MEL BLOUNT AND STEELERS REACH AGREEMENT
Claiming the embarrassment of watching his team being humiliated in Dallas in the last game of preseason influenced his decision, Mel Blount ended his 56-day holdout. “I got a certain feeling they didn’t look the same team and I felt somewhat responsible,” Blount revealed.
“It was embarrassing to me,” he continued. “I felt the contribution I had made in the past would go to waste. I felt they needed me and I told my agent to start negotiations again.”
In agreeing to return, Blount dropped his $5 million dollar “criminal” lawsuit and his grievance against the Steelers and was saddled with a $25,000 fine for his holdout.
Blount appeared jovial and relaxed at the press conference to announce his return and said, “My future is better and I’m happy.”
A decision on his fitness to play against San Francisco would be made after the Steelers had evaluated his conditioning. Bud Carson, the Steelers defensive coordinator, suggested that the cornerback position was the toughest to play without much practice. “It’s not like anywhere else on the team,” Carson said. “If a player is a step or two behind, it can mean six points.”
FROM ART’S POINT OF VIEW
Although he was no longer at the Steelers helm having handed control over to his son Dan, Art Rooney still went into the office every day. He also watched the team practice and was still keen to talk about football.
“This isn’t like baseball,” Art Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as he gesticulated towards the players during practice. “Baseball is an individual game,” he added. “You can have eight players who dislike each other and the management and they can still go up to the plate and hit. But this is a team game. They have to work together.”
With the Steelers preseason being an up and down affair, Mr. Rooney felt it was critical for the Steelers to get off to a good start. Last season’s 1-4 start would not be conducive for a good year.
“I think everyone in the organisation thought a year ago we could still come back after we were 1-4,” but twelve months later, the view was a different one.
Coach Noll felt the team had practiced well leading up to their season opener, but warned, ”My feeling is that this team has great potential. But potential has to be realised.” With a tough early schedule, the Steelers would have to get up to speed fast to expel the doubts they had built during the off-season.
Joe Greene was optimistic. “We’ve cleared up our little adversities and all the distractions should be gone,” Greene offered. “There are different challenges every year. Football is a cycle and the cycle changes all the time. Things happen, but Mel’s in, Jack’s in. We’ve had one retirement on defense and we are going to miss Andy’s knowledge and leadership, but we’ve now got the same people. We’ve got the people in this room who can win a championship.
ERNIE HOLMES WALKS OUT
Ernie Holmes, who spent the off season successfully fighting a cocaine charge, walked out of Three Rivers Stadium after telling Dan Rooney, “I can’t hack it.” Holmes owed the Steelers an estimated $28,000 for the legal fees incurred when defending the charge and it was taking its toll on the player.
Rooney played down the exit, saying, “He said he had too much to think about, that is problems were overbearing on him.” Believing the player would return to practice, Rooney added, “This was not a major thing.”
THE STEELERS 1997 REGULAR SEASON BEGINS
“The pre-season and the regular season are two different things, right” observed Franco Harris on the eve of the season opener. The Post-Gazette noted if the exhibition season (3-3) had not drawn some concern, the game against the 49ers would merely be considered a warmup for the following week’s annual war with the Raiders.
San Francisco had problems of their own during preseason, scoring just one field goal in their last three games. The team would rely heavily on their two standout defensive ends, Cedric Hardman and Tommy Hart, to make their mark on the Steelers two inexperienced tackles.
Ray Pinney would be standing in for injured Jon Kolb and Larry Brown would be making the transition for the Steelers from tight end to tackle. “I’ve been talking to Ray all week to keep him up,” Terry Bradshaw offered. “If he gets down, I get killed.”
1977 game 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers vs San Francisco
With defenses dominating, fans had to wait until the beginning of the second quarter to see a score. Franco Harris was given the ball five consecutive times before on his sixth carry he ran in a 14-yard touchdown. When Roy Gerela kicked a field goal of 49 yards to extend the Steelers lead, the offense confirmed it could complement their defense, but sparingly.
The 49ers came close in the third period to putting some points on the board after a Harris fumble, but they in turn fumbled the snap on a field goal attempt to give the Steelers the shutout.
In the final quarter, the Steelers exerted their authority on the game by adding two scores. First, Coach Noll gambled on a fourth and two to continue the 62-yard drive that Harris complete with a rumble from 7 yards for the touchdown.
Jimmy Allen run back of his interception to the 49ers six to set up the final touchdown attested to the defensive strength of the Steelers. Three plays later, Bradshaw fired a 15-yard touchdown pass to John Stallworth to complete the Steelers 27-0 victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 27 vs the San Francisco 49ers 0
Three Rivers Stadium September 19th 1977; 48,046
Passing: Bradshaw 12-23-0INT-1TD-164
Harris 27-100-2TD, Bleier 7-35, Bradshaw 4-20
Receiving: Swann 4-63, Stallworth 3-42-1TD, Cunningham 1-29
Robin Cole fractured his right forearm and was projected to be out four weeks.
“We needed a win, a shutout going into the Oakland game,” offered L.C. Greenwood. “Now we know everything is Ok.”
When Coach Noll was asked post-game if they were keeping their offense under wraps, he replied, “We’re always under wraps offensively.”
We played football like we’re supposed to play it,” Jack Lambert said. “I knew we were ready. I’m not much for that ‘turn on the switch stuff.’ My switch is always on.” Looking ahead to their next game, Lambert added, “I’m not blowin’ smoke - Oakland and Pittsburgh don’t like each other. We respect each other, but we don’t like each other.”
Of his blockers who covered admirably for the absence of Jon Kolb, Terry Bradshaw said, “I’m just proud of them.”
“It was just like a beer with a head on it,” observed Lynn Swann. “All that foam coming off the top. It was a spirit like you had back in college. We were playing because we wanted to.
THE CLASH OF THE GIANTS NEXT
After their success in the season opener, the Steelers began to prepare for visit of their biggest rivals – Oakland. “I know this sounds hard to believe, but this is just another game,” announced Dan Rooney before the game.
Sounding like a headmaster guiding his pupils into an important sporting clash, Rooney added, “Good, vociferous spirit it what we want. That’s what it’s all about.” In spite of his enthusiasm for the fans sobriety, Rooney was planning to put on extra security for the game.
