1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”

The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl hopes crashed 3 yards short of the goal in the AFC Championship  loss to the San Diego Chargers. Heartbreaking though it was, it did lead to the “3 More Yards” off season rallying cry.

  • Alas, the Steelers didn’t start 1995 3 yards short of the Super Bowl, however.

Quite the contrary. In 1995, Bill Cowher would need the Steelers to harness every ounce of energy within the franchise to find those final 3 yards.

Steelers Colts AFC Championship, Aaron Bailey, Randy Fuller, Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary AFC Championship

Randy Fuller bats a pass away from Aaron Bailey. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1995 Off Season – Tempting Fate

When a franchise falls a hair short of the Super Bowl, its instinct is generally to keep the same team intact. Yet, the Steelers did the opposite in 1995.

Neil O'Donnell, Barry FosterBarry Foster and Eric Green had powered the offense in the Cowher Era, earning a third of the yards and scoring 40% of the touchdowns. The Steelers let Eric Green walk in free agency and sent Barry Foster to Carolina for a song.

  • Yes, their production dipped in 1994, but the moves carried enormous risk.

Pittsburgh replaced Green with Mark Bruener, a first round tight end who “Had no plans to hold a Super Bowl rap video.” Bam Morris’ emergence in 1994 and the arrival of free agent Erric Pegram in 1995 gave the Steelers the comfort they needed to trade the talented, but testy Barry Foster. On defense, the Steelers let Tim McKyer and Gerald Williams depart via the expansion draft, figuring they had enough depth to make up the difference.

These were calculated risks and in May 1995, it looked like the Steelers had lost their gamble when starting cornerback Deon Figures took a stray bullet in the knee while driving through Los Angeles.

  • However, Figures recovered quickly enough to play on opening day.

It seemed that the Steelers had tempted Fate and escaped. As they would soon learn, Fate was in fact a temptress, and one who did not appreciate being scorned.

Season Starts – Fate’s Vengeance Carries a Stiff Price

The Steelers opened the 1995 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday September 3rd with Three Rivers Stadium awash in brilliant sunshine. All was well as the Steelers sat on a 3-0 lead with 1:19 remaining in the 1st quarter as the Lions tried to convert a 3rd and 7.

  • Scott Mitchell passed to Barry Sanders in the flat.
  • Rod Woodson pivoted to make the tackle.

No one remembers now or cared then that Sanders converted the 3rd down because Rod Woodson tore his ACL on the play. Fourteen plays later, Neil O’Donnell converted a third down with a throw to Ernie Mills, then was seen holding his hand after handing off to Bam Morris.

Mike Tomczak was warming up after the TV time out as announcers informed that Neil O’Donnell had broken his hand.

The 1995 season was barley a quarter old, and the Steelers had lost their Hall of Fame cornerback and the starting quarterback. Fate’s vengeance carried a stiff price.

“3 More Yards” Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Although, Pittsburgh rallied to win on opening day on a last second Norm Johnson field goal, the Steelers would play some of their worst football of the Cowher era over the next six weeks.

Sure, Andre Hastings, Carnell Lake, Willie Williams, and Alvoid Mays all made splash plays on special teams and defense to score critical touchdowns that supplied the Steelers with 2 more wins.

Willie Williams, Myron Bell,

Willie Williams and Myron Bell. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • But those performances were exceptions, and not the rule.

While they were in route to a 3-4 start, the Boston Globe’s William McDonough argued that Pittsburgh was hopeless without their four best players from the previous year. The legendary columnist was wrong.

  • Oh, talent deficiencies were hurting hurt the Steelers.

Bam Morris struggled to crack the 3 yards a carry mark and hadn’t sniffed a 100-yard game. Bill Cowher benched Mike Tomcazk twice in favor of Jim Miller, but Miller didn’t give The Chin any reason to stick with him.

But talent really wasn’t the core issue bedeviling the 1995 Steelers as revealed by a simple fact: Their two worst losses came following O’Donnell’s return, first to the expansion Jaguars and second to Bengals.

The problem? Pittsburgh’s was playing with the attitude of a team that actually thought it only needed 3 yards to reach the Super Bowl:

  • Tackles were sloppy
  • Routine passes got dropped
  • Games were lost with balls thrown into traffic while receivers roamed uncovered in the end zone

Focus seemed to be everywhere except on the fundamentals. After 7 games the Steelers were 3-4.

9 Changes for a 9 Game Season

The lasting images of the Steelers Thursday Night Football loss to the Bengals were Alvoid Mays getting tortured and torched by Jeff Blake and Bill Cowher screaming on the sidelines. From a distance, The Chin appeared to be losing control.

