Sloppy Steelers Beat Broncos 26-21, Overcoming Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 26-21 to win their home opener with a sloppy effort in a contest where both teams appeared to determined to give the game away to the other. The win improves the Steelers to 2-0 and gives them a share of the AFC North lead.

  • That is satisfying, but it by no means is it cause for complacency.

Certainly, there are positives Pittsburgh can pick out of its win against the Broncos but, by the same token, there are some troubling trends emerging which the Steelers must address. We’ll look at both, but first lets provide a little Steelers-Broncos context.

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

Let’s start today’s recap with a Steeler history trivia question: What do Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll all have in common?

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Including playoffs, Noll went 7-11-1, Cowher went 2-4 and Tomlin entered the game with a 2-5 record. So it should surprise no one that then that uncanny things happen when the Steelers play to Broncos.

In 1988, Rodney Carter (who?) had an all-world performance to spark the Steelers and snap a 6 game losing streak. Cramps forced ever durable Dermontti Dawson out of the game leading to a failed Chuck Lanz-Bubby Brister exchanged which doomed the 1989 Steelers Cinderella show.

In 1993 Bill Cowher’s Steelers looked poised to dominate like no one had since ’85 Bears after their Monday Night Football throttling of the Bills, only to get manhandled by the Broncos a week later.

In his rookie year Mike Tomlin would lose Ryan Clark on Monday Night Football for the year due to a freak injury. And who can forget the Tim Tebow game and 2018’s turnover fest?

2020’s edition of the Steelers vs. the Broncos lived up to tradition. The game saw:

  • Ray-Ray McCloud opened the 2nd half with a brilliant 49 yard kick return, only to see…
  • Ben Roethlisberger, with tons of time, throwing one of the most bone-headed interceptions imaginable
  • The Steelers answered a Broncos touchdown with a touchdown of their own…
  • …Four plays later they answered with a safety, putting them up by 12 with 10 minutes left to play
  • Pittsburgh then promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos, letting them back into the game

And that’s only in the second half, that doesn’t count the Joe Haden setting the Steelers up at Denver’s 11 just inside the two minute warning with the Steelers holding a 14-3 lead. A touchdown there could have effectively ended it at the half. Instead the Steelers settled for 3.

Yes, this game was true to form for the Steelers-Broncos series, but what does it tell us about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the rest of 2020?

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

There were w a number of positives for Pittsburgh coming out of the Broncos game.

First, Ben Roethlisberger looked good. Yes, his interception was as boneheaded and as unforced as they come, but Ben does have the tendency to try to do too much.

But Ben Roethlisberger hit 9 different receivers in this game, and has quickly reestablished his rhythm with JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson are gaining their quarterback’s trust. Chase Claypool’s first catch last week was spectacular, and his 84 yard catch and run showed the wideout from Notre Dame is the real deal.

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, if you take out his late 59 yard run Conner’s rushing average drops to 3.1 yards per carry, but he ran strong all day, and his big run was a game-sealer – just what you want from your starting running back.

The Steelers offensive line, playing with two new starters, also protected their quarterback well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit 3 times.

The Steelers defense continues to show that it can harass the quarterback at will, with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds combining for seven sacks.

Just as they did against the Giants, against the Broncos both the Steelers offense and defense proved they could make big plays at key moments.

That’s how the half-full glass looked against the Broncos. Now for the other half.

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh produced a lot of ugly plays against the Broncos. The “good” news there is that many of those wounds were self-inflicted. Six of the Denver Broncos 17 first downs were from penalties. Several of those came on third down.

  • Some of those pass interference penalties were questionable, but there’s no question that they came at the worst time for the Steelers.

Benny Snell has now fumbled twice in two weeks. Last week a heads up play by JuJu Smith-Schuster rendered that fumble nothing more than a footnote, but ball security has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel since 2018 and it came close to taking them down again today.

And if the offensive line did do a reasonable job of pass blocking today, too often James Conner simply had no room to run. The Broncos defense registered 6 tackles for losses – a tendency which cannot continue because these plays inevitably set up long first downs.

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger has played better than anyone would have a right to expect a 38 year old quarterback coming off of elbow surgery to play.

  • But the deep passing game has disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Some of this is certainly by design, but there were other times when Ben Roetlisberger had plenty of time to throw, yet could not find or did not attempt to throw to an open receiver down field. The bottom line is that the Steelers finished the game 2-12 on third downs, which simply won’t do.