DONNIE SHELL – FINALLY FIRST TEAM!
“It don’t take much to get ready for Oakland,” Donnie Shell revealed. “Just mention the name Oakland,” he added with a smile.
“I like the big games,” Shell continued. “This game is going to be a dandy. You can bank on it. We won’t be the same team we were in the playoffs. I guarantee you that.” After spending three years on special teams and as backup with the defense, Shell was now cementing his position at safety with the first team.
“I’ve been bustin’ my rear for three years,” he said in a voice that gathered force like a hurricane. “I’ve paid my dues.”
Defensive coordinator Bud Carson observed, “As far as I am concerned, he’s played as well as anybody on our football team. I think if you counted the tackles made in preseason, he’d be the leader.
Led by his own ambition and with a fear of being typecast, Shell made it clear he wanted to be a defensive back. “I was ready,” he explained. Shell moved ahead of veteran Glen Edwards who was sidelined by turf toe during preseason.
Encouraged by his own youthful cockiness, Shell insisted that, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum (of Oakland) aside, no team had a more punishing secondary than the Steelers. “The Raiders are second to us,” he expressed. “They’re aggressive. We’re more aggressive.”
Focussing on the Steelers next game, Shell put the spotlight on Raiders’ quarterback Ken Stabler, “I think he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.” With Stabler enjoying some great pass protection, Shell noted, “He has more time than the average quarterback to throw. That way, he can go to his second and third receivers.”
The perfectionist in Shell was revealed when he said, “I got to be right on every play, even in practice. I try to allow myself one mistake a game cuz I’m human.” He expected no less from the defensive unit. “I think the defense should stop the offense all the time – I think we’re that good of a defensive club.”
OAKLAND’S ATKINSON KEEPING A LOW PROFILE
“Some people take things personally, but if the fans do a crazy thing in Pittsburgh, then when the Steelers come to Oakland – well; now you’ve got another problem. Pretty soon there can be a chain reaction and before you know, it, happens all over.”
Playing down the animosity between the teams, Atkinson viewed the forthcoming game as just a good, exciting football game. “As long as the refs and fans let us play, it’ll be an exciting game. This is a good rivalry. It brings out the best in pro football. It’s good, quality football.”
THE RIVALRY CONTINUES
“It would be nice if it were just a football game, which is what it should be,” suggested Oakland’s Coach John Madden. “The talk surrounding the game sure as hell isn’t as important as the game is,” he added.
“We’re very happy to be playing in Pittsburgh,” Madden declared. In a reference to the Steelers relying on a Raiders win over the Bengals to make the playoffs in 1976, Madden declared, “We have a lot of fans back there. Last year, when we were getting ready to play Cincinnati, we found out how many. Then after the game, we had even more fans in Pittsburgh.
Every game there’s something. But what matters is who won. It doesn’t make too damn much difference what’s said. After that first game (in the 1972 playoffs) and Franco Harris’s catch… hell, we thought that was illegal too, but they still won the game.”
The rivalry between the teams had become intense since the game which gave birth to the Immaculate Reception. The Steelers and Raiders have played nine times since that playoff game, roughly one thousand individual plays, but only five blatantly flagrant acts were discovered when researchers viewed films of those games for the Atkinson libel trial.
1977 game 2: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0) vs the Oakland Raiders (1-0)
The champion Raiders stifled and then turned over the Steelers in a game that Pittsburgh was hoping would be payback for their playoff loss the previous season.
The Steelers began well with Reggie Harrison running 33 yards on a fake punt, but Oakland stopped the series forcing a field goal attempt that Roy Gerela kicked wide right.
For Oakland, Ken Stabler’s first three drives came to nothing before a Stallworth fumble on his team’s 38 gave the Raiders good field position in the second quarter. The opportunity ended with a 21-yard field goal. When the Steelers subsequently failed to gain a first down, the Raiders succeeded on their next series, kicking another field goal from 40 yards.
The first half ended with the Raiders adding a field goal from 41 yards and despite only having a longest scoring drive of 34 yards, Oakland were 9-0 ahead.
In the third quarter, the usually conservative Coach Noll tried to spark his offense with a fourth and nine attempt on their opponents 38, but it resulted in a sack. With confidence sapped, Terry Bradshaw threw two interceptions and Franco Harris fumbled on the Steelers next three possessions while the Raiders added a touchdown as a result of the second turnover.
Midway through the final period, Bennie Cunningham caught a 43-yard touchdown pass that prevented the shutout, but it didn’t wipe out the Steelers mistakes or their poor punting.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 7 vs the Oakland Raiders 16
Three Rivers Stadium September 25th 1977; 50,398
Passing: Bradshaw 16-32-3INT-1TD-268
Harris 16-64, Harrison 1-33, Swann 1-14, Bradshaw 2-18, Bleier 11-23,
Receiving: Stallworth 3-87, Swann 3-53, Cunningham 1-43, Lewis 2-33, Harris 2-14, Harrison 1-7, Bleier 4-21
“The defense played well enough to win, the offense did not,” observed Coach Noll.
During the game the Raiders began series at various times on the Steelers 38,43,30,49 and 34-yard lines. Mel Blount suggested, “You can’t beat a team like Oakland if they stay in good field position. Something’s bound to happen.”
At Coach Noll’s Monday press conference it was suggested the lack of the Steelers running game was the cause of the problem, but the coach didn’t think the answer was that simple. “We’re got to get everything going,” he observed.
Myron Cope then asked if it was more difficult to play offense or defense in the pros. Coach Noll replied, “If it was easy to play football in the pros, we’d open up the door and call everybody in. It’s difficult to play.” Cope retorted that the coach hadn’t addressed his question. “I may sound like I’m talking around it, but I don’t want to say there’s not much substance to the question,” Coach Noll responded.
Pittsburgh’s media also reflected on Bobby Walden’s punting and whether the Steelers should have been looking for a new punter before the season began.
THE END OF A DYNASTY
I’m not quite sure what the Post-Gazette thought the definition of dynasty was when they ran the above headline after Oakland handed the Steelers their third defeat in thirteen months at the beginning of the 1977 season.
