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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Steelers vs. 49ers, 1984

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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Steelers vs. 49ers, 1984

In the annals of NFL history, only three teams are able to reflect on enough Super Bowl victories to account for every finger on one hand. The Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers comprise 67 percent of the illustrious group, and only the Black and Gold have begun their conquest of the other set of digits.

For their divine histories, one would easily expect that their paths have crossed on Super Sunday, but the perceived "Pittsburgh power" and "49ers finesse," as accurate and inaccurate as those perceptions may have been, never battled for NFL supremacy on the league's grandest stage. 

Instead, one of Pittsburgh's most proud wins over San Francisco came during their forgotten decade of the 80s, a time when "Joe Cool" and company would have been heavily favored to beat Pittsburgh in practically every season.

The Steelers enjoyed the type of gluttonous championship mystique during the 70s that San Francisco would revel in from the 80s into the early 90s.

Indeed, by the turn of the decade, the 70's Steelers, a homegrown squad heavily composed of draft choices molded into the epitome of "Pittsburgh excellence," began to see its shine dim. The limelight certainly didn't become a low-light overnight as the team continued to win into the new decade.  However, as key members of the defensive front retired, blonde bombers lost capable elbows, and championship talent aged into mediocrity; December's wins suddenly became the last ones with each new season.

Conversely, Bill Walsh left the AFC Central's Cincinnati Bengals, where he spent his time as offensive coordinator grooming a sophisticated offensive philosophy known as "West Coast" and took the head job in the Silicon Valley of California. 

With quarterback Joe Montana's aplomb, the offense's sheer versatility and the equipping of a solid defense and All-Pro secondary (Ronnie Lott, anyone?), San Francisco supplanted the Steelers as team of the new decade.

Yet, in the middle of that decade, a proud band of former champions sprinkled with players not nearly as well remembered would give the Black and Gold a flashback afternoon. The Men of Steel would travel to San Francisco to battle the 49ers in the midst of arguably their finest season.

In fact, the 1984 49ers came painstakingly close to being able to count their total losses on zero hands! 

Instead of an undefeated season, the surprising 1984 Steelers would serve the "Scarlet Red and Metallic Gold" a scarlet letter: L.  It would be the lone "L" amidst a slew of "W's."

Lost in the myriad of great Pittsburgh sports moments, the contest literally changed NFL history against all odds. Csonka, Shula, Griese and the boys have come close more than a couple of times to sharing champagne-popping company each new season, but aside from the 2007 Patriots, no team came closer than San Francisco.

In today's game, deep, undefeated stretches seem common. Teams finish anywhere from 14-2 to the once unthinkable 16-0, at least one team vying for an undefeated campaign late into December almost annually. 

In 2009, both the Saints and Colts (who were 0-13 to start 2011, ironically) didn't lose until the final month. The 1985 Bears, who traveled to Miami with a 13-0 record, were rarities.

An undefeated record into the latter months was not the circumstance facing Pittsburgh. Perhaps, this assisted the admittedly outclassed Black and Gold squad, allowing them to focus more on the opposition than the history. Only now, do we realize the magnitude of how one game changed history.

Which was the 49ers most impressive championship team under Joe Montana?

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Indeed, slated to play on October 14, 1984, Pittsburgh never allowed the frenzied "19-0" predictions to begin. However, admittedly, a few premature notions made airwaves around the nation on various sports circuits, considering the 49ers' amazing collection of talent.

The quality of the opponent makes Pittsburgh's disruption of history all the more impressive. The 49ers, eventual champions, would end Super Bowl Sunday with an 18-1 mark, outscoring their playoff opponents by a combined 86-26 score.   

As mentioned, the San Francisco 49ers were revolutionizing the passing game. Walsh implanted the perfect quarterback to exact his vision with Joe Montana.

Crisp, efficient passes riddled defenses. While many labeled the approach as a "short" passing game, an observation stemming from the concept of "long handoffs" or "using the pass to 'run' the ball," Montana's passes were seamless beams that found various targets everywhere on the field. 

