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Steelers Throwback Thursday: Danger in the desert

BTSC travels back to 1997 for a thrilling “Bus Ride” in Arizona.

Jerome Bettis #36

Our journey in the BTSC Delorean to Steeler yesterday begins in a time when Robin Williams and Flubber bounced to the top of the movie box office, Sugar Ray’s “Fly” was hot on the radio and “Cities For Life Day” helped citizens of 300 world cities oppose the death penalty.

Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Steelers were trying to keep their playoff hopes alive in a place that was all too unfriendly to them in 1997...the road. At 8-4, Bill Cowher’s Steelers had only won twice away from Three Rivers Stadium. After losing a game they were supposed to win in Philadelphia the week before, the Steelers were at a crucial juncture, tied atop the division with Jacksonville who already won on the day. Their foe was a 3-9 Arizona who had lost seven of their games decided in the final minute and four that went into Overtime. Couple it with being in a city that they have lost all three times they visited, including Super Bowl XXX...the Steelers needed to win badly.

Welcome to November 30, 1997.

The Steelers shut down Arizona with a three-and-out on the first series and took over after an Arizona punt by Jeff Feagles. QB Kordell Stewart, in his first full year as a starter, marched his team on to the field. One would have thought that he forgot his passing arm, as the Steelers took to the ground and pretty much stayed there. Of the eleven plays on the opening Steeler drive, nine were runs. Most of them were executed by Jerome Bettis, who bullied his way for 39 yards and capped it off with a two-yard score.

The remainder of the half was fairly pedestrian on the offensive side of the ball for both teams. Rookie Jake Plummer, before he got all vagranty later in his career, couldn’t do much at all as Arizona went three-and-out their on first four drives. On their fifth drive, Plummer connected on a 43-yard bomb to Rob Moore, who burned Donnell Wolford in the process. The Steeler defense held and Joe Nedney buried a 32-yard field goal to cut their deficit to four. It was 7-3. But behind the legs of Stewart and Bettis, Pittsburgh finished off a 12-play drive with a Norm Johnson 40-yarder. With 1:13 left in the first half, the visitors led 10-3.

Vince Tobin’s men had an opportunity to tie the game before heading to the locker room, but Carnell Lake put a stop to that with two sacks on the series. It was his second and third of the half and the third (Mike Vrabel and Kevin Henry combined for one and Chris Oldham got the other) of the Steeler’s five sacks the first 30 minutes.

The second half saw more offensive action. After the Steelers went three-and-out, Jake Plummer and Frank Sanders hooked up three times for 45 yards on their opening drive of the new half. The third connection was for a three-yard TD. The score was tied at 10-10. The Steelers roared right back though, as Kordell drove the Steelers 80 yards with two completions to Charles Johnson and one each to Yancey Thigpen, Courtney Hawkins and RB George Jones. On 2nd and goal from the Arizona seven, Bettis barreled in for his second score. The Steelers were up 17-10 with 4:20 to go in the third.

The festival of scoring continued when Plummer took to the air again with passes to Moore, Sanders and, finally, Chris Gedney for a score from 11-yards out. With only a minute left in the third, it was tied again at 17.

In the fourth, Norm Johnson kicked another field goal for a three-point lead. But Jake Plummer was on fire and had something to prove. Another long pass of 44 to Moore got Zona inside the Steeler 10. With a 3rd and Goal at the Steeler 1, Nolan Harrison and Darren Perry saved the game by stuffing Larry Centers for a loss of one. The Cards had to settle for a game-tying field goal with 4:20 left in the game.

What could have been the winning series was not. The Steelers couldn’t get past their own 42 and punted to the Cards, pinning them deep at the 15. But “Jake the Snake” was finding himself (with a 15-yard scramble) and hit Rob Moore twice again for a total of 50 yards on the drive. With :22 seconds left and definitely in Nedney’s range, Nolan Harrison came up huge with another sack of Plummer (ten total on the day). Nedney, who won the previous week’s game with a 43-yarder at the gun, marched on and lined up for the game winner. But his 46-yarder swung right and both teams headed to overtime.

Arizona won the toss, but Levon Kirkland and Jason Gildon continued “Blitzburgh Sackapalooza” and Feagles punted again. Hawkins fielded the punt and the Steelers set up shop at their own 48. Stewart went to work and hooked up for two passes and 32 yards with Thigpen. With the Arizona crowd chanting “Here we go Steelers”, Bettis rumbled twice for eight yards to the ten. On third down and two, the Bus bounced off two tacklers and one of of his own lineman into the end zone for a thrilling win. The Steeler-heavy crowd rejoiced as Pittsburgh moved to 9-4 and remained in a tie with Jacksonville at the top of the AFC Central.

Both Bettis’ ninth 100-yard rushing game of the season (161 total yards) and three scores were paramount for the Steelers, especially as he shredded a defensive line coached by Steeler legend Joe Greene. Rob Moore’s 188 receiving yards fueled Arizona. But without Jim Haslett’s stifling defense, the Steelers would have fallen in the desert night. The win for Pittsburgh was their first ever in Arizona and put them back on track to defeat both Denver and New England to reach the playoffs. Their journey ended a game short of the Super Bowl in January, but this game was another memorable contest from that year.

Usually this is where I insert a touching family memory, but this one is pretty seedy. During the time of this game, I was mired in a very rare personal controversy. It was strange because I rarely have a problem with anybody and vice-versa. But I was playing “Curly”, the villain, in a West Virginia community theatre production of “Of Mice and Men”. As a 25-year old free agent, I joined the production to hook up with acting chicks. I thought my character, who was a complete slime ball, needed even more character, so I found it fitting to stuff socks in my jeans for effect. Well, let’s just say a few of the theatre regulars and the married woman playing my wife found my corked-Wranglers offensive. They called me in for a cast meeting. The stage manager that had been flirty with me tipped me off that it was some bizarre theatre-etiquette intervention to discuss my horrid behavior. That was to be at 7 PM. I was annoyed that I was in this position, especially since the Steelers were still on, so I decided to make them wait.

The Steelers won, so I was on quite a high. I’m not very confrontational, but I marched in late and announced my presence by pulling a pair of socks out of my pants and spiking it on the stage floor. I then proclaimed, “This is nothing compared to some of the things I’ve seen back stage. So lay off!” I then stated that I was leaving and pointed to the stage manager that helped me out and asked her if she was coming with me. It was kind of like a lame version of that scene in Jerry McGuire. But she rose to join me as I exited stage-something.

Nothing more was said the rest of the show’s run.

Probably not my best moment, but I finally started sticking up for myself, and always did after that. Did the Steelers really have anything to do with my new awakening? Well, I just witnessed their reawakening and was inspired. That 1997 team was one that had flaws and pitfalls, but rose above most of the season with a cool swagger.

So, yes...I kind of think so.