In a town that had become accustomed to seeing their team win, Vito Stellino suggested that the torch had been passed in pro football and it was the Raiders who were now holding it. Stellino proposed the Steelers latest defeat was virtually a watershed in the chronicle of pro football and the Raiders were now the better team.
The journalist finished his article advancing the theory the Steelers had stood still because their recent draft selections were not as good as they had been in the early years after Chuck Noll became head coach.
A BROWNS MIRACLE?
The Steelers would be travelling to Cleveland for their next game where they would face a Browns team that had produced an electric overtime victory over the heavily fancied Patriots.
With some concerns about the fitness of Terry Bradshaw, who was suffering from a bruised hip, Cleveland’s coach Forrest Gregg had no doubts the player would take to the field. “He’s tough,” offered Gregg. “He’s a competitor. This is a league game. We expect he’ll be there.
I noticed he limped up to the line against Oakland Sunday and then rolled out with the football. I think he was trying to con Oakland.”
Focusing on his running back Mike Pruitt, Gregg said, “I don’t know of any player more valuable. He did everything but punt against New England.” Joe Greene suggested Pruitt was fifty percent of the Browns offense while Coach Noll stated, “We have to stop Pruitt. He’s a big part of their offense. He’s unique. He gives great individual effort.”
Chuck Noll admitted, “Mistakes are something which have been kind of a problem for us at the beginning of every season. We just have to settle down and not make those mistakes. We want to eliminate them. We will eliminate them.”
The Steelers had a bad record in Municipal Stadium, winning only two of the previous 12 game they played there. With the Browns jointly heading the division, Pittsburgh would fall two games behind if they failed to win there again.
The stadium was 46 years old and one reporter suggested to Noll that the Steelers became depressed each time they suited up in the cramped Cleveland locker room. The coach laughed and joked that there was no truth in the rumours the Steelers had been dressing in phone booths after training to ease the transition.
Having been a player and a coach with the Browns, Noll added, “That takes me back to my youth. Those are great dressing rooms.”
When Art Rooney was talking about the Steelers-Browns rivalry, he joked, “We usually had a lot of fun going there, but not too much fun coming back. "
The Municipal Stadium Dawg Pound
STEELERS-BROWNS SERIES LIVES AGAIN
Glenn Sheeley Pittsburgh Press.
Long before the Steelers decided to adopt the Oakland Raiders as their annual voodoo doll, this was THE Series. Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Mentioning both cities drew laughs in a comedian’s act, but when the Browns and the Steelers played each other it was certainly no joke.
Especially when it involved going to Cleveland. Pittsburgh fans would ride trains or buses or jam themselves five to a back seat merely to watch the fights in the stands. Players from both teams knew better than to remove their helmets emerging from the locker rooms. Beer bottles were often more potentially terrifying than forearms.
The series lives again. About three hours after kickoff, when they dig everyone from the turf, either the Browns’ bubble will have expanded and the Steelers will have revived grim memories of last year or the Steelers will have deflated the Browns and blown up a bubble of their own.
With wins over Cincinnati and New England behind them, Cleveland is the old franchise with new hopes and a team with visions of a division title dancing inside its helmets.
Although the Cleveland drought has not been as lengthy as it was for Steelers followers, it doesn’t seem to matter. Browns fans would like nothing more than to increase the streak against the Steelers.
In the old days, people in Cleveland laughed at the Steelers funny uniforms. In recent years, as Super Bowl trophies replaced the Steelers annual residence in the NFL cellar, Browns fans sat back in their seats and hoped the humiliation wouldn’t be too bad.
Except in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, Chuck Noll’s Steelers are a dismal 2-6; the only two victories coming in the years they went onto win the Super Bowl.
“We better win,” Jack Ham said. “We didn’t play well against Oakland. Now we start playing games in our division. It’s time to start winning football game.”
1977 game 3: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) at the Cleveland Browns (2-0)
On a dreary, windy, rainy afternoon in Cleveland, this game was always going to be fought in the trenches and so it proved. It took a Lynn Swann 31-yard punt return to set the Steelers up for the first score placing the ball on Cleveland’s 25. Five plays later, Swann collected a touchdown pass of 6 yards to break the deadlock.
The Browns powered back with a 10-play drive of 64 yards finishing with Brian Sipe’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Dave Logan. That score was the first time the Browns had scored a first quarter touchdown against the Steelers in 32 regular season games.
The teams exchanged turnovers in the second period with the Cleveland taking the advantage after an interception return to Pittsburgh’s 5. Cleo Miller went over from the one to give the Browns the lead.
Pittsburgh tied it almost immediately when Bradshaw threw a 65-yard touchdown pass that bounced off a Cleveland cornerback’s chest into the arms of Frank Lewis to give a 14-14 score line at the end of the first half.
Early in the third period, the Steelers recovered a muffed punt catch that placed the ball on Cleveland’s 18. Swann caught his second touchdown pass, this one from 14 yards to put the Steelers in front again.
Another turnover in the final period from Gregg Pruitt gave Pittsburgh the opportunity to increase their lead. With a ground game that was finally sparkling, Rocky Bleier gained 17 yards in three plays before Swann hauled in a catch of 14 yards for the touchdown.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at the Cleveland Browns 14
Municipal Stadium October 2nd 1977; 80,588
Passing: Bradshaw 10-17-3INT-2TD-143
Rushing: Harris 22-72, Harrison 8-39, Smith 4-29, Bleier 15-67, Thornton 1-2
Receiving: Swann 7-71-2TD, Lewis 1-65, Bleier 2-7
“The game started out like a street fight,” observed Coach Noll. “Our coaches tried to calm everyone down as quick as possible. But the worst thing you can do to a team (to retaliate for rough play) is to beat them. That’s what we did.”
Cleveland’s defensive back Thom Darden agreed, “It’s just like a street fight when you play Pittsburgh. When you play them, you know it’s going to be rough. We’re not going to let them intimidate us. It’s just like having a bully on your block.”
