In 1984 the Steelers were entering a new era in the franchise's history; Terry Bradshaw had just retired after too many injuries plagued his career and Chuck Noll turned to the 26 year old Mark Malone to be Pittsburgh's starting quarterback. Though they had won the AFC Central the year before with a 10-6 record, this Steelers team was struggling mid-season with a 3-3 record and would eventually finish 9-7.
Few Steelers remained from their championship years, with those being veteran leaders in Bennie Cunningham, Robin Cole, Larry Brown, Gary Dunn, Craig Colquitt, Donnie Shell and two future Hall of Fame players in Mike Webster and John Stallworth.
It was a different time for Pittsburgh who saw young stars rise on both sides of the ball as the team struggled to solidify a new identity in the NFL with the aging of its legends. Louis Lipps had become a rising star in the league as a rookie for 860 yards on 45 receptions, nine of those being touchdowns. Outside linebacker Mike Merriwether led the team with 15 sacks while a young cornerback in Sam Washington had the second most interceptions for the team with six, one less than the legendary Donnie Shell.
The Steelers would have their hands full with the 1984 San Francisco 49ers in week seven, as the 49ers were undefeated and looked like they had found their groove back from their first Super Bowl victory in 1981. This season would recapture their greatness as they would win their second Super Bowl with a 15-1 record, just shy of setting the new undefeated record of 19-0 in a full 16 game regular season schedule.
We go back to re-live some of the highlights for that day.
Old John Stallworth vs. Young Ronnie Lott
John Stallworth was in his 11th season and 32 years old when he went up against the young Ronnie Lott who was in his fourth season of his illustrious career. These two future Hall of Famers saw a lot of each other on this day as Lott played cornerback for the 49ers in his early years. Stallworth even in his older age proved too difficult to jam for Lott and was a consistent target for the day for the young quarterback, Mark Malone.
This pass would help setup an early score for the Steelers as Pittsburgh was able to take a lead into halftime up 10-7 over the undefeated 49ers.
While no team would score in the third quarter, Joe Montana would keep to his legend and lead the 49ers to ten unanswered points during the 4th quarter which put the Steelers down seven points with only a few minutes left in the game.
Stallworth reliable in the comeback
Pittsburgh was driving late in the fourth quarter and needed a touchdown to tie the game when Mark Malone would throw a jump ball to a legendary receiver being covered by a legendary defensive back in John Stallworth and Ronnie Lott. Stallworth would make an incredible catch on the perfect pass in the back of the end-zone to tie the game, proving too difficult for Lott to cover.
The game was tied, but Joe Montana still had three minutes and three seconds on the clock to engineer a drive for the game winning touchdown or field goal when this happened:
Bryan Hinkle one-handed interception
The 49ers were driving after two passes when outside linebacker Bryan Hinkle would cut under a Montana pass and jumped up to make a one-handed interception and take off down the sideline. Sam Washington, Donnie Shell and Mike Merriwether would all throw lead blocks to help Hinkle return the interception inside the ten yard line.
The remarkable play would set up for a Gary Anderson field goal to give Pittsburgh a 20-17 lead with 1:42 left to play. This left Montana enough time to lead his team down the field for the chance to tie the game. The 49ers offense would set their kicker, Ray Wersching, up with a chance to send the game to overtime with a 37 yard field goal, but he shanked the opportunity wide left and Pittsburgh would go on to win the game in a major upset.
The legacy of this game
This would be the 49ers only loss of the 1984 season, a magical year for the team of the 80's. But this game was a staple for the decade in Pittsburgh as the organization transitioned out of being the most dominant team in sports from the 70's into finding a new identity with younger players as the 80's lingered forward. This would be Mark Malone's first ever win as a starting quarterback in the NFL and it came against one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game in Joe Montana.
Were it not for the heroics of John Stallworth, Bryan Hinkle and company, there might be a team that finished 19-0 in these 49ers and their legacy may be different. While the season was not all that memorable due to the team's lack of success, this game still lingers in the memories of many Steelers fans who were blessed enough to watch this upset featuring a clash of some of the aged legends in Pittsburgh and the prime of the 49ers.