Appearances deceive. Bill Cowher was actually asserting control.

Bill Cowher declared it a 9-game season and, as if to prove a point, he made 9 lineup changes:

  • At left tackle Justin Strzelczyk replaced injured John Jackson
  • Rookie Brendan Stai took Strzelczyk’s place starting at right guard
  • John Williams, returned to health, replaced Steve Avery at fullback
  • Bam Morris got benched, replaced by Erric Pegram
  • Jerry Olsavsky stepped in for Chad Brown, who’d suffered a high ankle sprain
  • Brentson Buckner slid over to replace the suspended Joel Steed, and Kevin Henry took his place
  • Myron Bell became the new starter at strong safety

Making 8 lineup changes in one week in the NFL is dramatic. But Bill Cowher’s 9th change bordered on revolutionary: Carnell Lake, who played linebacker at UCLA and started strong safety since 1989, move over to cornerback. This was a bold move, as Lake had never played cornerback, outside of a few series during the 1991 preseason (don’t believe me? Check the August 1991 Steelers Digest editions).

Change came in the locker room. The Steelers held a players-only meeting, banning pagers (Google it) and cellphones from meetings and practices with Greg Lloyd promising to smash the next one he saw.

  • All of this was public knowledge. But Bill Cowher had another change up his sleeve that he was saving for the field.

And this was as electrifying as it was innovative.

“Slash” Is Born!

The following week the Steelers attacked the Jacksonville Jaguars with laser like focus, going up 21-0 at the half and closing with a 24-7 win. The win was impressive and needed. But the real lesson was tucked  into the end of the 1st quarter, when on 3rd and 2, the 4th string quarterback entered the game under center and ran for 16 yards.

Kordell Stewart, Kordell Stewart Slash, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart lines of up his first NFL carry. “Slash” was about to be born. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • It seemed like a gimmick. Instead, it signaled a revolutionary change for the Steelers offense.

But before starting the revolution, the Steelers needed to travel to Chicago, and play a 6-2 Bears team that had been one of the NFL’s best. It wasn’t easy. The Steelers fought the Bears for every blade of grass in a contest that saw the lead change 11 times.

In the end, the Steelers tied the game late in the 4th quarter, snuffed out a Bears comeback attempt with a Willie Williams interception, lost the toss in overtime, forced a punt but kicked a field goal to win it.

  • Against the Bears, Kordell Stewart had run once for two yards and caught another pass for 27.

Although both of those converted 3rd downs, Kordell’s contributions remained largely in the background.

That changed the following week on Monday Night Football, when Kordell Stewart stood under center at the goal line, scrambled from one end of the backfield to the next before connecting with Ernie Mills for his first NFL touchdown pass.

“Slash” was born.

While Neil O’Donnell remained entrenched as the starter, Kordell Stewart’s ability to run, throw and catch gave Pittsburgh’s offense a dynamic weapon that opposing defenses could not cope with. Lest anyone doubt how potent Pittsburgh’s offense became with Slash take a look here (tweet courtesy of Steel City Star):

This wasn’t just a 71-yard touchdown pass, it was the go-ahead score in a game that saw the Steelers start the 2nd half down 13 to 31. The offense evolved in other ways, as Kordell would sometimes join Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings to form an empty set formation which was rare in the NFL in those days, and unheard of in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stacked wins. Some, like the 20-17 road win over the Browns, were more workman like than others. But most importantly, the Steelers took it in stride, with the implicit understanding that each win was simply a necessary stepping stone toward the playoffs.

Lessons of ’94 Serve Steelers Well in 1995 Playoffs

When the 1994 playoffs arrived, both the Steelers and Steelers Nation regarded the Divisional and AFC Championship games as formalities. The San Diego Chargers had disabused Pittsburgh of such fantasies.

The divisional round brought the Buffalo Bills to Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a steady, 23 to 7 half time lead. They tacked on another field goal to make it 26 to 7. But then the Bills, alternating between Alex Van Pelt and Jim Kelly, scored a second and then a third touchdown.

  • Yet there was no panic on the Steelers sidelines when the Bills made it 21-26 with 12 minutes left to play.
Levon Kirkland, Steelers vs Bills, 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Myron Bell, Darren Perry

Levon Kirkland intercepts Jim Kelly. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images, via Heavy.com

The Steelers responded with an 11-play drive that burned 5 minutes off the clock and ended with a Bam Morris touchdown. Jerry Olsavsky and Levon Kirkland ended the next two Bills drives with interceptions, allowing Bam Morris to score an insurance touchdown for a 40 to 21 win.