“They pounded on us,” remarked Cleveland’s Coach Forrest Gregg. “That’s the first time anybody did that. The Steelers played well. I don’t think we did.” When questioned about the 21 penalties that appeared to have made it a sloppy game, Gregg replied, “It wasn’t sloppy, it was aggressive football.”
The Steelers lost safety Mike Wagner for the season with a cracked vertebrae below his neck.
San Diego 24 Cincinnati 3
Miami 27 Houston 7
STEELERS GROUND GAME RETURNS AND THE ANALYSIS BEGINS
Terry Bradshaw’s intention before the Cleveland game was to run the ball, “If I run the ball, I can do what I want to do.” The team did just that with 218 rushing yards and the quarterback complemented it with seven passes to Lynn Swann.
Nobody was happier to see the return of the Steelers running game than right guard Gerry Mullins. “It’s good to get it started earlier this year,” he said in a reference to the Steelers 1-4 start the previous season.
“I think it helped that we came back to running plays even if they didn’t go the first time,” Mullins added. “A lot of times a play is good, but there’s a tendency to throw it out if it doesn’t work once. I’ve always said we live on the run. The pass is an added bonus for us. You’ve got to do the things you do best.”
In the early days of computers, they were beginning to be produce data on football games. One statistician submitted that the two most important football statistics were (1) number of rushes per game and (2) yards per pass attempt, not completion.
He showed that the winning teams are always high in these statistics using the Steelers 46.6 rushes per game and Oakland on top with 7.5 yards per pass attempt. Using his figures to analyse the last two Steeler games he produced some interesting data.
Against Oakland, the Steelers led in a lot of statistical departments producing the premise that they had won the battle of statistics, but lost the game. But Oakland rushed the ball 46 times to the Steelers 31, showing the Raiders controlling the ball and the team that controls the ball controls the game.
Pittsburgh’s victory over the Browns produced a different picture. The Steelers rushed the ball 56 times to just 29 for the Browns. Bradshaw passed for just 143 yards against Cleveland compared to his 217 yards against Oakland, but his yards per attempt were 8.4 against Cleveland and just 5.9 against Oakland.
ROOKIE DAVE LACROSSE MAKES HIS MARK
The Wake Forest Coach Chuck Mills gave linebacker Dave LaCrosse a realistic assessment of his future in pro football advising him that a team with patience might be willing to take a chance on him.
The Steelers assistant Coach Woody Widenhofer liked Lacrosse and Pittsburgh used a low draft pick on him. “If we hadn’t drafted him tenth, he probably wouldn’t have been drafted at all,” Widenhofer told the Pittsburgh Press. “I try to get people who fit into the system. He isn’t going to line up with Houston or New England as an inside linebacker and go up against 260-pound linemen all day.”
Instead the rookie will be a member of the special teams while he waits to be noticed to gain a spot on defense. “I was sort of hesitant about playing on them at first,” he confessed. “I never did it in college and you hear how you can end your career with a chop at the knees. But I feel pretty good about being on them now. I’m comfortable.”
Lacrosse leapt into prominence for a moment against the Browns when he recovered a fumbled punt to set up Pittsburgh’s winning touchdown. Special teams are the pet project of Coach Noll so Lacrosse would have made an impression on the top man with his fumble recovery.
“He’s got some of the things that Jack Ham has got,” observed Widenhofer. “He’s a shy kid. He’s got good speed and he’s intelligent,” he continued before adding, “He’s a skinny kid who can run like a deer.”
Addressing his potential, Widenhofer said, “Lacrosse has a chance to develop. How bad he wants it is the big thing.”
The ten-point favourites Steelers headed to Houston where they were 5-0 in the games they have played in the Astrodome which was the first pro football domed stadiums.
Franco Harris always excelled playing the Oilers, putting together four of his 26 100-yard rushing games against them while the Oilers would be playing with 17 rookies or first-year players on their roster.
1977 game 4: The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) at the Houston Oilers (2-1)
Houston struck first when Ken Burrough made a diving catch of a 44-yard halfback pass from Ronnie Coleman. After the Steelers kicked a 27-yard field goal in the first quarter, Rocky Bleier added a touchdown with his dive from one yard to take a 10-7 lead before the half. After he threw four interceptions, the Steelers lost Terry Bradshaw with a fractured bone in his left hand.
Houston tied the game with their first series of the second half as the Steelers struggled to put any offence together. Dan Pastorini threw a bomb of 51 yards to Billy Johnson who evaded Mel Blount for their go ahead score.
Mike Kruczek replaced Bradshaw, but fared no better, leaving the game with a badly bruised shoulder on the first play of the final period when the Steelers woes multiplied. Rookie quarterback Cliff Stoudt was not suited up for the game, so Pittsburgh brought on Tony Dungy, who had experience at the University of Minnesota, but not in the pros.
Dungy had not taken a single snap in that position with the Steelers and, unfamiliar with the cadence, he fumbled twice and threw an interception in the Steelers final four possessions. Houston added ten more points while the Steelers were self destructing.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 10 at the Houston Oilers 27
Astrodome October 9th 1977; 49,226
Passing: Bradshaw 7-19-4INT-0TD-149; Dungy 3-8-2INT-0TD-43; Kruczek 2-6-0INT-0TD-19
Pastorini 12-23-2INT-1TD-140; Coleman 1-1-0INT-1TD-44
Rushing: Bradshaw 3-46, Harris 16-55, Bleier 21-61-1TD, Stallworth 1-8, Dungy 3-8, Kruczek 1-0
Receiving: Swann 6-102, Stallworth 4-85, Lewis 1-18, Bleier 1-6
Addressing the strange situation he found himself in as the third string quarterback, Tony Dungy remarked, “It was unreal. I was meeting with the defensive backs when they called my name.”
“This is awful,” offered Mike Kruczek. “I’ve never been hurt at all before. I made a call at the line of scrimmage, but I guess it wasn’t picked up. I guess Bethea wasn’t picked up either. I got hit just before I released the ball. I thought the bone popped out. I tried to raise my arm, but then I said, ‘Oh, the hell with this.’ It’s a shame. We could have won the football game.’”
“If we had done our job (on defense), we would have still been in the ball game,” said Joe Greene.