Many who recall Joe's playing days refer to his quarterbacking as "artistry," a sort of poetry in motion that you had to see to appreciate. Montana and the 49ers often made offense seem effortless.

Few teams could boast the 49ers' average yards per pass attempt (8.2 YPA). And, frankly, no team could beat a defense in more ways than San Francisco, whose moving pocket and array of attack options made them completely unpredictable and often indefensible.

Many fans associate Jerry Rice and John Taylor's heroics with the San Francisco dynasty, but the offensive weapons on their earlier champions included neither All-Pro. Dwight Clark became a legend in making "The Catch" against the Cowboys a few years earlier en route to the championship, and other playmakers included Earl Cooper, Russell Francis and Wendell Taylor.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

While they may have been remembered for Montana's ability to make the aerial passing game seem artistic, the 49ers had great balance on offense, running more often than passing at a nearly even ratio.  With 4.6 yards per rush, both elements of the West Coast were working in machine-like precision. 

Wendell Tyler plowed over opposing defenses for nearly 1,300 yards, while Roger Craig provided his own skill set as a secondary runner and pass catcher out of the backfield (71 receptions, 675 yards).

The defense for the pride of California also had a champion's pedigree. The secondary was stout, with Ronnie Lott making like a Mel Blount for the 80s, alongside other defensive stars such as Erik Wright and Fred Dean.

The unit had 51 sacks and 25 interceptions, assuring that if their high-powered offense could overwhelm opponents mostly without having to outscore them in a shootout.

Beyond these All-Stars, San Fran boasted Dwight Clark, Randy Cross,"Hacksaw" Reynolds, Carlton Williamson and Matt Cavanaugh. And, as for coaching, All-Pro pupils learned from the likes of George Seifert, Ray Rhodes, Sherman Lewis and Paul Hackett.

Three years removed from the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy, experts viewed the 49ers as an overwhelming favorite entering the 1984 season to win it all—a feat they would ultimately accomplish. 

As the season wore on, Dan Marino's record-breaking campaign created a split decision among the masses as to who would ultimately win the big game in Stanford. Like so many other teams, Montana and company systematically dismantled the Miami Dolphins in January.

Those positive vibes were put on hiatus that mid-October day. A former, proud champion came to California to face the new-age face of NFL greatness. With a .500 record and starting backup quarterback Mark Malone, the Steelers were huge underdogs against the sublime pride of the NFL public.

George Rose/Getty Images

Despite the tall odds, Noll realistically understood there was a way to beat the 49ers, though it wouldn't be easy—keep Montana off the field—period.

After all, while John Stallworth and Louis Lipps provided their own deep threat, the Steelers were not naive enough to believe getting into a shootout was wise. After all, pitting Malone and RB Walter Abercrombie against Montana and crew, who would you take—gun to your head and all?

Still, Malone was deemed a better option than Cliff Stoudt, who finished his Steelers career with 14 touchdowns and 28 interceptions from 1980-83. It was a painful dip in production from the ever reliable big-game Bradshaw.

Despite all of this, Pittsburgh still had its pride, not far removed from championship glory and a playoff contender from each of the previous two seasons. With a 3-3 record, most expected the Men of Steel to fall into an early hole with a sure-fire loss to the 6-0 49ers.

Like the 2011 Steelers, who played Tom Brady and the Patriots on Halloween, the approach would have to be scoring points and dominating time of possession. For Ben Roethlisberger and crew, this meant attacking New England through the air—a successful feat that allowed the Steelers to improve their all-time record against native Californian and golden quarterback to 2-6.

In 1984, that golden California gunner was Montana, and keeping him off the field meant a different approach in a vein very familiar to Steelers fans—running the ball. After all...

With odds already stacked against, let's emphasize the quarterbacking matchup again: Malone vs. Montana.

Chances of winning in the air? Slim and none. 

