A long, strange trip back to where they were in '94
By BOB LABRIOLA
The sign that hung from the second level at Three Rivers Stadium throughout the entire 1995 NFL season said it all: "3 More Yards."
If only it were that easy.
Nine feet of prime Three Rivers Stadium real estate had turned out to be the difference between the Steelers' fifth appearance in a Super Bowl and one of the most stunning losses in franchise history. On fourth-and-goal from the San Diego 3-yard line, Neil O'Donnell's pass for Barry Foster had been incomplete, and the Steelers had lost an AFC Championship Game they were favored heavily to win.
For months at the start of calendar 1995, the mood in the town had been funereal, what with the loss combining with another offseason of defections to create a sense of gloom-and-doom throughout Steelers Nation. Time would prove the Steelers actually became better because of the people who left.
Dom Capers had been hired to coach the expansion Carolina Panthers, and even though he would be voted Coach of the Year in 1996, his departure opened the door for Dick LeBeau to become the Steelers defensive coordinator.
As for the roster, tight end Eric Green signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Miami Dolphins; running back Barry Foster was traded to Carolina; guard Duval Love took the money and ran to Arizona; and kicker Gary Anderson's agent was saying his client's "no dicker-sticker-price" was a contract that averaged $1 million a season.
The Steelers reacted by drafting Mark Bruener on the first round; during free agency they signed Erric Pegram to replace Foster and Thom Newberry to replace Love; and after Dean Biasucci didn't work out the team signed Norm Johnson on the eve of the regular season to handle the placekicking, and he would set a franchise record for points in a season.
"Every year there is a little different mix of people," said Coach Bill Cowher. "It's hard to go in with any set plan; you have to be careful not to do that. We did lose some guys who were a big part of what we tried to do a year ago, and we feel we have some players who can step up. But let's see who steps up. Let's take on the personality of the players who are going to respond to the situation."
If the team's personality was something that would develop over time, the goal was not. On the eve of the regular season, Ray Seals was asked what the Steelers' expectations were for 1995. "From what I understand," said Seals, "it's the Super Bowl."
And his teammates agreed.
"From the standpoint of what we want to accomplish, the Super Bowl is it, and we're not afraid to say it," said safety Darren Perry. We want to get where we got to last year … and beyond. It's going to be tougher to get there, but here in Pittsburgh, with this team, the expectation level is very high."
Added O'Donnell, "I've been in the league for six years, a starter for four. The part of you that's happy to be in the NFL, that's over. This is a job. I'm trying right now to win a championship."
The one offseason issue to which the Steelers couldn't respond was the loss of starting cornerback Deon Figures for most of the season. Figures had been shot in the knee while riding through his neighborhood in Compton, California, and the bullet hit his patellar tendon. It happened after the draft, and by that time there were no front-line NFL cornerbacks for hire. The ambulatory cornerbacks on the roster as the Steelers prepared to open the 1995 season were All-Pro Rod Woodson, safety-to-be Chris Oldham, third-year pro Willie Williams and journeyman Alvoid Mays.
After the first third down of the season opener against the Detroit Lions at Three Rivers Stadium, Woodson had been removed from the equation when he tore the ACL in his right knee during a face-off in the flat with Barry Sanders. They also would lose O'Donnell for a month with a broken bone in his hand, but in the locker room following a win over the Lions the question being asked of them was: Can a team win a championship without its best player?
"We know that Rod is Rod," said linebacker Greg Lloyd. "He's one of the more exceptional players in the league, and to have him in the games means so much more. But let's not cry over spilled milk. We have to go on and play. We know Rod has put his numbers up, and he has his credentials. There's no argument about that. I would love to have him out there, because he's one of the leaders on this team. But we have to move on."
In Cleveland, Browns wide receiver Andre Rison would say of Woodson's injury, "It's like they lost their whole defense," and when that came back to Lloyd in Pittsburgh, he seethed. Lloyd would have maybe his best season in 1995, when he led the team in tackles, added 6.5 sacks, three interceptions, 18 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.
Others would join him in picking up the slack left by Woodson's injury, including defensive end Ray Seals (8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss), Williams (seven interceptions and 17 passes defensed) and Levon Kirkland (15 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries), and Cowher would make the unprecedented decision to hold Woodson's roster spot open as the All-Pro cornerback feverishly worked on his rehabilitation.
The Steelers offense was undergoing some dramatic changes of its own, and all of them were matters of necessity. At 2-0, the Steelers lost games at Miami and vs. the Vikings at Three Rivers Stadium, and in both instances the offense went to the air to try to make up big deficits. In those games, the Steelers attempted 102 passes, and as wide receivers coach Chan Gailey was allowed by Cowher to have more influence over the offense the team unveiled formations that employed four and sometimes five wide receivers.
That was a dramatic change for the Steelers, and when Johnnie Barnes developed a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve, the coaches turned to rookie Kordell Stewart, at the time the fourth-string quarterback, to help out at practice by taking some repetitions at receiver.
The 2-2 Steelers crushed the San Diego Chargers, 31-16, in a rematch of the notorious 1994 AFC Championship Game to get to 3-2, but then they lost two more in a row – to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and then coming off their buy to the Bengals on a Thursday night game at Three Rivers Stadium.
