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Steelers Throwback Thursday: Working overtime in the Windy City

BTSC remembers a game when a desperate Steelers team tried to get their season back on track in a venue where they’d never won.

Rashaan Salaam

The BTSC Delorean is all plutoniumed up and ready to hit 88 mph as we head back in time to when Yitzhak Rabin (Israel’s Prime Minister) was shot dead at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, Typhoon Angela was ravaging the Phillipines, Mariah Carey was topping the charts with ”Fantasy” and the Travolta/Devito film Get Shorty remained number one at the box office.

Meanwhile, the Steelers were mired in a season that, so far, had produced a disappointing 5-4 record as they headed to Chicago to face the 5-2 Bears. Pittsburgh was 0-11 all time in the Windy City and Bill Cowher proclaimed the week before the game that the Steelers’ win over Jacksonville had to be the start of a “nine game season”.

Opposing Cowher was another Pittsburgh-bred coach, Dave Wannstedt. The mustachioed coach looked like Cowher and was said to also have been a finalist for the Steelers job in 1992. The Bears were led by red-hot QB Erik Kramer, who had thrown 18 touchdown passes to only four picks. Kramer was playing behind a solid line that saw him get sacked only four times so far that season. It was unusual to see such a high-octane offense in Chicago. Kramer, along with rookie RB and 1994 Heisman winner Rahsaan Salaam, plus receivers Curtis Conway and former Steeler Jeff Graham, formed the nucleus of the offense with the second best points-per-game average in the NFL at 27.3.

Cowher had made big changes on both sides of the ball to shake things up. Carnell Lake was at corner in place of injured star Rod Woodson, and rookie Kordell Stewart was starting to see increased action at WR.

The Steelers’ defense wasn’t performing like the “Steel Trap” of a year earlier. But stars like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland and Joel Steed were looking to break out.

In the first quarter, Ray Seals pressured Kramer, who barely got the ball off. With a clear path to a pick-6, Kevin Greene was a step late and couldn’t nab the ball. Two neutral zone infractions on the first drive by the Steelers kept the drive alive, as Kramer drove the Bears into Steelers’ real estate. Fine defense by Willie Williams on Michael Timpson forced fourth down and a Kevin Butler 39-yard field goal made it 3-0 early.

On their first drive, the Steelers saw a sharp Neil O’Donnell move the Steelers to the Chicago 36, only to punt after surviving a Charles Johnson fumble that was ruled an incompletion. On the drive to follow, Kramer threw upfield to the 30-yard line but it was picked off there by Darren Perry, who returned the ball to the original spot at the 13. It was Perry’s third interception of the year and the Steelers were in serious business to score. However on 3rd-and-9, O’Donnell threw a screen to Erric Pegram to get down inside the 10-yard line. But Vinson Smith turned Pegram inside, forcing him into Carl Simpson, who forced a fumble that wound up in the arms of Smith.

But Kramer and the modern-day Monsters of the Midway would surrender the ball again. Driving inside the Pittsburgh 35, Robert Green rolled off an eight-yard run, only to fumble the ball and watch as Darren Perry recovered it for his second takeaway of the first quarter.

The Steelers took over on a drive that extended into the second quarter. A mix of rushes by Pegram, catches by Yancey Thigpen and a 27-yard reception by Kordell Stewart got the Steelers down to the one. On a second effort plunge on the drive’s 14th play, Pegram plowed in for his fourth touchdown of the year. With Norm Johnson’s point-after, it was 7-3 Pittsburgh with 9:42 remaining in the second quarter.

After Nate Lewis returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to the Steelers’ 26, the Bears had a short field to work with. A few plays later, the Bears regained the lead when Curtis Conway beat Lake on a 6-yard scoring pass from Kramer.

The Steelers followed the great return by Lewis with one of their own. Ernie Mills had a 46-yard return that set up the Steelers at the Chicago 49. But Pittsburgh could only muster a 40-yard Norm Johnson field goal to tie the game at ten with 2:40 remaining in the half.

The Steelers would get another chance to take the lead right before halftime. With the Bears at midfield, their QB threw his second pick into the waiting arms of Greg Lloyd. No. 95 (in what would somewhat resemble James Harrison’s epic interception return 23 years later) rumbled and tiptoed down the sideline to the Chicago five. After escaping pressure, O’Donnell dumped a pass off to Pegram, who found his way into the end zone for a 7-yard score and a 17-10 lead.

The Bears were driving deep again and trying to tie the game before the half, but Anthony Johnson fumbled after getting cracked by Myron Bell. Darren Perry recovered for his third takeaway of the half.

5 Nov 1995:  Free Safety Darren Perry #39 and defensive back Randy Fuller #29 of the Pittsburgh Stee

The third quarter began (and stayed) ugly when Pegram absorbed a hit by Anthony Washington and Chris Zorich recovered his fumble at the Steelers’ 32. A few plays later, FB Tony Carter took a screen from Kramer and sped down the sideline for a 12-yard score. Carter stepped out at the one, but there was no instant replay in 1995 to overturn it. 17-17.

The Bears continued to come alive. After sacking O’Donnell twice and partially blocking a Rohn Stark punt, “Da Bears took over on the Pittsburgh 39. Almost immediately, Kramer threw his third touchdown pass, this time to TE Ryan Wetnight for 14 yards and a 24-17 lead.

The Steelers would put points on the board in the third. Norm Johnson’s 46-yard field goal cut the Bears’ lead to 24-20 with 4:17 left in the third. The Steelers stalled after that. O’Donnell, working from his own 20-yard line, was intercepted by Anthony Marshall. The Bears had great field position and looked ready to slam the door on their visitors. But solid coverage by Carnell Lake to break up a Graham TD halted the drive. Then Kevin Butler opened the scoring in the fourth quarter, extending the Bears’ lead to 27-20 with a 27-yard field goal.