Pittsburgh Needs to Bring Its “A” Game Now that Preseason Is Over

The  Grumpy Old Man preseason apologist in me has no qualms about chalking up some of the Steelers sloppiness of the last two weeks to a lack of preseason football. The Steelers were fortunate that the schedule making gods of the NFL gave them season openers against two rebuilding teams.

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans finished 10-6 last year and the fact that they’ve started 2020 0-2 only serves to underline how big of a chip they’ll be carrying into Pittsburgh. In his post-game press conference Mike Tomlin conceded “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,” but then couched his self-criticism with “But it’s good to grow while you win.”

True. Its also true that the Steelers need to do speed up the former if they want continue to enjoy the latter in the weeks to come.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs The New York Jets

At first glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets are two teams that share little history. They’ve only played 25 times. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers and Saints have played 17 times.

  • For the record, the Steelers own a 20-5 advantage over the Jets, 10-1 at home and 10-4 in New York

What the Steelers and Jets history might lack in quantity is made up in quality. Many meetings between these two teams have been steeped in significance, although that fact wasn’t always eveident at the time.

Click on the links below or scroll down to relive some of the key moments in Steelers-Jets History.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

1969 – Super Bowl III, The Most Important Steelers Game in History – Not Involving the Steelers?

“I Guarantee Victory” – Joe Namath, prior to Super Bowl III

You know the story. The NFL and AFL were merging, and the brash young quarterback of the upstart New York Jets guaranteed victory despite being an 18 point underdog.

The Jets took an early lead, Don Shula of course waited too long to put Johnny Unitas in, and the biggest upset in Super Bowl history was on.

On the Colts sidelines that day was a young assistant named Charles Henry Noll. Who knows what happens if the Colts win? Does the added notoriety lead to a better offer for Chuck Noll? Does perhaps stick around hoping to repeat? We’ll never know. One thing we do know is this:

  • Noll learned that the Colts were too tense prior to Super Bowl III felt it cost them the game.

Chuck Noll avoided the same mistakes when he led the Steelers to Super Bowl IX. The rest, as we say, is history.

1983 – The End of Eras

December 10, 1983, Shea Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, New York 7

A moment far more bitter than sweet for Steelers fans. The Steelers snapped a three game losing streak, but the price, as Myron Cope would write a decade later, was “the last throws that were left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm.”
Bradshaw opened with a pass touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity and followed with another touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney. And that was it.

  • Not just for the game. Not just for the season. But forever.

It was the last NFL game at Shea Stadium. It was the last pass of the last game of Terry Bradshaw’s career. It was the last time the remnants of the Super Steelers would ever contend.

Too many eras ended that day.

1988 – So Far, Yet So Close

October 10, 1988, Giants Stadium
New York 24, Pittsburgh 20

The 1988 Steelers had started 1-6, but on the previous week, led by Rodney Carter, Gary Anderson and Rod Woodson, the Steelers had thumped the Broncos to snap a six game losing streak. Could Chuck Noll’s boys make it two in a row?

The Steelers jumped to a 10-0 lead but, as was the case many times during the 1988 season, the Steelers saw that lead evaporate in the second half.

1989 – The Shadow (and Promise) of Things to Come

December 10, 1989, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 13, Jets 0

Steel Curtain Rising discussed this Steelers-Jet’s match up in the tribute to the 1989 Steelers, celebrating Greg Lloyd’s announcement to the NFL that he was a force to be reckoned with, as he knocked Pat Ryan out of the game, caught an interception, and WWE-style three counted a concussed Al Toon.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Jet’s fans jeered “Joe Must Go!” calling for their coaches head. Joe did go.

Unfortunately he arrived in Pittsburgh; hiring Joe Walton became Chuck Noll’s fateful mistake.

1990 – IF Only this Could Have Been a Divisional Game…

November 25, 1990, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Jets 7

This victory was sandwiched in between losses to the Cincinnati Bengals. The 1990 Steelers would finish 9-7. Unfortunately, only one of those victories came against an AFC Central team.

One more divisional win would have put the Steelers into the playoffs….

1992 – Cowher Power’s Second Victory – Barry “Bananas” Foster Romps

September 13, 1992, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher’s Steelers shocked the NFL in defeating the Oilers the week before. Chris Berman remained unconvinced, predicting that Brownie Nagel would lead the Jets to victory.

  • Barry Foster had other ideas, as he ran for a then team record 190 yards.

The Steelers revival under Bill Cowher was was on!

2000 – Vinny Testaverde – New Uniform, Same Result

October 8, 2000, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 23, New York 3

The Steelers had tormented Vinny Testaverde in Tampa, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Would things be different in New York?

