Labriola On

Riding the roller coaster 25 years ago

Wildly inconsistent. Prone to mistakes in bunches. Prone to making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. Seemingly incapable of dealing with success. Beating themselves.

Sounds a lot like the 2014 Steelers through the first four games of this regular season, but the above paragraph also is an apt description of a team that preceded this one by 25 years.

The 1989 Steelers are the team that got Chuck Noll his only Coach of the Year recognition, but it's also a group that had to have given him more than a few gray hairs along the way. Through chunks of the season, the 1989 Steelers were one of those two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of teams, and up until Thanksgiving there was just one time when they even managed to win more than one game in a row.

Here is a look back at 1989, on a game-by-game basis:


Take a look at some photos from the 1989 season.

SEPT. 10, THREE RIVERS STADIUM** Browns 51, Steelers 0
It remains the most lopsided defeat in Steelers history, and the particulars that day were as ugly as the final score. The Steelers turned the ball over eight times – five lost fumbles and three interceptions – and three of those turnovers ended up in the end zone. Bubby Brister was sacked six times and finished with just 17 passing yards in a game where the Steelers were 0-for-12 on third downs and possessed the ball for only 19 of the game's 60 minutes. The Browns led, 30-0, at halftime, and 44-0 at the end of the third quarter.

"What we have to do is regroup and get back after it," said Chuck Noll after the game. "We've got a test, and we'll see how we come off this."

Bengals, 41, Steelers 10
The good news for the Steelers was that they eliminated the turnovers. The bad news was that they absolutely could not stop the Cincinnati offense. The Bengals rolled up 520 yards – 192 rushing, 328 passing – converted 80 percent on third downs, and became the first opponent to not punt even once against a Noll-coached Steelers team. In addition, Boomer Esiason averaged just a tad over 20 yards per completion.

"Obviously we have to get our act together and play better than we're playing right now," said Noll. "Either the Super Bowl champion comes out of the AFC Central Division, or we're very bad. One or the other."

Steelers 27, Vikings 14
As improbable as losing their first two games by a combined 92-10 might have seemed, coming back the following Sunday to defeat the powerhouse Minnesota Vikings, who strutted into town with 10 Pro Bowl players among their 22 starters, defied belief. A week that began with the national media descending on Pittsburgh to detail Noll's professional obituary ended with the Steelers dominating the Vikings in every phase of the game.

"When you see your team perform like that, it makes you smile a little bit. It was a classic team effort," said Noll. "This wasn't a mirage. We did it. Now we have to do it consistently."

Steelers 23, Lions 3
The defense that couldn't force even one punt in Cincinnati recorded four takeaways leading to all of the team's points, and the Steelers allowed the fewest points on the road in a decade to get to 2-2. Bubby Brister was sacked six times, but he still completed 78 percent of his passes for 274 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. Brister hadn't thrown an interception since the opener against the Browns.

"The biggest thing today was the defense not allowing any touchdowns," said Noll. "That was the first for that in a long while. It's starting to come together with some of the young people."

Bengals 26, Steelers 16
Down by just a field goal at the two-minute warning, the Steelers had the Bengals in a third-and-27 hole at the Cincinnati 35-yard line. The Steelers defense came with a blitz, and the Bengals handed the ball to running back James Brooks, who broke one tackle and raced 65 yards for the clinching touchdown. To add insult to being swept by the Bengals, the Steelers lost Brister to a sprained knee on the game's final series.

"I had an interception and dropped it," said Rod Woodson. "(Dwayne Woodruff) had one in the fourth quarter and dropped it. We had them third-and-27 and they scored a touchdown. A good football tam doesn't miss out on those opportunities, and that's what we have to prove we are."

"You can play the what-if game all you want to, but that's not reality," said Noll. "And reality is where we are right now."

Steelers 17, Browns 7
Left for dead again – and saddled with Todd Blackledge at quarterback – the Steelers rode the back of the same defense that had failed at the critical moment the previous week. Seven takeaways, including four interceptions, and two sacks powered the Steelers to their first win in Cleveland since 1981, and they snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Browns. It was a big win that got the Steelers back to .500, but there were 10 penalties for 121 yards.

"It's a funny thing about a football team," said Noll. "It's not a one-man effort."

Oilers 27, Steelers 0
The Steelers starting backfield gained 14 yards on 13 carries, and the offense as a unit managed only 10 first downs and 132 total net yards. There also were four turnovers, eight more penalties, and the defense turned toothless, with no sacks, no interception, and only one recovery of the Oilers' six fumbles. And with 18 penalties in two games, the team's discipline was being called into question.

"This doesn't let us get into any kind of groove at all," said Carnell Lake. "We had a tremendous game in Cleveland. It should've given us a lot of confidence, and it did give us confidence. Then to get beat, 27-0, almost puts us back at the starting point."

Steelers 23, Chiefs 17
Back on the rollercoaster. Back to .500. With Brister back from injury, the offense wasn't close to consistent, but it did manage to put one 75-yard touchdown drive together and then used a 64-yard touchdown pass to Louis Lipps on the final play of the third quarter as the difference in the game. And after collapsing vs. the Bengals, the defense made three defensive stands in the red zone during which it recorded an interception and turned it over on downs twice.

