With three games remaining in the 1989 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves dead last in the AFC Central, with a 1-5 division record. Yet unlike their 2009 successors, this 6-7 Steeler team was learning how to win games and it was a team on the rise.
The loss to the Oilers in the preceding week did nothing to alter that reality.
It goes to show you just how much mindset melds with momentum in the NFL. The fact that the Oilers had won by no small virtue of an extra time out in the first half could have broken the team, much the way the coin toss game in Detroit broke the 1998 Steelers.
But these Steelers had indeed turned the corner with Merril Hoge’s go ahead touchdown on 4th and Goal three weeks earlier against San Diego.
The Steelers were going places, and the New York Jets, who were coming off a two game winning streak of their own, had no chance of standing in the way.
On offense the Steelers set the tone early, by driving straight down the field on their opening possession. First round draft pick Tim Worley capped off the drive by ripping off a 35 yard touchdown run to open the scoring.
As it had for much of the year, the Steelers offense struggled, as the Jets defense kept them in check for the balance of the first quarter and the entire second and third quarters. Worley in fact would only add another 29 total yards to his touchdown sprint, while Hoge added 43 yards of his own.
But Tom Moore kept New York Jets defensive staff guessing, running a total of five reverses netting 49 yards for Louis Lipps and Dwight Stone.
Bubby Brister did his part, going 15 of 29, but he spread out the ball out to Lipps, Hoge, Worley, rookies Derrick Hill and Mark Stock, tight end Mike Mularkey, and Mr. “Go Out and Get Open” Rodney Carter.
The Steelers certainly did not put up pretty numbers, but they did control time of possession, and the managed to out gain their opponents for the first time since week four against Detroit.
The NFL Meets Greg Lloyd
The December 10th game against the Jets represented the year’s most dominating performance of Rod Rust’s defense, and it perhaps also marked the day that that Number 95, Just Plain Nasty, Greg Lloyd, forced the rest of the NFL to take notice of the man who was not hired for his disposition.
Whenever the Jets moved the ball, the Steelers made them pay.
Joe Walton opted to start veteran Pat Ryan that week, and Lloyd made Ryan regret that decision, sacking him on only his fourth pass attempt, and knocking him from the game with a concussion.
That only opened the hard hits, as free safety Thomas Everett throttled Jets Receiver Al Toon – in the chest — and knocked him out with a concussion. No sooner did Everett pancake Toon, and Greg Lloyd was there giving him a WWF/WWE style three count.
Consciousness about concussions in 1989 wasn’t what it is today, but if Lloyd’s 3 count was a little over zealous, number 95 was nonetheless establishing himself as a someone to be reckoned with.
Lloyd had more to do that day, ending a Jets drive with a 16 yard interception.
Dwayne Woodruff also a hauled down another pick, and Rod Woodson blocked a field goal.
Tack on Gary Anderson’s two field goals of 42 and 45 yards – this was the Meadowlands in December mind you – and the Steelers defense had turned the tables. After being the shut outee three times in 1989 season, the Steelers had shut out an opponent for the first time in 75 games, and the first time on the road since 1977.
And there’s no coincidence the Steelers accomplished that with the likes of Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd leading the way.
Foreshadowing Things To Come, in More Ways Than One
The fact that the Jets were weak opponents in no way diminished the statement that the 1989 Steelers defense had made. They were for real.
Yet, that was not all that the day foreshadowed, and not all of it was good. While the Rod Rust’s defense was holding the Jets scoreless, chants of “Joe Must Go,” echoed through the Meadowlands. “Joe” of course was Joe Walton. Joe would go, much to Pittsburgh’s peril.