SI Vault
Peter King
January 22, 1990
Before the 49ers, there were the Steelers. Lambert (58), Bradshaw, Greene & Co. ruled the NFL for most of a decade—and changed it forever.
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January 22, 1990

The Steel Age

Before the 49ers, there were the Steelers. Lambert (58), Bradshaw, Greene & Co. ruled the NFL for most of a decade—and changed it forever.

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"People think those Steeler teams wanted small offensive linemen," says Radakovich, now the defensive coordinator of the Browns. "That's a crock. We just brought a bunch of guys to training camp, and I kept the best I had." And he used every coaching trick in the book to help them. Actually, he put some of those tricks into the book.

•He thought his guys were getting thrown around too much by defenders, so he had equipment manager Tony Parisi's mother-in-law tailor all the linemen's jerseys so tight that defensive players wouldn't be able to grab the cloth. For extra measure, Radakovich made sure that the jerseys were stuck to the shoulder pads with double-sided tape.

•In those days, offensive linemen were allowed to use their hands, fists closed and within the plane of their bodies, to push off defensive players, so long as their arms were not fully extended. Radakovich instructed his linemen to fire out their fists with their arms at full extension, believing the officials wouldn't call a penalty. The officials didn't. Radakovich had his linemen wear boxing workout gloves—the kind fighters use when working on the speed bag—to protect their hands when they fired out. Noll made the gloves mandatory. Today they are common on NFL teams.

•Radakovich introduced the concept of area blocking: A lineman didn't always go one-on-one with a defender but rather pushed him to a fellow blocker if the defensive player stunted. And he introduced the pulling center to the Steelers.

•Radakovich knew his linemen had to be very quick laterally for the Steelers to execute their rushing game, which relied on trap blocking, so he introduced lateral-movement drills used by a friend at Upper St. Clair High in the south hills of Pittsburgh. Radakovich's practices were the most physically demanding the Steeler linemen had ever endured.

By 1974, Noll had assembled a staff of teaching coaches: Bud Carson, George Perles and Woody Widenhofer on defense; Radakovich, Dick Hoak and Lionel Taylor on offense. "I've always thought the key to the Steelers' success, the underrated part of their success, was coaching," says Bob Trumpy, the former tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals who is now a commentator for NBC. "Everyone has built them up over the years to be these monsters who just overpowered people. Hell, they hardly had anybody over 225. I remember how great they were at making adjustments. One year we figured I could slip past their line. So we'd do some play action, and I'd run a route at Lambert. Ken Anderson would just float the ball over Lambert. It worked for a while. They saw what we were doing and just widened their line. I could get free, but I'd have to run way wide, and by that time Joe Greene was in Anderson's face."

The defense carried the Steelers into the playoffs in 1972 and '73. The offense, behind this pint-sized line, put them over the top in '74. Pittsburgh quarterbacks were sacked only 18 times in 14 games that year. The Steelers ran for 173 yards a game. In the AFC Championship Game and in the Super Bowl, they outrushed the Raiders and Vikings combined by an average of 10 yards to one: 473 to 46.

The most remarkable thing about those games—the first championship games of any kind the franchise had played—may have been that the Steelers were so confident. Before the game against Oakland for the conference title, Greenwood sat half-dressed in a tunnel outside the locker room, watching the NFC title game on a portable TV. He was asked what was up. "Just watching," he said, "to see who we play in the Super Bowl."

The Raiders were coming off a 28-26 win over the defending Super Bowl champ Dolphins and were playing at home. The left side of their offensive line, guard Gene Upshaw and tackle Art Shell, was headed for the Hall of Fame. But the right side of the Steeler defensive front, Holmes and Dwight White, was a wall. The Raiders rushed 21 times for 29 yards. Two weeks later, in the Super Bowl, Minnesota running back Dave Osborn rushed eight times for minus-one yard.

"There was a point, late in 1974, where—and you hear players talking about this now but never heard it back then—we were in what they call a zone," says Joe Greene, the former defensive tackle whom Pittsburgh drafted out of North Texas State in the first round in 1969. "We could just look at each other out there on the practice field, and everybody knew it. We weren't going to lose. There wasn't a chance."

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