THE 1987 SEASON CONTINUES
With the upheaval that was the players’ strike now behind them, the 1987 Steel defense had begun to shine. David Little (pictured left), who led the team in tackles before kickoff, added to his statistics with nine unassisted tackles, three assists and a shared sack. Mike Merriweather complemented his fellow linebacker with six tackles, one assist, one interception, a deflected pass and 2.5 sacks.
The defense achieved five turnovers and their confidence was always at a high throughout the game. Strong safety Donnie Shell observed, “We were just laughing on the sideline when it was 7-10. We just knew they weren’t going to win the game.”
The defense, as a team, received the game ball. “I think we were determined today that this would be our ball game, regardless of what the offense would do,” continued Shell, “we were just going to take it.” The Steelers defense had four interceptions and a forced fumble.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted the Steelers played a new defense, covering zone underneath and man-to-man deep combined with four defensive linemen.
To make room for Rod Woodson, their new recruit , the Steelers had to waive one player and Rodney Carter fretted over whether it would be him. Instead defensive lineman Jackie Cline was cut. The value of retaining Carter was confirmed with his two touchdowns catches during the game.
Mark Malone had begun the day as the league’s lowest-rated quarterback and only put a stamp on his poor standing with less than a 50% pass completion rate and two interceptions. Did the writing on the wall suggest a change of leader on offense for the next game? His coach would not be drawn into any controversy and would only say, “We were all shaky. We had some dropped passes. Some missed pass routes. The quarterback was fine.”
Following on from the solid performance in Kansas from their defense, question marks surrounding Mark Malone’s poor showing resurfaced once again during Noll’s weekly press conference.
Having added to the controversy in the build up to the game by not announcing his starter until late, an agitated Noll fired sharply back to reporters’ questions regarding Malone’s dismal display.
“Well, I’ll tell you. I’m kind of sick of all that quarterback stuff,” Noll began his tirade. “After the ball game I get ‘How did Mark do?’ or ‘What’s this going on?’ We’re trying to help a guy perform to the best of his abilities. Obviously, we’re not getting a whole lot of help from anybody with this kind of procedure.
He’s the guy who has to be in there. And he’s the guy we have to get ready, and support and back up.
I guess you have a team divided, you conquer them, right? I guess right now we have a city divided. And maybe the city’s going to be conquered. I’m not sure of that,” he added. “We’re certainly not working together to help a guy do what he can do. And I’d like to see that.”
The Steelers win had put them back into a first place tie with Cleveland and Houston in the AFC Central Division. The Steelers next game was against the Oilers and could prove crucial in deciding who would be end the season as division champions. Noll confirmed that Malone and Bubby Brister would continue to split practice time 50-50 as his dilemma continued and the stakes increased.
While Noll was deflecting questions about his quarterback, Cincinnati with a 2-6 season record, were fielding calls for the head of their coach, Sam Wyche.
Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ed Bouchette spotlighted the contribution to the Steelers defense from David Little, who had stepped into the shoes of the irreplaceable Jack Lambert after Lambert suffered a toe injury in 1983. Producing statistics to support his praise of Little, Bouchette espoused the consistency and contribution to the defense. More solo tackles than anyone else on defense for the past three years and currently enjoying the best season of his career.
The Steelers linebackers’ coach Jed Hughes weighed in with his admiration, “He’s had an excellent season. He lost some weight and I think that’s helped his movement. He’s made more open field football plays this year.”
Coach Noll added, “David is our leader on defense and has taken charge and has the ability to get the ball.” During the offseason the coach sends out a letter to every player and after the previous season, Noll promised the Steelers would return in 1987 to the kind of teeth-rattling defensive play that was seen with the Steelers in the seventies.
Noll’s message was music to Little’s ears. In 1985, when he led the team in tackles during their first losing season in fourteen years, he complained that the innovative Steeler defense relied too much on thinking and not enough on hitting.
Now the Steelers had returned to playing Little’s kind of defense, he said, “I think we cut down a little on the number of defenses. One reason is we have a pretty good secondary. Another reason is we are just playing ball instead of thinking before you react. We go up and play instead of worrying about different checks and things.”
Bouchette also commended Mike Merriweather (pictured left) for once again having the kind of fire in his eyes that hadn’t been seen since 1984. He praised Merriweather for destroying the Chiefs’ comeback attempt the previous Sunday with his interception and sack late in the game.
As highlighted previously, the Steelers defense was once again performing at the top. Shame the offense couldn't match their contribution.
For game 9 of the Steelers 1987 season, the team were playing host to the Houston Oilers. Head coach of the Oilers was Jerry Glanville and fans will remember Glanville as the brash, arrogant, opinionated coach who never won anything.
Later, he became the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. The pinnacle of Glanville’s coaching career was when he disapproved when Atlanta drafted Brett Favre, so made the point by rarely utilising his rookie quarterback’s potential. In his first season, Favre threw only four passes for Atlanta before he was traded to Green Bay. I think all football fans will recall the success that Favre then made with the Packers.
With the Oilers coming into Pittsburgh for the divisional matchup, Glanville contemplated his team’s dismal away performances explaining that seeing family, relatives and sights was a diversion for young players. He was of the opinion there would be no distractions in Pittsburgh voicing, “There aren’t any sights to see in Pittsburgh.”
The Oilers had lost nine consecutive games in Pittsburgh and with the two teams sharing top spot with Cleveland in the division, the game would be an important part of the jigsaw that would become the playoffs picture.
With Warren Moon at the helm, the Oilers had successfully adapted to a run and shoot offense and seen a dramatic turnaround in its success. In 1986, the team scored 274 points in 16 games, while in the 8 games played this season, they had already accumulated 200. It would be an interesting matchup against the Steelers who had moved from a blitzing defense to pass coverage.
