Steelers Super Bowl History: Super Bowl XXX

sbxxx_kirkland_aikman_87238.jpg

When the ball had landed on the Three Rivers Stadium carpet, and the back judge came running up to the pile of bodies and signaled the pass was incomplete, the Steelers were going to the Super Bowl. Four seasons into the Bill Cowher era, one year after a crushing home defeat in the AFC Championship Game, they had finally gotten over the hump.

In the 1994 AFC Championship Game that they lost to the San Diego Chargers, in the 1995 AFC Championship Game that they won by beating the Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers had been decided favorites.

In Super Bowl XXX, they would be the underdogs. In fact, the Steelers were given little chance to defeat their NFC opponent – the Dallas Cowboys.

"I was feeling a sense of achievement, not accomplishment," said Coach Bill Cowher about his emotions when Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh's last-gasp pass for Aaron Bailey fell incomplete. "We were able to get over a hurdle, one that would have sat with this football team for a while. I don't know how we would have responded if we had failed two years in a row on the last play (of the AFC Championship Game)."

Throughout its history, the Super Bowl has been something of a cyclical exercise, with each conference taking its turn as the dominant one, and the mid-1990s was a time for the NFC.

Between the Raiders' win at the end of the 1983 season and the Steelers-Cowboys matchup that would conclude the 1995 season, the NFC was undefeated.

The San Francisco 49ers had won four Lombardis, with Dallas, Washington and the New York Giants checking in with two apiece, and the 1985 Chicago Bears had the other one.

"The AFC hasn't won (the Super Bowl) in 11 years, but Pittsburgh hasn't been there in those 11 years," said right tackle Leon Searcy. "Everybody talks about the NFC's mystique and their intimidating style of football. We're not going in just happy to be there. (The playoffs) are a three-game season, and everybody is happy right now, but we also realize what we have at hand. Anything short of that is unsatisfactory."

What the Steelers had at hand was a chance to get to 5-0 in Super Bowls, but in the way was a Cowboys team that had won back-to-back championships in 1992-93. Since those titles, owner Jerry Jones had gotten a divorce from Coach Jimmy Johnson and hired Barry Switzer, but the players who had won Johnson those rings still were around trying to add another for Switzer.

The most well-known among those players were "the triplets" – quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin – but what drove the Cowboys offense was a big, physical and nasty offensive line that was the best in the NFL. On defense, the Cowboys were quick and athletic up front rather than stout, their pass rush was generated by Charles Haley and with Deion Sanders in the secondary the forte of that unit certainly was not run support.

But the real difference in these teams was playoff experience. Not only had these Cowboys already won two Super Bowls together, but they also had been toughened by their annual battles with the equally-talented San Francisco 49ers in the NFC playoffs. Would the Steelers be able to hold their own early in the game?

"You just gotta go out and attack 'em," said defensive end Brentson Buckner. "A lot of the teams they played got caught up in saying, 'Oh, they're so big,' and they really didn't attack 'em. They were sitting there waiting for Dallas to deliver the first blow, and by that time it's over with."

The Steelers may have gone into Super Bowl XXX with the proper attitude in this respect, but once the game actually began they seemed to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the whole thing. Their offense was unable to generate anything, and their defense got gashed.

"Everybody before the game has some butterflies," said Cowher. "When they're singing the national anthem, it kind of hits you. Where you are, what's ahead of you and the opportunity you have. I don't know if it was nervousness so much as we didn't convert a couple of third downs early in the game. And defensively, we couldn't slow them down."

On Dallas' first possession, the Cowboys offensive line carved out a huge hole that Smith used for a 23-yard gain; Chris Boniol's 42-yard field goal made it 3-0.

On the Steelers' first possession, a 5-yard pass on third-and-6 forced a punt; Aikman then directed an eight-play, 75-yard drive and ended it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jay Novacek to create a 10-0 Cowboys lead. The Steelers' ensuing possession was progressing nicely until a shotgun snap from Dermontti Dawson sailed over quarterback Neil O'Donnell's head for a 13-yard loss. After Rohn Stark's punt, Aikman drove the Cowboys 62 yards in 14 plays and Boniol added another field goal for a 13-0 Dallas lead.

