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The muggers took on the pickpockets in Denver Sunday, and the muggers won ugly, 24-17, which is what hardnosed football teams often do when they lure foes into the trenches. The muggers were the new-breed Pittsburgh Steelers, a little green, perhaps, but ever ready to play the tough old way, coach Chuck Noll's way.
That's the way they played it against the Broncos, who had been favored by a touchdown mostly because their pictures were plastered all over the NFL's Most Wanted posters. And, probably, because the Steelers went an excuse-me 9-7 while winning the woefully weak AFC Central.
In taking the tougher AFC West with a 13-3 mark, Denver unleashed a defense that seemed ready for parole, not All-Pro. The Bronco D finished second only to San Francisco in touchdowns allowed (24 to 26) and second (to Seattle, which had 63) in takeaways with 55, eight of which—recovered fumbles or interceptions—were legged back for scores.
Well aware of the Broncos' fondness for separating a runner from the ball, Noll had his defenders try to strip the Steeler runners all week in practice. The flip side of Denver's ballhawking tactics was clear to Steeler running back Walter Abercrombie. "Because the Broncos are more conscious of stripping the ball than tackling," Abercrombie said, "sometimes you can slip away for a big gain."
To Noll's horror, six minutes into the AFC championship semifinal, Denver's designated hitters had already scooped up two fumbles by quarterback Mark Malone. "One Malone fumble," Steeler center Mike Webster corrected afterward as the Steelers headed for Miami for the conference championship. "The second one was my fault. The play was on an audible and I didn't hear the color [for the snap]. So, I was late getting the ball back to him."
The first recovery, by Andre Townsend at 9:44, resulted in a missed 39-yard field goal attempt by Denver's Rich Karlis. After the second, covered by Tom Jackson at 8:45, Denver moved 13 yards to the Pittsburgh nine. Now, quarterback John Elway called "Double Down And In."
While Elway faked a hand-off to All-Pro running back Sammy Winder, wide receivers Steve Watson and Ray Alexander fired down the right side and then cut to the post. Meanwhile, Jim Wright, the H-back (a tight end disguised as a slot back), came in motion from the left and slipped into the area cleared by the receivers. When Steeler free safety Eric Williams bit on a fake to Winder, Wright was alone to gather in Elway's touchdown pass. Denver 7-0.
The game was just six minutes and 30 seconds old. "Right then, after those two fumbles, that's when a lot of teams would have stopped trying to run on Denver," said Frank Pollard, the Steelers' other running back. "That's why they looked so good on paper against the run, because after a fumble or two, other teams went to the pass." Denver finished fifth in the NFL against the rush, holding 11 rivals to under 100 yards on the ground. "But the running game was always there," said Pollard. " New England gave them a lot of trouble on the ground."
Undaunted, the Steelers stuck to grunt football. Webster and the kids on the offensive line began to open wide gaps in the confused Bronco defense. All season, Pittsburgh had made a fair living with the pulling guard trap. For Denver, the Steelers switched to the longer developing but equally devastating tackle trap. Pollard poured through for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Abercrombie added 75.