Dark, dark days, and when you talk about the Rams' chances against Pittsburgh, you almost have to get into the metaphysical. How can a team that had sunk so low finish so high? How, for instance, did they manage to beat the Cowboys—at Dallas—in the first playoff game? For one thing, they rallied around their veterans: Defensive End Jack Youngblood, who broke a leg in the first quarter (actually it was a hairline fracture of the left fibula); Jim Youngblood, who has recurring pain from a shoulder injury; Safety Dave Elmendorf, neck; Corner-back Rod Perry, concussion, bad knee. They all played. They'll all play Sunday.
The Rams went into a seven-back prevent defense against Roger Staubach and the Dallas shotgun. It worked. "We're prepared for it, but I don't think they'll use it against us," says Rollie Dotsch, the Pittsburgh offensive line coach. "There's no running threat off the shotgun, so you can play the pass exclusively. But we'll run the ball on third-and-long." Translation: Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton and Rocky Bleier would ruin a seven-back prevent.
Finally, the Rams beat the Cowboys with their two-minute offense. In the first half it consisted of four pass plays, ending in a circus TD catch by Ron Smith. In the second half, with 2:16 left, L.A.'s two-minute offense consisted of one pass, a 50-yard TD play from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy. The Rams' two-minute offense is built on the miraculous, or as Steeler Assistant Head Coach George Perles says, "They go deep, fast and long and try to outfight you for the ball. They're not going to try to pick you. They want to get it done in a hurry, and that's what you have to worry about with Ferragamo, the tone he can put on the ball when he throws deep."
There's nothing smooth about the Rams' offense, although it has looked a little better since Wendell Tyler got his sea legs. The key to the Rams' attack used to be the Slob Sweep—everybody pull out and look for the strangle. The linemen would push off on their blocks and lie all over you. Octopus left, octopus right. High school coaches in the stands would cover their linemen's eyes. The Rams have tried to clean up the Slob Sweep this season, bringing in Dan Radakovich to teach the linemen formal techniques and also to put in the intricate trap-block system he helped perfect at Pittsburgh. At times the linemen show their new precision, but at other times it looks like the same old Slob Sweep.
Radakovich is one-third of the Pittsburgh Connection on the Rams' coaching staff; he worked there for four years. The other two parts are Carson, who ran the Steelers' defense for six years, and Lionel Taylor, who coached their receivers for seven. There is little about the Steeler operation that will be unknown to the Rams. Radakovich is known as the Mad Scientist and has a mind totally tuned in to the gridiron. When Terry Bradshaw used to call the press box from the sideline, he'd say, "Earth to Rad. Earth to Rad. Come in, Rad." They tell the story of Radakovich coming home from practice one night totally exhausted, going into the kitchen for a beer and turning on the TV set—and then realizing he was in the wrong house.
But the strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers does not lie in formations or even techniques. It's the people. Pittsburgh is a mighty rolling dynasty that's built to last. Unplug one man, plug another one in. Reserves wait to get a chance. The Steelers' great success this year has tended to obscure their injuries. Bradshaw has been down a few times—against St. Louis they took him off the field on a stretcher. Lynn Swann has been hurt, so have John Stallworth and Sidney Thornton. They lost their great All-Pro linebacker, Jack Ham, going into the playoffs, and not a ripple was felt. Ditto for Jon Kolb, their left tackle, and Gerry Mullins, their right guard. Unplug one, plug another one in.
Let's talk about Dirt and the Sweeper. Dirt is Dennis Winston. For three years he has been a special teams' whacko, dishing out many blows, receiving few. He had gotten his nickname—Dirty before it was shortened—at the University of Arkansas, where, as he says, "I think I passed out some pretty good licks from the noseguard position." The problem at Pittsburgh was toning him down. No, no, Dennis, you must learn to differentiate between the ball and the man's head. Finally he was ready, and when the linebacking corps suffered injuries this year, Winston was turned loose. Game ball against Dallas. Game ball against Houston. On another team they'd be pushing him for the Pro Bowl. At Pittsburgh he's simply the man filling in for Jack Ham at left linebacker.
The Sweeper is Steve Courson, who came in for Mullins at right guard. The Steelers like their offensive linemen short and compact, built for pulling and trapping. You don't see the Slob Sweep at Pittsburgh. When the Steelers run a sweep or a screen, the linemen get out there quickly and throw their bodies. "When you take on a man standing up, the back has the option to run to only one side," Center Mike Webster says. "But when you wipe that man out, the back can go anywhere he wants."
The Sweeper came in the same year Winston did. The first thing Courson asked was, "Where's the weight room?" He stands 6'1" and weighs 262. He can run a 4.8 forty and bench-press 515 pounds ("On double rep...I don't know how much I could do on just one"). He has a vertical jump of 36 inches. The Steelers brought him along slowly. That trap-block offense takes time to learn.
"Now, coach, now?"