’89 Steelers Shut Out Jets 13-0, Greg Lloyd Makes His Presence Known

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.

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Oilers Get 4th Timeout, Beat ’89 Steelers 23-16

This was the one everyone had waited for. When Chuck Noll dedicated the Steelers to securing a playoff spot when they were 4-6, there was no question which of Pittsburgh’s remaining six games was the biggest.

It was their December 3rd match up with the Houston Oilers.

Chuck Noll and Jerry Glanville

If it is safe to say that in 1989 rivalry between the Steelers and Browns ran deeper and still held the most intensity, it is also safe to say that the passion on the surface for the rivalry with the Oilers was hotter.

Jerry Glanville, with his showboat tactics and overt encouragement of dirty play was the antithesis of Chuck Noll. Noll and Bud Carson might have had their differences, and you can sure bet that Carson enjoyed the post-game hand sake after defeating his former mentor 51-0 in the season opener. But Noll and Carson certainly respected one another.

Houston so thoroughly thrashed the Steelers in week 7, that the 27-0 score betrayed the lopsidedness of the contest.

In week 12, the Steelers were 6-6 and the Oilers 7-5 clinging to a narrow lead in the division. A win would knock Houston down a peg, and give Steelers another divisional win to help with those all-important tie breakers.

It was time for Pittsburgh to show the NFL they were for real.

Steelers Start Strong, But Oilers Finish on Top, with Help

And the Steelers began the game doing just that, jumping to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Gary Anderson field goal, and a Merrill Hoge touchdown.

But Houston fought back, they scored two touchdowns late in the first half, although on the latter touchdown drive an official’s error awarded Houston an extra time out.

The Steelers marched the length of the field twice in the second half, but both times were forced to settle for Gary Anderson field goals, although the latter one tied the score, late in the fourth quarter.

  • But Houston struck back, marching 80 yards to score a touchdown with 21 seconds remaining to give them the lead with 21 seconds left to go.

Houston of course would hold on to that lead, and improve their record to 8-5 while the Steelers, with three games left, were knocked back into the losing side of .500.

At 6-7 sitting in last place in the AFC Central the odds of the Steelers making the playoffs were discouraging.

But the men in Black and Gold remained undaunted.

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A Video Tribute to the Old AFC Central

Steel Curtain Rising is pleased to share with youa tribute to the old AFC Central.

It aired 20 years ago today, on the occasion of the 1989 Steelers second regular season game against the rival Houston Oilers.

Narrated by the legendary Pete Axethelm, one of the men who helped put ESPN’s NFL GameDay on the map prior to his untimely death in the early 1990’s.

So sit back and take two and a half minutes to revel and reminisce about the days when division rivalries didn’t simply represent rallying points for the fans, but real blood vendetta’s for the players.

No wonder Tunch Ilkin found his way to broadcasting. Is there any better way to describe Jerry Glanville than as a “water moccasin?”

We think not.

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Splish, Splash, ’89 Steelers Give Miami a 34-14 Bath

1988 Steelers had closed out their season by defeating Don Shula’s 6-10 Miami Dolphins. While Chuck Noll’s 5-11 season prompted all sorts of “has the game passed him by” speculation, few pundits asked the same question of Shula, despite the fact that Shula had been in the game longer than Noll.

And by week 12 of the 1989 season, it would seem that the pundits had vindicated themselves. At 7-4 Miami was contending for playoff position, whereas, their victory over San Diego notwithstanding, the Steelers appeared to be jockeying for drafting order.

Prior to the game Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook even speculated at the prospect that Noll might be about to deliver Shula, Noll’s mentor, his 285th victory.

Appearances, however, can deceive.

1989 Steelers Dolphins, Merril Hoge, Tim Worley,

3 Merril Hoge touchdowns led the 1989 Steelers over the Dolphins, but Tim Worley got the call on this play.

Dolphins Keep Up Appearances… for a Quarter

The Dolphins opened up the game just as you would expect a 7-4 home team to do against a 5-6 vistor.