Jack Lambert wasn’t apologising for a scuffle with Houston’s Carl Mauck and George Reinhner, but he was sorry about the nose injury to head linesman Dave Hawk. Caught in the middle of the tussle, Hawk was struck by Lambert. “I talked to him a while ago,” said Lambert. “I told him I was sorry.”
STEELERS QUARTERBACK SITUATION
Terry Bradshaw will be lost for between three and six weeks with a fractured left wrist.
Mike Kruczek’s separated shoulder could keep him out for the season.
Coach Noll must be thinking about trading for a quarterback. Neil Graff, who was cut during training camp a possibility.
Coach Noll indicated Terry Hanratty and Joe Gilliam would not come into the reckoning as the Steelers would look at younger players.
Oakland 26 Cleveland 10
Cincinnati 17 Green Bay 7
STEELERS QUARTERBACK CHALLENGES
With a division game against Cincinnati next, the subject of quarterbacks was a constant on Steeler fans’ lips. At Coach Noll’s weekly press conference, he admitted that it was very difficult to project when Terry Bradshaw or Mike Kruczek would return.
“I haven’t been given a true time frame. Somebody comes in and makes a guess on how long they will be out and usually their guess is wrong. If it was his (Bradshaw) right wrist, he’d be out for the year. I don’t know how long it will be”
The first specific news on the situation concerned Neil Graff, who had agreed to fly to Pittsburgh. The coach all but ruled out a trade for a veteran that had been cut by another team. “We’d rather have Neil because he’s been with us,” conceded Noll about the quarterback who had joined the Steelers during the 1976 season although he didn’t play.
Taking a positive from the loss in Houston, Noll said the blocking improved a little when Tony Dungy came on. “They knew they had to, and it’s a real plus to get that kind of thing going. It indicates the kind of attitude you need. You’re not looking for excuses… you look for reasons to win.”
Although his wrist will be far from healed when the Steelers play the Bengals on Monday Night Football, Bradshaw was confident of playing.
“The best part is that Chuck did not push the button,” said Bradshaw in a reference to Coach Noll who had his quarterback contingent, now joined by Graff, practicing with special passing drills. Bradshaw wasn’t part of the drills. “He’s not going to be able to work early in the week,” noted the coach. “Anything we get from Terry will be a bonus.”
NEIL GRAFF – FORMER ARMCHAIR QUARTERBACK
Neil Graff was sitting at home in Sioux Falls watching the Vikings-Lions game when the announcer mentioned the injury to Terry Bradshaw. Believing there could be the possibility of a call from the Steelers, Graff admitted, “The thought crossed my mind.”
The call did come, sooner than expected, and the result is Graff is now a Steeler again and may face the Bengals on national television. Ironically, having fought and lost a battle in preseason to be the third string quarterback, Graff was now again fighting Cliff Stoudt, but this time for the starting job.
Graff was waived after the penultimate exhibition game and at the time suspected the Steelers would go with Stoudt, who was placed on the taxi squad.
Graff hasn’t played for five weeks and admits that although his arm is rusty, he is keen to give it his best shot. “You do well on a Monday night game and all of a sudden, everybody notices you,” he enthused.
Graff only has two starts under his belt, both for New England at the start of the 1975 season when Jim Plunkett was hurt.
As he took more and more snaps in practice, Graff became increasingly confident of facing the Bengals. “I’m sure we’ll probably emphasis the running game, but I don’t think there’s not any part of the offense they might shy away from.”
Reflecting on the actions of the coaches that released him and then brought him back, Graff said, “If I do play and I do well, I’m sure I’ll say to myself, ‘Hey, I am good enough. I’ve got some talent,’ but until I prove myself, I don’t think I have a right to gloat.”
If Stoudt was selected to start, the rookie thought it would prove to be the chance of a lifetime. “I’m going to let them make the decision,” he said. “I’m not going to shoot my mouth off if I don’t get the start. If not this time, maybe next time. It’s a game of breaks.”
STEELERS FACE QUARTERBACK WOES
The Steelers placed Mike Kruczek on injured reserve on October 14, while listing Terry Bradshaw with his fractured wrist as questionable. Orthopaedic specialist Dr. Paul Steele advised Bradshaw not to take snaps on the Friday before the Steelers Monday Night game against the Bengals, but the veteran quarterback ignored the advice.
The question of whether Bradshaw would face Cincinnati was still in the balance. “It’s going to have to be better,” offered Coach Noll. “It depends on how long he can take a snap during the game.
Acknowledging the Steelers were leading the AFC both on total offense and total defense, Noll said, “This tells you we’re doing something right, but it also shows you we’re doing something wrong. We should be leading the league by 10 games.”
Turnovers were the reason the Steelers were not higher in the standings. The team had lost nine fumbles and thrown eleven interceptions. An average of four turnovers a game added up to a 2-2 record.
For the Bengals, Coach Bill Johnson’s concerns were for his defense where he will be starting three rookies. Johnson’s major concern was at strong safety where Jerry Anderson will start. “I have mixed feelings about it,” Johnson said. “I think he’ll do a fine job, but of course he might get caught in certain situations with coverages where an experienced man would be better.”
Coach Johnson had praise for the Steelers’ offensive line. “They’re the most precise in football. They’re not the largest or the bulkiest, but for precision and execution, I don’t think they have any peers.”
The Steelers lack of a consistent running game told a different story. “It’s nothing you can put your finger on,” admitted guard Jim Clack. “Everybody has been making mistakes and we haven’t been running some of our bread-and-butter plays.
We’ve been moving the ball from the 20 to the 20, but we haven’t been cashing in. The big thing is we have to get five yards on first down. That gives you so many options on second and third.”
Having won the previous seven games against the Bengals, Mel Blount observed, “We’re in good shape mentally. It’s nothing we haven’t been through before.”
BENGALS BELIEVE THEY CAN WIN
The Bengals fancied their chances against the Steelers. “I feel better before this Pittsburgh game,” defensive end Coy Bacon remarked. “Last year the echo was heard for 100 miles – ‘Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh’ – they were frightened here. I think everybody has more confidence on the team now.”
Cincinnati’s quarterback Ken Anderson added, “No, we’re not frightened by the Steelers. They’re not bullies. If that’s the case, then I’m a bully too.”
