THE STEELERS 1978 REGULAR SEASON BEGINS IN BUFFALO

The Steelers would travel to Rich stadium to play their season opener and were heavy favourites to beat the Bills. After a 3-11 season, Buffalo brought in Chuck Knox from Los Angeles as head coach.

Although the Bills were winless in their exhibition games, Coach Noll was cautious and said how surprised he was by how well preseason the Bills had looked on film. Buffalo were expected to come out playing ball control and run and run.

“They don’t monkey around,” observed Steelers defensive coordinator George Perles. “They are not going to give anything away. You have to beat them. Knox is starting to build a foundation. He’s not getting away from his philosophy. “

The Bills had drafted Terry Miller to replace O.J. Simpson, who had been traded to the 49ers and although he might not start, the Steelers were expecting to see a lot of him. Pittsburgh were also hoping their running game would begin to roll. Terry Bradshaw stated he had seen signs of improvement during the week’s practice.

1978 Game 1: The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Buffalo Bills

Photo by Vicki ValerioAfter a scoreless first quarter, Tony Dungy ignited the Steelers offense when he picked off a deflected pass to set up a Steelers drive on their 35. Eight plays later John Stallworth danced around the Bills cornerback Charles Romes to score with a 28-yard touchdown pass.

On the first play of the Steelers next drive, Stallworth moved the chains 38 yards and then five runs and a one-yard touchdown carry by Franco Harris put the Steelers two scores ahead at halftime.

If Stallworth was the star Steeler in the first half, it was Bennie Cunningham who took over that roll in the second earning him a game ball with his three catches for 70 yards. Sidney Thornton’s 2-yard touchdown run increased the Steelers advantage at the beginning of the final quarter.

After Buffalo had replaced quarterback Joe Ferguson with veteran Bill Munson, the Bills found some form. Munson threw a touchdown pass to former Steeler Frank Lewis before the Bills added a field goal reducing the Steelers lead to 21-10.

When Terry Bradshaw guided the Steelers on a drive of 73 yards that finished with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Theo Bell, the Steelers win looked complete. Buffalo hit back though with a 3-yard touchdown catch of their own to reduce their deficit, but the Steelers took a 28-17 victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at the Buffalo Bills 17
Rich Stadium September 3 1978; 65,147

Passing: Bradshaw 14-19-2TD-1INT-217
Ferguson 3-10-0-1INT-20, Munson 10-16-0—2TD-0-171

Rushing: Harris 27-96-1TD, Thornton 7-33-1TD, Bleier 6-19, Bradshaw 3-(-6)

Receiving: Stallworth 3-86-1TD, Cunningham 3-70, Bell 1-15-1TD, Harris 3-32

“I’ll take 28 points every game,” acknowledged Coach Noll.

“A lot of credit should go to Bradshaw,” said John Stallworth. “He was picking up what they were doing. All we did was catch the ball.”

“Chuck kept telling us to relax and let the good times roll,” offered Terry Bradshaw, who had struggled through preseason with a broken nose. “That’s easier said than done. I was a little unsure. I didn’t want to make mistakes. I hadn’t really taken the team on any long drives. I knew I could do it, but I hadn’t done it. I could eat and I couldn’t sleep this week.”

AFC Central
Cleveland 24 San Francisco 7
Kansas City 24 Cincinnati 23
Atlanta 20 Houston 14

A BUOYANT COACH NOLL

After their win in Buffalo, Coach Noll was unusually vibrant and full of praise for his players at his weekly press conference. His major accolades went to L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth, Bennie Cunningham, John Stallworth, Terry Bradshaw and the defense, of which the coach acknowledged, “Except for the last three Buffalo drives, played superb football.”

Coach Noll described Greenwood as having an exceptional day and Cunningham’s blocking as well as he’s ever blocked before adding Bradshaw had “one of his better days running the football and throwing it”. The offensive line showed, “crispness.”

The coach even managed to praise rookie Tom Beasley, who was subbing for Steve Furness, “as someone who brings a lot of hustle to our football team.”

ALVIN MAXSON REJOINS THE STEELERS

Stealing a leaf out of the Al Davis Book of Tricks, the Steelers reinstated Maxson onto their roster after trading “an unspecified past consideration” to the Chicago Bears for the player. “Jim Finks is a former Steeler,” laughed Dan Rooney as he referred to the Bears’ general manager Finks to explain the past considerations.

The Bears did the Steelers a favour by signing Maxson and placing him on their roster for their game against St. Louis to enable the Steelers to make a trade that overcame the NFL’s waiver restriction. Maxson didn’t even travel to Chicago, spending the weekend in a Pittsburgh hotel waiting for the transaction to become official.

THE 1978 STEELERS

After the maneuvering that put Maxson on the roster, the Steelers 1978 squad was finally in place. They would begin the second week of the regular season with 22 players having two Super Bowl rings and John Banaszak with one while 22 had never played on a Super Bowl team.