  • They scored touchdowns in both opening possessions, including a 66 yard pass to Mark Clayton.

But Marino’s bomb to Clayton coincided with the arrival of a dark rain cloud over Joe Robbie Stadium.

  • You’d think that a team that lives in Miami wouldn’t be bothered by a little rain.
  • You’d think it would be a distinct part of home field advantage, much the way cold is in the Northeast.
  • You’d think this would especially be the case when the visiting team had an 0-6 six record playing on your home field.

All logical assumptions. All wrong on this day.

Splish, Splash, Steelers Give Miami a Bath

The rain came. And came, and came. 2 and a half inches in 15 minutes, to be exact.

According to Merril Hoge, the rain was like “a bucket in the face.” Rod Woodson chimed in, sharing that the rain was a “blessing from Mother Nature.”

The Steelers offense responded first, moving the ball down field on a 72 yard drive that included a key third and 2 conversion to Mike Mularkey and one which Merril Hoge cap stoned with a one yard touchdown drive.

Then Rod Rust’s defense struck, and struck with a vengeance just three plays after Hoge’s score when Dolphins running back Sammy Smith fumbled the ball at Miami’s 23 yard line, and Carnell Lake scooped it up, ran three years, and then latereled to Dwayne Woodruff who took it the remaining 21 yards to even the score at 14-14.

Before the half was over, Gary Anderson gave the Steelers a 17-14 lead by booting a 27 yard field goal, and the Steelers kept on rolling out of the locker room, as Bubby Brister nailed rookie Derrick Hill for a 53 yard pass that ended at the Miami 5. Merril Hoge did the honors with a 5 yard touchdown on the next play to make it 24-14.

  • But the Steelers weren’t done. Miami fumbled the ensuing kick off and Gary Anderson knocked in 42 yard field goal, bringing the total to 27-14.

On the very next series, Scott Secules had a pass bounce off of Jim Jensen but Greg Lloyd was kind enough to catch it for him, returning the ball to the one. Merril Hoge closed out the score by punching in another touchdown from the one, to make it 34-14.

Dan Marino is on the sidelines with bruised ribs, as the Steelers are holding a 20 point lead over Miami going into the fourth Irve, and it looks like Pittsburgh is going to pull this one out folks.– CBS Sports Anchor, Brent Musberger

The 1989 Steelers-Dophins game of course was not broadcast in the DC area, but I remember Brent Musberger’s game break as if it was yesterday.

I must confess, that when I heard the news, I was ecstatic. I supposed I was old enough to know not to celebrate an injury, but 3 months away from my own first serious sports injury, I can say I didn’t really understand.

Marino was actually out of the game because of a shoulder injury, only the second game he had to leave because of injury, due to a hellacious hit that Carnell Lake had delivered in the first half, making that Lake’s second “splash” play of the game.

Lake wasn’t the only member of the Steelers 1989 draft class to step up. Derrick Hill play key roles in two scoring drives, and ended the day with three catches for 3-93 yards – phenomenal considering the conditions.

Tim Worley, who’d been flashing in recent games, ran 22 times for 95 yards, coming in just shy of his first 100 yard game.

Reflecting on the Rain

Miami refused to use the rain as an excuse, but the Steelers were proud of their ability to perform. Merril Hoge argued that “I don’t think Miami is used to playing in those conditions…. We accepted the weather conditions and overcame them.”

Dwayne Woodruff offered, “Its just normal conditions for us.”

Noll, however epitomized Pittsburghness when asked about the weather:

I guess that’s one of the problems you have when you have lovely weather all of the time. You pay the price.

Do You Believe?

It’s great that the Post-Gazette’s 11/27/89 edition provides us with these quotes via Google Newspapers.

After the Steelers had recovered from their horrendous 92-10 start, much of the NFL ignored Pittsburgh, save for offering them in passing as a living example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon.

But the most lasting quote comes from my memory, and was supplied by the following Monday by Troop 757 Assistant Scout Master Rick Legger, a Canadian émigré and devout Redskins fan. Reflecting on the Miami game told me:

“Those Pittsburgh Steelers are starting to create some believers – and I am one of them.” Finally, I had some company.