Broncos 34, Steelers 7
After losing their first two games by a combined 92-10 and then getting themselves back to .500 at the midway point, the Steelers went to Denver feeling pretty good about themselves. Too soon. The Broncos finished with more than three times as many first downs (21-7), more than twice as many total net yards (414-170), and almost five times as many points (34-7). At least they only were flagged for five penalties.

"When you have three-downs-and-out, you don't have any continuity," said Noll. "That was our problem. From a running standpoint, from a passing standpoint, whatever you do, it was three-downs-and-out. We had mistake, mistake, mistake, or a screw-up on the thing."

Bears 20, Steelers 0
At the end of this one, the Steelers had been shut out three times in one season for the first time since 1951, the Bears had their first win in Pittsburgh since World War II, and Bubby Brister had a streak of 179 passes without an interception snapped on the first play of the game. In addition to only 10 first downs and 54 yards rushing, the Steelers also turned it over six times and had the Bears convert 11-of-17 (65 percent) on third down. At 4-6, the coroner was called for their playoff hopes.

"There was no cheering on the sideline. Everybody was walking around with their heads down," said rookie Tim Worley. "We were a little flat today. I don't think we were ready for this game."

"These young guys may not understand that this is a 60-minute game," said veteran Mike Mularkey. "There are a lot of things that can happen. You just have to keep rolling."

Steelers 20, Chargers 17
Since the offense stunk, and the defense wasn't a lot better, the Steelers turned to special teams (huh?) to snap the second two-game losing streak of the season. Through three quarters, the offense had been held under 100 net yards, and so it was Rod Woodson's 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Carnell Lake's two fumble recoveries on punt returns, and Gary Anderson's field goals of 49 and 28 yards that had the Steelers within striking distance in the fourth quarter. Then seemingly out of nowhere, the offense goes 91 yards in 12 plays for the winning touchdown.

"The last two games, the offense has done nothing but kill ourselves," said Mularkey. "We move the ball, but then we give it away at crucial times. It's really been our own mistakes that have killed us."

Steelers 34, Dolphins 14
Forget the scoreboard, the winner this day was Mother Nature. The day began with Dan Marino carving up the Steelers defense like a Thanksgiving Day turkey, and after drives of 12 plays and six plays, it was 14-0. Then the skies opened, and what officially was measured as two inches of rain fell, and it came too fast for the stadium's drainage system. Pooled water was everywhere, and the team nicknamed the Dolphins didn't like the water. The Steelers scored 34 points in the second and third quarters to climb back to .500 again, at 6-6. Left for dead after the shutout loss to the Bears, the Steelers were back in it two weeks later.

"That's why you have 16 weeks to an NFL season," said Rod Woodson. "You can play great in the first few weeks, but if you're not great in the second half of the season, you're not in it. If you play average in the first half and great in the second, you can be in it."

Oilers 23, Steelers 6
This was a game where the Steelers lost to the Oilers but the officials beat them. Referee Ben Dreith allowed the Oilers a fourth timeout in the first half that Warren Moon turned into a 27-yard touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds, and the Steelers then spent more time worrying about the zebras than the opponent. Even though games between these teams regularly turned into street-fights, the Steelers were penalized eight times to only three for Houston. The one bright spot was the first 100-yard game for No. 1 pick Tim Worley.

"It hurts very badly," said Noll about how the loss impacted playoff hopes. "We're not in a good position for any tiebreakers."

Steelers 13, N.Y. Jets 0
The offense out-gained the opponent for the first time in 10 weeks and the defense recorded the first shutout in 74 games. Rod Woodson blocked a field goal to preserve the shutout, and Greg Lloyd had one sack and one interception. The game was violent from the start, and before it was over three players – Jets QB Pat Ryan and WR Al Toon, and Steelers QB Bubby Brister – were forced out of the game with concussions. The Steelers were back at .500, 7-7, for the fifth time on the season.

"The answer is, yes, we're still in playoff contention," said Noll. "As long as we keep winning."

Steelers 28, Patriots 10
Forced to practice during the week at a crude indoor facility on Pitt's campus because of sub-freezing temperatures, the Steelers responded with a win that put them over .500 for the first time all season. Worley rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries, and Merril Hoge scored two touchdowns to pace a rushing attack that rolled up 219 via a 5.6 average per carry. Brister only attempted 16 passes, and the defense posted three sacks and three takeaways.

"We were minus-8 in turnover ratio after the first game in turnover ratio, and now we're plus-12, near the top of the league," said Noll. "Those mistakes were killing us."

Steelers 31, Buccaneers 22
Ho! Ho! Ho! Christmas Eve in Florida seemed a lot like Christmas in Western Pennsylvania when temperatures went below freezing the night before the game. But the Steelers came out hot, with Rod Woodson's 72-yard return of the opening kickoff setting up the first of two touchdown runs by Worley. Brister threw only 15 passes and completed seven, but two were touchdown passes to Louis Lipps, including one for 79 yards. The Steelers finished 9-7, but they had to await the results of Colts at Saints, Chiefs at Dolphins, Raiders at Giants, and then Bengals at Vikings on Monday night to learn if they had squeezed into the playoffs. They hit the five-team parlay and ended a playoff drought that had reached four years.

"This team really showed a lot of character," said Steelers President Dan Rooney. "There were a lot of people questioning that. This has been an excellent thing for this team. They're still very young, but there's hope."

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