They controlled Earl Campbell—13 carries, 57 yards—just as they had both times in Three Rivers last season. Of course, Houston made things easier by lining up in a formation that was geared to Stabler's short passing rather than Campbell's running—two tight ends, two wide receivers, no Tim Wilson, the 220-pound fullback who's so effective as Campbell's blocking back. In all, the Oilers threw the ball 44 times and ran it only 15.
Houston noodled around with the run for a while early but got nowhere. Then Stabler went to the air 11 straight times, and the Steelers had the Snake on the ropes. In the first period they picked off three Stabler passes, and in the second quarter they grabbed the fourth of their five for the day. They opened up the 17-0 lead and they made it look easy—so easy that their own failings were hidden.
Going for their third touchdown, Bradshaw underthrew Sidney Thornton near the goal line, and the Steelers settled for a chippie field goal instead. Twice Bradshaw was intercepted in Oiler territory when he threw to a receiver who was covered. Another drive died in Houston's end of the field when the Pittsburgh running game was stuffed. The Steelers' defense was playing great, diving for interceptions on tipped balls, but there were ominous signs, too. Stabler was getting time to pass. When the Steelers would load up and throw a blitz at him, he'd slide the ball to an inside receiver and beat it. Even so, the score could have been 30-0 at the half, but, hey, 17-0 is good, too. Why worry?
Give Stabler credit. He could have taken the pipe after that horrendous first half, but didn't. The Oilers came back and tied the score at 17-17 in the third quarter, and even after the Steelers ran it up to 31-17, Houston was threatening, until Donnie Shell popped up from a blind area, picked off a Stabler pass on the Steeler 15 and ran it back 67 yards.
As for Tatum, who didn't start but played occasionally as a nickel back on passing downs, he cut off a Steeler threat in the second quarter with an interception and later took a ferocious shot from 260-pound Tackle Steve Courson near the sideline; Tatum flung the ball at Courson, who showed a very slow set of reactions as it struck his face mask. The rest of the time Tatum was almost invisible.
The game didn't fit the old Steeler-Oiler stereotype, a vicious battle in the trenches. Pittsburgh won it with an Alley-Oop and then a long interception. The Steelers didn't run the ball very well. Their defensive front four played the gaps, to cut off the threat of Campbell, and this didn't provide much of a pass rush. They relied on the tremendous speed and reactions of their linebackers and secondary, and Stabler helped out by trying to force the ball through tiny openings in the middle. A quarterback with a howitzer for an arm might make it work, but Stabler's soft passes—hanging in the air, waiting for someone to grab them—were too often tipped or dropped. The Oiler receivers had seven drops.
"Pastorini threw the ball so damn hard that no one could catch the ricochets," said Steeler Coach Chuck Noll. "These deflections hung there nicely."
It was a game of trickery, too: a 57-yard touchdown on an option pass by Campbell, his first in the NFL, and a 29-yard Bradshaw-to-Thornton touchdown pass in the first quarter on third-and-one. "If you punch the computers on us," Noll said, "you'll find an extra high percentage of runs when we bring in our short-yardage people. Today we screwed up the computers."
"We haven't shown any passing on short yardage in the 10 years I've been here," Bradshaw said. "This one, though—yum, yum."
The Steelers weren't smooth on offense and they weren't overpowering, but they got extraordinary catches from Stallworth, a couple of tough receptions by Lynn Swann and one terrific grab in traffic by their third wide receiver, Jim Smith, to set up the touchdown that gave them the 24-17 lead.