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’89 Steelers Top San Diego 20-17

Reporters asked Chuck Noll during week 11 if the Steelers 4-6 record meant that he was ready to begin focusing on 1990 and write 1989 off as a rebuilding year.

“No,” Noll insisted, the Steelers would attempt to win their final six games and make the playoffs.

As Noll scoffed, the media snickered.


Playoffs for a team that had started 51-0 and then 41-0? Playoffs for the first Chuck Noll team to suffer three shut outs in a season? Wild dreams of wild cards for a team that was 1-4 in the AFC Central, and who had already lost 27-0 to Houston, their only remaining divisional opponent?

In the pages of the Pittsburgh Press, Gene Collier entertained the question of how early spectators could leave Three Rivers Stadium and still be considered “loyal” fans.

Fortunately, Noll paid no heed to the critics. Fortune, however, had nothing to do with Noll’s success in convincing his players to turn a deaf ear to their critics.

Such was the setting as the San Diego Chargers arrived at Three Rivers Stadium for week 11 of the 1989 season.

Special Teams Strike Force

During the Steelers sprint to the playoffs at the end of the 1989 season, each unit would step up, and special teams led the way against San Diego.

For three quarters plus, as it had been for much of the season and particularly in the two games prior, the Steelers offense was the little engine that couldn’t, managing a meager 100 yards.

  • So while Jim McMahon and the Chargers were racking up 396 yards, the Steelers special teams kept San Diego honest.

Football is a game of field position, and Harry Newsome’s first punt bounced off of Lester Lyle’s helmet and Carnell Lake recovered at the 18. While the Steelers did not score on that series, the defense held, and two series later Gary Anderson hit a 49 yard field goal for the games first points.

Dana Brinson fumbled the Newsome’s next punt, which Carnell Lake recovered at the 47. Again, the Steelers offense failed to take advantage, but Newsome was able to pin them deep in their own territory.

Special teams paved the way for the Steelers next score, as Cedric Figaro’s roughing the punter penalty set up Anderson’s next kick, although by that time Jim McMahon had gotten the Chargers on the board with a touchdown to Anthony Miller.

The Chargers added another field goal midway through the first quarter, but their 10-6 lead was short lived.

In Rod We Trust

Rod Woodson fielded the ensuring kickoff at the 16 yard line, started up the middle, but then saw daylight to the left. David Johnson and Tyronne Stowe sealed off San Diego’s containment team. Nothing lay between Woodson and the endzone Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf.

Woodson sailed 84 yards down the field scoring the Steelers first touchdown in eight quarters and electrifying Three Rivers Stadium and the Steelers sidelines in the process. Woodson had given the Steelers a 13-10 lead and the all important momentum, or had he?

The McMagician Has Another Rabbit in His Hat

In the 1980’s NFL Films once described Jim McMahon as Mike Ditka’s “magician-like quarterback” for his ability to lead comebacks. McMahon appeared ready to do it again.

From the shores of Monmouth county, to the tree-lined groves of Falls Church generations of Jim McMahon fans were enthralled as number 9 hooked up twice with Anthony Miller on a 68 yard drive that put the Chargers ahead 17-13 as the third quarter came to a close.

90 Yards Away from Winning This Game

And so the Steelers offense found themselves with the ball at the 9, down 17-13, with 11:42 remaining. Could an offense that had not scored a touchdown in nine quarters, and had barely managed 100 total yards in the game, go the distance?

  • It was time to find out.

Bubby Brister led the charge with a 19 yard strike to Louis Lipps. Merril Hoge took over from there, accepting a hand off and trying to go left, off tackle, but no room was to be had. Hoge instead cut back to the right and ripped off a (then) career-long 31 yard gallop that brought the Steelers to the Chargers 37.

Next, Brister hit Mike Mularkey for a 22 yard strike that took them to the 12, and a few plays later, the Steelers found themselves 1st and goal at the one.

  • But Pittsburgh couldn’t punch it in.