"The Cowboys just kept converting and moving the ball up and down the field," said Cowher. "The biggest key was that we held them to two field goals on two of those occasions when they got down there. That was a big key. The score might have been 13-0, but we were still right there. We were able to dodge a couple of bullets, and the score at the end of the half was a big, big play for us."

The first big, big play for the Steelers offense came after a sack by Haley created a third-and-20 from the Pittsburgh 36-yard line. O'Donnell threw a short pass to slot receiver Andre Hastings, who froze Sanders with a Prime Time move and gained 19 yards. Kordell Stewart converted the fourth-and-1, and the drive continued.

The Steelers came up with another big conversion when wide receiver Ernie Mills made a leaping catch over the middle to convert a third-and-13 from the Cowboys 23-yard line with 17 seconds left in the half. O'Donnell's bullet to wide receiver Yancey Thigpen on the next play completed the drive with the 6-yard touchdown that cut the Steelers' deficit to 13-7 at halftime.

It stayed that way until the first of three interceptions thrown by O'Donnell; it came midway through the third period on a third-and-9 from the Steelers 48-yard line.

On a play specifically designed for this Super Bowl, the Steelers lined up with three receivers to the right. In the past, two of those receivers had run slants to the middle while the third ran to the sideline. This time, all three ran slants and coordinator Ron Erhardt said Mills was so wide open that "if he caught it he'd still be running." Instead O'Donnell's pass slipped out of his hand and went directly to Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, who had been frozen by Mills' move and was covering nobody.

Brown's return went to the Steelers 18-yard line, and two plays later Smith's 1-yard run made it 20-7.

Just when things seemed bleakest for the Steelers, they rose up and mounted a comeback, which essentially was the story of their entire 1995 season.

An 11-play, 52-yard drive ended in a 46-yard field goal by Norm Johnson, and it was 20-10 with 11:20 left in the game. Special teams coach Bobby April then planted the seed in Cowher's head for an onside kick, and cornerback Deon Figures recovered it for the Steelers near midfield. Nine plays later, Bam Morris plunged over from the 1-yard line, and the Steelers were within 20-17 with 6:36 to play.

"When we got the onside kick," said safety Darren Perry, "we starting thinking, 'Hey, we have a chance to win this thing.'"

Inside linebacker Levon Kirkland was having a terrific day for the Steelers, and the ensuing series was a part of that. On second down, Kirkland stuffed Smith for a 1-yard gain, and then his third-down sack of Aikman forced the Cowboys to punt. Remember, Smith had that one 23-yard run in the first quarter, but for the rest of the game he would carry 17 times for 26 yards.

With 4:15 left in Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers had the ball, and the outcome of the game, in their hands. But they blew the opportunity, possibly by mis-reading the situation.

Even though the Cowboys were the team that came into the game with the big, physical offensive line complemented by the NFL's leading rusher, it was the Steelers' running attack that was wearing down the Dallas defense. Smith had been contained after that single 23-yard run in the first period, while the 246-pound Morris was gaining momentum and had 73 yards on 19 carries.

During the commercial break before the Steelers offense ran its first play from the 32-yard line after John Jett's punt, the Cowboys defensive linemen – remember, quick and athletic but not stout – were bent over, hands on knees, a sure sign of fatigue.

But the Steelers came out throwing. O'Donnell's first pass was incomplete; the second was another one that went right to Larry Brown in a case of the quarterback throwing to a spot instead of holding the ball and making sure. Brown returned his second gift interception to the Steelers 6-yard line. Two plays later, Smith punched it over for the clinching touchdown in a game that would end, 27-17.

"I believed. Everybody believed," said right tackle Leon Searcy. "We had done it too many times. We always scored."

That was one time during the 1995 season when the Steelers didn't, and it cost them Super Bowl XXX.

"It was a special year," said Cowher. "If you think of what we have overcome from an injury standpoint, how we started the first seven games, to getting to the Super Bowl and how even that game was, all that exemplified this football team. There is much to be proud of. The one thing you don't want to do in this business is dwell on things too long. It's not healthy, and it's not fair. You have to look at the whole picture."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content

Advertising