A Primer on Steelers Broncos Playoff History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.

Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.

1977 – Distractions Detour Super Steelers

1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 24, 1977, @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….

Stats that StandoutTerry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another.  The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season.
Aftermath:  The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…

1978 – Steelers Offense Unleashed

1978 Divisional Playoffs
December 30th, 1978 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.

Stats that StandoutRobin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway:  Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so.
Aftermath:  The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.

1984 – Steel Curtain Crushes the Orange Crush

1984 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 30, 1984 @ Mile High Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.

Stat that Stands OutMark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play).
The Aftermath:  A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.

Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.

1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle

1989 Divisional Playoffs
January 7, 1990 @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Denver Broncos bounced back from an 8-8 season in 1988 and were the odds-on favorite for the AFC Championship. In contrast, the 1989 Steelers started the season losing their first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and were shut out 3 times during the season. But Chuck Noll stood behind his team, and the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, and then shocked the world by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.

Stat that Stands Out:  Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback  Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era.
Plays You Wanna Have Back:  Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41…
Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back:  Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery.
Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hires Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.

1997 – 2 End Zone Interceptions Is Too Many

1997 AFC Championship Game
January 11, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.

Stat that Stands Out:  Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two end zone interceptions in separate short yardage/goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis.
What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh.
The Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.

2005 – Steel Curtain Begins to Rise

2005 AFC Championship Game
January 22, 2006 @ Invesco Field at Mile High
Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.

Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear:  The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal.
Aftermath:  The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.

2011 – Steelers Get Tebowed….

2011 AFC Wild Card Game
January 8, 2012 @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.

Stat that Sticks Out:  Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long  injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won.
Final Farewell:  This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu.
The Aftermath:  The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

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Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee has announced the 25 finalists for the 2016 Hall of Fame class. In his first year of eligibility former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca has made it to the semifinalist round, and is joined by other recent retirees, Brett Favre and Terrell Owens.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back, emergency quarterback, and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy has again made it to the semifinal round, as has former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1998 draft offers a model example of how long it can truly take to evaluate in NFL draft class. When Dan Rooney chose Bill Cowher over Tom Donahoe in January 2000, the Steelers 1998 draft was better known for busts like defensive tackle Jeremy Staat and failed offensive tackle Chris Conrad.

  • Yet, during the 1998 draft the Steelers also picked Deshea Townsend, Hines Ward and Alan Faenca, who was easily Tom Donahoe’s best first round pick.

Unlike defensive players, and offensive “skill” players, there are no statistics to measure the work of offensive lineman. Yet it is there toiling in the trenches that allows the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers to amass the video game like statistics that keep Fantasy Football owners happy. Alan Faneca was one of the better offensive lineman, and arguably the best guard in Steelers history.

Lacking any stats to back up his claim, let’s just show you a piece of his finest handiwork (YouTube video available as of 11/25/15):

Everyone remembers Willie Parker’s 75 yard scamper to the end zone on Super Bowl XL. But what’s less memorable, but no less important, is that Alan Faneca made that play possible by pulling, and totally eliminating the Seattle Seahawks defender from the play, creating a giant hole for Fast Willie to run through.

  • It is difficult to assess how good Alan Faneca’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame are.

The current group of 25 finalists will be narrowed further to a group of finalists, who will be debated by the Hall of Fame selection committee and announced prior to the Super Bowl. In recent years former Pittsburgh Steelers have suffered from the “Already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame” bias, which likely delayed the entry of Jerome Bettis and Dermontti Dawson into the Hall of Fame.

Offensive lineman, lacking quantitative measures, also often have to wait.

Time will tell.

Dungy, Greene, Knocking on Canton’s Door. Again.

Both Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene have been NFL Hall of Fame Semifinalists and finalists several times before, but have failed to make the cut as finalists. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Tony Dungy as an unrestricted rookie free agent out of Minnesota in 1977.

Dungy, who’d played quarterback in college, spent a week working with the Steelers as a wide receiver before Chuck Noll decided to shift him to safety. Dungy remained at safety for two years with the Steelers, aside from a one game stint as Steelers emergency quarterback in which he managed to complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

The Steelers traded Dungy to the San Francisco 49ers after Super Bowl XIII (after Dungy had made the game-saving on-sides kick recovery).In 1981 Chuck Noll hired Tony Dungy as a defensive backs coach, and promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1984 making him both the youngest coordinator in the league at that time, and the first African American coordinator.

