Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.**
The national media wasn't impressed with one of the two teams that had played its way into Super Bowl XIV. Neither were the Los Angeles Rams.
As the NFL staged its conference championship games at the end of the 1979 season, the national media thought little of the NFC matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Rams. Sports Illustrated referred to it as "A game for losers played by losers."
Sports Illustrated went on: "There are ways to make Super Bowl XIV competitive – put weights on the Steelers, let the Rams play with 12 men, make Terry Bradshaw throw left-handed. Then it might be a game."
But if the media already had awarded this Lombardi Trophy, the Rams still planned on showing up for the game and believed they could win it. Even if they would be playing the Super Bowl without starting quarterback Pat Haden, they had three coaches on Ray Malavasi's staff who knew more than just a little bit about the Steelers – Bud Carson, Lionel Taylor and Dan Radakovich – and their presence provided an insight into the opponent that allowed a confidence to develop. Carson, Taylor and Radakovich were more than simply ex-Steelers assistant coaches, they were men who had been with Chuck Noll during the critical foundation-laying seasons in the early part of the decade of the 1970s.
An assistant under Chuck Noll from 1972-77, Bud Carson had been the driving force in putting together the defensive line that terrorized the NFL under the moniker, "The Steel Curtain." Carson was not a coach who allowed himself to get hung up on a defensive lineman's size, because he believed the position could be dominated by athletic ability as well as strength. L.C. Greenwood was just that kind of player – an undersized defensive end from a small college – and during Carson's first four seasons with the Steelers he had 29.5 sacks in 64 games. Carson, one of the men who introduced the cover-2 scheme to the NFL, coordinated the Steelers defense during his time with Noll and won two Super Bowl rings with the team.
Taylor had been an outstanding receiver in the early days of the AFL. In fact, as a member of the Denver Broncos he led the league in receiving in each of its first six years of existence, and in 1961 he became the first professional football player to catch 100 passes, and he did it in a 14-game season. Taylor was hired by Noll in 1970, and thanks to the lessons he taught Ron Shanklin, Frank Lewis, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, all would go on to play in the Pro Bowl.
Radakovich coached both the defensive linemen and the offensive linemen during his five season stint on Noll's staff, but his greatest contribution might have been the techniques he taught offensive linemen. A lot of the footwork and hand-placement techniques still used by offensive linemen in the NFL today were introduced to the league by Radakovich.
In 1979, those three coaches were preparing a team to face the Steelers for a Super Bowl championship, and the Rams were not intimidated by the enormity of their task. "Usually teams are very humble when they prepare to meet us," said Dwight White. "The Rams are different. They've got some kind of inner strength."
That inner manifested itself as soon as the game started.
The Steelers scored on their first two possessions – on a 41-yard field goal by Matt Bahr and then on a 1-yard run by Franco Harris that capped a nine-play, 53-yard drive. But again, the Rams did not seem impressed, and they went through a span in the first half where they scored on three of four possessions – Frank Corral field goals of 31 and 45 yards and a 1-yard run by Cullen Bryant – and built a 13-10 halftime lead.
"At halftime, I was really concerned. I was more than concerned. I was scared," said Jack Lambert. "They had all the momentum, and our defense just wasn't playing up to par. It was just a shaky situation. It had been a big-play game, and in those games anything can happen. In the first half, they used a lot of man-in-motion, and it confused us. We finally made some adjustments at halftime."
Thanks to the kickoff returning of Larry Anderson, who had four returns of 37 yards or longer, the Steelers offense was getting good field position throughout the game. Terry Bradshaw took advantage of that early in the third quarter, and he hit Swann for a 47-yard touchdown pass that gave the lead back to the Steelers, 17-13.
But Swann was injured on the play – another concussion – and he was done for the day. To compound the Steelers' plight, the Rams answered that score with a four-play, 77-yard touchdown drive of their own, with the points coming on a 24-yard halfback pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith. It might have been the Steelers' motto for over a decade, but it was the Rams who were the embodiment of "whatever it takes" on this day. Going into the fourth quarter, the Rams led, 19-17.
Turnovers had been a problem for the Steelers throughout the season, and Super Bowl XIV was no different. Bradshaw would be voted the game's MVP, but before he got there his three interceptions proved to be a contributing factor to the Steelers' predicament at the end of the third quarter.
Still, great players make big plays in critical situations, and Bradshaw used this game to provide even more evidence of his greatness. The Steelers game plan called for Bradshaw to look deep on third-down situations, rather than just to go for the first-down marker. It was one of those third downs when Bradshaw caught a Rams safety looking to jump a short route, and when Stallworth streaked past the safety, Bradshaw laid the ball in perfectly over cornerback Rod Perry for a 73-yard touchdown.
Not even that served to deter the Rams, whose offense responded by promptly driving for the score that could have given them the lead once again. The Rams were down, 24-19, with 5:35 left in the game, but they had moved the ball to the Steelers' 32-yard line. It was expected that Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo would serve as cannon fodder for the Steelers, but to this point in the game he really had not been outplayed by Bradshaw. But at this crucial juncture, he made a critical mistake.
Quarterbacks are taught never to throw the ball late over the middle, but that's exactly what Ferragamo did. Compounding the problem for the Rams was that Ron Smith, the intended receiver, ran something of an undisciplined route, and that allowed Lambert to cut across the route and make the interception. "I was responsible for the deep middle on the play," said Lambert. "It was a play they like, but they had only run it once before which surprised me. We worked on it in practice the last two weeks, because it had been successful for them all year."
The Steelers defense may not have played to their standards to that point in this Super Bowl, but this crucial takeaway was the turning point in the game. The offense took possession and then drove 70 yards for the clinching touchdown – a 1-yard run by Franco Harris – but the big play of the drive was another big play from Bradshaw on a third down. It was a third-and-medium situation, and as Noll had coached him to do, Bradshaw looked deep first and he connected with Stallworth for 45 yards, and the Rams' spirit finally seemed to break. The Steelers had their fourth Super Bowl championship during a six-season span of the 1970s.
"Hopefully we'll be able top say that we're the greatest football team of all time," said Lambert after the game was over. "I don't feel it's going to be any tougher to do it again next year. As Chuck Noll said after the game, 'This trophy is now an antique.'"
Bahr 41 FG
Bryant 1 run (Corral kick)
Harris 1 run (Bahr kick)
Corral 31 FG
Corral 45 FG
Swann 47 pass from Bradshaw (Bahr kick)
Smith 24 pass from McCutcheon (Corral kick)
Stallworth 73 pass from Bradshaw (Bahr kick)
Harris 1 run (Bahr kick)
Total Net Yds
- 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1972 AFC Championship Game
- 1973 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Championship Game
- Super Bowl IX
- 1975 AFC Divisional Playoffs
- 1975 AFC Champiionship Game
- Super Bowl X
- 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1976 AFC Championship Game
- 1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
- 1978 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1978 AFC Championship
- Super Bowl XIII
- 1979 AFC Divisional Round
- 1979 AFC Championship
- Super Bowl XIV