1977 game 5: The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) vs the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2)
The national television audience along with the 50,000 fans in Three Rivers Stadium sat through a scoreless first quarter before the Steelers took control of the game. Terry Bradshaw started and playing with his left wrist in a cast fumbled the first snap he received.
Bradshaw recovered from that first play disaster, and the Steelers began to prevail and at the beginning of the second quarter, Rocky Bleier ran in a one-yard touchdown to provide the Steelers with the stimulant the game was seeking. On Pittsburgh’s next series, Bleier saw his fumble returned for a Bengals score before the play was called back for an inadvertent whistle.
The Bengals were given the ball at the spot of the fumble but after their advance was halted, they attempted a 50-yard field goal. The ball was snapped over their kicker Chris Bahr’s head. He kicked it twice before the Steelers’ Mel Blount grabbed it and ran to the opponents three. Two plays later, Bleier ran in from 2 yards for the touchdown, but Roy Gerela missed the point after attempt.
The Bengals hit back when tackle Glenn Bujnoch ran four yards to score and reduce the Steelers lead to 13-7 at halftime. Cincinnati’s quarterback Ken Anderson was knocked out of the game with a knee injury after a hit by Steve Furness during that second period.
A scoreless third quarter was followed by thirteen minutes of Steelers glee before two minutes of Steelers fear. The Steelers added to their lead when Sid Thornton scored on a 1-yard plunge, but then the Bengals fought back.
Ray Phillips blocked a Bobby Walden punt with 1:26 left in the game and Cincinnati’s Reggie Williams recovered it in the end zone to set up a frantic finish to a game the Steelers were winning comfortably.
The Bengals recovered their onside kick on the Steelers 47. Cincinnati’s backup quarterback John Reaves led his team to their opponents 22. When his pass into the end zone was caught by Isaac Curtis Steelers fans held their breath before he dropped it.
With 11 seconds remaining, Reaves again connected with Curtis who was then tackled in the middle of the field as time ran out and Steeler fans breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 20 vs the Cincinnati Bengals 14
Three Rivers Stadium October 17th 1977; 47,950
Passing: Bradshaw 6-9-0INT-0TD-117
Reaves 8-25-3INT-0TD-142, Anderson 7-11-1INT-0TD-85
Rushing: Harris 16-73, Thornton 10-35-1TD, Harrison 3-16, Bleier 12-29, Smith 5-8, Stallworth 1-8
Receiving: Bleier 1-25, Cunningham 2-49, Stallworth 3-43
“I guess that shook the fans up some,” Bradshaw joked about his fumble on the Steelers first snap.
“I think Terry played one helluva game considering everything,” said Coach Noll who called most of the plays by shuffling running backs and linemen.
“Four times I died out there,” offered Joe Greene. “It must be the age or something. I can’t take this stuff anymore. If we lost I was gonna jump off a bridge. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to, but I had already made a commitment to it.”
“I haven’t played against a tight end with his strength, weight and determination,” said Cincinnati’s defensive back Melvin Morgan, who was giving away 70 pounds, about Bennie Cunningham.
Cleveland 24 Houston 23
BENNIE CUNNINGHAM FINDING HIS FEET
Bennie Cunningham impressed during the win over the Bengals and was emerging as the ideal fit as the Steelers tight end. During the win over the Bengals Cunningham had made his mark when he bulldozed Melvin Morgan, whose villainous attack on John Stallworth earlier had stunned the Three Rivers crowd.
After a quiet rookie season, Cunningham was beginning to enjoy being part of the team. Asked if he felt the season had been wasted because of his late start and pulled groin, he replied, “I hate to say this, but that’s true.”
Bill Heufelder, writing in the Pittsburgh Press suggested Cunningham, at 6-4 and 250 pounds, is not only huge, but he possesses all the requisites to be the complete tight end.
Coach Noll likes the way has improved as a blocker. His sternest challenge was adapting to the revolutionary blocking techniques taught by Dan Radakovich, whose linemen use their hands to the fullest extent of the law as noted in the NFL rule book.
“It was somewhat easier to use my hands,” Cunningham said, “but it was harder trying to get rid of the holding. In many instances, I got called for holding.
Tom Moore, the receiver coach acknowledged, “I think he’s got great potential because of his size, mobility and good hands. The thing we’re obviously trying to do is get him to break tackles, which is what he did Monday night.”
Cunningham admitted, “I can’t see very much difference between running the ball here and in college. One difference is that here you have to run lower because even though the defensive backs are small, they know how to tackle and they’re not afraid to hit.”
“You can’t get too stereotyped with your offense,” observed Mike Webster. “We’ve got to get Bennie more involved in our offense.”
NFL INVESTIGATE HITS IN THE BENGALS CLASH
Mel Blount from the Steelers and the Bengals’ Mel Morgan were ordered to appear before NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle the day after their next game to explain incidents that occurred in the Monday Night clash.
Morgan’s forearm smash to the head of John Stallworth caused a mild concussion. Bengals assistant general manager Mike Brown called the hit unnecessary. “We think that kind of thing should be stopped,” he said. “We think a penalty was justified on the play. We think it was unnecessary roughness. We understand why Pete Rozelle has called in him. We would not be surprised if a fine is forthcoming.”
Blount cracked into Cincinnati tight end Bob Trump on a play that Brown said was “an incident parallel to Morgan’s. If action is taken in Morgan’s case, I think it is needed in Blount’s.”
“I really don’t even know why they are calling me in,” Blount said. “I don’t even know if I’m going. My only concern is Houston and playing sound defense and coming up with interceptions.”
Dan Rooney had reviewed the tape of the incident and found nothing to implicate Blount. “On the close up of our game films you can clearly see the flight of the ball,” Rooney said. “And I don’t think there’s any question Mel was going for the ball.”
“Looking at the film, everything looks legal,” Blount added. “I don’t know if it’s a crackdown on violence or what, but ever since the (Noll vs Atkinson criminal element) trial things have changed. I know the commissioner wants to stay on everything, but I think anybody who looks at football can see it’s a strong, physical game. You can’t play it any other way.”