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kevin Greene as an unrestricted free agent from the Los Angeles Rams in the spring of 1993. In Pittsburgh, Greene made the switch from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, where he started 48 games and 35.5 sacks.

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Chuck Noll Day: 23 Facts about The Emperor

The US Congress has declared September 7th as “Chuck Noll Day” in honor of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers championship coach, who was taken from us in June of this year.

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

As part of the celebration, Steel Curtain Rising has prepared 23 facts about Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers squads he led.

1  Noll had 1 son, Chris Henry Noll
2  The unlikely duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone paired for two victories over Bill Walsh and Joe Montana
3  NFL teams employed Noll’s service as a coach – the AFL’s Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, the Baltimore Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers
4  Super Bowls in 6 years, a record no one else has ever matched
5  Noll ranks 5th among all coaches in total playoff victories
6 Versus Tom Landry, Noll had six victories, including Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII
7  Noll ranks 7th among all coaches in total victories at 209, including both playoff and regular season
8  Noll notched 8 over time victories; his overall record in overtime was 8-3-1
9  AFC Central Division Championships
10  Noll is one of only ten coaches to win at least 3 Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships
11  Hall of Famers drafted by the Emperor- Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Rod Woodson, and Dermontti Dawson.
12  Playoff Appearances

steelers 2014 uniform season chuck noll decal memorial

13  Quarterbacks started for Chuck Noll – Dick Shiner, Bradshaw, Terry Hanratty, Joe Gilliam, Mike Kruczek, Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley, Scott Campbell, Bubby Brister, Steve Bono, Todd Blackledge, and Neil O’Donnell
14  Regular season games were won by Noll’s 1978 Super Bowl Championship team, a team record that stood until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival in 2004
15  Winning seasons under Noll
16  Playoff victories
17  points were scored by Noll’s Steelers as he closed his career with two final two victories vs. Wyche’s Bengals and Bill Belichick’s Browns
18  points were scored by Noll’s defenses and special teams via safeties – that’s not a stat you see every day!
19  The jersey number “19” was only issued once during Noll tenure, when David Woodley wore it.
20  Noll’s 20th win came in November of 1972, vs. Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings, the same team he would defeat in Super Bowl IX
21  Different people held the title “head coach” for the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Houston Oilers during Noll’s tenure in Pittsburgh (interim head coaches excluded.)
22  Different schools supplied Noll with his first round draft picks, Baylor was the lone repeat alma mater for Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie
23  Years coaching the Steelers; 23 years in retirement until his passing.

For more about Chuck Noll and his incredible accomplishments, click here to read Steel Curtain Rising’s extended tribute.

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Immaculate Reception Untouchable as Steelers Greatest Play; Harrison’s Pick Six Strong Second

This year ESPN is filling the void before training camp by polling fan bases on the greatest play in their respective franchise history. As Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, for Steelers Nation there is no debate.

  • The Immaculate Reception simultaneously ended 40 years of losing and was the Big Bang that created Steelers Nation.

Everything else takes second place – including games that end in presentation of the Lombardi.

But that leaves a lot of doubt about choices 2-4. The truth is, ESPN’s poll is a little too slanted towards the contemporary period. Unlike the Patriots, Ravens, and Seahawks, the Steelers have won Super Bowls in years that begin with “19.” For the record, the three choices on ESPN and BTSC’s poll are ‘Tone’s Toe Tap in Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison’s 100 yard pick six in the same game, and Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle in the ’05 AFC Division playoff game.

  • All worthy plays certainly.

But there are other plays that merit consideration, even if one limits selection to Super Bowls. Here are only a few:

If you expand the list to the playoff games, Troy Polamalu’s pick six in the 2008 AFC Championship Game must be included, not only for how it incredible it was, not because it came at a crucial moment in the game, but because it slammed the door shut on another AFC Championship home loss.

A similar, sentimental nod, can be given to Randy Fulller’s pass defense at the end of the 1995 AFC Championship game.

