There has been a lot of talk lately on “Best Ever Steelers Team or Best Ever Defense” around the blogosphere. My personal vote for Best “Steelers Defense of All Time” goes to the squad that dominated the Confluence in and around 1976. For my thoughts on that subject make sure to check out Maple Street Press Steelers Annual 2009 in stores now! My vote for the best NFL team ever goes to the Super Bowl XIII Champion 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers. This team touted 4 future Hall Of Fame starters on defense and one (Donnie Shell) that should be. Hall Of Fame players littered the other side of the ball too. This team was balanced on offense. Perhaps the most balanced of their 70’s era teams. They could run Franco and Rocky or use the matured Terry Bradshaw and his aerial circus of receivers to exploit the secondary. Guys like T Bell, Larry Anderson and Dennis “Dirt” Winston led the special teams units. The only weak link was kicker Roy Gerela (12/26 FG) who the offense deemed unnecessary most Sundays.
The 78 Steelers squad was a veteran bunch that had come off two sub par seasons for Chuck Noll and the two time champions. The 76 team dominated defensively from week 6 on before coming up injured against Oakland in the 76 AFC Championship Game. I rank that L as the most disappointing loss in Steelers history. It was followed up by an injury plagued 77 season where Bradshaw played with a broken wrist. Time begets change. By 78, gone from the Steel Curtain was ferocious Ernie “Fats” Holmes. Andy Russell had retired and corner JT Thomas had come down with a blood disorder. The Steelers rebuilt nicely with Steve Furness and young John Banazak anchoring the All Pro’s Greene and Greenwood and capable Loren Toews and future All Pro Robin Cole stepping in for Andy Russell who retired. But the biggest change was on offense. The recent rule changes freeing up the passing game coupled with Bradshaw’s maturity and Swann and Stallworth’s emergence had made the Steelers a much more balanced and dangerous offensive football team. This was a team capable of winning that 1976 game at Oakland without Franco and Rocky. This team was capable of beating any NFL team in any game on any day. I would have my money on the 78 Steelers to win. The 78 Steelers scored 256 points (5th) and gave up 195 (1st) while totaling 2699 pass yards and 2297 rush yards. Franco Harris led the way with 1082 yards on the ground and 20 plus catches while Lynn Swann scored 11 TD’s in 61 catches and Stallworth averaged 20 yards a catch on 41.
“Before you win a game you have to not lose it” Chuck Noll was fond of saying. The 78 Steelers dominated from the opening kickoff in week 1. The offense and defense combined to make sure they lost nothing. They surged to a 7-0 record outscoring opponents 185-77. Then, on a Monday night in late October they ran into their first taste of adversity. Earl Campbell rocked the Steelers defense for 3 TD’. While he only gained 80 plus yards it seemed like a lot more as he gained first down after first down. The Oilers ran for 169 yards against the Steel Curtain and Campbell seemed oh so strong. On that Monday night the Oilers running game seemed unstoppable. The Steel Curtain hadn’t given up yards on the ground like that since Oakland in 76. The Oilers looked like the other AFC powerhouse. You felt like you would see this team in the playoffs. Campbell would need to be stopped then.
After running through KC and New Orleans to up their record to 9-1 the Steelers ended up on the west coast in the rain. On a muddy Sunday at the LA Coliseum The Rams ran for 192 yards and Penn State Heisman winner John Cappelletti ran for 106 yards on 20 carries. Terry Bradshaw threw 3 interceptions sealing defeat for the Steelers. The Rams came from behind and the loss was disappointing. I remember the bad taste it left. It was a game the Steelers should have won. 9-2 was a strong record but this best ever Steelers team expected more of themselves. So did the young and growing Steeler Nation.
Chuck Noll was famous for playing them one game at a time. “The key to a winning season is focusing on one opponent at a time” said The Emperor. “Win one week at a time. Never look back and never look ahead.” Noll did not panic. Noll righted the ship immediately. “Some coaches pray for wisdom” Noll said more than once, “I pray for 260 pound Tackles. They’ll give me plenty of wisdom” With TE Larry Brown being converted to an All Pro Tackle and Super Bowl stalwarts Mike Webster, Sam Davis, Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins creating room for Harris, Bleier and newbie Sidney “The Thundering Bull” Thornton (264 yards) the Steelers could run and pass. The Steelers reeled off 5 straight wins to end the season. On 12/3/78 at Houston the Steelers righted their early loss to the Oilers with an intimidating performance. The Steelers D pounded Earl Campbell into submission with “Head Hunter” Donnie Shell torpedoing Campbell in the ribs and sending him to the sideline. Campbell chose to stay on the bench instead of facing Mean Joe and a fired up Steel Curtain in the 13-3 Steelers win. Heading into the 78 postseason, the Steelers were surging again and seemingly unbeatable. They were charging into the playoffs in 78 as opposed to limping in like 76 and 77. The offense while not as run heavy as the early 70’s was tough and could get the tough yards. Swann, Stallworth, Theo Bell, Jim Smith, Bennie Cunningham and Randy Grossman gave Bradshaw targets galore. The defense was not as stout as the 74-76 teams. The new rules were put in place because of the Steel Curtain’s dominance and affected them. But they were still great. Lambert and Ham were at their prime. Joe Greene and LC Greenwood were All Pro. So were Hall Of Fame CB Mel Blount and newly anointed Safety Donnie Shell. Shell had worked himself up from non-drafted status to special teams to All Pro. A very familiar story in Steelers lore. Another familiar story was for the 7th straight season the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the NFL Playoffs. And this year at 14-2 and two years removed from their last Lombardi, they were a team on a mission.