When the Steelers played Houston in week 3, both starting quarterbacks were injured. In addition, Steelers backup Mike Kruczek was lost for the season with a shoulder injury after a hit from the Oilers’ defensive end Elvin Bethea.
Playing his tenth year in Houston, Bethea had only seen one winning season. “We’ve been rebuilding ever since I’ve been here,” he explains when asked about the Oilers current setup that has seventeen first-year players on the roster.
Reflecting on the Oilers victory in Houston, Bethea said that beating the Steelers felt like winning the Super Bowl, admitting “they really are the better team.” The odds makers agree, favouring the Steelers by 10 points.
1977 game 6: The Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) vs the Houston Oilers (3-2)
After a scoreless first quarter, turnovers ensured the game sparked into life. Steelers’ rookie receiver Jim Smith fumbled a punt at the Pittsburgh 7 in the second quarter. Dan Pastorini threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to his tight end to give Houston a 7-0 lead.
Just before halftime, Dwight White (picture left) plucked a deflected pass from the air, returning it eight yards to Houston’s 27. Franco Harris fumbles, but Terry Bradshaw recovered and on the next play threw a 22-yard pass to set up a one-yard touchdown run from Harris.
Bradshaw’s first pass of the second half was intercepted, but the Oilers failed to capitalise on the turnover when Toni Fritsch missed a field goal from 37 yards. On the Steelers next possession, John Stallworth collected a pass on the left before cutting back into the backfield to streak down the right sideline for a 49-yard touchdown. Roy Gerela missed the extra point.
Early in the fourth quarter, Sid Thornton lost a fumble at the Oilers one-yard line and despite wearing a plastic cast to protect his fracture, Bradshaw made a one-armed tackle of Houston safety Al Johnson, who recovered the ball, to prevent a certain touchdown.
A Bradshaw fumble led to Houston kicking a field goal to reduce the Steelers lead to 13-10. Bradshaw took a hit that saw him leave the field for two plays with Neil Graff replacing him.
Larry Brown then recovered a Houston fumble on a punt return at the Oilers 18. Five plays later, Bradshaw hit Bennie Cunningham with a 2-yd touchdown pass. With seven seconds remaining, Harris added another score when he dived in from the one to complete the 27-10 victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 27 vs the Houston Oilers 10
Three Rivers Stadium October 23rd 1977; 48,517
Passing: Bradshaw 16-24-1INT-2TD-227, Graff 0-1-0INT-0TD-0
Rushing: Harris 23-77-2TD, Bleier 11-29, Stallworth 1-12, Smith 1-5, Thornton 2-2, Walden 1-0
Receiving: Stallworth 4-92-1TD, Swann 5-71, Cunningham 5-55-1TD, Harris 2-9
“Cunningham gets me excited out there because he’s been running his tail off,” enthused Terry Bradshaw.
“It’s always a dogfight with Pittsburgh. It’s good, clean football, but we beat each other up,” said Dan Pastorini.
“We made enough mistakes in the first half not to win a ball game,” suggested Coach Noll. “But we really showed our poise. We didn’t let the turnovers affect us and it was enough to hatter the poise of a saint. It’s the mark of our football team not to get shattered.”
STEELERS KICKING GAME CHALLENGES
Steeler fans were making noises about their kicker Roy Gerela and punter Bobby Walden (picture left) after some poor performances. Gerela would have missed two extra points in the game against Houston if a chance to re-kick the second one because of a penalty hadn’t been given.
Aged 39, excuses can be made for Walden, but at 29, Gerela should be in his prime although he wouldn’t be drawn on the problem. “I’m not going to say anything,” he offers before adding, “I’m through talking.”
Gerela rejected suggestions the fans were psyching him out. “The fans don’t bug me. If they did, I’d be in a lot of trouble,” although the fans believe he already is. “I know where the faults lie and I’m going to go after them,” he said. “I believe in myself. I believe in my own ability. I’ve got confidence in myself. Everything’s going to be fine. It has to be.”
Gerela has a slight calf pull that could be causing the kicker problems, but he was the only one who knows and he wasn’t saying.
STEVE FURNESS FINALLY MAKES THE GRADE
“I get good vibes from Steve,” detailed Joe Greene of defensive tackle Steve Furness, who was now a starter for his team. “Right now, he’s spearheading the situation and his attitude is contagious,” Greene added.
Replacing Ernie Holmes, who was hurting, defensive line coach George Perles told his men that Furness would continue until he drops. “He’s earned the job,” confirmed Perles. “No one gave him anything. His limitations? He doesn’t have any.”
Furness agreed with his coach. “I’m definitely a goal-orientated person,” he noted. ”I’ve set goals to become a starter and get so many sacks. My next goal is to be All-Pro.”
Selected in the fifth round of the 1972 draft, Furness recognised the contribution from his coach, “He brought me along slowly. I know I had a lot to learn. I thought I was ready to play in my third year, but nothing happened. I started the third game because someone was hurt. Then I went back to the bench.”
Because of his long journey, Furness was pragmatic in his outlook. “It’s funny. I’m disappointed in the fact that I didn’t get a chance to get where I am sooner. But I’m so happy to be playing, I’m not thinking about anything else.”
TERRY BRADSHAW CONCERNS
With his left wrist still encased in plastic, Terry Bradshaw looked ahead to the Steelers next game in Baltimore. Recalling the previous season’s 40-14 playoff victory, Bradshaw said, “That was probably the greatest game I’ve ever played in. It was one of those games you dream about.”
With a tough schedule approaching, Bradshaw was concerned about the number of interceptions he was throwing. “Look, I threw nine interceptions in three games,” he conceded. “That’s not like me. In the Oakland game, three interceptions cost us victory. Four interceptions at Houston cost us victory. So, the interceptions have cost us two football games, literally speaking.”
His offensive line is giving him excellent protection as he has only been sacked three times in four games. “We really haven’t done the job yet,” Bradshaw admitted. “I feel like we’re letting them down. We’re trying, but we haven’t really sustained a drive since the Cleveland game.”
“You’re gonna have fumbles and interceptions, but not seven and eight a game,” he said. “It’s hurting us. There’s no telling how good we’d be playing if it wasn’t for those turnover. At the rate we’re going, we’re going to set a world record.”