Instead of the euphoria that had engulfed Three Rivers Stadium a year earlier, Greg Lloyd held up 2 fingers, for two more games, as he entered the tunnel, confirming that the Steelers were taking nothing for granted.

  • As the next week would prove, that attitude would serve the entire team well.

Like the Chargers a year before them, the 1995 Indianapolis Colts weren’t supposed to have made it this far. But they upset the AFC favorite Kansas City Chiefs and their demeanor made clear that the Colts arrived in Pittsburgh with every intention of doing the same to the Steelers.

  • The two teams slogged it out in a defensive chess match that lasted three quarters.

Going into the 4th quarter the Steelers held a 13 to 9 lead, having scored the only touchdown in the first half. With about 8 minutes left, Jim Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 47-yard touchdown and a 16 to 13 lead.

  • Steelers Nation uttered a collective, “Here we go again.”

What followed was perhaps the most intense 8 minutes of the decade. Every man on each team, left it all on the field. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Colts had a 3rd and one. A first down would likely allow them to kill the clock. Willie Williams responded; rushing from the opposite side he covered the entire width of the field making an improbable tackle of Lamont Warren for no gain.

You can see Willie William’s tackle here courtesy of Steel City Star (it is number 4, coming @ the 1:26 mark):

Williams’ tackle forced the Colts to punt. Here’s what followed:

  • The Steelers got the ball back but struggled, being forced to convert a 4th and three.
  • Then Neil O’Donnell hit Ernie Mills for a 37-yard hookup that put Pittsburgh at Indy’s 1.
  • Bam Morris ran for no gain. Indy took a time out.
  • Bam Morris ran again, this time scoring, giving the Steelers a 20 to 16 lead.

The Colts had a minute 34 and were far from finished. Jim Harbaugh converted 3rd and 4th downs as he moved the Colts to the Steelers 29 with time for one throw. He heaved it towards the end zone. It found Aaron Bailey through a crowd and landed on his lap.

Bailey closed on the ball for a second, but Randy Fuller knocked it away.

Time expired and the Steelers were heading to Super Bowl XXX.

Super Bowl XXX – Two Interceptions Too Far

The Dallas Cowboys were undeniably the dominate team of the early 1990’s. The only thing keeping them from winning more Super Bowls was Jerry Jones’ ego and insistence on Barry Switzer over Jimmy Johnson.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

  • It says here that Vegas odds makers were right to favor Dallas in this game.

But was 17 points too much?

For the first 26 minutes of the game, that margin seemed about right. The Steelers played with stage fright and quite frankly, were lucky to hold the Cowboys to 13 points. But late in the 2nd quarter, Tory Aikman tried to hook up with Michael Irvin on third down only to have Rod Woodson knock the ball away.

Woodson’s presence alone was a medical miracle, let alone a play such as that against a fellow Hall of Famer.

The Steelers went to work and clawed their way down the field. The first half closed with Neil O’Donnell connecting with Yancey Thigpen for a touchdown. The Steelers were down 13 to 7 but had put themselves back into the game by halftime.

…Unfortunately, Neil O’Donnell almost took them back out of the game when early in the 3rd quarter he threw directly to Larry Brown who returned the ball 30 yards, setting up an easy Cowboys touchdown.

The Steelers refused to fade or fold.

They opened the 4th quarter with a Norm Johnson field goal, followed by a surprise-on-sides kick that Deon Figures recovered. Pittsburgh was not only going to continue to play, it was playing to win.

Larry Brown, John L. Williams, Steelers vs Cowboys, Larry Brown interception Super Bowl XXX, Larry Brown pick six Super Bowl XXX

Larry Brown en route to end zone in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Al Belo, Getty Images via surgexsportsblitz.com

O’Donnell quickly moved the team down the field, and in just 3 minutes, Bam Morris was in the end zone, making it a 20 to 17 game. The Steelers forced the Cowboys to punt on a drive that featured their only sack of the game, an 8-yard drop by Levon Kirkland.

  • The Steelers got the ball back.

To this day, people argue whether Andre Hastings ran the wrong route or not, but what is clear is that Neil O’Donnell again threw it directly to Larry Brown. And again Larry Brown returned into the Steelers Red Zone. And again, Emmitt Smith did what he did so well – score touchdowns.

  • The final score read Cowboys 27 Steelers 17.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers opened the season by losing their best player. By midseason they were facing an abyss. The effort of the 1995 Steelers in turning the season around is worthy of story and song.

But at the end of the day, the truth is that Pittsburgh had glimpsed the Mountain Top, but it was two interceptions too far.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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