On 12/30/78 I attended my first Pittsburgh Steelers game. The weather was very cold in Pittsburgh on 12/30. My rich friend from Churchill called my East End home. I could see The Cathedral of Learning and Three Rivers from my second story Stanton Heights bedroom window and loved the Steelers from Franco’s Immaculate Reception. It was too cold for my friend’s mom to go to the game and “would I like to go” was the question. “YES!” was the answer. They picked me up on the way in from suburbia. I was treated to John Stallworth making a then record 10 catches and Swann and Stallworth both making amazing long TD grabs. On both forth quarter TD catches, Stallworth (48 yd) and then Swann (38 yd) took the ball away from various defenders. This after Franco had run for 2 scores and the Steelers built a 19-10 halftime lead. Joe Greene blocked a field goal as the Steelers offense and defense dominated both lines of scrimmage. T Bell and Larry Anderson added great special teams play and the Steelers won 33-10 and were now one victory shy of their 3rd Super Bowl appearance.
On 1/7/79 the Steelers rang in the New Year by ringing out the Houston Oilers. After what Earl Campbell had done to them in that Monday Night fiasco in October, this game made a lot of fans around Pittsburgh nervous. Not to worry Nation. It was more of the same as the rematch in Houston in December. Campbell was held under 30 yards. Pastorini was sacked unmercifully. In the freezing winter rain by the confluence the Steelers drown the Oilers. This game was one of the most dominating displays by any NFL team in a Championship Game. Search this game on You Tube if you don’t believe me and watch the Steelers utterly toy with the over matched Oilers. First Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier scored TD’s on the ground as the Steelers built a commanding 14-3 lead. Then in a hurricane burst the Steelers scored 17 points in the final minute of the first half to ice the game. The 34-5 final does not begin to tell the tale of how much this game was dominated by the Steelers. Lasting impressions include splash downs by Bradshaw and Bleier after long runs, T Bell with 90 plus yards on punt returns and Jack Ham raining all over Houston with an interception, 2 fumble recoveries and a sack of Dan Pastorini. In their two 1978 playoff games the Steelers completely out played and dominated the best the AFC had to offer. The combined scores of 67-15 do not begin to tell the story of how good this team looked and the roll they were on. I gotta feeling. Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl!
The reigning Super Bowl champions heading into XIII were an old nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys. This game would be played for the rights to the Lombardi trophy as well as the rights to be called “Team Of The Decade.” A Doomsday Defense along with Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett led the world champion Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys surged to a 14-7 lead in the back and forth affair on the strength of their QB from Navy, their RB from Aliquippa and their defense. Mike Hegman and Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson combined to sack Bradshaw and steal the football. Hegman raced 37 yards for the TD and Bradshaw appeared to be injured on the play. Whether divine intervention or a pain killing injection Bradshaw returned to hit Stallworth for a 75 yard TD and then before the half found Bleier from 7 yards out and a 21-14 halftime lead. In the third quarter, trailing 21-14 the Cowboys mounted a blood and guts drive which took them to the Steelers 10. Staubach found TE Jackie Smith wide open in the end zone and Smith dropped a sure TD to tie game. Dallas kicked the field goal to close to 21-17. Then with night falling, the greatest NFL team of all time stepped up against the reigning champs to claim their moniker of “Team Of The Decade.” All season it seemed like this Steelers team could just turn it on like a switch when they had to. This Steelers team was a cut above. Switch on. First Franco Harris, incensed that “Hollywood” hit Bradshaw late after a whistle, demanded the ball in the huddle. Harris barreled 22 yards up the gut for a score. Time to pour it on. Moments later (just like against Denver & Houston) Swann added an 18-yard TD catch and the rout was on. Steelers led 35-17 with just about 2 minutes left. The D took their foot off the gas just long enough for the Cowboys to ring up 2 late TD’s and close to 35-31 but old reliable Rocky Bleier recovered an on side kick and the Steelers ran out the last few seconds on the clock claiming their unprecedented 3rd Lombardi.
In the locker room after the trophy presentation some reporter asked Coach Chuck Noll about how well his team played. “This team hasn’t peaked yet” Noll quipped. He was right. This team hadn’t peaked. This team was on top of the NFL world and playing the best football of any team anywhere ever.
In epilogue Noll's team officially peaked in the 4th quarter of the following Super Bowl. In the forth quarter of XIV Bradshaw hit the switch one last time and they out scored the Rams 14-0 en route to a come from behind 4th Super Bowl Title. But 1978 was their best by the nose of the Lombardi. By finishing with a 17-2 record. By being a balanced team. By beating the best the NFL had to offer convincingly. By defeating the reigning Super Bowl champion Cowboys and winning their 3rd Lombardi, I officially nominate the team that hadn’t peaked yet; The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, as the greatest NFL team of all time.