Steelers come together, blast Browns
By BOB LABRIOLA
In 1994, the Pittsburgh Steelers proved there really is such a thing as addition by subtraction.
After the 1993 season, after the Steelers showed they could compete with the NFL's elite, immediately after they had just suffered a gut-wrenching playoff loss on the road to a Kansas City Chiefs team they had on the ropes, after all of what they had gone through in the previous six months turned into an opportunity lost, management performed a colonic on the roster.
Dissension was what killed the 1993 Steelers' season, and proof could be found in something Adrian Cooper openly admitted, something other players also believed but lacked the gall to say out loud. Remember, Cooper was a backup tight end, a former fourth-round pick in 1991 who had neither the accomplishments nor the seniority to be talking the way he was.
"I felt neglected," said Cooper, "and as a result my performance was a reflection of how they treated me. It wasn't our attitude that hurt the ball club. It was the owner and the people in the front office who hurt the ball club."
Greg Lloyd was not amused.
"You're a professional athlete, and your intention is supposed to be to play your ass off for 16 weeks, and then in the postseason you're supposed to step it up," began Lloyd. "Everybody in this locker room is an individual. Some people are motivated by money. Some people are motivated by pride. People are motivated by different things. I don't know what's in the hearts of people when they step on the field, but all I do know is I want the kind of effort I'm going to give when I'm out there.
"In everybody's family, you can't please everybody," Lloyd continued. "There are going to be people who are unhappy, but the steady flow of things has to carry on. You can't let one or two guys screw things up. You can sympathize with them, but at the same time it's your job. You have a job to do, and you have to line up and do it whether you're happy or not."
By the time the Steelers were ready to report to training camp to begin the process of preparing for the 1994 season, Cooper was gone, as was Donald Evans. D.J. Johnson signed with Atlanta. Leroy Thompson would be traded before the team broke camp. It still wasn't all sweetness and light with the Steelers, because the newness of free agency and the salary cap had created some jealousy over the NFL's new caste system, but the real problems had been removed from the locker room.
"You want your friends here," said Rod Woodson, "but if they're not, the guys who are here have to make the commitment."
That commitment could have taken a hit when the Steelers opened their regular season by getting cuffed around by the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys, 26-9, at Three Rivers Stadium. Emmitt Smith carried 31 times for 171 yards while Charles Haley recorded four of the Cowboys' nine sacks in a game Dallas dominated from start to finish.
But there had been something special developing within the team as it navigated the preseason that wasn't necessarily obvious. As Dick LeBeau said the day after the opener, "I've seen sicker dogs than this get well in a hurry."
The healing began the following week in Cleveland, where the Steelers defeated the Browns for the first time since 1989. One year after Eric Metcalf beat them with two punt returns for touchdowns, the Steelers offense rendered him moot by converting those critical third down situations in the second half of a game they would win, 17-7. And in the process, the Steelers defense completed the first phase of getting inside Vinny Testaverde's head when it intercepted him four times and sacked him twice.
But still, there were lapses for this team. A 30-13 loss in Seattle left them at 2-2, and a 20-17 overtime defeat in Arizona ended a three-game winning streak and made them 5-3 at the midway point.
"I don't know if we have the respect yet around the league because we're so much of a roller coaster team," said Woodson. "We never know which team is going to show up in the game. We're inconsistent and starting off slow, and we can't do that."
The Steelers opened the second half of their schedule with an ugly 12-9 overtime win over the Oilers, but an identity was forming that would come to be known as Blitzburgh. After the Steelers sacked Houston quarterback Cody Carlson six times, they had 28 after nine games. Quarterbacks around the league began to take notice.
"This team has definitely started to come into its own," said Lloyd. "Right now, we're into the meat of our schedule. We're going to be playing some teams with damn good records. They know how to win football games. We cannot concern ourselves with that. We have to line up and play football, play OUR style of football. There's no secret to it – we just have to go out and bang and hit and beat up on teams and wear them down."
