The Monster had been holed up in the dark closet, along with the old high school graduation suit and the scrap-books. Every now and then you'd hear some noises, but it hadn't really bothered anyone lately. Oh, you knew it was there all right, but no one in his right mind was going to open the door to make sure.
Then, last Sunday in Three Rivers Stadium, it got loose, that Monster of a Pittsburgh Steeler defense, and the unlucky victims were the Houston Oilers. It wasn't supposed to happen the way it did, Pittsburgh 38, Houston 7, with Sidney Thornton scoring two touchdowns and Lynn Swann catching five Terry Bradshaw passes for 95 yards, and it could have been worse. You just don't treat your most respected rival in the AFC Central Division with the disdain that the Steelers showed the Oilers. But when the Monster is loose, logic doesn't hold. It eats the best of game plans, knocks out quarterbacks like Dan Pastorini, shuts down All-Pro runners like Earl Campbell.
The Monster erupted at the end of the '74 season, in the two AFC playoff games and then in Super Bowl IX, when Minnesota's runners gained a whole 17 yards and Fran Tarkenton had most of his passes slammed back in his teeth by L. C. Greenwood or Joe Greene. The Monster returned in '76, after the Steelers had lost four of their first five games and Terry Bradshaw had been put out of action by a body-slam administered by Cleveland's Turkey Jones. The Steelers had to win their last nine to make the playoffs. So they rallied around rookie Quarterback Mike Kruczek, and the Monster rose up, allowing only 28 points in those nine games, five of which were shutouts.
For Pittsburgh, 1977 was a troubled year filled with lawsuits, holdouts and turmoil that ended with an early loss to Denver in the playoffs. Of course, the only reason the Steelers were even in the '77 playoffs was that Houston had obligingly knocked off Cincinnati in the final regular-season game, a happy turn of events Pittsburgh acknowledged by buying all the Oilers $50 attach� cases. Some Steelers are still shaking their heads over that one.
Last season the running game fizzled, so the Steelers shifted gears, turned to a big play offense and ran Dallas out of the Super Bowl. During '77 and '78 the defense was duly respected, but its work did not make you gasp. In Pittsburgh Sunday there were gasps.
Note the numbers. Campbell was held to a career-low 38 yards. The Oilers' passing attack gained a net of 22 yards, mainly because of five Steeler sacks and five Steeler interceptions. Pastorini went 4 for 16 before he was taken from the field with a bruised shoulder in the third quarter; while he conducted the show, the Oilers ran 35 plays for a total gain of 17 yards—an average of 17.5 inches per play. The 14 first-down plays Pastorini called resulted in a net of minus three yards. Those are Monster numbers. Vintage Steeler numbers.
"Stuffed us, they just stuffed us," Pastorini said after the debacle. "What can you do? Your running doesn't go, you don't have time to throw. You scramble around and try to get something going. You try to stay alive out there."
He was sitting on a table in the training room, his right arm in a sling. Outside were two orange-clad members of the Mutual Aid Ambulance Squad, standing by just in case. The day had been a nightmarish scene out of a past that Pastorini is desperately trying to forget—two 1-13 seasons, when his protection would break down and the enemy would come riding in like Cossacks, and when his only significant statistics were medical ones: ribs broken a couple of dozen times, nose broken several times, hand broken, collarbone broken, cheekbone broken. And the Houston fans would sit back in the Astrodome and boo his battle for survival.
"It's like being in a street fight against 10 guys," Pastorini once said, "and everyone's rooting for the 10."
In the third quarter Sunday the Steelers were leading 17-0 and Pastorini had a second-and-20 on his own 15, typical field position for the Oilers this afternoon. He was hoping to hit his tight end, Mike Barber, slanting in from the right side, but the left linebacker, Jack Ham, knocked Barber out of his pattern. Now Pastorini was on his own, scrambling to his left, which is the direction a right-handed thrower doesn't want to go. He tried to get the ball to Barber, but Loren Toews, the right linebacker, deflected the pass, and 245-pound defensive Right End John Banaszak intercepted it. Pastorini and Campbell brought Banaszak down, but the collision left Campbell dazed and Pastorini through for the day.