All of these are worthy candidates. Each involved players putting them into position to harness their talents in exactly the moments their team needed them to.

  • But in the final analysis, the Steelers second greatest play must go to James Harrison.

Harrison gets his pick six brought the total package –

  • It was an unscripted play born out of tireless preparation
  • It involved tremendous athleticism
  • It came at a critical time

Thanks to end game drama on the part of Larry Fitzgerald, Big Ben and ‘Tone, the impact of Harrion’s interception is largely forgotten. It shouldn’t. Arizona was about to score. Sliverback’s pick prevented 3 if not 7 points from going on the board, and added 7 more amounting to a 10 or 14 point swing in a game decided by 4.

Franco Harris’ place in Steelers lore will forever be safe – men who hustle on every play enjoy such privileges – but James Harrison will be equally difficult to dislodge from his perch at number two.

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Chuck Noll Biography – 6 Moments that Defined the Unassuming Steelers Legend

How do you summarize a legend’s life in a single article? Steelers Nation’s scribes faced just such a dilemma with the passing of Chuck Noll.

How to tell the story of someone so accomplished, yet so humble; at once intelligent but unassuming; demanding while soft spoken; so devoted to singleness of purpose yet dedicated to a variety of pursuits.

How else to explain a an who sits among the greatest NFL coaches yet is frequently forgotten when “The Greatest” conversation starts because he actively deflected credit for himself? Preparedness was Pittsburgh’s calling card under Noll. So how do you explain how he was home for dinner every night while his contemporaries slept on couches in their offices?

It is a daunting task. To perhaps the key to decrypting the cryptic Chuck Noll it is best to start with the “exceptions,” or moments where he departed from the script. Click on the links below to see how those “off script moments” formed the foundations of Noll’s defining moments with the Steelers.

1. “Losing has nothing to do with geography.”
2. “They think the just won the God damn Super Bowl.”
3. “Go for the big one.”
4. “Sidney Thornton’s problems are great, and they are many.” – The Emperor in Winter
5. “Potentially, we have a good team.” – The Emperor’s Lash Hurrah
6. “Time to smell the flowers….”But first….
7. The Emperor Is Dead – Long Live Steelers Nation

Chuck Noll, sideline

Chuck Noll Calling Plays in the Heat of Battle

“Losing has nothing to do with geography.”

When you think of “Attitude” and “Steelers” you usually think of a young Joe Greene tossing the ball into the stands in frustration, or Greg Lloyd’s “Just plain nasty,” or perhaps Joey Porter calling out Ray Lewis.

  • The mild mannered Noll, it would seem, was the antithesis of attitude.

Except he wasn’t. Of Chuck Noll’s many contributions to the Steelers, perhaps his most important was attitude. And he made it on his very first day as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. When asked about taking over a Pittsburgh team that had excelled at losing  40 years, Noll’s response was a concise as it was penetrating.

“Losing has nothing to do with geography.”

With a single statement, Noll erased four decades of mindset. The team’s bad habit of trading away draft picks had ended. Noll pledged to Dan Rooney to build the team up from the ground, to replace those players not good enough, and even dared to remake Pro Bowlers such as Andy Russell in his own image.

  • Likewise, losing would neither be accepted as normal, nor incite outrage, but rather serve as a tool for teaching players to improve.

Make no mistake about it, a lot of things changed in Pittsburgh when Noll arrived, but it all began with a change in attitude.
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“They think the just won the God damn Super Bowl.”

Noll didn’t do pep talks, ala Vince Lombardi or Bill Cowher. He didn’t go out for emotional hand holding the way Joe Gibbs would. Nor did he attempt to belittle his player’s with barrages of criticism like Bill Parcells.

  • No, Noll wanted players who were self-starters.

You were playing professional football, and that should serve as motivation enough. Yet perhaps his best off script moment came before the 1974 AFC Championship game. This story made it into almost every Chuck Noll obituary.

The Oakland Raiders had defeated the Dolphins, and afterwards John Madden exclaimed that, it was a great day in football when the two best teams played and it was a shame one of them had to lose.

