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Steelers Throwback Thursday: A second half surge in Cincinnati

BTSC flashes back to a signiture comeback in the Queen City.

Neil O''Donnell

As we turn the dials on the Delorean for Throwback Thursday this time around, the time circuits are set to November 19, 1995. It was a time when Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his first campaign as POTUS, OJ was looking for the real killer on golf courses across the United States, Toy Story was the first Pixar movie ever released and captivating audiences at theaters and radio listeners were tuning in to Name by a trio from Buffalo, the Goo Goo Dolls. Meanwhile, it was a very captivating season of football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After falling just short in the AFC championship as an upset victim against San Diego in January, William Laird Cowher’s crew had excitement surrounding them. Gone was RB Barry Foster, while the ultimate utility weapon that was Kordell Stewart joined the franchise. However, Rod Woodson suffered a debilitating knee injury that sidelined him for the entire regular season and the team fell to 3-4 after an embarrassing home loss to the Bengals. After a three game winning streak, the 6-4 Steelers charged into the city known for their own style of chili. The team was competing for a playoff berth and every game was as crucial as consuming a bottle of Tums before enjoying the local delicacy.

Cincinnati started the game off hot from the opening kickoff. The Bengals David Dunn fielded the Norm Johnson’offering around the 8 yard line, sold the return and then proceeded to throw the ball all the way across the field to David Hill, who ran the ball 62 yards all the way to the Steeler 35. After Jeff Blake converted a 3rd and 8 for 25 yards to Carl Pickens at the 10, the East Carolina QB found Darnay Scott, who beat Willie Williams, for a four-yard score. 7-0 Cincy early on.

Neil O’Donnell and the Steelers started to move the ball impressively on their opening drive, but Ernie Mills fumbled the ball after a short gain due to being hit by the recivering Bracie Walker at the Bengal 47.

After Kevin Greene sacked Blake to halt that drive, the Steelers moved the ball again courtesy of positive runs by Erric Pegram and Stewart, the drive stalled with a sack as well at the Cincy 33 and Johnson put three points on the board from 50 yards out, 7:56 into the first.

After a short kick return by a Kimo Von Olhoeffen (who would haunt his former team ten years later as a Steeler), Blake staged a long drive and countered the Steeler FG with a rollout TD run from the one with 2:40 left in the quarter. Levon Kirkland hit Blake deep in the end zone and was penalized 15 yards on the kickoff. The score after one was 14-3 and the Steelers were playing clumsily and bleeding profusely.

The Steelers started to move again, but on a 4th and 1 on the Bengal 40, Leon Searcy’s false start led to a Rohn Stark punt. With 3:40 gone in the second quarter, the Bengals started to absolutely pour it on when Blake orchestrated a 93-yard drive that concluded with a one-yard pass to Pickens, who dominated Carnell Lake on the drive. It was now 21-3 Bengals.

Starting from their own 13, O’Donnell started the ascent from the deep hole that his team had dug. After Bam Morris knocked off some big runs, No. 14 found Mills from 42 out it was Mills’ fourth TD of the year courtesy of an O’Donnell pump fake that froze Corey Sawyer. The Cincy lead was cut to 11.

On the very next drive, the Bengals picked on Lake again. The safety, filling in for Rod Woodson (injured in Week 1), was called for pass interference when he grabbed onto a flying Darnay Scott. The penalty was for 41 yards and set up Cincy at the 15. Doug Pelfrey kicked a field goal and, after a 32-yard catch from Charles Johnson, Norm Johnson countered with a three. Bengal coach Mike Shula made an odd choice when he had Blake kneel on his own 25 with 53 seconds remaining in the half. It was 24-13 at intermission.

After halftime, Pittsburgh received the second half kickoff, but after an impressive run, Pegram fumbled the extra effort and Walker collected his second fumble recovery at the Steeler 34. The rout was indeed on when Cincinnati TE Tony McGee capped off another drive with Blake’s third TD pass with 4:29 gone, a 20-yarder. At 31-13, the Steelers seemed doomed to inevitable embarrassment.

But teams with championship dreams refuse to die. Bill Cowher’s band of warriors wiped the Riverfront turf dust off of their gold pants and regrouped. After a Cincinnati PI infraction by Rod Jones on Ernie Mills, O’Donnell went to work. After first down passes to Mills and Yancey Thigpen, the Steelers went to the ground with Pegram and Byron “Bam” Morris. When the burly Bam went airborne into the end zone from the one, the seeds of hope were being planted. It was 31-20.

The league’s number two defense behind Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Darren Perry, Ray Seals, Jason Gildon and Carnell Lake started to clamp down. After a three and out, Pittsburgh embarked on an 83-yard scoring drive that ended when Andre Hastings caught a 15-yard pass for a TD. When Pegram took the option from Stewart and ran in the 2PC, the league’s worst defense saw a lead of 18 dwindle down to three with 39 seconds left in the third quarter.

Then 35 seconds into the fourth, the Steelers electric rookie known as Slash caught a ball over the middle from O’Donnell and blazed 71 yards to glory and the first Steeler lead of the game. At 35-31, Pittsburgh would never look back. The Bengals offense and defense would completely unravel in epic fashion. Morris added his second and third rushing scores in the fourth quarter and Greg Lloyd would force his fifth fumble of the year with a sack on Blake which Bill Johnson would recover. The Steelers would triumph by a score of 49-31. Down 18, the Pittsburgh offense would reel off 36 unanswered points.

One of the greatest comebacks in franchise history would place Pittsburgh three games up in the AFC Central with five games to play. This resilient team from the Steel City would eventually reach the Super Bowl, only to lose to Dallas. But this game was definitive of the sheer grit and innovation of a special Steeler squad.

I will never forget this game. I was 23 and had just recently moved from Johnstown to the town of Elkins in West Virginia for a radio job. Because I had to work and would not be able to be with my family on Thanksgiving for the first time in my life, my parents insisted that we celebrate together four days early. When the Steelers went down 31-13, I grabbed my keys and said my goodbyes for the three-plus hour drive home. I started up my Chevy Celebrity Eurosport and started out of the driveway. But something told me to stop and retreat back to the house. I then witnessed one of the most satisfying comebacks of my fanboy life with my dad. After the game, he looked at me and smiled and I will never forget what he said next. “I’m glad you came back. Remember... never give up until there’s zeroes on the clock.”