Afraid not. One week after upsetting the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game that set the tone for a decade, the Steelers showed they were for real. The Steelers did not intercept Testaverde because he got only one pass off before getting knocked out of the game.

2001 – Hines Ward’s First 10 Catch, 100 Yard Game

December 6, 2001, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 18, New York 7

It is hard to believe that the Steelers had one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and it is hard to believe that his name is Hines Ward. The previous week the Steelers had lost Jerome Bettis, who had been dominating the league in rushing, and were in need of leadership.

Hines Ward delivered posting his first 10 catch game while breaking the 100 yard barrier for the first time.

2003 – 40 Passes, in the Snow….?

December 14, 2003, Giants Stadium
New York 6, Pittsburgh 0

Ok, it was 38 passes not 40, but the Meadowlands are a difficult place to throw in December, let alone in a blinding snow storm. That didn’t stop Mike Mularkey from throwing the ball, which did stop the Steelers from winning.

During the next draft that proved to be one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser non-decisions

Jerome Bettis broke Franco Harris record that day, causing Mike Prisuta to plead for the Steelers to part ways with the Bus. 1,309 yards and 22 touchdowns and a Super Bowl later, Bettis would prove Prisuta wrong.

2004 – Regular Season – Rookie Roethlisberger’s 11th Victory

December 12, 2004, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 17, New York 6

The Jet’s played this one closer than the score might indicate, as Curtis Martin crossed the 13,000 yard barrier, marking the first time that 13,000 rushers faced off against each other.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger won his 11th consecutive game, in route to setting the rookie record.

2004 Playoffs – Steelers Football at Its Best: Pure Power Rushing Carries the Day

January 15, 2005, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 20, New York 17

People remember this as the game where Ben Roethlisberger started playing like a rookie. They remember it for the Jet’s Doug O’Brien missing 2 field goals that cost his team the game. But the real beauty of the game was the effort put forth by the Steelers running back crops.

  • Jerome Bettis ran 27 times 101 yards and a TD
  • Duce Staley ran 11 times for 54 yards

That might not be an overwhelming total, but both backs had to come out due to injuries at critical times, and the Steelers ability to beat the Jets into submission with two power rushers was a sight to remember.

2007 – Tomlin’s First True “Trap” Game?

November 18, 2007, Giants Stadium
New York 19, Pittsburgh 16

During Mike Tomlin’s rookie season the knock on him was that his Steelers “played down to the competition.” No where was this more apparent than against the Jets. New York was 1-9 in route to 4-12, but the Steelers struggled all day, as Bob Ligashesky’s special teams gave up a 33 yard punt return that allowed the Jets to send the game into overtime where they won by a field goal.

2010 – Jets Out Fox Steelers

December 19th, 2010, Heinz Field
New York 22, Pittsburgh 17

The New York Jets stumbled into this game and seemed prime for the picking. However, Al Everett’s special teams, which had been a strength all season long, gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Steelers fought back with a workman like performance and tied the game at the half.

  • But the miscues continued in the 2nd half.

First Mark Sanchez scored on a 7 yard bootleg after the rest of the Jets offense executed a perfect play fake up the middle. Then Sanchez faked a perfect drop back while LaDainian Tomlinson took a direct snap that converted a third down and burned previous time off of the clock. Rex Ryan’s Jets outfoxed the Steelers.

Finally, when the Steelers were trying to mount a come back Jason Taylor ran unblocked on a tackle of Mewelde Moore, giving the Jets a safety at the 2:38 moment.

2010 AFC Championship – Steelers Defeat Jets, Head to Super Bowl XLV

Sunday January 23rd, 2011, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 24, New York 19

It was a tail of two halves. During the game’s first 3 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers played two of the best quarters of football in franchise playoff history. Running back Rashard Mendenhall took over the game in the first half, running for 97 of his 120 yards during the game’s first 3 minutes.

Rahsard Mendenhall, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Rashard Mendenhall had a career game vs the Jets. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via ESPN

Ben Roethlisberger capped off the Steelers offense’s scoring run at the 2:00 warning of the first half, putting the Steelers up 17-0. 47 seconds later, Ike Taylor strip-sacked Mark Sanchez and William Gay recovered the ball and put the Steelers up 24-0.

The Jets, to their credit, managed to get on the board with a field goal before the half, but it only appeared to be window dressing at the time…

  • Except it wasn’t. That Nick Folk field goal sparked a 19 point New York rally.