Glanville had finally found the best offense into which to slot the talented quarterback who had struggled after moving from the Canadian Football League to Houston in 1984. “The thing I see in Moon is that he’s competing so hard no matter if there’s one second left. That’s the key for us. Now, we’re not ever going to give up,” said his coach.
The Houston offense features four receivers, usually Earnest Givens, Drew Hill, Curtis Duncan and either Willie Drewrey or rookie Hayward Jeffries. Givens and Hill often line up on the same side with another wide receiver in a triple formation. Moon often lining up in shotgun formation.
The fast tempo of the Houston offense and Moon’s increased confidence with it had led to fewer sacks. Steelers defensive end Edmund Nelson observed, “From films, it looks like he’s throwing the ball up a lot quicker. I don’t know whether they are timing patterns or not, but he’s completing a lot of deep passes on teams and it’s because he’s getting rid of the ball before the receiver starts looking.”
Defensive line coach, Joe Greene, commented, “He’s got a different offensive scheme and he throws the ball quicker. They don’t do as much play-pass stuff. Looking at (past) films, that’s where he’s got a lot of sacks.”
Defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy, added, “Some people blitzed them successfully. But when you blitz, especially against four wide receivers, you’ve got four real quick guys out there on single coverage, so it’s always a gamble.
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS (5-3) vs THE HOUSTON OILERS (5-3)
The Steelers went into their headline game against their division rivals full of confidence. That self-belief suffered a jolt on the Steelers’ first drive. Gary Anderson lined up for a 53-yard field goal attempt, but holder Harry Newsome bobbled a perfect snap and opportunity to put the first points on the board was lost.
The only Houston turnover of the game came at the end of the first quarter when Moon fumbled on his team’s 33. Pittsburgh took advantage of their opponent’s error and went 28 yards on six plays, presenting Anderson with another field goal chance that he successfully kicked from 22 yards.
The Oilers tied the game 3-3 on the final play of the half when Tony Zendejas kicked a 34-yard field goal.
In the third quarter, a bad Moon began arising when Houston’s quarterback produced two scoring plays. On a third and goal at the Steelers 14, Moon squeezed his pass between Dwayne Woodruff and Lupe Sanchez to find Drew Hill and put his team 10-3 in front.
On the Oilers next series, Hill raced past Delton Hall to catch a 42-yard touchdown pass from Moon that increased Houston’s lead to 17-3.
The Oilers sealed the 23-3 victory in the fourth quarter with field goals of 20 and 40 yards that handed the visiting team their biggest victory over their rivals since 1971.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 3 vs the Houston Oilers 23
Three Rivers Stadium November 15th 1987; 56,177
The stadium lost its power halfway through the third quarter due to a short in a transformer. Steeler fans would have regretted its repair as the Oilers were sparked into life after a seven-minute delay.
Warren Moon commented after his team’s win, “We knew coming in we had to shut down their running game.” This, the Oilers certainly succeeded in doing. Walter Abercrombie gained 30 yards on nine carries, Frank Pollard had 55 on 6 while Earnest Jackson slumped to just 1 yard on 4 carries, conceding his lead rusher status in the NFL to Eric Dickerson.
The quarterback controversy that had been plaguing the Steelers all season was never in danger of disappearing after Malone’s lack lustre performance. Under a full Moon, Malone just decided to wane.
To the roar of approval from the fans baying for Malone’s blood, Bubby Brister entered the fray in the fourth quarter and with just 3 completions from 7 passes for 10 yards and two interceptions, Steeler fans left Three Rivers Stadium dazed and confused. No longer a quarterback debate… now more like a storm, but with no capable captain to steer the Steelers ship to a safe port.
Coach Noll commented, “They did everything to us in every area – offensively, defensively and special teams. It was as simple as that.” He had no explanation for the poor performance of his team’s running game, telling reporters, “I don’t know why. That’s for you to figure out.”
On the Monday following the game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported there was a bruise the size of a helmet in the middle of Earnest Jackson’s back that had been delivered by Houston’s Charles Martin in the opening moments of Sunday’s defeat to the Oilers. Fortunately, X-rays confirmed the damage was confined to a bruise.
After viewing the videotape from the game, Chuck Noll suggested that Martin had speared Jackson and that the Oilers had a tendency to do that. Noll thought the Houston players were encouraged to use their helmets to hit, despite this use being illegal.
Martin had been suspended for a month in 1986 when playing for Green Bay after an unprovoked attack on Chicago’s quarterback Jim McMahon.
The Steelers had lodged a complaint with the league about the hit on Jackson. Bruce Keidan, writing in the Post-Gazette offered that the complaint would likely be ignored and that the Steelers would take it upon themselves to solve the problem, using whatever persuasive techniques were required.
“All I know is that there was a lot of spearing and that’s against the rules. We’re not making a big deal of it,” commented Noll. In the return fixture in Houston, the teams are due to meet just before Christmas and if the league hasn’t addressed the challenge? “Then,” said Noll, “we may go spearing ourselves.”
After another dismal performance against the Oilers, the intransient Noll reaffirmed that Mark Malone would be the starter for the Steelers next game in Cincinnati.
“Mark is the guy we feel can win for us right now, and we’re going to go with that,” Noll confirmed. He continued that the fans’ reaction toward Malone the past two home games was unprecedented and thought it adversely affected the quarterback.
Since coming in from the cold in late October, Rod Woodson had impressed his new coaches and teammates. Steeler fans were looking forward to seeing more of their rookie star. The starting right cornerback, Delton Hall, had picked up an injury to his big toe against Houston and Woodson had been pencilled in for his replacement.
“We’re kind of preparing it in that light,” secondary coach Tony Dungy told reporters while coach Noll confirmed that Woodson had come along much faster than he expected. “Technique is such a big thing with most guys,” Noll said. “He’s got great makeup, speed and strength. There are some guys that, technique be damned, they just the thing done without it.”