As Ray Mansfield recounted, Noll walked into the Steelers locker room the next morning fuming, “They think the just won the God Damn Super Bowl. But let me tell you something, the best football team is sitting here right in front of me.”

Dwight White remarked, “It was like getting a blessing to go out and beat up on someone.” Andy Russell later recalled, Joe Greene stood up and proclaimed, “I am ready to play right now.” For his own part, Joe Greene said that was the one game that he entered where he knew he was going to win.

  • As it turned out, Noll’s bit of bravado worked.

The Steelers ended the half tied, after the referee had disallowed a John Stallworth touchdown. Nonplussed, the team filed off into the locker room, with no frustrations evident. Nor did panic set in when Oakland took a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter. Lynn Swann scored one touchdown while Franco Harris rumbled for 2 more.

Noll’s stoicism was no act, yet The Emperor was savvy enough to know when to press buttons.
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“Go for the big one.”

Football, Noll repeat time and time again, was about blocking and tackling. While his contemporary Chuck Knox was known as “Ground Chuck,” Noll could have just as easily earned that nickname.

  • When in doubt, Chuck Noll ran.

But the Steelers became victims of their own success on the other side of the ball, and that prompted another off script move by The Emperor.

Mel Blount simply covered receivers too well. The NFL never has nor never will see another more physically intimidating cornerback. The NFL took notice, and took notice of the fact that TV Ratings and passing go hand in hand, and enacted the “Mel Blount Rule” making it harder to cover receivers downfield.

  • This put an already aging Steelers defense at a disadvantage.

Noll however, transformed advantage into disadvantage, by unleashing Terry Bradshaw’s arm and making full use of the talents of Swann, Stallworth, and Bennie Cunningham. Yes, the Steelers still ran. Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Sidney Thornton rushed for a combined 4184 yards in 1978 and 1979.

  • But it was Noll’s decision (and ability) to attack through the air that kept the Steelers ahead of Landry’s Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.

A year later, with the Steelers trailing in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XIV, on third down at their own 27 Noll ordered Bradshaw to “Go for the big one” calling “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.

The play hadn’t worked all week in practice, and Noll had relentlessly preached that if you couldn’t perform in practice, you’d fail on Sundays. Again, Noll knew when to make exceptions to his own rules – and 73 yards later John Stallworth put the Steelers ahead with a touchdown.

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“Sidney Thornton’s problems are great, and they are many.” – The Emperor in Winter

Had Noll retired after Super Bowl XIV the national press would have had no choice to accept Chuck Noll as the greatest coach of the modern era. But he didn’t retire, and instead coached the Steelers through a decade were they barely topped .500.

  • Here again, the root cause can be found in Noll’s decision to go off script.

In 1969, Noll had no only committed the Steelers to building through the draft, but committed them ed to taking the best player available, regardless of race, school, position, or who was currently on the roster.

Bucking the rest of the NFL, Noll insisted on colorblind drafting, and with Bill Nunn’s guidance aggressively scouted the Historic Black Colleges. Terry Hanratty had been high second round pick in 1969, yet Noll didn’t hesitate at taking Bradshaw at number one in 1970. Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin were good receivers for the Steelers in 1973, but Noll drafted to great ones in 1974. And so on.

  • But as Lombardi trophies started stacking up, the team got away from that philosophy.

Instead of taking the best player on the board, the Steelers would try to project guys who fell for one reason or another and who they thought would better fill roster holes. The decision was a disaster. As the 80’s arrived the oldest of Noll’s players reached retirement, and their replacements were lacking.

Sidney Thornton, a second round draft pick in 1977 who could have been Franco Harris’ heir apparent, once so frustrated Noll with his off the field antics, which included treating cuts with urine, that he remarked “Sidney Thornton’s problems are great, and they are many.”

Other factors contributed to the Steelers poor drafting and subsequent struggles in the 80’s, but getting away from their bread and butter was the most prominent.

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“Potentially, we have a good team.” – The Emperor’s Lash Hurrah

Telling and retelling the 1989 Steelers story is a labor of love at Steel Curtain Rising and need not be repeated in detail here. Yet, for those unfamiliar, it may have been Noll’s finest coaching job.