After a bad 1975 draft that saw only Banaszak remaining, the team had five players from the 1976 draft and nine from 1977 still in the squad. All bar two players were drafted or picked up as free agents by the Steelers with only Roy Gerela and Alvin Maxson having played for another NFL team.

Art Rooney Jr., head of the scouting department, acknowledged, “If you have two bad years in a row in the draft, there’s reason to worry, but that hasn’t happened.”

RANDY REUTERSHAN

Randy Reutershan media guide photoWhen the Steelers were decided to bolster their special teams, they selected Pitt’s Randy Reutershan in the sixth round of the draft. As captain of their special teams, Reutershan had been instrumental in helping Pitt to a national championship and his 4.4 speed helped that cause.

“A lot of people are surprised that I’m here,” Reutershan admitted before adding, “but that just gives me something to work for. People say that if I can’t do something, I shouldn’t be here, but that just wants me to prove them wrong.”

Reutershan’s assignment on special teams is to restrain the outside men who attempt to block a kick and then prevent the return up the middle. “It gives me a little more freedom to go for the ball,” he says. Reutershan began training camp at defensive back so is still studying his new position.

“John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Theo Bell have been a big help to me with learning the patterns,” he told the Pittsburgh Press. “In college we ran mostly against man-to-man. Here, with all the complex zones, you’re running a pattern into an area as opposed to a man.”

Recognising the talent he is playing with, Reutershan acknowledged, “This team has the two best receivers in the league. I’m learning things here I couldn’t learn with any team anywhere else.

SEAHAWKS NEXT FOR THE STEELERS

Game two for the Steelers would be the visit of the Seattle Seahawks who lost their season opener 24-20 to San Diego. Seattle head coach Jack Patera said, “We played about as well as I thought we could play and we lost last week,” before observing, “We can play with the Pittsburgh Steelers. We can play with anybody, but of course the outcome of the game is what you’re concerned about.”

The second year expansion team had a 5-9 season in 1977 that included a 30-20 loss in Pittsburgh after going into the final quarter tied at 13-13. The Seahawks have limitations on defense, but behind quarterback Jim Zorn, there was always the chance they could outscore their opponents.

1978 Game 2: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0) vs the Seattle Seahawks (0-1)

Jack Lambert media photoThe Steelers and Seahawks ground out a close fought game under a hot September sun. Defense dominated the first quarter and the Steelers took advantage of a Jack Lambert fumble recovery with a 50-yard drive that took the game into the second period and saw the first points scored. The Steelers took a lead when Terry Bradshaw found Lynn Swann with a touchdown pass of 4 yards.

With Seattle stifling the Steelers running game Bradshaw, despite an injury to his throwing hand after hitting an opponents helmet, went to the air with some success and added another score after leading his team 76 yards. The drive finished with his 20-yard touchdown pass which found Sidney Thornton crossing in the end zone in the middle of a crowd and Pittsburgh went 14-0 ahead.

Seattle reduced their deficit when quarterback Jim Zorn moved the Seahawks 80 yards in eight plays highlighted by a 42-yard completion to his tight end Ron Howard. The Seahawks surprised the Steelers with an onside kick they recovered, but were unable to benefit from the enterprising play when they were held to a field goal attempt that they missed.

The Seahawks added to their score in the third quarter with a 20-yard field goal, but with both defenses prevailing scoring opportunities were scarce.

In the final period, the Steelers drove 74 yards before stalling on their opponent’s one. With a four on the down box, Chuck Noll who is a firm believer in the “sure three” philosophy sent in the field goal unit.  After calling a timeout and being urged by his players to go for it, Noll sent the offense back on. Franco Harris went over right guard and the decision was vindicated.  

The Steelers failed twice to add to their total in the final six minutes when Roy Gerela missed a 31-yard field goal attempt and Bradshaw fumbled, but they moved to 2-0 after their 21-10 victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 21 vs the Seattle Seahawks 10
Three Rivers Stadium September 10 1978; 48,277

Passing: Bradshaw 17-33-2TD-0INT-213
Zorn 11-22-0-1INT-174

Rushing: Harris 18-64-1TD, Bleier 12-48, Moser 2-20, Thornton 5-13, Bradshaw 3-6

Receiving: Swann, 6-65- 1TD, Cunningham 4-45, Stallworth 2-38, Thornton 1-20-1TD, Grossman 1-11, Bleier 2-30, Harris 1-4

Chuck Noll told the post-game press conference, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is we won. The bad news is we didn’t do some of the things we wanted to… like possess the football.”

Noll went on to explain, “They loaded up against the run. That’s why the play-action passes worked. I’d be fine with me if everyone forced us to throw.”