Woodson, who had already made played nickel back and made punt and kick return contributions since joining the team, wasn’t daunted at the prospect of starting this soon. “I’d be happy to start, but I want to earn my position without someone else getting hurt, “ he said. "Delton and I are friends. I think he’ll be back this week. He’s a tough player.”
With the regular season coming to an end, the Steelers still had a statistical chance of making the playoffs. Realistically though, the 1987 season stats (not including the three strike games) complied by Pro Football Weekly illustrated how bad the Steelers actually stunk.
With an average of 268.2 yards a game, the Steelers ranked 27th of the 28 teams in total offense and ranked last in average gain per play with 3.94 yards. The team’s average of 3.93 yards per pass attempt is last and also one of only two under 5.
The Steelers are the only team in the NFL with a higher average rushing, than passing. A sad reflection on the inadequacies of Mark Malone. They ranked 24th in the league with 107 points scored.
Their perceived dominant defense is ranked a lowly 24th having allowed 361.3 yards a game.
“Right now I don’t think we’re playing like a playoff team, no question about that,” said nose tackle Gary Dunn (pictured left.) “We’re going to have to improve on where we are right now. I don’t think we deserve to be in the playoffs.”
Looking ahead to their next game in Cincinnati, Frank Pollard who will replace Earnest Jackson at fullback said, “This is probably one of the most important games we’ll play.”
“Let’s put it this way,” Dunn added. “I think it is way high on our list. It has to be. It’s a division game and we’ve already lost to Cleveland and Houston. We have to beat Cincinnati.
Linebacker Robin Cole didn’t agree with his teammate. “I wouldn’t put it all on just one game because we have six games left,” Cole remarked. “But as far as we’re concerned, yeah, this is a game we have to win. We don’t even want to talk about not winning this game.”
The Steelers will face a Cincinnati team that held a mirror image of the team’s statistics with wonderful figures, but with few victories. Over the six non replacement games, the Bengals ranked second on offense with 401 yards a game while they were also second on defense.
The Pittsburgh Press reflected on the beginning of the season, before the boo boys had come out in force baying for Mark Malone’s blood. Chuck Noll, who had stood by his quarterback throughout the season, had praised the ability of Malone to call the Steelers plays and the drawbacks of the coaches calling them from the press box.
“The advantage to having the quarterback call the plays in our view he is then in command and in tune with what the defense is doing. It helps him with audibles. He’s not as reluctant to stay with something. He will change it at the line of scrimmage as dictated (with what he sees from the defense.” We feel it is a necessary factor. I’ve always felt that way.
Having played under a system where the plays were sent in, I knew the resentment that comes out of that. The inability to change plays or do what’s best on the field is always something that was a problem. I felt that quarterbacks mature and grow and get the respect of their teammates when they do that. It helps the confidence in the people around him in his command of the game. You get the feeling the coaches want to play quarterback as opposed to letting it be done on the field.
Since the players went on strike, the coaches have called the plays. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore (pictured left) called them during the replacement games because of the mish mash of players and quarterback’s Steve Bono’s lack of familiarity with the offense.
When the strike finished, Moore continued to call the plays to take the pressure away from Malone, who hadn’t been involved with the team for 24 days. Noll commented that, “We would prefer that the quarterbacks to call the plays, but we’re trying to take away a little pressure.
Malone intimated more pressure was put on him when the coaches called the plays. “You’re thinking, ‘I expect this from the defense and this play is what I think will come in from the coaches’ and if something else comes in then you wonder why they would call that.
When I’m calling the plays, I know why we’re running a play. Are we setting up for something?
Now, I find myself second guessing why we want to run this play this time and what we’re looking for and what I should expect, whereas when I call it, I’m thinking, ‘this is probably what we’re going to get and I’m going to call this play for this reason. If we get that defense, this is where I’m going to throw. If we get something else from the defense, then I go to the next scenario.’”
Malone would be without veteran wide receiver Louis Lipps again for the Cincinnati game. Lipps was due to miss his fifth consecutive game since suffering a hamstring strain October 19. Coach Noll confirmed, “There’s no way he’ll be ready for Sunday.”
The Steelers were at a loss as to why Lipps’ strain was taking so long to heal. Lipps had gone through a complete physical in an attempt to analyse the strain. The injury doesn’t show up as a tear with Noll blaming sloppy conditioning.
The frosty atmosphere that existed between Chuck Noll and the Bengals’ coach, Sam Wyche, was the aftermath of the Steelers 1984 defeat in Riverfront Stadium. When Wyche raced across the field expecting a congratulatory handshake from the opposing coach, he received nothing from coach Noll, not even a hug.
Wyche said he was disappointed. Noll said he was glad Wyche was disappointed and so the cold war began.
There was nothing frozen about these two teams as they fought out the real war on the field. The Steelers were keen to stay in touch with the two teams heading the division, the Oilers and the Browns. The two teams were fighting for sole ownership of the division lead in Cleveland.
Against the Bengals, the Steelers were four points underdogs, probably because they were without their leading receiver and rusher, John Stallworth and Earnest Jackson.
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS (5-4) at THE CINCINNATI BENGALS (3-6)
Halfway through the first quarter, the Steelers edged ahead when Mike Merriweather’s sack of Boomer Esiason resulted in Gary Dunn’s recovery on the Steelers 44. Mark Malone found Calvin Sweeney with a 27-yard pass before Charles Lockett dropped a potential touchdown pass before Gary Anderson kicked a 43-yard field goal.
Esiason began well on the Bengals next drive finding his receivers, but the Steelers defense stepped up. Esiason had to settle for three points to tie the game at the end of the quarter with Jim Breech’s 35-yard field goal.
After Noll spurned two 53-yard field goal opportunities, Anderson told his coach halfway through the second quarter he thought he could make the 52-yard attempt on offer. Anderson duly obliged and Pittsburgh took the lead again Anderson’s third longest field goal of his career.