Another fantastic return by Ernie Mills set the Steelers up at the Chicago 45. Pittsburgh capitalized after an amazing sideline catch by Yancey Thigpen that kept the drive alive for Pegram (behind great blocking by John L. Williams) to score from seven yards out to tie the score at 27 with 12:19 left.

5 Nov 1995:  Running back Eric Pegram #20 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs behind fullback John Willi

The Bears mounted another drive, but a Ray Seals sack of Kramer forced a Todd Sauerbraun punt that the Bears downed at the Steeler three. Apparent disaster struck next when Alonzo Spellman beat Leon Searcy and tipped O’Donnell’s pass to Kevin Minter, handing him a two yard march to paydirt. The turnover-fest continued as the Steelers’ gaffes matched the Bears’ at four.

The Steelers seemed defeated at this point. They couldn’t get past the 20 on their next possession and had to punt. With Graham returning the punt to the Pittsburgh 47, it looked like the Bears would close things out. The clock was rapidly draining as Salaam was moving the chains and moving the Bears into field-goal range. But on 3rd-and-3, Jerry Olsavsky stopped Salaam and Butler came out to slam the door on the Steelers with 3:53 left in the game. But the Bears kicker, who hadn’t missed any of his 16 kicks all season, did just that. Butler, who had hooked his previous attempt and barely made it, overcompensated and the ball went with the wind, wide right.

Down by three, O’Donnell took over from his own 35. A pass to John L. moved the chains right away, but then Zorich’s sack of No. 14 made things look grim again. But O’Donnell dusted himself off and fired a strike to Charles Johnson for a first down at midfield. On 3rd-and-7, Hastings caught a ball to barely move the chains at the 2-minute warning. After that, Neil threw a 27-yard beauty that Ernie Mills caught on his fingertips to get to the 15. On the next two plays, Hastings couldn’t hang on to passes. Then, on 3rd-and-10, Fred McAfee got five yards on a screen, but a penalty on McAfee for illegal use of hands gave the Steelers a 3rd-and-18. O’Donnell threaded a needle to Hastings at the six, but it was one yard shy. On 4th-and-1, and without Bam Morris (who was out due to injury), the Steelers needed to convert with 1:10 left in the game. Things seemed dire when rookie Guard Brendan Stai was guilty of a flinch for a false start and the Steelers were marched backwards by five yards. But that opened up more field for Ernie Mills, who scored on an 11-yard pass from a calm O’Donnell.

5 Nov 1995:  Quarterback Neil O''Donnell #14 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass against t

What happened next was a brilliant move by the riverboat gambler, Bill Cowher. Knowing that the potent Bears had two timeouts and 1:06 remaining to get in position for a game-winning field goal, the Steelers seemingly huddled up for a go ahead 2-point conversion instead of sending out Johnson for the tie. This shrewd move forced Chicago to waste a timeout. Then Johnson came out and kicked the point-after, tying the score at 34.

Johnson squibbed the kickoff and the Bears started at their own 38 with a minute left. Steelers Nation was as nervous as a snitch at an Italian restaurant urinal. But this crazy game turned once again. Kramer went for it all with a deep pass down the middle. Conway seemingly made a great catch, but the ball bounced off of his hands and into those of Willie Williams for another turnover. Williams returned the ball to the Steelers’ 38 and the Black-and-gold suddenly found themselves in the same boat that Chicago had been in only seconds earlier — with a golden opportunity to win.

Just like that, O’Donnell found Thigpen for 20 yards, but the offense couldn’t get close enough for Norm Johnson. So after a Hail Mary fell to the turf, the two teams headed for overtime.

After the brief intermission, the Steelers had another obstacle to overcome, as Chicago won the coin toss and elected to receive against the wind. The Steelers’ defense stopped Salaam on first down, got a gift when Kramer missed an open Conway on second down, and then rose to the occasion when Lake broke up a pass on third down to force a punt.

Then the Steelers went to work from their own 31. On third and long, Mills caught a ball at the sticks on the sideline for a first down at the 42. As he had done all day, Pegram came up big again when he took a screen pass for 15 yards. After a first down catch by Johnson, rookie TE Mark Breuner got nine and Pegram was able to move the sticks by a hair on the next play. Offensive Coordinator Ron Erhardt relied on Pegram and Williams to get closer and closer on the ground. After getting the ball to the left hash, Johnson kicked a 24-yarder into the cold Chicago night to seal the 37-34 OT victory. As of this writing in 2018, this still stands as the Steelers’ only triumph over the Bears in the Windy City — EVER!

At the time, I was 23 and working in radio in Elkins, West Virginia. I had just been dumped by an older woman and decided that I was too depressed to go out and watch the game in public. Plus I had gone turkey hunting a few days earlier for my first time ever and the only thing I bagged was a weird infection from which I was unable to move my neck. So this was also my first dance with muscle relaxers and I surely wasn’t the one leading. I was in a fog all weekend and barely remember anything that was going on, most especially that woman who ripped my heart out of my rib cage and stomped on it. But I do remember being aware of the 4:00 pm start, so I decided to forego relief and the subsequent daze to try to focus on the game. I’m glad I did. This was the game that turned things around for the 1995 edition of the Black-and-gold, and I’m thrilled I was cognizant for it. They meshed after that victory and lost only once more during the regular season — that loss being a pretty-much meaningless game in Week 16 at Green Bay. Sure they also lost against Dallas in Super Bowl XXX, but I’ll always remember the magic of that ‘95 campaign.

My infection cleared, my neck healed, the fog lifted and I stopped thinking about the older woman. But I’ll never forget watching that frigid OT classic when the Steelers advanced their record to 2-0 in their “9-game season”.