Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.**
Their charter flight from Oakland was still in the air, but in a way the Pittsburgh Steelers already had arrived. Their quest for the first championship in franchise history had another test left – against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX to be played in New Orleans – but by beating the Raiders for the 1974 AFC Championship the Steelers had attained the level of play that Coach Chuck Noll had vowed they would reach during his first team meeting with them in 1969.
Those players formed a team that won its opener and then finished with 13 losses in a row to bottom out at 1-13 during that 1969 season, but within the group was the man who would serve as the cornerstone for Noll's construction plan. In January 1969 Joe Greene had become the first No. 1 draft pick of the Chuck Noll era, and the Steelers began fulfilling the commitment they made to using the draft as the primary method of building their team. The next year, after the 1-13, it was Terry Bradshaw; then in 1972, it was Franco Harris. Other pieces were added during a remarkable span of six drafts when the Steelers picked nine Hall of Fame players and a total of 18 who would finish their careers with four Super Bowl rings apiece.
They had played the role of Cinderella in 1972, but by the time the playoffs began in 1974 the Dolphins and the Raiders and the Vikings and the Rams were the teams everybody was talking about. During those seasons when the Steelers had fallen short, they had been a team with a good defense and a one-man running attack for an offense, but the team on this particular transcontinental flight was one with a dominant defense and a balanced offense. These Steelers were confident, and they were together.
Author Roy Blount Jr. was on the flight with those newly-crowned AFC Champion Steelers , and he wrote, "Tony Parisi, the equipment man, said to me, 'I'm giving you an exclusive. I knew they were going to win this AFC Championship Game. You know why? Before we left for Oakland nobody asked me for a box.' A box? 'To ship their stuff home in. Last year before Oakland, a lot of guys asked for boxes.'"
In the midst of the euphoria was Noll, much looser and confident himself, but still focused on the ultimate prize. "Making it is not enough," he told them. "We're not going down there (for Super Bowl IX ) to be the disappointed team."
Blessed with two weeks between the conference championship game and Super Bowl IX, Noll and his staff installed much of the game plan during that first week while the players still were in somewhat of a regular routine at Three Rivers Stadium. As for the hype that was just beginning to build around the game, much of the early attention was focused on the Steelers' defense, primarily how it had stuffed the Oakland running attack.
The last time the Steelers had eliminated the Raiders from the playoffs – in 1972 with the Immaculate Reception – Coach John Madden tried to drown his sorrows in a fine whine about the officiating. This time he really had no excuses, and he offered none. "The Steelers beat us because they gave us nothing on the ground. Our passing was sufficient, but we couldn't get the run going. I can't remember when our ground game was shut down that effectively."
In Minnesota, Vikings coach Bud Grant didn't sound like a believer in the Steelers being a dominant unit, at least not from a schematic standpoint. "They gimmick up their defense a little bit because of the great talent they possess. I think Miami's defense is more disciplined, if that's the right word, but Pittsburgh has so much talent and so much mobility that even if you hit them in the right spot, somebody will cover because they've got so much built-in pursuit."
Whether an inventive scheme or just superior talent, the Steelers defense was doing things no other team had the personnel to try. And debating why the results were what they were became as pointless as trying to run the football against them. As rookie middle linebacker Jack Lambert said after being asked to comment on the fact the Raiders gained 29 yards rushing on 21 attempts: "They shouldn't have had that much."
But the Vikings believed in their ability to run the football on any team, and All-Pro Chuck Foreman was a big part of that. The previous meeting between these teams had come in 1972 in a game where the Steelers staged something of a coming-out party with a 23-10 win to announce themselves as a legitimate contender, but Foreman had been hampered by injuries and clearly wasn't himself. Surely, a healthy Foreman would have an impact, and the Vikings would be able to move the football on the ground against the Steelers. Surely, Vikings All-Pro center Mick Tingelhoff would have an answer for the Stunt 4-3. Surely.
