Playoff game follows season's pattern
By BOB LABRIOLA
The absolute worst is inconsistency. Of all the traits a football team can develop, being great part of the time might be the most frustrating of all.
Inconsistent and then ultimately frustrating: the tale of the Steelers' 1993 season.
Year Two of the Bill Cowher era found the Steelers looking to improve two aspects of their team following a promising season in which they finished 11-5 and won the AFC Central Division title: their pass offense and their pass defense. The Steelers had led the NFL in rushing and in takeaways in 1992, but they needed to be better at throwing the ball and rushing the passer to contend for the championship that was their goal.
The promise of that 1992 season led to higher expectations for 1993, but the Steelers ultimately were shown to be lacking the maturity it would take to handle the role of the favorite and the increased attention that came along with it.
In the offseason, the first under the NFL's new system of free agency tied to a salary cap, the Steelers had signed Kevin Greene to pair with Greg Lloyd as the outside linebackers in the team's developing 3-4 alignment. Greene was a pass-rusher, as was second-round pick Chad Brown. First-round pick Deon Figures was a big, physical cornerback to help the secondary deal with the multiple-wide-receiver sets employed by Houston and Buffalo.
In the preseason, the Steelers spent a good deal of effort trying to develop a passing attack, because in 1992 they had attempted more passes than runs in five games and were 1-4 in those. "We said that we're going to lay it out and see what our receivers can do and what our quarterbacks can do and see what the protection is like," said offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt. "You open up the box, and it's tough."
Neil O'Donnell had been one of those players testing the new market created by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement during the offseason, and somewhere along a schedule of working out for other teams and then working with the Steelers after he was re-signed to a three-year, $8 million deal, he developed tendonitis in his right arm. Not good.
Backup quarterback Mike Tomczak started the opener against San Francisco, and under his "guidance," the Steelers turned the ball over on their first three possessions of the season. The Steelers lost that game, 24-13, and then they fell to 0-2 after going to Los Angeles to get skunked by the Rams, 27-0.
But then the Bengals showed up on the schedule, and the Steelers got well. They beat Cincinnati, and then Atlanta, and then San Diego to climb above .500 at 3-2. To that point in the season, the defense was holding up its end of the bargain, because it had allowed no touchdowns in the last 10 quarters; 13 points in the last 12 quarters. It had seven sacks and nine takeaways and a 28.1 third down conversion percentage in the last three games. A 2.4-yard average per rush for the whole season. Four different quarterbacks either were knocked out of the game, or pulled from them because of poor performance. After five games, the Steelers had eight sacks and were averaging three takeaways a game.
"We base our defense on trying to create turnovers while not giving up the big play," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, "and we want to do that with an aggressive, attacking style. We felt in training camp we had the capability of doing that. Some guys are gaining experience, other guys are playing close to their abilities. We felt good about this defense from the beginning."
The Steelers' fourth win in a row came over the 5-0 Saints, the last undefeated team in the NFL, and it was a showcase for Rod Woodson, who would go on to be voted the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Against the Saints, Woodson had two interceptions, returned the first 63 yards for a touchdown. Six games into 1993, Woodson was leading the NFL with seven interceptions; he would finish with eight interceptions, two sacks, two forced fumbles and 28 passes defensed.
The Steelers were flying high, and then came their annual trip to Cleveland.
This particular installment of Steelers-Browns turned into one of the most memorable of a long and bitter series, and it also was a harbinger of the way they would be eliminated from the playoffs.
The Cleveland Browns were added to the NFL for the 1950 season, and even 43 years later it was a noteworthy event whenever the Steelers went to Northeast Ohio and won a football game. The Steelers never have advanced to the Super Bowl at the end of a season in which they didn't beat the Browns in Cleveland. The 1976 Steelers, identified by many as the best of the franchise's great teams, went to Cleveland and lost, 18-16.
Cowher played for the Browns and debuted as a coach with the Browns, and he badly wanted his first win in Cleveland. The Steelers dominated the game statistically; they led in first downs, 26-12; total yards, 444-245; time of possession, 36:29-23:31. But they lost, 28-23.
They lost a game that was close in the fourth quarter only because Eric Metcalf had returned one punt 91 yards for a touchdown. They lost a game in which all they needed was one more third-down conversion to send it into kneel-down mode. They lost this game against the Browns because after the Steelers didn't convert that third down, Mark Royals hit his punt nice and straight down the middle of the field, and Metcalf returned a second one for a touchdown, this time covering 75 yards.