Hoge ran on first and lost a yard on first down, and all Tim Worley could mange to do on two straight carries was regain that yard. At fourth and one, with a little less than seven minutes left to play, a field goal would have made it a one score game.

The Emperor Opens His Bag of Tricks

Chuck Noll had other plans. As Chuck Noll explained after the game, “I felt we needed to score a touchdown.”

Noll decided to go for it, but to do so with a little deception. He inserted third down specialist Rodney Carter into the game and split both tight ends wide, the Steelers preferred goal line passing formation.

  • The Chargers defenders started shouting “Carter, it’s a pass going to Carter!”

Carter circled to the right at the snap, feigning a pass route.

It was Noll’s best bluff. Brister handed off to Hoge. John Rienstra pulled to the left while Dermonti Dawson and Terry Long opened the gap, Merril Hoge plowed into the end zone, and the Steelers had a 20-17 lead.

McMiracle Not to Be

Jim McMahon wasn’t done, driving his team down to the Steelers 42 yard line. But, 30 seconds before the two minute warning, he got greedy, and David Little intercepted him sealing the Steelers victory.

On the face of it, it appeared that one 4-6 team had vanquished another 4-6 team. Decidedly ho hum in the NFL. But for the 1989 Steelers, it was the start of something much bigger.

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Bears Deal ’89 Steelers Third, Final Shut Out of Season

The Steelers returned from Mile High Stadium licking their wounds after dropping at 34-7 decision. Week 10 brought the Chicago Bears to Three Rivers Stadium, and at least the potential for hope.

After all, returning to Three Rivers Stadium had inspired rallies in week 3 against the Vikings and then later in week 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

History was also on the Steelers side. The Chicago Bears had never won a game in Three Rivers Stadium, nor had they won in Pittsburgh since 1944.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, dice do not have memories.

Case in point, Bubby Brister entered the game not having thrown an interception since the week one 51-0 blowout against the Cleveland Browns. He’d thrown 179 passes with out a pick to be precise, a record for the Steelers under Chuck Noll…

  • …Bears cornerback Lemuel Stimpson intercepted Brister’s very first pass.

That was only Stimpson’s first of the day, as he grabbed one more, as did another Chicago defender.

It actually got worse for the Steelers on the ground, as they gained a meager 54 yards total rushing,

  • a stat made all the more worse when one considers that 32 of those came on a Dwight Stone reverse

In contrast, the Bears amassed 203 yards rushing – without a single back getting anywhere near the century mark. Even Jim Harbaugh ran 7 times for 56 yards.

About the only good news for the Steelers was that they held the Bear’s scoreless in the second half.

Of course that would have meant so much more had the Bears not held the Steelers scoreless in both halves.

When the dust settled, the Bears defeated the Steelers 20-0, handing them their third shut out in just ten games, the first time any Chuck Noll team had been shut out three times in a year.

It was mid-November, six games remained, they had just dropped two in a row, and the 1989 Steelers record was 4-6. Many thought Pittsburgh might be lucky to match the 1988 Steelers 5-11 record.

They were wrong.

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’89 Steelers Bounced Out in Denver, 34-7

20 years ago this week, the 1989 Steelers traveled to Denver just as their successors are preparing to do this week. Steel Curtain Rising takes a look back with the caveat that we hope that Tomlin and Roethlisberger fare better in the thin Denver air than did Noll and Brister…

The Denver Broncos were the closest thing the AFC had to a dominant team in the 1980’s.

And if the Steelers had experienced success against the Broncos, with the upset in the 1984 playoffs and again in 1988 as Rod Woodson and Rodney Carter rallied behind a beleaguered Chuck Noll, there was no mistaking who was the favorite when the Steelers traveled to Mile High in the fall of 1989.

Underdogs or not, the Steelers arrived with some measure of hope.

They’d shook off humiliating 51-0 and 41-10 losses to division rivals to upset a Super Bowl contender, only to lose their starting quarterback and then suffer another shut out to yet another third division rival, but again bounced back with a dramatic victory over up and coming Kansas City Chiefs.