With less than a minute of the half remaining, Rod Woodson made the first impact of his pro career with an interception he ran back 45 yards for a touchdown – the first of his illustrious career. Esiason’s pass went through the hands of defensive back Cornell Gowdy and into the arms of Woodson whose speed took him away from Eddie Brown and into the end zone.
“When you’re in a situation like that, you want to get the touchdown,” Woodson said of the fifth touchdown for the season from the defense. “That was very nice, beautiful,” admired Noll. “We’ll take it. Big plays are what you need. That’s what spurs you on, keeps you going.”
The Bengals used the 48 seconds of time left to reduce the deficit with a 38-yard field goal to 13-6. Breech added another from 41 yards in the third quarter to give the Steelers a 13-6 halftime lead.
The Bengals reduced the deficit with a 41-yard field goal in the third quarter, but on the Steelers next series, Malone found Weegie Thompson with a 41-yard completion that enabled the drive to finish with Malone’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Thompson. “That was just a quick slant and Mark threw it right in there,” remarked Thompson who shared the receiver duties with Calvin Sweeney.
Anderson added another field goal, from 36 yards, in the fourth quarter to increase the Steelers lead to 23-9.
As time was running out, Cincinnati showed a brief resurgence when Esiason led his team 80 yards on 10 plays with Larry Kinnabrew’s 2-yard touchdown run reducing the deficit to seven points with 2.20 left.
Malone was running out the clock by using Frank Pollard when an inspired 42-yard bootleg touchdown run from the quarterback sealed the victory.
“When I broke the first tackle, I was just kind of looking for a place to lay down,” said Malone. “I looked up and the cornerback was in the end zone and he wasn’t looking back and I saw Tim Krumrie the nose tackle coming and I thought if this guy catches me, I’ll never live it down as long as I live. So I just went ahead and took off. It surprised the heck out of me.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers 30 at the Cincinnati Bengals 16
November 22nd 1987 Riverfront Stadium 52,795
Before Chuck Noll left the field, he briefly turned towards the Cincinnati sideline. He took one small, hesitant step toward the opposition, then another before pausing and raising his right hand to wave at Sam Wyche. Not a very enthusiastic gesture, but nevertheless an acknowledgement.
Esiason threw a career high 53 passes with 30 of them completions for 409 yards, but the Steelers defense made sure he paid a heavy price. The Steelers pass rush came out of hibernation and dumped the Bengals quarterback five times while the secondary succeeded in making three interceptions for the fifth time this season.
“When you get to him early in the game, it shakes him up, and he usually ends up coughing up the ball,” Gary observed. “The key to dethroning them is to rattle Esiason. We wanted to put a lot of pressure on him. When that happens early, a quarterback knows he’s going to be in for a long day, and he’ll have his work cut out.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette speculated that fans would view Noll’s wave as the coach being intoxicated by his team’s victory and not appreciating what he was doing.
Cleveland thumped Houston 40-7 to sit on top of the AFC Central Division with a 7-3 record.
After the Steelers win in Cincinnati November 22nd, the Pittsburgh Press reported November 24th that defensive coordinator Tony Dungy had dismissed as “unfounded” the report from a Cincinnati radio station that he would replace Sam Wyche as the Bengals head coach.
Dungy confirmed he had never spoken to the Bengals about the job. “Ha, Ha, Ha,” he said. “Just a bad rumour. It’s unfounded.”
If Pittsburgh thought they had quarterback problems, Cincinnati definitely did. Boomer Esiason was feeling sad for himself. The poor treatment he felt he was receiving from Bengals fans was making him consider going elsewhere. “I feel I might be better off in another city, just for a change of venue,” he said. “Everybody’s talking that Sam should be the guy to go. Hell, I’ll go.”
The Steelers nose tackle, Gary Dunn, who has gone up against the team’s veteran center Mike Webster more times than anyone, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Webster is losing it. “His hair that is… all the rest of him is holding up fine.”
The next game against the New Orleans Saints would be Webster’s 200th and would tie Mel Blount for the most games played by a Steeler. “The game of football keeps you in the present,” Webster said. “There’s really nothing to the game of football except the present and the future,” he continued.
There had been talk of 1987 being Webster’s final season in pro football, especially after he became one of the early strikebreakers. At the time, this caused some resentment with the strikers and the premature talk suggested Webster would have a hard time when the strike ended.
Brian Blankenship was the likely candidate to fill Webster’s shoes on his retirement. “If you are going to learn, learn from the best,” said Blankenship. “It’s great to be here and learn from him. It’s like going back to school.” Blankenship sometimes supports Webster on the offensive line as a guard and reflected, “It’s like having your big brother in a fight. It’s comforting to know he’s there.”
The Saints have never had a winning record or made the playoffs. They travel to Pittsburgh for the Steelers next game with a team record four game win streak that gives them a 7-3 record. Trailing their NFC West division leaders San Francisco by just one game, they have all to play for.
“Our fans have been very frustrated. So right now, they are happy we are winning,” said Saints running back Rueben Mayes. “The last four weeks have meant a lot to us, but we’ve got five weeks left. But now we go into games thinking we can win, and that’s a big difference.”
Mayes was one of the reasons for the Saints improved performances. His rookie season of 1986, he carried 286 times for 1,353 yards and was currently ranked 3rd in 1987 with 683 yards on 152 carries.
The Saints coach Jim Mora could only offer compliments when questioned about his next rivals.
“I only see the ups in the Steelers, not the downs,” he said. “They are a lot like us because they are one game out of first and fighting for a playoff spot.” In his opponents, Mora saw a physical, fundamentally sound, tough team that was very well coached.
ANDERSON vs ANDERSEN
The two best kickers in the NFL would face each other when the Saints arrive in Pittsburgh for their next game. Gary Anderson with a .776 average would compete against New Orleans’ Morten Andersen with a .801 average.
