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Labriola on '89 stretch run, pure run-stuffers

The final four games of the regular season were at hand, and the Steelers found themselves at .500 but in last place in their division. Even though the four teams in the division were bunched tightly, it was believed their chances to make the playoffs, while not mathematically impossible, were similar to the poker equivalent of drawing an inside straight flush. To put it into football terms, they figured to need to win at least three of the final four games and also get some help from around the league even to have a remote chance.

And the Steelers entered those final four regular season games as a wildly inconsistent team. They had allowed more rushing yards than they gained, more passing yards than they gained, more sacks than they recorded, more touchdowns and points than they scored. In fact, just about the only significant statistic in which the Steelers were not at a deficit with their opponents was in turnover ratio, where the Steelers were a zero – 24 turnovers and 24 takeaways – through the first 10 games of the season.

Sounds a lot like 2021, but actually it was 1989.

What had started with a 92-10 cumulative thrashing at the hands of the Browns and the Bengals found the Steelers at 6-6, and trailing Cleveland (7-4-1), Houston (7-5), and Cincinnati (6-6 but ahead of the Steelers based on a head-to-head sweep of the division series) on the eve of their final four games of the regular season.

The 1989 Steelers were a young team in some areas, and an inexperienced one in others. Even though there were only three rookies among the 22 starters on offense and defense – running back Tim Worley, wide receiver Derek Hill, and safety Carnell Lake – 12 of the 22 starters had three years or fewer of NFL experience, and the average years of NFL experience for the entire roster was 2.7.

Those Steelers opened their final four regular season games with a 23-17 loss to the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium that was lowlighted by referee Ben Dreith awarding Houston a fourth timeout in the first half, and the Oilers capitalized on that with a touchdown pass to Drew Hill with six seconds left before halftime.

Written off for a spot in the playoffs following that loss to Houston, the Steelers won their last three games to finish 9-7, but their spot in the playoffs wasn't clinched until the final game of the 1989 regular season when the 8-7 Bengals visited the 9-6 Minnesota Vikings on Monday, Dec. 25. If the Bengals won, they would have finished 9-7 and ousted the Steelers from the playoffs based on a head-to-head sweep of the division series, but the Vikings came into that game with a 7-0 record at home and made it 8-0 with a 29-21 victory that dropped the Bengals to 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

The Steelers hit their inside straight flush and made the 1989 AFC Playoffs.

Some Steelers fans appalled by the team's porous run defense to this point in the 2021 regular season have urged them to make the acquisition of a run-stuffing nose tackle and/or a run-stuffing inside linebacker a priority for the upcoming offseason, and the player most regularly referenced as an example of the kind of run-stuffing nose tackle they want, and the team needs, is Casey Hampton.

Hampton was the team's first-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, the 19th overall selection, and he started 11 games as a rookie. Once Hampton joined the team, the Steelers moved Kimo von Oelhoffen from nose tackle to defensive end, and that front three of von Oelhoffen, Hampton, and Aaron Smith rather quickly became a group that made running the football vs. the Pittsburgh defense a very difficult assignment for opposing teams.

The Steelers 2001 defense had von Oelhoffen, Smith, and Hampton along the line of scrimmage; Earl Holmes and Kendrell Bell were the inside linebackers; Jason Gildon and Joey Porter were the outside linebackers; Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington were the cornerbacks; and Brent Alexander and Lee Flowers were the safeties.

That unit finished No. 1 in the NFL against the run, No. 4 against the pass, No. 1 in first downs allowed, No. 1 in rushing touchdowns allowed, and No. 3 in points allowed.

The Steelers 2001 defense allowed just one running back to go for over 100 yards in a game – Kansas City's Priest Holmes had 150 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns, but the Steelers still defeated the Chiefs, 20-17; and only three teams finished with over 100 yards rushing in a game: Jacksonville finished with 101 in the opener, Kansas City had 165, and Cincinnati finished with 141 in a win on the regular season's penultimate weekend.

Eddie George (twice), Curtis Martin, Travis Henry, Warrick Dunn, and Mike Allstot were just some of the opposing backs who slammed their heads against the wall that was the 2001 Steelers, and then in two playoff games, the run defense allowed a combined 89 yards on 36 carries (2.5 average).

But once the 2002 NFL season dawned, Steelers opponents determined they couldn't run the ball against that defense, and so they quit trying. In the opener, won by the Patriots, 30-14, New England attempted only 18 running plays in a game during which they never trailed. And seven of those running plays came in a fourth quarter that began with New England holding a 27-7 lead. At one stretch of the second quarter and into the third quarter, the Patriots called 21 straight pass plays and over a 30-play span they called 27 passes and three runs.

The following week against Oakland at Heinz Field, the Raiders adopted a similar strategy in a 30-17 victory. Rich Gannon attempted 64 passes, and the Raiders ran the ball only 17 times in a game in which they never trailed, a game in which they possessed the ball for 39 minutes, 34 seconds. In the first quarter, the Raiders called 18 passes and two runs; in the second quarter, they called 20 straight passes to open the period, and over the course of that 15 minutes they called 26 passes and two runs. That meant in the first half, Oakland called 44 passes and four runs.

Starting with that season, offensive philosophy changed. No longer were first downs running downs, and no longer did a team continue at least to try to run the football until the score and the time remaining in the game dictated otherwise. At the start of the 2002 season, the Patriots and Raiders went pass-happy with regular personnel, meaning they did it largely with two running backs, a tight end, and two wide receivers.

But then even that changed, and offenses went to personnel groupings that eschewed a fullback and added a wide receiver instead, maybe swapped out a tight end – unless his name was Gronkowski or Gonzalez or Sharpe – for another wide receiver. Shotgun, empty set was no longer a formation only utilized in catch-up situations.

Based on the way the game was legislated and being played, it became simpler to throw the football, and gradually nose tackles like Casey Hampton and inside linebackers like Earl Holmes had to be replaced for defensive linemen who could contribute to the pass rush and inside linebackers who could run and cover.

That's why players have to be multiple and defenses have to be able to stop the run and defend the pass with the same personnel – because as soon as an offense sees the defense go to its run-stopping personnel, it will call a pass play regardless of the score, field position, or time on the clock, and take advantage of a matchup where that run-stuffing inside linebacker has to cover somebody in open space.

Stopping the run still is integral to any team's ability to win games and compete for playoff spots, but trying to do it the old way won't work anymore.