That's precisely what they did in winning their next six games to get to 12-3 and clinch a division title and the top seed in the AFC Playoffs.
It was seven sacks in a win over the Bills; four more in an overtime win over Miami; five in a butt-kicking of the Raiders; five more in Cincinnati; and then three in a physical whupping of the Eagles. Kevin Greene led the team in sacks with 14; Lloyd had 10 with seven forced fumbles; Chad Brown had 8.5; and Ray Seals, the guy signed in the offseason to replace the malcontent Evans, had seven.
In the meantime, Foster, who was two seasons removed from his franchise record 1,690 yards rushing, gradually had rounded into top form again after dealing with back and knee injuries during the season. Either his health was improving, or Foster was feeling the heat generated by rookie Bam Morris, who finished the regular season with a better average per carry than Foster and more touchdowns.
"This is such a different team than it was last year," said Woodson. "It's the same personnel, but I'm talking about attitude and the confidence we have in ourselves. We have a lot of young guys, but we have a lot of experienced young guys. They've been to the playoffs; they understand what it takes to win now. Last year what happened was our veteran players didn't step up and play well at the end of the year. This year, we're stepping up and playing well."
And so they would go into the AFC Divisional Playoffs well-rested after their first-round bye but looking at having to defeat the Browns for a third straight time, a Browns team that put together an impressive offensive performance in handling the New England Patriots, 20-13, in a Wild Card game.
The Steelers also would go into the playoffs as the NFL's leader in sacks, and the 55 they racked up also set a franchise record. It was going to be Blitzburgh vs. Vinny III, and there was a faction that believed the third time was going to be the charm for Testaverde. It never came to that, really, and it never came to that because John Jackson, Duval Love, Dermontti Dawson, Justin Strzelczyk and Leon Searcy made sure it didn't.
The Steelers offensive line carved out 238 yards rushing, which worked out to a 4.7 average, and it kept quarterback Neil O'Donnell completely clean. He took advantage by completing 16-of-23 for 186 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Steelers converted 53 percent on third down and possessed the ball for 42 minutes, 27 seconds.
"They have an OK defensive line, but our offensive line did a great job," said John L. Williams, another of the character players injected into the locker room following the problems in 1993. "We just beat 'em up, beat 'em up, beat 'em up with Bam and Barry. We beat 'em up to the point where they just gave up in the fourth quarter."
The Steelers took a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter, and the defense put together a couple of quick three-and-outs when Browns receiver Derrick Alexander dropped two passes because he was looking for the contact he knew was on its way. After the first drop, O'Donnell ended the possession with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Green; after the second drop, the offensive line ended the Browns hopes.
The Steelers drove 74 yards in six plays, all runs, and Williams scored the touchdown on a 26-yard burst up the middle. There still was almost six full minutes left in the first half, and the Steelers led, 17-0.
"We saw it when John L. ran for that touchdown right up the middle," said Searcy. "We saw the finger-pointing, we saw the helmet slam into the ground. When you have a defense acting like that, it's in your best interest to stay on them."
The Steelers did, and the degree of domination was sweet for all of their fans who had lived through the Browns' years of dominating this series in the 1950s and 1960s.
Woodson made a crisp open field tackle on Mark Carrier to force Cleveland to settle for a field goal, and then the Browns seemed to have some momentum when an Ernie Mills fumble gave them the ball back near midfield. But two plays later, Tim McKyer intercepted Testaverde and brought it all the way back to the Browns' 6-yard line. O'Donnell to Thigpen, and the Steelers had a 24-3 lead at halftime.
Ballgame. The final would be 29-9.
Said Lloyd, "Our offense just took them and did what they wanted to do with them."
Anderson 29 FG
Green 2 pass from O'Donnell (Anderson kick)
Williams 26 run (Anderson kick)
Stover 22 FG
Thigpen 9 pass from O'Donnell (Anderson kick)
Anderson 29 FG
McCardell 20 pass from Testaverde (pass failed)
Testaverde sacked by Lake for safety
Total Net Yds