Jack Lambert, who had an interception, recovered a fumble and made five solo tackles said, “I can’t wait until it gets down to 10 degrees. It’s too hot for football.”

DIVISION RIVALS BENGALS NEXT

As Coach Noll was grabbing some lunch before his weekly press conference, it was suggested by one reporter that the win over the Seahawks the previous Sunday had been dull. The coach was quick to retort, “It might have been dull to you, but Jim Zorn scared the hell out of me. You must be used to reading your own stories.”

Addressing his unbeaten Steelers at his press conference, Coach Noll acknowledged, “We still have a long season ahead of us. The one thing I’ve learned from history is that there are certain truths, those old truisms like, ‘you play them one at a time.’”

Next on the team’s schedule was a trip to Cincinnati. The previous visit on a cold December afternoon in 1977 had not been an enjoyable one for the Steelers as they were frozen out 17-10 after Coach Noll slipped and broke his arm the night before.  

This season, the Steelers will face a winless Bengals who would be without their starting quarterback Ken Anderson who had fractured his finger. His replacement John Reaves has completed 25 of 50 passes, but has managed to miss his receivers at key moments.

“I’m sure the fans are probably down,” admitted Bengals fullback Pete Johnson. “We lost two in a row and they’re wondering whether the Bengals are going to have a good season or not. But the only loss we really feel bad about is the first one, against Kansas City. Last Sunday I think we played a helluva game.”

Looking at the visit of the Steelers, Johnson said, “They look very good. To me, the Steelers have always been a real disciplined team. They have some older guys and they really know what they’re doing out there.”

The stats reveal the Bengals are ranked 12th in total offense and also on defense compared to the Steelers 4th ranking on offense and 3rd in total defense. Bengals coach was realistic when he said, “We can’t look back. They’re a tough team. Our games with them are always hard fought.”

1978 Game 3: The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) at the Cincinnati Bengals (0-2)

Franco Harris Pittsburgh Press photoThe Steelers controlled this game from the initial 37-yard run from Franco Harris (picture left) until their first punt two minutes from the end of the third period. In between, the Steelers offense dazzled while the defense suppressed everything the Bengals could muster.

Rocky Bleier finished Pittsburgh’s first drive with a 5-yard touchdown run and the offense was soon back on the field after Ron Johnson intercepted Cincinnati’s John Reaves first play. Four plays later a touchdown run of 15 yards from Harris saw the Steelers take a 14-0 lead six minutes into the first quarter.

Cincinnati scored their only point at the beginning of the second quarter with a 33-yard field goal, but it was the Steelers who were dominating despite Roy Gerela missing his fourth straight field goal after Bleier had carried 5 times for 46 yards in one drive.

As the half time approached, Bradshaw, who began the game as the AFC’s leading passer, completed a 48-yard pass to Bennie Cunningham before throwing a 28-yard touchdown pass to his tight end.  

Midway through the third quarter, Lynn Swann hauled in a touchdown catch of 12 yards for the Steelers final score while a Tony Dungy interception ensured the Steelers defense prevailed as the Steelers took the 28-3 victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at the Cincinnati Bengals 3
Riverfront Stadium September 17 1978; 50,760

Passing: Bradshaw 14-19-2TD-1INT-242
Reaves 16-32-0-2INT-114

Rushing: Bleier 12-75-1TD, Harris 16-73-1TD, Thornton 15-45, Bradshaw 1-10, Moser 2-7, Maxson 2-5

Receiving: Cunningham 4-107-1TD, Swann 5-78,1TD, Stallworth 2-27, Grossman 1-18

“It was a good day for us,” Coach Noll acknowledged.

Asked if he was playing his best football, Terry Bradshaw replied, “Yes and I don’t know why, but I don’t even want to find out. Whatever it is, maybe it’ll last all year. Maybe it will be one of those dream years people have been wanting me to have.” Bradshaw was philosophical when adding, “It’s a quarterback’s dream. It’s not supposed to happen to me, but it has.”

AFC Central
Houston Oilers 20 San Francisco 19
Cleveland Browns 24 Atlanta Falcons 16

Pittsburgh Steelers 3-0
Cleveland Browns 3-0
Houston Oilers 2-1
Cincinnati Bengals 0-3

NOLL PRAISES MIKE WEBSTER

At his weekly press conference, Coach Noll reflected on the Steelers win over the Bengals and started with plaudits for Mike Webster. “He did a fantastic job with a guy (Bengals nose tackle Wilson Whitley) over him who’s eventually going to be a hell of a football player. If they can manhandle your center, they can screw up your whole running game. Webster didn’t let that happen. He did a magnificent job, a great job. That was just a beginning.”

The coach went on to lavish praise on his team. “Our football team is functioning with a pretty good concept of what it’s all about, what it takes,” Noll said. “Things aren’t out of perspective at all.”