Anderson’s figures had been distorted the previous season after Mike Webster dislocated his elbow and Anderson found himself kicking behind three different long snappers for four games.
Then midseason, his usual holder Scott Campbell was waived and Anderson had to get used to the change with Harry Newsome snapping him the ball. Anderson returned a dismal .656 for the season and those poor figures brought his career stats down to below his rival’s.
Looking ahead to be part of the defense that was expected to stop the Saints dominant running game, Steelers defensive end Edmund Nelson commented, “I like this kind of game. No finesse. They just line up and try to blow you off the ball, and you have to stop them.”
“They do a good job running the ball,” added Steelers nose tackle Gary Dunn. “The have a good offensive line that stretches you out and their backs are good at finding a hole, or if they can’t find a hole, cutting back.”
Nelson added that the Saints don’t try to fool anyone, even with their running game. They keep it simple and use the same few plays, sometimes just varying the formations with their favoured counter trap, when the guard and tackle from one side both pull to the other.
Dunn suggested, “Sometimes they break it back to another hole. A lot of times, they’ll freelance. They’re quick, and they break a lot of tackles.” Pursuit was the name of the game for Dunn. “The big thing this week is that everybody has to hustle to the football. We have to gang tackle. We’ve seen on film where they break one tackle and go for 10 more yards.”
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS(6-4) vs THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-3)
The game started slowly with the only score in the first quarter coming as a result of the good field position achieved by New Orleans after Harry Newsome’s punt was deflected and returned to the Steelers 10. The Steelers defense held the Saints to a Morten Andersen 25-yard field goal.
Shortly into the second quarter, the game ignited when Dwayne Woodruff intercepted Bobby Hebert pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown that gave the lead to Pittsburgh, 7-3.
Another defensive play, this time by Mike Merriweather who recovered his forced fumble from Mayes on the opponents’ 25 set the Steelers up again. Mark Malone took his team down the field, helped by a pass interference penalty, and the drive was completed by Walter Abercrombie’s 5-yard touchdown run.
The Saints reduced the deficit when they received the second half kickoff and drove 86 yards with 13 plays, scoring on a Mayes five yard run. The Steelers were gingerly holding onto a 14-10 lead that they took into the fourth quarter.
That slender lead became at risk as the Steelers began to turn the ball over.
Walter Abercrombie coughed the ball up in the final quarter before Rod Woodson, who had shown so much promise in his previous games, learnt a dramatic lesson.
In the NFL there is no room for any mistakes and the Steelers paid the price when Woodson made his first error, after being hit hard by Joe Kohlbrand, fumbling a punt return on the Steelers 21. “He came behind one of my blockers and I didn’t see him until the last second,” Woodson commented on his error.
Hebert’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Eric Martin gave the lead back to the Saints with just eight minutes remaining in the game. The Saints built on their lead when pressuring Malone, who was throwing from his end zone, into throwing an interception to Milton Mack that set the Saints up on their opponents’ 12.
Although the Steelers defense kept the Saints out of the end zone, New Orleans’ 32-yard field goal increased their lead to 20-14.
Malone attempted a fight back by taking the Steelers down to the Saints 1 with less than four minutes remaining. On third down, Malone attempted a pass to a wide-open Frank Pollard, but the ball was tipped away from the intended receiver. Pittsburgh went for a touchdown on fourth down, again to Pollard, but he came up short.
On the change of possession, the Steelers defense prevented the Saints from making a first down, and with just over a minute remaining, New Orleans chose to take a safety as opposed to punting the ball.
With no timeouts remaining, the Steelers failed to achieve another scoring opportunity with the win going to the Saints.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 16 vs the New Orleans Saints 20
Three Rivers Stadium, November 29th; 47,896
“I think it was one we definitely had in our grasp and we just had too many mistakes,” said Walter Abercrombie. “We had turnovers that gave them the football and gave them opportunities to score.”
For the Saints, Bruce Clark, who had considered retiring from the NFL the previous season, was over the moon with his team’s victory saying, “I would not have missed this for a hundred years. It would have been a shame if I’d got out of this game and they started winning. I’d been real mad.”
At the beginning of December, with the playoffs approaching and the Steelers at 6-5, talk in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was about the problems the Steelers were having on the offensive line.
Many felt that mistakes by the line on Pittsburgh’s final drive against New Orleans, when they couldn’t make 4 yards in four downs to score what should have been the winning touchdown, cost them the win.
“It’s not like we’re a lot worse or anything,” said Tunch Ilkin. “We’re just not playing as consistent as we did last year at this time.”
Assistant coach Hal Hunter added, “I think our pass protection is pretty much on the same par. We’ve got to do a better job on run blocking. We’re not coming off the ball as well as we did maybe a year ago at this time.”
While criticism was being focussed on the offensive line, the Steelers special teams were receiving praise. During the previous eleven games of the season, opponents had not returned any punts or kickoffs for scores, and no field goals had been blocked.
“We used to have at least one big play against us a game and we’re eliminating that,” said Gary Anderson. “Our kickoff game has gone from the second-worst to the second-best.” Anderson had been the biggest critic of his own special teams. Now, he was their biggest fan.
Anderson began his condemnation in 1984, complaining that not enough time was being spent on practice. Coach Noll held the responsibility for special teams, which is maybe why insufficient time was allocated at practice.
After a disastrous 1986, when the special teams were worse than average, Noll finally surrendered control to Jon Kolb (pictured left) and Dennis Fitzgerald. Under the tutelage of the new coaches, improvement was obvious.
“We’re spending more time on it,” said Anderson. “Guys know what’s going on. Guys have more pride. There’s a coach who’s now accountable for it. Coach Fitz and Jon Kolb (pictured right) are making sure guys know what they are doing, and they are doing a good job.”