Could the Steelers sustain some momentum?

Steelers Flash, then Fade Quickly

For a while that seemed to be an open question. The Broncos jumped to a 10-0 lead and were on the verge of scoring again until Rod Woodson intercepted John Elway in the end zone.

It appeared that the Steelers had the makings of a long afternoon for Elway as Brian Hinkle stepped up and intercepted his next pass, and Bubby Brister and Rodney Carter hooked up for 15 yard strike to bring the score to 10-7.

But appearances can deceive, and this time they did.

The Steelers offense was done after Brister’s touchdown pass. In fact, 8 of their 12 possession ended in three and outs.

Broncos Score 24 Unanswered Points

The Broncos scored 24 unanswered points, as Bobby Humphrey ran for two touchdowns and 102 yards, and John Elway hit a 44 yard touchdown pass, before Gary Kubiack entered for mop up duty (where he went 2-2 for 30 yards, for those who must know.)

The only bright note in the Steelers 34-7 loss to Denver? Despite the team’s offensive impotency, rookie running back Tim Worley ran 75 yards on 12 carries, his best showing of the season.

The best news was that week ten would bring the Chicago Bears to Pittsburgh, where they had not won since 1944. Would the 1989 Steelers keep the Bears winless in Pittsburgh for yet another full decade…?

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Defense Heroic, as ´89 Steelers Beat Back Schottenheimer’s Chiefs, 23-17

A won-lost record, the cumulative sum of the efforts of 47 men, defines an NFL team. After sixteen games, all the hits, tackles, extra efforts for more yards, and dropped passes come down in two numbers.

With that said, sometimes teams simply muster their collective will-power to make plays that produce turn-key moments.

In 1989, the week eight contest against the Kansas City Chiefs produced not one, but two turnkey moments for the Pittsburgh Steelers, although in keeping with the character of that year’s squad, neither were apparent at the time.

In the days before the internet, Steelers Nation foraged for news about the team from any source to be had. In my case, that sometimes meant a watching grade “C” local TV program called “Sports Talk” broadcast out of a small, UHF TV station in Northern VA whose number and call letters, although with the names of the show’s hosts, escaped memory long ago.

During the week prior to the Chiefs game, a caller asked if Bubby Brister was going to play. The hosts’ response went something like this:

Host A: “No, Brister is definitely out this week. The Steelers aren’t going to make the playoffs anyway, so they should definitely keep him out.”

Host B: “Yeah, they might even want let him sit out next week too, just as a precaution.”

On the heels of the Steelers shutout loss to the Oilers, both assessments were conventional wisdom in the NFL. No one thought the Steelers capable of anything in 1989.

Brister Shakes of Injury, Starts Game with a Bang

Fortunately, Bubby Brister delivered the game’s first turnkey moment because saw things differently and stepped up to start.

As if to put an exclamation point on his decision, Brister began the game by leading Pittsburgh to 16 unanswered points.

Undaunted, Marty Schottenhimer’s Chiefs fought back, getting on the board with a Nick Lowery field goal before half time. Steve DeBerg struck immediately in the second half, leading a nine play 80 yard drive that ended in an 8 yard touchdown, evening the score 16-10.

A two-fold disaster struck the Steelers in the third quarter, as the Steelers lost budding inside linebacking sensation, Hardy Nickerson. Shortly thereafter, Chiefs forced and returned yet another Steelers fumble for a touchdown, making it 17-16, Kansas City. (This translated to 4 Steeler fumbles returned for TD’s in four games at Three Rivers Staidum.)

None of this phased Brister, who wasted no time in answering, throwing a 64 yard bomb to Louis Lipps for a touchdown, as the Steelers pulled ahead 23-17 to close out the third quarter, paving the way for the game’s next turnkey moment.

Jerry Olsavsky vs. the Nigerian Nightmare

Brister’s third quarter bomb set up one of the finest 4th quarter stands in Steelers defensive history.

During the game’s final 15 minutes, the Chiefs offense reached the Steelers 5, 14, and 13 yard lines. Each time, Kansas City came away empty-handed.