The bad news was the Steelers were 3-4, but the good news was O'Donnell was healthy again and their record still was good enough for a three-way tie for first place in the AFC Central Division.
Cowher decided the time was perfect to re-focus his team, and he had the perfect vehicle. With three teams owning identical records, Cowher declared a nine-game season and convinced his players that everybody was starting fresh. The psychology worked beautifully, and the Steelers began a dramatic turnaround, but none of it would have happened without Carnell Lake.
At this critical juncture, the Steelers had asked Lake to move from strong safety to cornerback, because the defense wasn't able to get it done at the position without Woodson and with a hobbled Figures. Remember, Lake had been a linebacker in college, and so moving to cornerback in the NFL had to be a frightening proposition. But Lake agreed to move, and he not only moved but embraced the work ethic necessary to make the switch work for the team. He would finish with 73 tackles, an interception and 11 passes defensed, but beyond those numbers is the fact Carnell Lake stabilized the Steelers secondary, and in turn, allowed the defense to go back to being a weapon.
The Steelers beat Jacksonville in a rematch, and Stewart lined up for some plays at wide receiver. Then they went to Chicago and did what no other Steelers team in history had done – beat the Bears there, and they did it with 341 yards and two touchdowns from O'Donnell.
At 5-4, the Steelers beat the Browns on a Monday night at Three Rivers Stadium in a game that was almost surreal. Browns owner Art Modell already had told Cleveland he would be moving the franchise to Baltimore for the 1996 season, and while one misguided Pittsburgh talk show host implored the fans to show solidarity to Browns fans losing their team, most just chose to revel in the misery of a hated rival. As a sidebar, 'Slash' is introduced to the nation, when Stewart throws for a touchdown, runs for two first downs and catches two passes. A phenomenon had been created.
That made them 6-4; they were 7-4 after beating the Bengals in a shootout in which the Steelers rolled up 556 net yards and scored 36 points in the second half; it got to 8-4 after winning the final game they would play in decrepit Cleveland Stadium; and they were 9-4 and clinched the division title thanks to a win over the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium. A physical beat-down of the Raiders in Oakland – "Raiders' mystique my ass," screamed defensive end Brentson Buckner as he ran off the field that day – made them 10-4, and then they became 11-4 when they overcame a huge statistical disadvantage with two fumble returns for touchdowns by the defense and two more touchdown passes from O'Donnell.
The Steelers were competitive but lost a meaningless game in Green Bay in the regular season finale, and so they entered the AFC Playoffs at 11-5 and as the No. 2 seed behind the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs. Their fans were more concerned about a trip to Arrowhead Stadium than they were about the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Buffalo Bills at Three Rivers Stadium.
"I think we'll be able to handle potential distractions better," said Cowher in an obvious reference to what derailed the team in the 1994 playoffs. "I don't think that will be a problem this year. A year ago, you win one playoff game and you say, 'Geez, we've never been here before.' You realize how close you are, and the closer you get the greater the focus has to be. I like our situation. We're healthy, we have good people and we've played good football for the last nine weeks. We'll utilize this first playoff game (at home) and see what happens."
The Bills came to Pittsburgh with a defense that had led the league with 49 sacks and with essentially the same offense they had used in winning four straight AFC Championships. The Bills also came to Pittsburgh, as they had done every year starting in 1993, decidedly overmatched.
With the exception of a 40-yard reverse by Steve Tasker, the Bills couldn't run the football. A hit from Lloyd knocked Jim Kelly out of the game for a while, and when he was on the field the Steelers sacked him twice and intercepted him three times.
The game only was close because O'Donnell pitched a couple of interceptions in the red zone, and the Steelers settled for field goals on four other possessions. After the Bills melted a 26-7 deficit to 26-21 with more than 11 minutes to play the Steelers offense went back to its roots.
"At the midpoint of the game we were playing a little lackadaisical, like we were protecting something." said right tackle Leon Searcy. "We had a big lead, and it looked like we were protecting that lead instead of just playing football. It was frustrating that we were being too passive. We made some changes."
As in – the offensive line buckled it up and came off the football and Bam Morris lived up to his nickname.
Seventy-six yards in nine plays, and Morris ended it with a 13-yard run; and then Morris' 2-yard clincher came after a Kirkland interception gave the Steelers the ball at the Bills' 17-yard line.
"This team has been one that's been able to respond to situations," said Cowher. "We haven't overreacted. There hasn't been a sense of panic that has set it. They can take a punch, like a good fighter, and the one thing we've been able to do is get back up. We believe in one another, we trust one another. The most important thing is finding a way to win."
The Steelers found their way into the 1995 AFC Championship Game, and the day after they defeated the Bills they watched the Indianapolis Colts upset the top-seeded Chiefs. There would be no trip to Arrowhead Stadium. The AFC Championship Game would be played in Pittsburgh.
Williams 1 run (Johnson kick)
Mills 10 pass from O'Donnell (Johnson kick)
Johnson 45 FG
Johnson 38 FG
Thomas 1 run (Christie kick)
Johnson 34 FG
Johnson 39 FG
Cline 3 pass from Van Pelt (Christie kick)
Thomas 9 pass from Kelly (Christie kick)
Morris 13 run (Johnson kick)
Morris 4 run (Johnson kick)
Total Net Yds