JIM ALLEN RETIRES - THEN RETURNS
Steelers’ cornerback Jimmy Allen (picture left) walked out of the locker room on Thursday saying he was retiring. On Friday he returned with no obvious reason for his brief absence. His return followed a short phone conversation with defensive coordinator Bud Carson. “He’s a pretty level headed guy and I couldn’t believe he left in the first place. It was out of character.”
“Nothing really surprises me,” said Dan Rooney. I try to play down all of these thing and sometimes I think I am wrong. Maybe they wouldn’t occur so frequently if we made an example out of someone, but I think that’s counterproductive.”
Allen will become a free agent at the end of the season and Rooney suggested that, “publicity for publicity’s sake may have something to do with the short retirement.”
Baltimore Colt’s free safety Lyle Blackwood wasn’t in the playoff team that was overwhelmed 40-14 in last season’s playoff game, but he believed his team wasn’t getting a complex about playing the Steelers.
A former Bengal, Blackwood said it was different in Cincinnati. “It wasn’t that we were scared of them (the Steelers) or anything, but we never did feel confident going out. Everybody knew were going to lose.”
Blackwood thought the expectation in Baltimore was different. “It has nothing to do with confidence,” he said. “We know it’s Pittsburgh, but we’re going in knowing we can win the game.”
Colts offensive tackle David Taylor observed, “It’s getting to be sort of like Oakland-Pittsburgh back when Pittsburgh was beating them in the playoffs every year. You begin to wonder what’s going on. We need to beat the Steelers. We need to beat them in a bad way.”
The Steelers also have something to prove. In the last two years against playoff teams, Oakland, New England, Minnesota and Baltimore, they are 1-5. Baltimore is the only playoff team Pittsburgh have beaten since Super Bowl X.
1977 game 7: The Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) vs the Baltimore Colts (5-1)
Baltimore dominated the game as Pittsburgh’s running game became invisible and Terry Bradshaw threw a career high five interceptions. For the Colts, Bert Jones completed his first seven passes and gave his team a 17-0 lead in twenty minutes, a score they took into the locker room at halftime.
Lacking their usual emotion and intensity, the Steelers went scoreless in the first two quarters and on the first play of the second half, Lyle Blackwood intercepted an underthrown pass to set up another touchdown that increased the Colts advantage to 24-0.
Although the Steelers managed to reduce the deficit with a 32-yard touchdown catch from Lynn Swann, the loss of rookie Laverne Smith with a broken right leg confirm the bad day the Steelers were suffering.
In the final period, another Bradshaw interception led to the final Colts score with Jones rolling left for a touchdown run of 6 yards. Franco Harris added touchdown runs of 11 and 3 yards, but the Colts had sealed their 31-21 victory with their first half performance and their six takeaways.
The Steelers were penalised 17 times for 122 yards and tied a league record by giving the Colts nine first downs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 21 at the Baltimore Colts 31
Memorial Stadium October 30th 1977; 60,225
Passing: Bradshaw 11-26-5INT-1TD-234
Rushing: Harris 20-85-2TD, Bradshaw 3-37, Harrison 2-11, Bleier 5-15, Smith 2-11, Stallworth 1-5
Receiving: Lewis 2-93, Swann 4-86-1TD, Bleier 1-22, Cunningham 2-20, Stallworth 1-7
“I don’t think there’s any question they kicked our butts in all areas,” said Coach Noll. “It’s as simple as that.”
“We’ve gotten a reputation over the years for being notorious bitchers,” Joe Greene remarked, “so the officials start intimidating us before we do them. They get their punches in first,” before adding realistically, “we lost because we got our ass kicked, not because of the officiating.”
Jack lambert said, “It just seems to me we should start playing football instead of moaning and groaning about everything,” before concluding, “We’ve got to get some fire back – some intensity.”
Cincinnati 13 Houston 10
Cleveland 44 Kansas 7
CHUCK NOLL REFLECTS ON THE BALTIMORE DEFEAT
When a reporter dropped a tape recorder at Coach Noll’s feet at his weekly press conference, Noll joked, “That’s about how well it went in Baltimore. Another turnover.” Reflecting on the loss, Noll remarked, “The Colts played some inspired football. They handled us very well in all phases of the game.”
Explaining why the Colts jumped off to their early 17-0 lead, Noll said, “Great execution by Baltimore’s offense. The Colts did a superb job offensively. They played inspired football. They handled us very well in all phases of the game.”
Noll suggested, “The worst part of the game was the price we had to pay,” a reference to the injuries to Laverne Smith with a shattered leg that will require surgery, Jack Lambert who suffered strained knee ligaments and Glen Edwards who had a pulled hamstring.
Dirt Winston (picture left), just turned 22, will fill in for Jack Lambert against the Steelers next opponents in Denver. Winston isn’t overawed by his assignment, noting, “That it was just something you’ve got to do.”
Winston lost his father to cancer during preseason, but was glad he got to see his son play in the pros.
“You have to keep going,” Winston told the Pittsburgh Press. “You have to keep trusting in the Lord. My father’s in the best hands now. Nobody can take care of him like that Man.
When Lambert was holding out during preseason, Winston and veteran Marv Kellum saw a lot of playing time. Once Lambert returned, the Steelers thought enough of Winston’s potential to keep him on the squad and trade Kellum.
Winston had excelled on special teams and when Lambert was injured, he found himself suddenly thrust into the lineup. Looking forward to his starting role, Winston suggested, “They’ll have to give me a little help, but I’ll do the best I can while I’m out there.”
The player he was replacing had confidence in Winston. “People are going to be surprised how well he does play,” Lambert noted. “He’s very aggressive and very quick. He just needs a little experience. I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Despite the team’s disappointing 4-3 record, Lambert refused to be pessimistic. “We’re fought through a lot of adversity,” Lambert said. “Mel (Blount) and I holding out. Jimmy (Allen) retiring. Most teams would be 0-7, but we don’t have a team problem. We have an individual problem.
For each and every man including myself, it comes down to how badly we want to win. Baltimore wanted to win Sunday more than we did.”
1977 regular season continued>>>