With this grand design in place by the coach who had won more Super Bowls than any other (a record that still stands), Noll was certainly pleased with the Steelers' opening possession. The 6-0 49ers defense saw the Pittsburgh running game seemingly gain four and five yards at every clip, controlling the sticks and establishing themselves on a fine first drive. Ultimately, Rich Erenberg (yep, that guy...raise your hand if you can picture his face!) capped off the drive with a two-yard touchdown plunge.

The drive was a clock-killer. While Joe Montana observed, Steelers hogs Larry Brown, Mike Webster, Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley played their finest game of the season. Stuckey and Tuiasosopo were being pancaked and pushed around, and Keena Turner and the linebackers were hard-pressed to bring down Frank Pollard and Abercrombie. 

The running game was executing the perfect plan to perfection, and Noll had to have a shimmer of glee inside his poker-faced soul at the team's statement start.

Roger Craig and Earl Cooper found running room non-existent, and Montana was unable to connect with his prime targets—Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon.

Pittsburgh would get the ball back quickly, engineering another long march down the field. Their second possession ultimately stalled near the San Francisco 30-yard line, but Gary Anderson's attempt from 48 yards was true. The field goal made the score 10-0 midway through the second quarter.

It was nearing halftime, and the 49ers offense had barely seen the football. However, those optimistic for an intermission goose egg got another round gift courtesy of Montana and crew—a pie in the face!  The opportunistic 49ers had been dominated for nearly an entire half, but the offense proved how quickly it could respond with a solid drive to close the first half.

Refusing to go into the locker room without point production, Joe "Cool" scampered for a seven-yard score moments before intermission, making the halftime score of 10-7 closer than the bold Black and Gold effort.

While Pittsburgh's offense got first downs in the third quarter, drives stalled shortly after the sticks moved. Yet, in a fine showing, the Steelers defense—coordinated by Tony Dungy and led by sack-master Mark Merriweather (15 sacks in '84) and interception-machine Donnie Shell (seven)—returned the favor to San Francisco, not allowing the typically rhythmic offense to get into that normal poetry into motion

Instead, the unit seemed more like quandary in commotion in the unexpectedly tight contest.

Reminiscent of Super Bowl XXXVI, when the Patriots defense kept the high-flying Rams offense in check, San Francisco got its first downs, but they seemed unable to make the big play when it mattered or the explosive play downfield. Pittsburgh's game plan was the stuff of Chuck Noll legend. 

Toward the end of the third quarter, the defense was unable to get pressure on Montana, and the undefeated 49ers started to have their way. After an early afternoon of sideline rest of precise execution by the Pittsburgh defense, the approaching evening invited unrest and self-execution. San Francisco tied the game to start the fourth quarter.

Then, after the Steelers offense stalled, which had become a disconcerting habit after halftime, Joe Montana and his deadly attack took to the field again. This time, the Steelers' hopes for an upset took a huge hit. Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell, old pillars of a former championship unit, watched as Wendell Tyler zipped past them for a seven-yard touchdown. 

Which was Chuck Noll's most impressive win over the 80's 49ers?

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The 49ers led 17-10. Just like that, a monumental effort at the start of the game seemed to be wasting away. 

Order had been reestablished at Candlestick Park, and the world suddenly made sense again to NFL fans. Few were the Steelers fans, despite their deepest hopes for victory, that didn't have self doubt trickle into their minds. Despite a perfect start that saw everything fall into place for Pittsburgh, San Francisco had turned momentum completely around.

Then, it happened. The offense took its gut check and responded with a gutsy effort.

Showing fortitude, the Steelers answered with a 15-play, 83-yard drive. As time wound down in the final quarter, fans in the Steel City surely hoped that the unit could force overtime.  First down after first down, the offense drove methodically down the field on the efforts of running backs putting in yeoman's work.

Leading the way in the contest was Frank Pollard with 24 carries for 105 yards. Most of those were tough-earned, physical, five-yard bursts.