In 1988 the Steelers had finished 5-11, their worst since 1971, and for the first time ever, Noll had been forced to fire assistants. Nonetheless, Noll convened training camp by saying, “Potentially, we have a good team.”

  • The Steelers then promptly went out and lost their first two games, divisional ones at that, to the combined score of 92-10.

Afterwards, Noll quipped “Either we just played the best two teams in football, or we’re in for a long year.” As, I believe it was Gene Collier recalled on the day of Noll’s retirement, “The once unthinkable question was on everyone’s lips. And it wasn’t ‘Will Dan Rooney fire Chuck Noll’ but ‘How long will he wait?’”

  • Again, time had done nothing to mellow Noll’s attitude to pep talks.

Yet, he did something better, as Behind the Steel Curtain’s Michael Bean documented with Merril Hoge back in 2010:

He revisited the things that were going on in the media about us. And if I remember right, he kind of wrote some things up on the board, showed us some clips. Then he stood in front of us, paused for a second and said, ‘I believe in you.’

Hoge says that the hair still stands up on his arm when he remembers that statement. As well it should, the team rebounded to make the playoffs, upset the Oilers in the Astrodome, and came within a bad snap of doing it again vs. Denver.

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“Time to smell the flowers….”But first….

When the ’89 Steelers  season ended, Noll commented “This team is on the way up. He doubled down during the off season, talking about the “Championship caliber” talent his team had.

Yet a playoffless 9-7 season in 1990 and a mediocre 7-9 season in 1991 led even the Steelers Digest to question Noll’s assessment of the Steelers talent.

History vindicated Noll on the talent question, as Dermontti Dawson, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell, John Jackson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson formed the backbone of Bill Cowher’s 1995 team the fell just short in Super Bowl XXX.

However, history also vindicated Noll when he decided it was time to “smell the flowers,” as he declared the day he retired.

  • But in hanging it up Noll added a punctuation mark on his greatness in his own understated way, and one that was in no way apparent at the time.

Noll’s final game took place at Three Rivers Stadium on December 22, 1991 vs. the Cleveland Browns, and the Steelers won 17-10 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Not only did Noll win his final game, but in doing so he defeated Bill Belichick the man who 23 years later was still trying to tie his record of Super Bowls….

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Thanks Chuck

When NFL Films asked him to reflect on his time with the Steelers of the ‘70’s, Chuck Noll simply said, “It was fun. It really was fun.”

  • Yes it was fun, even for those just barely old enough to remember.

The Emperor is Dead, but Long Live the Steelers Nation he founded!

Thanks Chuck!

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Chuck Noll, Former Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach, Passes Away at 82

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, Chuck Noll has passed away at the age of 82 in his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette, Chuck Noll has suffered from poor health for a number of years, battling Alzheimer’s, a heart condition, and severe back pain.

Chuck Noll was known as “The Emperor.” While he may not have negotiated contracts or dabbled in the business side of the sport the way coach/GM’s such as Bill Parcells did, Noll had total control over the football operation, from coaching decisions, draft picks, to final roster choices.

  • Noll’s record speaks for itself.

When Noll arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers had appeared in post-season only once, and they had never won a game. By the time he retired in 1991, the Steelers and won 209 games, 16 post-season contests, 9 AFC Central Division Championships, and were the first NFL team to win 3 and then 4 Super Bowls.

  • 23 years later, Chuck Noll is still the only NFL head coach to have won four Super Bowls.

As a coach, Noll never fathered a cadre of assistants as Paul Brown did, nor is he credited with establishing any innovations such as Tom Landry’s “Flex Defense” or Bill Walsh’s “West Coast offense.” Unlike Vince Lombardi, he left no legacy for his fire and brimstone motivational tactics.

  • No, Noll wasn’t about that because he was a fundamentalist through and through.

Noll wasn’t interested in flashy performers or super stars, although he coached plenty of the later, he wanted good athletes to execute their role in a system, and to do it predictably. And Noll did innovate – the famous “Tampa Cover 2” defense that Tony Dungy popularized was the same defense the Steelers developed and used under Noll, Bud Carson and George Perles.

  • Noll was also a master talent evaluator, arguably the best of all time.