Upon arriving in New Orleans, the two teams seemed to be out of character with respect to the situation. The Vikings had been to two Super Bowls already, and in fact had been the NFC representative the previous January. They had won three conference championship games with this core of players and coaches, and they knew what to expect in terms of the sideshow that accompanies every Super Bowl. The Steelers were new to all of it.
Yet it was the Vikings who were dour and seemed to be pressing. The Steelers had been told by Noll to experience the New Orleans nightlife during their first two nights in the city – "Get it out of your system" – and he backed up his words by imposing no curfew those nights. The Steelers players listened to Noll, and many photos of them enjoying the French Quarter were included daily in both Pittsburgh newspapers. After that though, it was back to business, but even then the Steelers were having fun. During Media Day, it was the reporters who quit asking the questions long before the Steelers tired of answering them.
Ray Mansfield was the team's starting center, one of the few to survive Noll's Purge in 1969. This was his 12th season of life in the middle of an NFL line of scrimmage; he would be 33 nine days after the game. Reporters couldn't shut him up, nor could they wipe the smile off his face. "Centers are totally overlooked people in this world," Mansfield lectured one group of notebooks and microphones, "and things like the Super Bowl are good to bring the personalities of people like me out."
The teams' personalities certainly came out on game day, and it started in the tunnel before the introduction of the teams' starting lineups. Glen Edwards, who played free safety for the Steelers with a middle linebacker's demeanor, recognized an ex-college teammate, Charles Goodrum, then a starting guard for the Vikings. Edwards, never shy regardless of the situation, went over to chat. Edwards' attempts at friendliness were met with silence and a sour look from Goodrum, and so Edwards changed his tune to confrontational. "You guys better buckle it up."
So it would be. The Steelers defense was better, more stingy even, than it had been against the Raiders. A healthy Foreman had no impact on the Vikings' ability to run the ball against the Steelers, and Tingelhoff had no answers for the Stunt 4-3.
In fact, the Steelers defense scored the only points of the first half on a safety when Dwight White downed Fran Tarkenton in the end zone after the Vikings quarterback had covered a fumble by fullback Dave Osborn. Just before halftime, just when Minnesota looked like it might be mustering enough offense to score some points, Edwards drilled Vikings receiver John Gilliam in the chest just as the ball arrived and Mel Blount came down with the carom inside the Steelers' 10-yard line for one of the team's five takeaways.
Chuck Noll's pet phrase always was "whatever it takes," and the tone of that sentiment was exemplified by the Steelers defense during the most important football game in franchise history. One of their starting defensive ends – Dwight White, a fourth-year pro who had contributed 8.5 sacks during the 14-game regular season – had been stricken with pneumonia and spent most of the week in a New Orleans hospital. He hadn't had enough strength to feed himself, but White still crawled out of a hospital bed the morning of the game. He started, played and played well. Then, before the first half ended, the Steelers lost two of their three starting linebackers – Jack Lambert and Andy Russell – but Ed Bradley and Loren Toews played so well in their places that some observers didn't even know there were backups on the field.
"White's playing showed the attitude this team had through the whole playoffs," said Noll. "He symbolizes the attitude of the whole defensive unit, the whole football team."
The offense centered around Franco Harris, who set what was a Super Bowl record at the time with 158 yards on 34 carries, and if Bradshaw only finished with 94 yards passing, he did not throw an interception and his touchdown pass to Larry Brown in the fourth quarter iced the 16-6 win. A season that had been far from perfect ended perfectly.
When asked by NFL Films in 2006 to talk about this Super Bowl, Joe Greene said, "There is something that champions have that you can only get by getting kicked around until you say that you don't want to be kicked around anymore. I think that's what happened over the course of the 1974 season."
After the game, sitting in front of his locker amid a cloud of smoke from their victory cigars, he had been more succinct. "I just wasn't prepared to lose."
Safety (White downed Tarkenton in end zone)
Harris 9 run (Gerela kick)
Brown recovered blocked punt (kick failed)
Brown 4 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)
Total Net Yds