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-5) vs THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-4)
The Post-Gazette’s take on the game was the football equivalent of a boxing match between two counter punchers.
The Steelers received the opening kickoff and drove 65 yards on 11 plays before Anderson kicked a 37-yard field goal. The Seahawks came back with a 33-yard field goal of their own, tying the game, 3-3.
The first big punch was thrown halfway through the second quarter when the Seahawks went 75 yards and finished the drive with Dave Krieg’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Steve Largent. The snap for the extra point was fumbled so Seattle’s lead was kept to 9-3.
The Steelers managed to reduce the deficit with 22 seconds remaining in the first half when Anderson kicked a 24-yd field goal.
The sparring continued deep into the fourth quarter while the teams carried on exchanging punches with neither team making an impression. The knockout blow was set up by Robin Cole’s forced fumble, recovered by Bryan Hinkle, as the Seahawks were pressing in the red zone to increase their lead.
Mark Malone then played his part by taking his team 70 yards before tackle Buddy Aydelette sprung the hole, through which Frank Pollard ran, leaping over a defender to score the winning touchdown. Pollard finished with 106 yards on 22 carries.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 13 vs the Seattle Seahawks 9
Three Rivers Stadium, December 6th, 48,881
Mike Webster played his 201st game to set a team record, but was more interested with his team’s standing. “We’re in control of our own destiny, that’s the way I like it.”
Craig Wolfley commented on the success of the Steelers running game – “Good blocking, good running. Football never changes.”
Rookie Delton Hall continued to impress with his commitment, despite it costing the Steelers 15 yards when he was penalised for a personal foul. After a 5-yard run by Seattle and with the ball long whistled dead, Hall walked up to tackle Bryan Millard and gave the 284-pounder a quick head butt.
“Sometimes before I go out there, I get so pumped up, I get too involved,” Hall confessed. “I thought he was trying to block me as I was coming up. I just went ahead and butted him.”
With the Steelers’ win, Houston’s 33-18 victory over San Diego and Cleveland’s 7-9 loss to Indianapolis, all three teams had 7-5 records to tie for first place in the AFC Central Division.
Older football fans will remember the bust that was Brian Bosworth; the Seahawks number one draft choice.
I haven’t edited this, it’s what the Post-Gazette wrote after the game – “One guy who got blocked all afternoon was Brian Bosworth, loudmouth rookie linebacker, who probably thinks Abercrombie is part of his uniform.” I just wish the newspaper would stop beating about the bush and say what they meant!
Steelers guard Brian Blankenship (pictured left) didn’t save the trophy he took from Brian Bosworth in Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks.
“I threw it away with all the other trash,” Blankenship said of the two-foot tail he ripped off Bosworth. “Man, you don’t keep trash around. It was Bosworth’s – it ain’t worth nothing.”
Bosworth, Seattle’s flamboyant rookie linebacker, sported a weird tail from his head when he took to the field against the Steelers. Blankenship and fellow guard John Rienstra took care of it when, on a kickoff return, the two converged on Bosworth and Blankenship and yanked the tail from Bosworth’s head and took it to the Steelers sideline.
“It was a neo-Nazi thing, made of twine,” Blankenship said. “I guess it was around his head. It was sticking out of the back of his helmet like a rat-tail. And he is a little rat.”
“It’s stupid. He was trying to bring more attention to himself because of a lack of ability as a football player. That’s what he did all through college and now he’s in the pros doing it. Now he’s made his money and I think he can stop it, but he still keeps doing it.”
Bosworth signed a 10-year, $11 million contract, but Blankenship said he’s not worth it. “He’s more like a $11 football player.” Bosworth’s contract was the biggest in team history and the biggest rookie contract in NFL history at the time.
With the Steelers in a three-way tie at the top of the AFC Central division and headed to San Diego for their next game, Mark Malone observed, “Now we’re down to the last three games, we’re tied for first place. We’re right where we want to be.
We’re in control. We don’t need anyone’s help. Guys are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel a little bit. This is what you work for. It’s exciting.”
With the three-week loss of wages for those that went on strike, the bonus from being involved in the playoffs would be some compensation. Each players earns $6,000 for a wild card playoff appearance, $10,000 for a first round game and $18,000 for playing in the conference championship. The Super Bowl winners get another $36,000, while the losers go away with $18,000.
In his first year as the defensive line coach for the Steelers, Joe Greene could see reflections of the Steelers secondary from the early 70s with Mel Blount, Glen Edwards and Mike Wagner in his present crop of rookies; Delton Hall, Thomas Everett and Rod Woodson.
The Post-Gazette considered the latest crop to field the secondary played a major part in the Steelers 7-5 record and competing for the AFC Central Division title after a two year absence.
“Delton reminds me a lot of Mel,” Greene observed. “He has the same kind of personality – tough. He doesn’t act like a rookie from a personality standpoint. He’s out there to play, to win. That’s how Mel was.”
“Glen Edwards? Just like Thomas Everett. He wants to be in there where the action is. He’s little, like Glen, but tough, like scrap iron. He’s a tough little guy.”
“I haven’t seen as much as Woodson, but he’s a little more like Mike than say Mel or Glen in that he’s pretty good athlete who has all the tools. But you don’t see the roughness or aggressiveness you see in the other guys. That’s not saying he’s not tough.”
STEELERS TO MAKE THE '87 PLAYOFFS?
Leading up to the team's trip to the west coast, a realistic Mike Webster (pictured left) said, “You got to keep everything in perspective. You’ve got to focus first of all on San Diego, on execution, your job, those types of things. You can’t get so over-hyped thinking about the playoffs.
The Steelers head to San Diego for their next test before facing Houston and Cleveland. A win against the Chargers would put the Steelers in a strong position to seal their first playoff appearance for three years. Apart from the games played by the replacement players, the Steelers had not won back-to-back games during the season.