Drawing on the work of the Steelers scouting department headed by Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn, Chuck Noll selected 11 NFL Hall of Famers, in the form of Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Terry BradshawFranco Harris, Mike WebsterLynn Swann, John Stallworth, Rod Woodson, and Dermontti Dawson.

  • But if Chuck Noll struck gold with these high profile players, he was also the champion of the little guy.

Noll saw himself as a teacher, first and foremost. During his time as coach, the Steelers practice without numbers – this was because Noll wanted all of his players to be treated equally – if an All Pro ran a bad route, he didn’t want anyone to hesitate to correct him. Under Noll, late round picks and undrafted rookie free agents got a fair shake and an honest shot at the time, as players like careers of L.C. Greenwood and Donnie Shell prove.

Upon his retirement from the Steelers in 1991, Chuck Noll maintained the title of Administration Adviser, but in truth he served in no official capacity with the Steelers. Noll had pointedly stayed out of the limelight as head coach, and thought that all of the credit that Bill Cowher enjoyed following his tenure, should belong to him.

Noll could occasionally be seen in the press box during the occasional game at Three Rivers Stadium, but split his time between Pittsburgh and Florida, but was seldom seen and even more rarely heard.

  • Chuck Noll is survived by his wife Marianne and his son Chris.

Steelers Nation has lost its greatest champion and the City of Pittsburgh the man who made it the City of Champions. He will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising asks you join us in offering your thoughts and prayers to Noll’s family.

Note: Steel Curtain Rising will have a more complete obituary on Chuck Noll over the weekend. Please check back soon.

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Whether Its Podlesh or Wing, Should Pittsburgh Pray for Its Punting to Stink?

Steelers Nation’s reaction to news that the Pittsburgh Steelers had signed punter Adam Podlesh ranged from ho-hum to derision as documented by Behind the Steel Curtain.* Some of this is logical, as Adam Podlesh’s punting averages were actually worse than both Mat McBriar and Zoltan Mesko.

  • But the more refined response is: Who cares?

Seriously. Assuming he can avoid blocked kicks, how much impact does a punter have anyway?

Sure, I am sure Pro Football Focus has some saber metric that reads like this:

  • “Analysis shows that pass defenses on teams with a favorable gross/net punting ratio enjoy a statistically significant “passing yards per attempt allowed” advantage.

Or something.

Maybe Pro Football Focus has no such stat. Even if they do, it says here that the Steelers have won more Super Bowls than anyone else, and it further says that in that respect, good punting doesn’t count for squat. Read on:

Steelers punting super bowl miller colquitt walden
Does good punting = grim harbinger for the Steelers? Hum…

Number don’t lie fellow citizen of Steelers Nation. Let’s take a closer look for those who remain unconvinced.

Bobby Walden handled the punting duties for the Steelers in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X. The Steelers ranked just above the middle of the pack and in fact were right about average in terms of punting.

  • Very little was average about those 1974 and 1975 teams laden with NFL Hall of Famers.

No offense, but the presence of players like Joe Greene, Franco Harris, and Jack Lambert explain a lot more about the 1st two Lombardi’s than does Walden.

Craig Colquitt took over the chores for Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV and the Steelers punting performance perked up just a tad. Now Pittsburgh’s defense was in decline by that point, and perhaps better punting put them over the edge.

  • Or maybe it was more due to Chuck Noll taking advantage of the Mel Blount rule to unleash Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Decide for yourself.

The Steelers 6-10 ’86 season stands as an aberration. Harry Newsome had arrived, but the Steelers still ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in terms of punting. Newsome picked his performance by 1988, and the Steelers led the NFL in punting.

  • They also had their worst post-1971 finish.

Legend has it the Bubby Brister scrawled “Playoffs 1989” on the chalk board to open training camp that summer, but it’s doubtful that Pittsburgh’s punting advantage in Newsome inspired him to do so.

In 1995 Rohn Stark filled the gap between Mark Royals and Josh Miller and the Steelers were the third worst punting team in the league. Nonetheless, the Steelers came heart breakingly close to “One for the Thumb” vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXX.

  • Now, was that due more to Stark’s punting or Neil O’Donnell’s two picks? Again, you decide.

