greene and L. C. Greenwood and Dallas' Randy White and Harvey Martin earn their keep. Rather, it will occur far downfield from the crash of pads and the clatter of helmets, deep in the Cowboy secondary, where the Steeler wide receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, will frequently collide with the cerebrations of Strong Safety Charlie Waters and the Kung Fu clout of Free Safety Cliff Harris.
"We've become a passing team," says Swann. A quick glance at the statistics confirms Swann's statement. In 1975, a season that culminated in a 21-17 victory over Dallas in Super Bowl X, the Steelers made 149 first downs by rushing and 125 through the air. This season the numbers were virtually reversed: 149 by passing and 133 on the ground. Swann caught 61 passes for 880 yards, while his opposite number. Stallworth, grabbed 41 for 798 yards. Between them Swann and Stallworth scored 20 touchdowns—double the number made passing by all of the Steelers' opponents.
But statistics are only results. They cannot explain themselves. To understand how they came into being, one must watch the players whose actions are tabulated. In the case of Swann, it's very hard to figure. Though the Steeler roster lists him as six feet, 180 pounds, it's clear from the first glance that either this guy is a fraud or the roster is lying.
"Well," says Swann, who actually is 5'10", "I like to think of myself as 'about' six feet." A dapper dresser in the Southern California mode, with a cherubic smile and a careful, unemphatic way of speaking, he scarcely comes across as one of the game's most feared and respected participants. Yet to see him leaping half a body length higher than two desperate defenders, or slanting his pass route to the inside where he is bound to be tenderized by a charging safety, one has to agree that he can think himself however tall he wishes.
"I can't remember the last time I ran an outside or a sideline route," said Swann last week at The Tin Angel, a Pittsburgh restaurant where he and Stall-worth were having dinner. "Both John and I run inside nearly every time. Sure, that's where you get hit the hardest. But when you can hang on during the hit, you've gained a lot more than yardage. You've played into the secondary's strength and won, and you leave them with a sinking feeling, you leave them scratching their heads."
Stallworth, like Swann in his fifth year as a Steeler, and also 26 years old, is cast more in the traditional mode of an NFL wide receiver: 6'2" and a lean 183 pounds. Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a graduate of Alabama A&M, Stallworth has been Easternized during his years with the Steelers. Off the field he wears sober, vested pinstriped suits and elegant though unassertive ties. He emulates Swann in the care with which he chooses his words, but there is a definite grain to the timbre of his voice, a deep, loamy reminder of his Cotton Belt roots.
"We're each of us about as quick as the other," Stallworth said, "and I guess we can both jump as high, though Lynn starts a little closer to the ground than I do," and he grinned wickedly across the table at his running mate, "but we catch the ball differently. Lynn always tries to take it against his body, to cushion it during the catch. I have more of a tendency to catch with my hands."
He raised the meat hooks in question, each about the size of a serving platter, and the technique was fully explained. "Lynn usually lines up on the strong side, which will put him opposite Charlie Waters in the Super Bowl, whereas I go to the weak side, against Cliff Harris. But we can and do flip-flop, and we also sometimes line up both on the same side. Depends on the defensive setup."
"Two of the passes I caught against Houston last week, I lined up on the weak side," Swann interjected. One, a diving catch to the inside, set up Harris' seven-yard run for Pittsburgh's first touchdown. The other was a 29-yard bullet from Terry Bradshaw for a touchdown in traffic, and it triggered the 54-second explosion of 17 Steeler points that ended the half and put the AFC title game out of Houston's reach.
"Strong side or weak side, it doesn't make much difference," said Swann. "John and I are both moving targets. It's up to Terry to hit us, and he's been sharp all season." In 1975, the year that produced the second of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl triumphs, Bradshaw averaged 147 yards passing per game; this season, his best ever, he raised that figure to 182 yards.