“I think the biggest thing is we haven’t won two games in a row all year,” said tackle Ray Pinney (pictured left). “Until we can do that, I don’t think anybody’s looking past San Diego.”
“This is a big game for us,” added linebacker David Little. “We have to win it to try to make it to the playoffs. We have to see what kind of character we have.
They have some great running backs and they just don’t use them. Spencer is really quick and fast. When they run the ball successfully, they beat people.
We expect them to run the ball more on us. We have to stop the run. We can’t let their running game get going.”
The Chargers were the hottest team in the league until their current three game losing streak. Their strong running game had made an impact that gave them success, but the team was now passing more and the slump had set in.
San Diego had given up over 1,300 yards in the three losses and were now ranked 26th in run defense. With the fourth best running game in the league, the Steelers had cause to be confident of confirming their playoff intentions with a win.
1987 Game 13
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-5) at THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8-4)
The Chargers put up a surprise defense against the Steelers using a 4-4-3 formation, inserting both nose tackles into the line and only three defensive backs. In an attempt to stop the Steelers dominating with their running game, the Chargers tried to seal the defensive line with 6 linemen.
“San Diego played a lot of ‘46’ defense Malone commented. “We had to make some adjustments. They had some defensive schemes that we haven’t seen yet.
Needing a win to enhance their playoff credentials, the Steelers began badly, conceding a touchdown on a blocked punt and then given up a safety when Mark Malone was tackled in the end zone. Leading 9-0, San Diego should have been further ahead, but fumbled two red zone chances away in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the Steelers started their fight back. Dwight Stone recovered the Chargers fumbled punt return on San Diego’s 39. Four plays later, Frank Pollard scored after Ray Pinney made the hole in the Chargers defense for Pollard to go 8 yards for the touchdown.
The Steelers took a 14-9 lead in the third quarter after the Chargers had missed a field goal attempt. Pittsburgh advanced 69 yards with five plays, finishing with a Malone 7-yard scramble around right end. They increased their lead twice with Gary Anderson field goals. First from 43 yards and then, as the game went into the final period, from 33 yards.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 20 at the San Diego Chargers 16
Jack Murphy Stadium, December 13th 1987; 51,805
On the disjointed Steelers performance, Mike Webster commented, “We did what we had to do to win.”
“That’s a big boost for our ball-club,” said linebacker Gregg Carr, who managed two sacks against Dan Fouts.
“That first half was significant,” said safety Donnie Shell. “We got the job done down there and it got the offense excited and rejuvenated. It gave them time to settle down.”
“We finally got going in the second half,” said Chuck Noll. “We made some adjustments at half time and we were able to get the ball where we wanted to put it.”
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns scored touchdowns on all four of their drives in the second quarter against the Bengals. The Browns eventually ran out 38-24 winners to stay tied in first place with the Steelers in the AFC Central division.
THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES
While the Steelers were winning in San Diego, the Oilers were losing to the Saints, resulting in Houston’s coach Jerry Glanville commenting, “Our entire season is next week.” That loss in New Orleans meant Houston dropping out of the three-way tie at the top of the division, forcing a must win situation when the Steelers visit next Sunday.
In the game at Three Rivers Stadium the previous month, that Houston dominated 23-3, coach Noll took exception to a hit on Earnest Jackson by the Oilers nose tackle Charles Martin. Noll thought the hit was late and a spear and threatened that if the NFL didn’t review it, the Steelers would handle it themselves.
When asked in the days leading up to the rematch about that warning, Noll replied, “I said hopefully the league would take care of it. They didn’t”
When questioned further as to whether justice would be administered, Noll continued, “I’m too old to take care of it personally.”
So what about the players?
“We plan to play football. There’s no room for anything else other than putting points on the board and that type of thing.”
With the Oilers on the end of more accusations around Walter Johnson taking a cheap shot against the Saints kicker the previous weekend, the game against the Steelers was building up to be a real grudge match, with a potential playoff ticket as the prize.
Tongue in cheek, Steelers kicker Gary Anderson commented that if he saw Johnson coming looking for him, he would do what any sensible person would do. He’ll run away. “If they’re prepared to send a guy after me, I’ve got the whole field,” Anderson said. “I’ll just dodge the guy. That will give us one more free guy.”
A STAR IS BORN
Three years with the Steelers had taught linebacker Gregg Carr (pictured left) that patience is a virtual. After playing bit parts behind the main stars, Mike Merriweather, Bryan Hinkle, Robin Cole and David Little for so long, he found himself under the rainy spotlight in San Diego to celebrate the Steelers win.
Early in the first quarter, he replaced Cole at inside linebacker at the same time Rod Woodson replaced safety Donnie Shell to line up as outside linebacker in a 3-5-3 formation that had not been shown previously in the season.
Linebacker coach Jed Hughes explained, “the idea was to get Carr and Woodson in there primarily to cover receivers. Woodson’s main job was to cover San Diego’s running back, Gary Anderson, coming out of the backfield and Carr was to cover receivers coming over the middle.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that such matchups seldom develop, and Carr wound up being more of a pass rusher than pass defender. He sacked San Diego’s Dan Fouts twice and was in the harried quarterback’s face so often that it seemed as if the two were inseparable.
“I’m still basically a backup linebacker,” said Carr. “I don’t think of myself as a featured player. I was put into a featured role for one game because of what we thought the Chargers would do and because of what our coaches felt was necessary to neutralise Fouts.
We figured going in that they would have a hard time adjusting to it, but the key wasn’t me, but how well our defensive backs played in single coverage against their wide receivers.
The Chargers never did get a fix on what we were doing. We gave them more people to block than they could handle, and we used a rush scheme we hadn’t shown before. Because our other players executed perfectly, I got free a lot. Funny thing was we put in a lot more variations on that special defense, but we never had to use most of them.”