LOREN TOEWS EARNS HIS STRIPES

Loren Toews media photoLoren Toews had played in the shadow of the Steelers veteran linebackers, but assistant coach Woody Widenhofer felt he played better than Jack Ham or Jack Lambert during preseason.

“Our people couldn’t handle him,” acknowledged Widenhofer, but an injury before the final exhibition game sidelined the player until the Cincinnati game. “I’ve got five guys who can start, but I can only put three linebackers out there at one time,” Widenhofer admitted, but the coach felt Toews time had come.

“He’s been through an awful lot,” conceded the coach. “Last year he was carrying the load with a partially torn cartilage in his knee. It really hindered his mobility and that’s his strongest suit.”

BENNIE CUNNINGHAM ESSENTIAL PART OF THE OFFENSE

Vito Stellino suggested in the Post-Gazette that if there was one improvement from the Steelers Super Bowl offense, it was Bennie Cunningham’s emergence as a pass receiving threat that had made the team’s passing game even more portent.

During the Super Bowl years a tight end was simply another blocking back in disguise. Stellino used the move of Larry Brown to an offensive lineman as confirmation of the concept acknowledging that as a tight end, Brown never caught more than 17 passes with Terry Bradshaw looking mostly for his wide receivers.

Cunningham had now become an integral part of the offense ensuring that defensive backs could no longer double-team Lynn Swann or John Stallworth and when Cunningham catches the ball, he’s the hardest to bring down.

UNBEATEN BROWNS NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

The unbeaten Browns might be travelling to Pittsburgh without their main offensive weapon running back Greg Pruitt. In the first two games of the season, he rushed for 226 yards and caught eight passes. The Browns managed a win over Atlanta without Pruitt, but facing the Steelers was a different matter.

Although undefeated, Rutigliano was realistic saying, “The teams we’ve played just haven’t had Pittsburgh’s balance,” and he acknowledged a more accurate assessment of his team can be made after the game in Pittsburgh.

The Browns new head coach Sam Rutigliano was pleased with the performance of quarterback Brian Sipe, who suffered a season ending shoulder injury against the Steelers the previous season. “Each week he is getting more and more control of what we’re trying to do.”

NO RECOGNITION FOR STEELERS OFFENSIVE LINE

The Steelers were the only team to win two Super Bowls and not have a single offensive lineman win All-Pro or Pro Bowl recognition. “I always thought you just did your job every week and those things took care of themselves,” said Jon Kolb.

“We can’t be like a bunch of ladies at the social club worried about whose canned goods look the best,” granted Kolb, “but I think we have the best line in pro football.”
Mike Webster admitted, “I really don’t care. I’d just as soon win the Super Bowl and make a lot of money.”

Vito Stellino in the Post-Gazette recognised the rotation system of the Steelers had made it difficult for the players to get individual recognition, but now that was a thing of the past.
Recognising the performance of Mike Webster in the Cincinnati game, Kolb said, “I don’t see how Webby can miss this year.”

Stellino suggested the line’s only problem is spending too much time sharing the credit. “I got a lot of help from the guards last week,” acknowledged Webster. “And the guys like Kolb, Moon and Riggy have been around a lot longer than I have and deserve their shot first.”

“Riggy” was a reference to Sam Davis, who had earned the nickname rigor mortis and aged 34 was continuing to turn in Pro Bowl performances. “He’s playing a lot better than he did before he got old,” Webster joked.

“Riggy’s man hasn’t reached the quarterback once in four exhibition and three regular season games,” said Kolb. “But nobody keeps track of stats like that. What about Moon? Who’s better at downfield blocking than he is? And Larry Brown? Who could have learned how to play offensive tackle as fast as he did?”

SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

After the Steelers game against the Browns, Sunday Night Football will make its debut with the New England Patriots playing at the Oakland Raiders. The experiment was a result of the success of Super Bowl XII which started at 1800 after previous championship games had kicked off earlier.

The NFL would also be playing a Thursday Night game for the first time when the Dallas Cowboys would host the Minnesota Vikings.

BROWNS HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED A VICTORY IN THREE RIVERS STADIUM

Cleveland’s coach Sam Rutigliano brushes off the fact the Browns had never won in Three Rivers saying that is a “ghost” from the past. “I’ve never been there with the Browns,” Rutigliano declares.

“The key to Pittsburgh is number 32,” Rutigliano predicted while indicating stopping the run will force Terry Bradshaw to throw too often. “If we can get Bradshaw to put the ball up 35 times, we’ll win the game,” Rutigliano forecast.

“We’re in better shape to face the Steelers than we have been in years,” Browns quarterback Brian Sipe said. “We’re in a better frame of mind. We’re more relaxed because there is such a loose atmosphere around here. I’ve never won a game in Pittsburgh, but we’re ready for a big win – and I think we’ll get it.”

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