Rod Woodson would pick of DeBerg in the end zone once. The Steelers would stop them one fourth down another time. But the play of the game came when the Chiefs were closest to scoring.

The 1989 Chiefs were led by the 260 pound, NFL leading rusher “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye.

Okoye was a behemoth who battered defenders in much the same way that Jerome Bettis would do a decade later.

So, when it was fourth and goal at the Steelers five, everyone knew who would get the call. The Chief’s offensive line created a huge hole at the snap, and all that remained between Okoye and the go ahead touchdown was 221 pound, rookie 10th round draft pick Jerry Olsavsky, who was replacing Nickerson.

Coming into the NFL, Olsavsky wasn’t supposed to be fast enough, tall enough, or big enough.

But as Okoye discovered, Jerry O. was simply good enough.

Jerry Olsavsky took the “Nigerian Nightmare” head on and blew him off the line of scrimmage, forcing Kansas City to turn over on downs, allowing the Steelers to run out the clock for the 23-17 victory.

’89 Steelers at 4-4 after 8 Weeks

The Steelers had begun 1989 with twin losses of 51-0 and 41-10, suffered a humiliating shut out in Houston, but bucked the odds to achieve a 4-4 record at the NFL season’s mid-way mark.

A dramatic win over a perceived up-and-comer once again nurtured hopes among the faithful that the men in Black and Gold to aspire to something beyond respectability.

Was that realistic?

The following week took Pittsburgh to Denver, where John Elway’s Broncos would put those hopes through crucible that was Mile High Staidum of the 1980’s.

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1989 Steelers Avenge Opening Day Blow Out, Defeat Browns 17-7

Before Mike Tomlin’s Steelers first game against Eric Mangini in Cleveland, Steel Curtain Rising looks back at the 20th Anniversary of the second match up between Chuck Noll’s 1989 Steelers and Bud Carson’s Browns….

Division rivalries are not what they used to be.

Certainly the bitterness between Baltimore and Pittsburgh runs deep. But the intensity of the Steelers modern day rivalry with the Ravens arises from the reality these two teams have been the biggest boys on the block in the AFC Central/North for a decade.

In 1989, it was different.

The hatred between the Steelers and the Browns wasn’t so much part of the job description; it was hardwired into the men’s DNA.

When the Steelers took to the field in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on October 15, 1989 they’d dropped seven straight to the Browns and hadn’t won in the Dawg Pound since 1981.

Make no mistake about it. The Cleveland Browns enjoyed every moment of the 51-0 shellacking they’d administered to the Steelers on opening day.

Cleveland relished the thought of doing it again.

Pittsburgh took it personally. History would not repeat itself, they resolved.

Browns Victory Game A Reflection of the 1989 Season
Just as the ’89 Steelers offered a picture of contrasts, so did their October 15th contest at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. During the game the Steelers revealed some horrendous deficiencies, yet they countered those by showcasing an indomitable resiliency.

So what if back up quarterback Todd Blackledge, starting his next-to last game in the NFL, only completed 32% of his passes?

  • Not a problem, especially if your defense intercepts Bernie Kosar four times for the first and only time in his career.

A leading receiver (Rodney Carter) who goes 3-30?

  • Less important if he scores a touchdown on one of the three.

Is it important that Warren Williams, Merrill Hoge, Rodney Carter, Ray Wallace, Todd Blackledge, and Tim Worley post a combined rushing average of 2.7 yards a carry?

  • Not when you still control time of possession, 35:20 to 24:40

Can the Steelers commit ten penalties for 121 yards and still win?

  • Yes, they can, especially when an opponent scores a touchdown to bring it to 10-7 with 8 minutes left to play and the Steelers answer with a 73 yard kick return.

Fail to convert 14 of 16 third and fourth down situations?

  • Converting on 4th and 1 at your opponents’ 3 just before the two minute warning carries a far greater impact.

You DO Add Style Points for This One
Although he was only a senior in high school then, one can look at the game stats and imagine Mike Tomlin saying “we don’t add style points….”