Hughes, the architect of the particular defensive plan, was enthusiastic in his praise for Carr. “It was a case of a guy being given an opportunity to shine and taking advantage of it. He’s been doing that lately every time we’ve asked something extra of him. Now, it’s up to us to get him in there more often.
His playing time has increased, and it will probably increase more because of the way he has been executing whenever we’ve stuck him in there. He’s determined to execute properly and play very hard on every down, and that’s what you’re always looking for.
TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS – THE OFFENSE HAS TO STEP UP
All season, the Steelers defense had been receiving all the accolades while deservedly, the offense had felt the full force of the fans’ criticism.
Two games left in the regular season, and with the playoffs beckoning, the Steelers knew their offense had to step up and perform as well as the defense that had ensured the Steelers were still in contention with their 8-5 record.
For those two remaining games, both against strong division rivals, a half-baked offense would not provide the impetus to carry the team into the post-season. It was very simple. If the offense put in their usual mundane performance, the off-season would begin earlier than the fans desired.
Fullback Frank Pollard summarised, “With these last two games, we have to have a real good output on offense to gain an opportunity for the playoffs.”
Leading the NFL with 42 takeaways and the AFC with 25 interceptions, the defense had allowed only six touchdowns over the previous seven games. Despite the excellence from the defense, the Steelers lost two of those games and struggled to win three others by a combined nine points.
The offense ranked 24th out of 28 in the NFL with Mark Malone’s passing rating a lowly 49.7. The passing game ranked dead last in the league with the offense only gaining a total 295.5 yards a game.
John Stallworth (pictured right) observed, “I think at some point in time, we’re going to have to assume our share of the load to win a football game. I think it’s unrealistic to assume we can continue to go on like this.”
Offensive co-ordinator Tom Moore added, “Thanks be to God for the defense. They’ve done a great job.”
So far, the lowest point of the season had been the 3-23 home defeat at the hands of Jerry Glanville’s Oilers. The sum of the Steelers offense for the game was 170 yards, 86 rushing and a paltry 84 passing. “That was embarrassing, them coming in and doing that to us,” said Pollard. “I think this week our offense will want it a little more because the last time they beat us pretty bad.”
1987 Game 14
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-5) at THE HOUSTON OILERS (7-6)
With both teams pushing to make the playoffs, this was always going to be an intense, hard fought game.
Halfway through the first quarter, the Steelers defense once again kick started their offense when Dwayne Woodruff (pictured right) intercepted a Warren Moon pass and returned it 25 yards to the Houston 10. The golden opportunity to give the team an early lift was spurned with the Steelers being forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal.
In the second quarter, the Steelers offense again had the chance to stamp their authority on the game, marching 59 yards in 12 plays, but again they faltered. Anderson kicked a 35-yard field goal.
From the ensuing kickoff, Warren Moon demonstrated how an offense should perform. Just six plays covered 73 yards with Moon faking a handoff to finish the drive with a 52-yard bomb to Drew Hill, edging the Oilers 7-6 ahead.
Much maligned Mark Malone lived up to his reputation. With his offense attempting to retake the lead, Malone completed a pass to the Oilers Steve Brown, who returned it to the Steelers 22.
The excellent field position, gifted to Houston by Malone, was fumbled away. The Oilers lost 12 yards after fumbling the ball out of bounds, but eventually increased their lead with a 34-yard field goal.
Five minutes into the second half, the improving Rod Woodson returned a punt 16 yards, giving his offense the ball on their opponents’ 38. After a 15-yard completion to Stallworth, Earnest Jackson carried three times for 13 yards, but before the drive could continue, the referees had to step in to separate the teams.
Carries by Jackson, then Walter Abercrombie gave Malone the chance for a quarterback sneak that resulted in a touchdown. Steelers 13, Oilers 10.
Houston struck straight back to regain the lead, driving 80 yards on eleven plays, completed by a 5-yard touchdown run by Allen Pinkett.
In the final quarter, the Steelers pulled to within one after Woodson assisted the offense again with 20-yard punt return. Anderson kicked a 20-yard field goal and Houston were just 17-16 ahead.
Pittsburgh’s defense then had Houston penned in on their next possession. On third and 21 at the Steelers 30, faced by a Steelers blitz, Moon dropped back to pass, but was crushed by Gregg Carr as he released the ball. Woodson, still learning his trade, who had Hill man-to-man chose the wrong shoulder to look over and Hill was in the end zone collecting a 30-yard touchdown pass that gave Houston a 24-16 lead with just over five minutes left in the game.
The Steelers strong safety, Donnie Shell, put no blame on Woodson for the score. “Moon did a good job. He throws the ball 30 yards down the field and sacrifices the throw for a lick. Give him credit.”
If the Oilers quarterback was winning the game for his team, the Steelers quarterback was also doing what he did well. Malone attempted a pass to John Stallworth in the end zone, but the ball hit cornerback Patrick Allen in the back and popped up handily to complete Malone’s first interception of the game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 16 at the Houston Oilers 24
Astrodome December 20th 1987; 38,683
The game was a bad temper affair with three players, Oilers Doug Smith and Byrd, along with Steelers Frank Pollard being ejected.
Chuck Noll was fuming after the game, his feelings probably being fuelled by a defeat that meant the Steelers would most likely not be making the playoffs.
When the coaches met at midfield, Noll who had been known in the past for shunning his rival’s handshake, didn’t hesitate to express his thoughts. “If you send players after my players, I’ll come after you. And don’t you forget that”
“He’s just crying because he lost,” said the Oilers tight end, Jamie Williams. “He’s won four Super Bowls. He should take the loss like a man.”
Although coaching four Super Bowl champions didn’t give Noll the right to get mad at his opponents for winning. It did give him the right to express an opinion about the way they played.
“This is the biggest win that most of our guys have been around,” Moon observed. “The Steelers tried to intimidate us, but we stood up to every challenge. We didn’t back down.”