After matriculating into the red zone, Pittsburgh had a 1st-and-goal, six yards out. Surprisingly, they went to the air, and Mark Malone's pass found iconic receiver John Stallworth to tie the game. While jubilation in Steelers Country resulted, their celebration was tempered by an ominous factor:

Three minutes remained for "Montana the Maestro's" magic.

For all of the exuberance and excitement in tying the score, fans around the NFL knew this as the perfect opportunity for the calm-and-collected Montana to build upon his growing fourth-quarter heroics.

George Rose/Getty Images

Instead of magic, hopeful 49ers fans and skeptical Steelers fans got tricked. Right outside linebacker Bryan Hinkle intercepted Montana's pass attempt into the flats, returning the football 43 yards deep into Steelers territory. 

While they didn't score a touchdown, despite nearing the goal line, the Steelers offense watched as Gary Anderson kicked the ball through the uprights from 21 yards away.  Pittsburgh led 20-17, but time remained once again, forcing fans to reconsider Montana magic for a second time.

This time, the legendary quarterback answered the call.

With 1:42 remaining, Montana hit Dwight Clark to the San Francisco 38-yard line, hurried to the line before hitting Earl Cooper, found Cooper again to midfield, and the rhythmic nature of the 49ers' frighteningly efficient two-minute offense begged for a 24-20 lead.

After those two consecutive completions to Earl Cooper, Montana's fourth pass attempt was perfect—or, it should be said, perfectly dropped.

Any reprieve felt by Steelers Country was short-lived as Joe hit Roger Craig for a first down before getting two more completions to Cooper, setting up San Francisco at the Steelers' 20-yard line.  

Though completing 6-of-7 with a drop, Montana's inability to find receivers open downfield forced the offense into time-eating intermediate routes. San Francisco would have only a chance to tie in the final seconds.

Ray Wersching came in to attempt a 37-yard field goal. A successful field goal would send the game into overtime, giving the 49ers a shot to improve their record to 7-0.

Only now do we realize that his miss quite possibly have prevented the second-ever undefeated NFL season. As his attempt sailed wide, 49ers fans fell into silence, while the elated Steelers jumped for joy!

Their huge upset propelled Pittsburgh to 4-3. On one of the most underrated games in the history of a great franchise, the team that was recently removed from current greatness beat the best team in the 1980's NFL.

The annals of time haven't recalled the '80's Steelers with fondness, despite their penchant for reaching the postseason and suffering losing seasons only thrice. Despite the intermittent success, fans relate the decade with a dynasty's decline. Meanwhile, history remembers the 49ers as a legendary squad, rife with talent that knew how to win like men.

These reflections are, at least to a degree, accurate. 

Yet, on October 14 ,1984, those who look back will recall that reputations and prognostications were simply irrelevant. 

It was the day when Montana fell to the Men of Steel and a day when Chuck Noll showed Bill Walsh that there was still a place in the NFL for an old dog—even without too many new tricks!

Both the 49ers and Steelers would end their campaigns against the Miami Dolphins, who were highlighted by Dan Marino's record-setting 48 touchdown passes. Pittsburgh would lose the AFC Championship Game, 45-28, done in by Marino's four scoring strikes.

Conversely, the champion 49ers would remind everyone of their greatness, defeating Miami 38-16 in a Super Bowl remembered as the game in which Montana beat Marino.

****************************************************************************

The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era. For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!

Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember. In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...

The Forgotten Classics! 

Please enjoy these previous installments:

Vol. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, @ New England Patriots

Vol. 2: Streak Busters; 1982, @ Dallas Cowboys

Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004, @ New York Giants

Vol. 4: The Jinx Survives Sudden Death; 1978 & 1979, vs. Cleveland Browns

Vol. 5: A Rivalry Remembered; 2000, vs. Oakland Raiders

Vol. 6: Wild Win in the Windy City; 1995, @ Chicago Bears

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