But on this day, he would have been wrong.

The Steelers 17-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns on the shores of Lake Eire that day was a moment of beauty.

Pittsburgh avenged a 51-0 opening day loss that had embarrassed them so and called the Steelers entire legacy into question. They shook off the loss of their (then seen as) rising start young quarterback. They compensated for offensive deficiencies with a hard hitting defense that forced and recovered 3 fumbles on top of four interceptions.

October 15th 1989 was a beautiful day for Steelers Nation. Four Weeks after starting the season losing two games by a total score of 92-10, the 1989 Pittsburgh had clawed their way to back to a .500 record.

And did it against the Cleveland Browns!

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’89 Steelers Week 5 Upset Hopes End with James Brooks 65 Yard Run

In the 80’s the Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon ran a column on Fridays season titled “The Upset Pick.”

Wilbon chose to lead week five’s UP this way: “The Steelers will show the last two weeks weren’t a fluke by beating the Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium.”

Days like that make one appreciate the internet. When the Washington Post printed its weekly TV Guide, NBC assumed the Steelers-Bengals game wouldn’t be worth seeing. Some other game was listed. Today these updates come with a mouse click.

Back then you had to spy something tucked into a corner of newsprint, or miss it, which is what certainly happened to me.

I don’t know if someone called me or if just flipped on the TV to see if I could find out the score, but at about 3:45 I was shocked to discover NBC was showing the game. Not only that, the Steelers had just pulled within three within the two minute warning.

Hold the Bengals, the Steelers have a shot at pulling off another tremendous upset

…Up to that point, it had been a topsy turvey game. The Bengals offense had manhandled the Steelers in week two, with Boomer Esiason racking up 328 yards, James Brooks and Ickey Woods romping for 192 yards, and Tim McGee and Eddie Brown torching the secondary for a combined 166 yards. Week five brought something a little different…

Bengals See a Different Pittsburgh Steelers Squad in Week 5

When I’d turned on the TV, Esiason’s passing was a pedestrian 219 yards, McGee and Brown were in check, and the Steelers defense was “containing” James Brooks having held him to 62 yards.

Less effective than their counterparts, the Steelers offense had managed three Gary Anderson field goals after scoring a touchdown on their opening drive. But it looked like it just might be good enough. Pittsburgh responded to Cincinnati’s fourth quarter go ahead touchdown with Anderson’s third field goal, bringing Pittsburgh within three.

The Bengals had just taken possession when I tuned in. Memory fails to provide details, but the Steelers defense was not yielding. The Bengals had started on their 41 and converted at least one first down, yet they were backed up to their 35.

I clearly remember NBC’s Joel Myers commenting on Pittsburgh’s predictability, to which Paul Maguire responded:

I mentioned that to Chuck Noll, and he said. ‘Cincinnati knows we’re going to come at them and play hard-nosed football. There’s nothing we can do about it except go out and do it.’

Third down. The Steelers blitz…

  • …James Brooks breaks past the Steelers line, and tears through the secondary for a 65 touchdown run…

…So much for “can’t hope to stop him, but only hope to contain him.”

The Steelers were not done.

Brister took command and moved the team to about the Bengal’s 40 when disaster struck. He ended his final play lying on his back, ripping his helmet off writhing in pain. It looked so bad that even Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason went out to offer comfort while the crowed at Three Rivers waited for the cart.

Todd Blacklage came in and drove the team to the Bengals 7, but time expired.

The Steelers had gone toe-to-toe with the defending AFC Champions and come within striking distance of an upset.

But any sense of “moral victory” was utterly lost at the sight of a promising young quarterback, who was completing 62% of his passes and had not thrown an interception in 4 games, carted off the field with his knee immobilized.

Monday failed to bring better news, as WMAL’s Ken Beatrice informed that Brister “had a sprained knee, he’s out AT LEAST three weeks.” Without Brister, could the Steelers avenge their 51-0 opening day loss by traveling to Cleveland…

…where they had not won since 1981?

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