Josh Miller was a fine punter, and during the “My buddy’s the cop” phase of Kordell Stewart’s starting tenure he became somewhat of a cult hero and Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon and yours truly was one of his prime promoters. Yet in 2003, Miller had the Steelers punting ranked above average, but they still had a 6-10 record.

  • The Steelers replaced Miller with Chris Gardocki, who punted on in Super Bowl XL, but One for the Thumb Came in spite of a 22nd ranking punting game.

And of course the Steelers attained further glory in Super Bowl XLIII despite the having the second worst punting game thanks to Mitch Berger and Paul  Ernster.

Rounding it out you have 2010 and the loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV, a season in which the Steelers broached the top 25% in punting.  Could getting on the other side of that 25% mark have negated Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions, Mike Wallace’s ghosting, or Mendy’s fumble? Count me a skeptic.

Prayer’s and Shout Outs

Of course this analysis only looks at punting average, and not inside 20 numbers or anything like that. And of course crappy punting can hurt you, just remember the Oakland game. But let’s repeat it:

  • Number don’t lie

In the “Post Immaculate Reception Era” there is no correlation between good punting and winning Super Bowls. In fact, if anything the data suggests something quite the opposite.

So whether Brad Wing or Adam Podlesh wins out, perhaps its best to pray for Pittsburgh’s punter to stink.

*Full disclosure. I also write for BTSC. And by complete happenstance (on my honor as a Life scout), it I saw that their Tony Defeo, a good friend and soul mate, had the same idea and beat me to the punch. Check his out here.

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Jerome Bettis, Kevin Greene, and Bill Cowher Headline NFL Hall of Fame Ballot

Its only September, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame has already announced its list of eligible candidates for its 2013 class. Could this be another Black and Gold strewn summer in Canton?

It certainly is possible as several high-profile Steelers lead the lists. The Steelers best shot is Jerome Bettis, who played in the NFL for 13 years and retired after Super Bowl XL. Currently Bettis remains 6th on the list of All Time NFL rushers.

The Steelers next shot is likely former Head Coach Bill Cowher, who coached in Pittsburgh from 1992 to 2006, a span where the franchise won more games than any other NFL franchise. During that time Cowher only had 3 losing seasons, earned 8 AFC Central/AFC North division championships, 10 playoff appearances, two AFC Championships, and of course Super Bowl XL.

Gary Anderson is likewise eligible. Anderson of course played for six different NFL teams, but kicked in Pittsburgh from 1982 to 1994.

Kevin Greene only played 3 of his 15 NFL seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it was in the Black and Gold that Greene first won national acclaim. The Steelers also give Greene his only Super Bowl appearances, which came in their losing effort in Super Bowl XXX. Greene, a member of the Dick LeBeau coaching tree, did get a return trip to the Super Bowl, serving as the linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Art Rooney Jr.’s name once again is appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot. Often overlooked, Art Rooney Jr. is Dan Rooney’s younger brother, and directed the Steelers scouting department and had a HUGE hand in drafting the players that would from the Super Steelers, who went to the mountain top in Super Bowl IX, Super Bowl X, Super Bowl XIII, and Super Bowl XIV.

Rooney Jr. probably will not make it in — but that is a crime. He deserves induction into Canton, alongside his brother and father.

The HOF list also includes one strong Pittsburgh connection. Buddy Parker, who coached the Steelers from 1967 to 1954, appears on the list.  Parker was below .500 with the Steelers, barely, but did win two NFL Championships while coaching the Detroit Lions.

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Noll, Cowher, Tomlin Lombardi Photo Redux

The time has come once again to push for the Steelers to do something they should have done back in 2008.

If this idea sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Yours truly suggested this back in 2008 and I am doing so again.
But this time, thanks to Michael Bean, I am putting out this call to action on Behind the Steel Curtain. The article ran yesterday, and undoubtedly by now more people have read it there than read the original post, the shout out from Blog and Gold not withstanding (thanks again Dan!)
So if you have not see it, click here to check out the 2011 version of the article on BTSC — and more importantly, do your part to make the Steelers hear our voice!

