Play-calling played right into Broncos' hands
By BOB LABRIOLA
The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers had gone through months of work in the offseason, and then a month of training camp, and then five weeks of the preseason, and then 17 weeks of the regular season, and then two weeks of the postseason. They had endured hundreds of practices and thousands of hours of meetings. They had spent more waking hours together than they had with their families.
All of it was to get here – to the AFC Championship Game.
And then they blew it in a span of four minutes and 27 seconds.
The 1997 Steelers were hosting the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium, the third time that had happened since Bill Cowher became their coach in 1992, the third time in the past four seasons they would play at home for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl.
Their opponent this time was the Denver Broncos, the very same Denver Broncos the Steelers had defeated, 35-24, on the very same patch of fake grass just 28 days before.
These were the Broncos of John Elway and Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith, the Broncos that finished the NFL ranked No. 1 in offense and No. 1 in scoring. These also were the Broncos that allowed an NFL-worst 4.7 yards per rushing attempt and whose overall run defense allowed more yards (1,803) than Terrell Davis gained (1,750), and Davis had been voted the NFL's MVP that season.
The Steelers had advanced to this conference championship game – and they had defeated the Broncos in the regular season – because their offense was the most physically punishing in football.
Of course, it was led by Jerome Bettis, who posted what would be the best season of his magnificent career, and he was complemented by an offensive line that included John Jackson, Will Wolford, Dermontti Dawson, Brendan Stai and Justin Strzelczyk, plus a fullback in Tim Lester who was an explosive blocker at the point of attack, plus a tight end in Mark Bruener who was capable of blocking defensive ends one-on-one. An underrated part of the Steelers running attack was Kordell Stewart, who rushed for 474 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season as the team's starting quarterback.
The Steelers led the NFL with 2,479 rushing yards, and Bettis accounted for 1,665 of those. In 15 starts – Bettis sat out the meaningless regular season finale – he averaged 4.4 yards a carry and had 10 100-yard games plus another in which he finished with 99. Only four times all season did Bettis carry the ball 20 times or fewer, and the Steelers lost three of those. And beyond the yards, Bettis' running exacted a toll on the opposition that was obvious to everyone on the field.
"You can see it in their eyes," said Jerry Olsavsky, a backup linebacker and special teams player for the Steelers that season. "There comes a time in the second half when they get tired of trying to tackle the big guy, and it's in their body language – their shoulders just slump. When the guys on our sideline see that, we perk up. Give the ball to the big guy."
If any more evidence was needed of the way the Steelers should attack the Broncos in the 1997 AFC Championship Game, it was available on the tapes of the regular season meeting between these teams. On Dec. 7, the Steelers defeated Denver, 35-24, thanks to 186 yards rushing – 125 from Bettis and 49 more plus two touchdowns from Stewart.
Yes, it seemed obvious that if the Steelers were going to advance to Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego, they were going to get there by riding the Bus through the Broncos defense while John Elway watched from the sideline.
The Broncos won the toss and came out throwing. Elway's first pass was tipped at the line by defensive end Nolan Harrison; his second, for Sharpe, was intercepted by Levon Kirkland. But the Steelers' chance to grab the momentum was thwarted by a missed field goal by Norm Johnson, and that served as a catalyst for a six-play, 72-yard touchdown drive by the Broncos that was capped by an 8-yard run by Davis.
Denver led, 7-0, but the Steelers tied the game midway through the first period by doing what they had done so well all season. Their 65-yard drive that tied the score, 7-7, included 45 yards rushing, including the final 33 and the touchdown by Stewart.
The Broncos next offensive possession ended in another turnover – this one a Davis fumble that was recovered by safety Darren Perry at the Pittsburgh 32-yard line. The Steelers took over with 2:28 left in the first quarter and after Stewart converted a third-and-10 with a pass over the middle to Yancey Thigpen, the offense hopped on the Bus.
Bettis gained 32 yards on five carries, including the touchdown on a plunge into the end zone, and the Steelers took a 14-7 lead. There was 12:42 left in the first half, and Bettis already had 46 yards on nine carries; the Steelers were beginning to take control of the battle of attrition. Inexplicably, however, this was precisely when the Steelers chose to go to the air.
The Broncos' ensuing possession ended in a 43-yard field goal by Jason Elam that cut their deficit to 14-10, and then the Steelers responded with a three-and-out authored by three straight pass attempts. Denver got the ball back, but a sack by safety Myron Bell put the Broncos in a fourth-and-22 hole and Tom Rouen had to punt.
A defensive offside on first down from the Denver 43-yard line and a 3-yard run by Bettis set up a second-and-2 from the Broncos 35-yard line. At this point in the game, the Steelers had more yards rushing than passing (75-69), and while Bettis was averaging better than 5 yards a carry, Stewart had completed 6-of-13 (46.2 percent).
Despite those statistics, despite the way Bettis had broken teams' wills all season, despite the Denver defense being soft against the run, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey's play-call on second-and-2 with 4:45 remaining in the second quarter was a play-action pass. Ray Crockett intercepted in the end zone, and the Steelers had set in motion a series of events that would take them out of the game before halftime.
Elway completed 4-of-4 on the drive after Crockett's interception and got another 22 yards on a pass interference call on Steelers rookie cornerback Chad Scott. The Broncos used 2:53 of the game clock to score the go-ahead touchdown – on a 15-yard pass to fullback Howard Griffith – and take a 17-14 lead.
The Steelers got the ball with 1:47 left, and even though Elam's touchback put the ball at the 20-yard line, Gailey kept calling passes. Two incompletions and an offensive holding penalty burned less than a minute off the clock before Josh Miller was called on to punt with 55 seconds left. The Broncos were going to get another crack at the Steelers defense, and when Miller's punt netted 32 yards that crack came from the Denver 46-yard line.
Elway got 34 yards right away when Carnell Lake was flagged for interfering with Rod Smith, and from there, it almost seemed easy. A 1-yard pass to Ed McCaffrey accounted for Denver's touchdown, and the Broncos had turned a 14-10 deficit into a 24-14 lead in a 4-minute, 27-second span of the second quarter, and they managed it without having to use a single timeout in the process and without having to tackle Jerome Bettis even once.
Still, there were two quarters of football to be played, and the Steelers bowed their backs.
During the game's final 30 minutes, their defense gave up no points, six first downs and only 120 yards of offense, while forcing the Broncos to punt on each of their first four possessions of the second half. The Steelers offense rolled up 13 first downs and drove the ball into Broncos territory three more times, but the unit that sabotaged itself with two turnovers in the first half added two more in the second.
And it was the first of those two second half turnovers that invited more scrutiny of the play-calling. The Steelers received the second half kickoff and marched from their own 22-yard line to a first-and-goal at the Denver 5-yard line. During the drive, Bettis had gained 30 yards on five carries, but after being stopped for no gain on first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, Gailey again chose to rely on Stewart's passing instead of the NFL's best running attack even though the Steelers quarterback had thrown two interceptions in the first half.
Stewart's pass was intercepted in the end zone by middle linebacker Allen Aldridge, and another prime scoring opportunity had been squandered. Instead of giving the ball to a guy who was one of the best short-yardage/goal-line backs in football, the Steelers had chosen to put the onus on an inexperienced quarterback.
"Certainly you sit back and maybe wish you would have done this or wish maybe you would have done that. That's part of the game," said Cowher. "You can say it all, and we still had a chance at the end of the game.
"You make decisions, you take chances. I said before, if you want to be successful in life, you take chances. Part of taking risks is that there potentially could be hurt if you don't succeed."