In the second half, New York harassed Ben Roethlisberger relentlessly, and shut down Rashard Mendenhall. On offense a 45 yard strike to Santonio Holmes started the scoring for the Jets, followed by a safety and a Jerricho Cotchery scored in the bottom half of the 4th quarter.

  • Unfortunately for the Jets, the safety was set up by a failed 4th and goal attempt at the 1.

Those two series gave New York 9 points when it needed 14, and left Pittsburgh with the ball with 2:56 left to play. That series saw Ben Roethlisberger connect on his first two consecutive passes of the afternoon, first hooking up with Heath Miller for 14 yards on 2nd and 9 and then hitting rookie Antonio Brown for 14 on 3rd and 6.

Going into the game, Peter King had profiled how Rex Ryan had implored his General Manager to get him the players he needed to get past the Colts and Patriots in the playoffs. Rex Ryan fulfilled his goal, and so did the Steelers who were AFC Champions and off to Super Bowl XLV.

2012 – Steelers Workman Like Effort Rebounds from Opening Day Loss

September 16th, 2012, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

The Steelers had open the 2012 season severing as fodder for Peyton Manning’s debut with the Broncos in a defeat raised troubling questions about the Steelers defense. And the defense didn’t do much to answer those as the Jets put 10 points on the board quickly while the Steelers offense could only manage two 45 yard Shaun Suisham field goals.

But the Steelers defense kept the Jets off the board for the entire 2nd half, while Ben Roethlisberger led 3 clock consuming drives that ended with Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Isaac Redman touchdowns.

2013 – Steelers Snap 0-4 Start

October 13, 2013, MetLife Stadium
Pittsburgh 19, New York 6

The Steelers started 2013 by going 0-4, the franchise’s worst start since Bill Austin’s tenure in 1968. Unfortunately, as their game against the Jets began, things looked startlingly familiar as the Steelers lost a player during warm ups, lost tight end David Johnson early on, failed to protect Ben Roethlisberger and started each drive deep in their own territory.

But Brett Keisel and Cam Heyward in his debut as an official starter, helped force Jets to settle for field goals after a long drive. The Steelers then assembled 3 straight Shaun Suisham field goal drives.

Ben Roethlsiberger and Emmanuel Sanders added a touchdown to open the 2nd half, and just when the Jets looked to make it competitive again, Ryan Clark netted the first turn of the season. When the dust settled the Steelers finished with a 19 to 6 victory which, while not impressive, did get Pittsburgh in the win column for the first time in 2013.

2014 – Another Tomlin Team Gets Tripped up in Trap Game

November 9th 2014, MetLife Stadium
New York 20, Pittsburgh 13

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended their two year playoff drought in 2014 but it took and up and down ride to get there. Sure, the Steelers noticed some impressive wins, like the victory over the Ravens in Joe Greene’s Jersey retirement game, but also struggled against inferior teams.

  • And the loss to the Jets is probably the best, or worst example of that.

After giving up a field goal on the opening drive, the Steelers could do nothing on their first procession, allowing Mike Vick to hook up with T.J. Graham for a 67 yard touchdown on the Jets next play from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger responded by hooking up with Antonio Brown who promptly fumbled away the ball at Pittsburgh’s 21. It only took Mike Vick 6 plays to hook up with Jace Amaro for 5 yards.

  • The first quarter wasn’t even over, and the Steelers were down 17 to 0.

Things didn’t get much better for the Steelers, who saw Ben Roethlisberger throw a Red Zone interception on their next possession. The Steelers defense held the Jets to just one field goal on the rest of the day, but Steelers offense could only muster two Shaun Suisham field goals until Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant for an 80 yard touchdown with 1:16 left to play.

The 2014 Steelers would rebound for a strong finish to the regular season, but 2014 loss to the Jets counts as one of Mike Tomlin’s worst trap games.

2016 – This Steelers Win over the Jets Came at a Cost

October 9, 2016, at Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 31, Jets 13

The final score makes this game look like a slam dunk for the Steelers, but the truth is that much more up or down event than the naked eye suggests. Nick Folk put the Jets on the board first with a field goal, but Ben Roethlisberger quickly hooked up with Sammie Coates to when he converted a 3rd and 7 with a 72 yard touchdown pass.

However, the New York Jets scored 10 unanswered points and appeared to be set to take a 13-7 lead into the half when they scored a touchdown at the 2:11 mark.