"You saw it," said Cowher. "We played hard on both sides of the ball, and they got two big plays in the kicking game. When you play good teams, that becomes a part of it."
But typical of this season, just as the Steelers did something to appear incredibly inept, they would respond with feats as incredibly great.
One example: The following week, the Steelers fell behind in Cincinnati, 16-0, before rallying to close to 16-14 at halftime and the dominating the second half on the way to a 24-16 win. The more impressive example would come eight days after that.
On Nov. 15, the Buffalo Bills came to Pittsburgh as the three-time defending conference champions and the winners of five straight over the Steelers. The Bills' most recent win in Three Rivers Stadium had come in the 1992 AFC Divisional Playoffs. When the Bills left Pittsburgh this time, the balance of power between these teams had changed, it had changed in dramatic fashion, and a whole nation had watched it happen on Monday Night Football.
Not only did the Steelers win, 23-0, but their defense held the K-Gun offense to nine first downs, 157 total yards. They forced the Bills to punt eight times. In the meantime, their offense was rushing for 227 yards with a 4.5 average, it was converting 10-of-18 third downs and controlling the ball for 45 of the game's 60 minutes.
Don Beebe, who had enjoyed considerable success catching passes and scoring touchdowns in the three previous meetings with the Steelers, had said something to the effect, "If I got to play against the Steelers every week, I'd be All-Pro." A clean Gary Jones hit along the sideline sent Beebe to the sideline with a concussion, and the Steelers also battered Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly and Andre Reed.
Barry Foster would leave the Bills game with an ankle injury, but Cowher said he'd be out "two weeks." The reality was that Foster would not carry the ball again in 1993.
Since they had reached a high, it was time for the Steelers to head the other way, and losses in Denver, 37-13, and in Houston, 23-3, certainly qualified as lows. Worse, the defeat in Houston put the Oilers in control of the AFC Central Division race. The Steelers were looking at having to make the playoffs as a wild card.
That's the way they qualified, because wins over New England and at Miami weren't enough to counteract another loss to the Oilers – on Dec. 19 in Pittsburgh – that then was compounded by a pathetic effort in Seattle the following weekend. The Steelers also were coming apart in the locker room, because guys like Donald Evans, Leroy Thompson, Adrian Cooper and Eric Green were hoping for big paydays in the first year of free agency, and they had seen Foster's act in two straight training camps. None of those four got new deals, and all of them were vocal about it.
Of course, since things seemed ready to fall apart, the Steelers came together and put together a terrific effort in Kansas City against Joe Montana and the Chiefs, but a few incredibly bad moments sabotaged it all in a 27-24 loss in overtime.
The Steelers defense stopped Montana on the opening possession, and then the offense strolled 66 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 lead. After seven straight incompletions, Montana completed his first pass but in the process took a hit from Evans that sidelined him with bruised ribs. The Chiefs' next play was a run by Marcus Allen that Kevin Greene turned into a 2-yard loss, but in the secondary on the other side of the field, cornerback D.J. Johnson kicked Chiefs receiver Tim Barnett in the facemask.
The unnecessary penalty energized the crowd, and the Chiefs responded in kind. Three plays later, it was 7-7 after a 23-yard touchdown pass from Dave Kreig to J.J. Birden, and Montana was ready to take back the reins.
Again, the Steelers battled back. They made it 17-7 at halftime, and then they answered with a 22-yard pass from O'Donnell to Green to take a 24-17 lead with 4:11 to play. Gerald Williams sacked Montana to force a three-and-out, and the Steelers took over after the punt at midfield. The offense couldn't move the sticks, but the Chiefs had to use all of their timeouts, and so it came down to Royals having to punt.
The Steelers could not allow this kick to be blocked, just as they could not allow Metcalf to return that second punt for a touchdown. Remember the theme of the season? Keith Cash blocked the punt, which was returned to the 9-yard line, and even with that Montana needed four downs for the tying touchdown. But he does, on a 7-yard pass to Barnett, for overtime.
After an exchange of punts in overtime, the Chiefs drove 66 yards, and Nick Lowery ended it with a 32-yard field goal.
"This hurts," said Darren Perry after it was over. "But it's also typical of the whole season – up and down."
Cooper 10 pass from O'Donnell (Anderson kick)
Birden 23 pass from Kreig (Lowery kick)
Anderson 30 FG
Mills 26 pass from O'Donnell (Anderson kick)
Lowery 23 FG
Allen 2 run (Lowery kick)
Green 22 pass from O'Donnell (Anderson kick)
Barnett 7 pass from Montana (Lowery kick)
Lowery 32 FG
Total Net Yds