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The Steelers 2008 and 1979 Super Bowl Champions Compared

ESPN.com is running a division-by-division “best ever series” at the moment, and their take on the AFC North provided some interesting food for thought.

James Walker, who covers the AFC North for ESPN, selects the Steelers 1975 team as the best ever.

Personally I would lean toward the 1978 team because it was the most complete – Rocky and Franco could still dominate on the ground and Bradshaw struck deep to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth downfield. On the defensive side of the ball, the 1975 version of the Steel Curtain was stronger, but the 1978 Steelers defense was still the best in the game.

  • But Walker makes strong arguments for the 1975 teams, and I have no reason to quibble.

The bigger issue is the honorable mentions that get tacked on at the end. Each team in the series gets one “Best” plus three honorable mentions. Walker awards honorable mentions (in order) to the Steelers XIII, XIV, and IX, and Super Bowl Squads.

But he mentions nary a word about the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

And that is a mistake.

Ranking the Steelers Super Bowls

Any ranking of the Steelers Super Bowl squads has got to list either Super Bowl X or Super Bowl XIII as one and two. It really is that simple.

And there’s a strong argument for ranking the Super Bowl IX squad number three, if for no other reason that this was a group with a dominate defense, a crushing running game, and this group of Steelers was only broaching the heights of its greatness.

But who comes in fourth is a more difficult question.

Walker ranks the XIV squad 3rd, and while winning the fourth Super Bowl was impressive, why does it get automatic preference over the two more recent Super Bowls?

Most in Steelers Nation will probably rank the 2005 Super Bowl XL team last in the group. If forced to rate them, that is probably the rating I would give them. And perhaps that is a mistake, as that team had a championship caliber defense matched by a balanced offense. It also won 4 straight road playoff games to get its Lombardi.

Rightly or wrongly, even if you ignore all of Mike Holmgren’s sour graping about the officiating, the Steelers Super Bowl XL squad will suffer from the fact that they neither put on a dominate nor dramatic performance in the big game itself.

I invite any reader who wishes to advocate on behalf of the Steelers Super Bowl XL squad to leave a comment stating their arguments.

I’ll concentrate on making the case for the 2008 Steelers.

The 2008 Steelers vs. the 1979 Steelers

First, why rank the 1979 team below the 1974 team?

In addition to the reason cited above, the 1974 Steelers vanquished the Oakland Radiers, a fellow Super Bowl Champion from that era, en route to the title game and then defeated the perennial Super Bowl contender Vikings, and their Purple People Eater defense, in the Super Bowl itself.

The 1979 Steelers squad has no similar victories notching its belt. Certainly, Bum Philips and Earl Campbell were formidable opponents, and the Rams were a good team from that era, but neither could be considered as great.

It is impossible to compare teams from different eras with 100% objectivity, but any analysis must begin with a look at the players.

The 1979 team had nine Hall of Famers. How many potential Hall of Famers did the 2008 team have? Troy Polamalu, hopefully Hines Ward, and perhaps Ben Roethlisberger assuming he keeps his pants on. And on the surface, that should settle the argument right there.

But many of the Steelers future Hall of Famers were already in decline in 1979. Like the 2008 team they finished their regular season with a 12-4 record, and like the 2008 Steelers, they followed up their Super Bowl victory finishing 9-7.

But the 2008 Steelers played one of the toughest schedules in league history. They did so after weathering a blistering series of injuries that ravaged their offensive line and forced them to start their fourth string running back in the season defining week 5 contest against Jacksonville.

And if the 2008 Steelers lacked the dynastic quality of their 1979 forbearers, that is a simple function of the era in which they play. The 2008 Steelers had their backs pressed to the wall so many times during the year, and each and every time they responded.

Vince Ferragamo came off the bench to play a phenomenal game for the LA Rams that day in Pasadena, but no one will ever confuse him with Kurt Warner, and Ferragamo had nothing on the order of a Larry Fitzgerald at his disposal.

The 1979 Steelers were a great team. But the 2008 Steelers deserve to be considered a notch higher when establishing a pecking order among the Steelers Super Bowl Champions.

But this is just the opinion of one voice in Steelers Nation. All who have a different take are welcome to leave a comment and voice their views. Let the debate begin.

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