Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.**
The absolute worst is inconsistency. Of all the traits a football team can develop, being great only 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 on offense and rushing the passer on defense to contend for the Super Bowl 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, who was to be groomed to be an inside linebacker for the Steelers. 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 the way of working out for other teams and then taking part in the Steelers' offseason program after he had been 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 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 its previous 10 quarters, and only 13 points in the previous 12 quarters. It had seven sacks and nine takeaways and a 28.1 third down conversion percentage in the previous three games. The unit would allow 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 New Orleans 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, and he 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 the Steelers 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 ended up losing the game, and it was a game that was only close in the fourth quarter because Cleveland's Eric Metcalf had returned one punt 91 yards for a touchdown. The Steelers got to a point where all they needed from their offense was one more third-down conversion to clinch the win and send into kneel-down mode. But they lost to the Browns because after the Steelers offense didn't convert that third down, punter Mark Royals hit one straight down the middle of the field and Metcalf again returned it 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 (opponents), 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 that were 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 then dominate 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 after this 1993 regular season game, 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.
On the negative side, Barry Foster would leave the Bills game with an ankle injury, and 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 these 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 holdout act succeed somewhat in two straight training camps. None of those four got new deals, and all of them were vocal about it.
This hardly seemed to create a positive atmosphere in which to enter the playoffs, and the Steelers learned their opponent in the Wild Card Round would be the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that had acquired quarterback Joe Montana in hopes of making a run at a championship. Of course, since things seemed ready to fall apart for the Steelers as the regular season was coming to a close, they came together and put together a terrific effort in Kansas City, 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 handed the Kansas City offense some easy yards and a fresh set of downs, and it also energized the crowd. Arrowhead Stadium can provide a decided homefield advantage when the fans are in full throat, and the Chiefs responded in kind. Three plays later, it was 7-7 after a 23-yard touchdown pass from Dave Kreig to wide receiver 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 when the Chiefs scored 10 straight points to tie the game again, 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 on the ensuing possession, 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? Kansas City tight end Keith Cash, a former Steelers player, 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 got the Chiefs to the tie, on a 7-yard pass to Barnett, and that forced 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
- 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
- 1982 AFC Tournament
- 1983 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1984 AFC Divisional Round
- 1984 AFC Championship Game
- 1989 AFC Wild Card Round
- 1989 AFC Divisional Round
- 1992 AFC Divisional Round
- 1993 AFC Wild Card