One of the biggest questions hanging over Steelers nation in this season’s first month is whether 2021 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is already sunk, or whether (as Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada, and Zack Banner assert) the team is close to turning the corner.
I won’t make any predictions here, but I wanted to remind us all that sometimes seasons take a hard turn — often for the good (though not always).
So let’s take a spin through the history of how this team has turned around its season in the past. Maybe we’ll learn something in here — something about strategy, about possibility, about perspective, or at least about patience. In any case, here’s part 1: the Steelers from 1969 to 1991, under the Emperor, Chuck Noll.
Chuck Noll (1969-1991)
Remembered for: The Immaculate Reception, the Steelers first ever playoff win
Opening Record : 2-2
Low Point: Blowing 10-point lead against Cowboys in week four, to fall to 2-2
Turnaround Streak: 10-1 (before AFCC loss)
High Point: Um, please see “Remembered for” above
How it turned around: Rushing.
Rookie Franco Harris hit his stride with first 100 yard game in week 5. The team had averaged 124 rushing yards during the mediocre opening streak; Franco had averaged 19.8 ypg. Over final 10 weeks of regular season, the team ran for 202, while Franco averaged 97.6 ypg.
Remembered for: Not really remembered. Their one-and-done playoff exit makes this one of the least discussed years of the dynasty (along with 1977).
Opening Record : 8-1
High Point: Win over Raiders (wk 9) in a rematch of the Immaculate Reception game from the previous postseason, which featured five takeaways for the Steelers defense.
Turnaround Streak : 2-4 (including playoff)
Low Point: 19-point blowout loss to Raiders in first round of playoffs in rubber-match, featuring only 65 offensive rushing yards and zero takeaways.
How it turned around: Turnover margin.
The Steelers were plus-9 on turnovers in those first nine weeks, then only plus-3 in the final six. However, the two wins of that 2-4 closing streak saw the Steelers pull a staggering 15 takeaways (and a plus-11 margin). The four losses in the final six games featured 14 turnovers by Pittsburgh against 6 takeaways (a minus-8 ratio).
In other words, when they couldn’t get takeaways, they weren’t going to win.
Remembered for: The greatest defense of all time; this very turnaround.
Opening Record: 1-4 (in a 14 game season)
Low point: Terry Bradshaw getting pile-driven by some idiot named Turkey and losing two months of play.
Turnaround Streak: 10-0 (before loss in AFCC)
High Point: The first five wins of that streak (wks 6-10), which featured three shutouts. The average score in those games was 26.4 to 1.8. Seriously: one point eight. (The Steelers out-rushed their opponents in this streak by an average of 255 to 71 too.)
How it turned around: Leadership and focus.
Team leadership called a players-only meeting after the fourth loss, and tightened the screws.
Offense shifted its focus almost exclusively to the running game, becoming only second team ever with two 1000 yard rushers. Meanwhile the defense became the best ever, pitching five shutouts in nine weeks, and allowing 3.1 points per game for over two months. “Greatest of all time” is truly not an exaggeration in this case. They put up video game numbers.
Dan Rooney famously thought this was the best Steelers team ever. It should have been the only three-peat in Super Bowl history.
Remembered for: The end of an era (if it’s remembered at all). Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris would both be gone the next season.
Opening Record: 9-2
High point: Three game sweep of the rest of AFC Central by 85-41 in consecutive weeks (wks. 5-7).
Turnaround Streak: 1-5 (including Wild Card loss)
Low point: 45-3 loss to Detroit Lions in week 13.
How it turned around: Sacks, interceptions, and rushing yards (on both offense and defense)
I don’t know the narrative of the 1983 season very well (I was six at the time), but the numbers are pretty unmistakable. All three of the above categories collapsed — which ultimately means that splash plays in the passing game reversed on both offense and defense, while control of the tempo via the rushing game (on both offense and defense) reversed as well.
A quick peek at the change on defense (all numbers are per-game):
First 11 games : 2.1 INTs / 3.7 sacks / 103 rushing yds
Last 6 games : 0.8 INTs / 1.7 sacks / 147 rushing yds
As for the offense (per-game):
First 11 games : 1.2 INTs / 2.9 sacks / 174 rushing yds
Last 6 games : 2.0 INTs / 4.2 sacks / 143 rushing yds
After averaging 1.5 rushing touchdowns per game through the first 11 weeks, the Steelers offense only rushed for two(!) touchdowns in the entire final six games. Yikes.
(Side note: this late-season total collapse seemed to predict nothing about the next year, as the 1984 Steelers won their division, made it to the AFC Championship game, and were the only team to beat the eventual 18-1 champions, San Francisco. Weird.)
Remembered for: One of the unlikeliest playoff runs of all time.
Opening Record: 4-6
Low point: Weeks 1 and 2, in which the Steelers lost to divisional rivals Cleveland (51-0) and Cincinnati (41-10), by a staggering 82 combined points. That Browns loss, which happened at home, is still worst loss in Steelers history.
Turnaround Streak: 6-1 (including Wild Card win)
High point: Beating the Browns in the rematch (wk 6) in Cleveland was nice, but the real high point was probably the overtime Wild Card win over the Oilers at the House of Pain after Houston swept Pittsburgh in the regular season (this loss likely got Jerry Glanville fired).
How it turned around: Steady leadership and improved execution.
This Bad News Bears squad had a fantastically talented, but very young defense, and a scrappy, overachieving, and inconsistent offense. So Chuck Noll’s steadiness was exactly what they needed. After the week 2 Bengals blowout, he reportedly gave only the second pep talk of his career (the first of which led to the first Super Bowl win in 1974), and team started playing a disciplined version of the game they already played. It took a couple weeks to start really clicking, but it worked.
The Steelers rushing offense improved by 64.7 yards per game over the 6-1 late-season streak, while the rush D improved by 38.8 ypg over the same period. That’s over 100 yard composite difference on the ground. Meanwhile, with Steelers’ turnover margin was even-Steven by week 10 (24 turnovers / 24 takeaways); over the next seven weeks, they were plus-12, with 20 takeaways, against only 8 turnovers (coincidentally the same number they’d committed against the Browns in week 1).
Remembered for: Not really remembered; barely missed playoffs in Noll’s final winning season.
Opening Record: 1-3
Low point: Zero offensive touchdowns through four weeks. Seriously, zero.
Turnaround Streak: 8-3 (before elimination loss in season finale)
High Point: Offensive explosions in weeks 5 and 6, with offense scoring 36 and 34, respectively, after only posting a total of 32 in the entire first month. (Alternate high point: three-game winning streak, weeks 14 to 16, where Steelers outscored their opponents 68-9.)
How it turned around: Offense starts to gel.
The offense (with new coordinator Joe Walton) stayed the course and finally started to click.
Weeks 1-4, yards per game: 62 rushing / 113 passing / 175 total
Weeks 5-16, yards per game: 136 rushing / 183 passing / 319 total
That’s an insane difference. Rookie TE Eric Green ended a holdout in week 4, and got his first start during the explosion in week 5. So that helped no doubt. But the rest of the offense fell into place as well. The 1990 Steelers defense was actually #1 in the league in yards and #3 in points, but that unit was good from the start; the offense is what turned the corner.
Stay tuned for parts two and three, on Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.