Ben Roethlisberger engineered a masterful 2 minute drill that saw him hit Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates and Xavier Grimble before connecting with Jesse James at the 0:44 mark for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The Steelers dominated the second half, shutting the Jets out and scoring two touchdowns.

But victory came with costs. Sammie Coates, who otherwise had a career game with six catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns, needed stitches at half time, and never, ever approached that level of play again. The game also represented the end Markus Wheaton’s season, which set up a Steelers playoff run where Cobi Hamilton and DeMarcus Ayers would become defacto starters.

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September 7, 2014 Declared “Chuck Noll Day.”

Prologue

Back when the ’88 Steelers were sitting on a 1-6 record , Terry Bradshaw went on national TV to declare that the Steelers lacked talent, and that it was “Time to give Chuck Noll his day” and let him step aside in favor of a new coach….

The Blond Bomber’s suggestion came at the height of the Noll-Bradshaw feud; 26 years have passed since then, but legendary Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll is finally getting his day.

chuck noll terry bradshaw day feud
Noll, Bradshaw don’t see eye to eye

Literally.

Thanks to a joint resolution sponsored by Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey, Sunday September 7th 2014 will officially be declared “Chuck Noll Day.”

Chuck Noll, who passed away last month at age 82, would doubtlessly not approve. However, it is a fitting day to offer tribute to the Emperor, as it marks the Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 opener, when they will play the Cleveland Browns, who Noll played for as one of Paul Brown’s messenger guards.

Epilogue

…Bradshaw had plenty of company in calling for Noll’s head that week. When prompted to respond to his critics, Noll only replied, “Winning is the only response.”

Rodney Carter exploded for 105 yards on 11 runs, caught two passes including one touchdown, and even completed a pass. Louis Lipps got into the trickery with a 23 yard reverse. Merril Hoge didn’t start, but chalked up 94 yards just the same, and Rod Woodson had a 29 yard interception as the Steelers beat the Broncos 39-21.

Afterwards, Noll joked that he’d gotten the idea for the trick plays in a letter from a fan.

  • Noll was never one for introspection.

Later that night it fell to ESPN’s Chris Berman for the serious analysis as he observed, “You back Chuck Noll into a corner? I want him on my side.”

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’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.

Thanks for visiting. To read Steel Curtain Rising’s entire Steelers 1989 series, click here and scroll down.

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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?

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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’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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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.

Consider:
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 Defeat Detroit Lions 23-3 in Even Record to 2-2

Fresh off their startling upset of the Minnesota Vikings, rest of the NFL wondered if there the 1989 Steelers really had “something” or if the Vikings game was just another example of “on any given Sunday.”

  • The 1989 Steelers dominated almost every phase of the game during week four against the Detroit Lions.

Rod Rust’s defense proved to more than a match for Wayne Fontes “Silver Stretch” Run’n Shoot offense, as Dwayne Woodruff and Larry Griffin hauled in interceptions of 8 and fifteen yards, and the defense forced and recovered two fumbles. They also collected three sacks, including one more by rookie stand-in Jerrol Williams.

No one yet knew that Barry Sanders was a Future Hall of Famer only four games into his rookie season, but Sanders had already shown some solid explosiveness as a runner.

  • Rod Rust’s Steelers defense held Barry Sanders to 1 yard of five carries.

The Steelers offense took full advantage of the opportunities created on defense. Louis Lipps recorded his sixth 100 yard game and the second of the 1989 season. In addition to Lipps, Bubby Brister hit six different receivers including stand out third down running back Rodney Carter, who pulled down six passes, bringing his season total to 17.

bubby brister, 1989 Steelers road games, 1989 Steelers vs Lions,

Pittsburgh uaterback Bubby Brister on the road during the 1989 Steelers season. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the way to a 78% completion percentage, Bubby Brister completed 15 consecutive passes, a record that Ben Roethlisberger only tied in 2007.

  • The fact that Brister accomplished in spite of suffering another 6 sack game makes this feat all the more impressive.

By the end of week 4 the Steelers had improved their record to 2-2. Two straight wins and a .500 record may be nothing to write home about, but it sure beats losing 92-10.

Yet, one of those wins came against an 0-3 Detroit Lions team. So questions remained. Was Steelers Nation witnessing the galvanizing the Steel Curtain under Rod Rust? Could this seemingly no-name offense play consistently?

  • And what about Bubby Brister?

In two weeks he’d posted completion percentages of 73 and 78%, and had not thrown a pick since week one. Was Number 6 a star in the making?

The Steelers would find a far more difficult test awaiting them, as week five brought a return bout with the division rival defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium.

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