Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Steelers vs. Raiders, 1995
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders both endured a truly dichotomous 1995 season, each franchise completing a campaign that was a tale of two halves. In that NFL year, whereas most teams experience peaks and valleys from play to play, sinners week to week, both the "Silver n' Black" and "Black n' Gold" encountered one gigantic peak and a cavernous valley.
Starting a season filled with promises of a Super Sunday by losing Rod Woodson was damaging to Pittsburgh's cause, and the rigors of a slow start could be seen in their 3-4 record. Raider Nation saw a blissful beginning to '95, and who could have blamed them for looking ahead earnestly to January football? With an 8-2 record, only a historic collapse would prevent a postseason including what appeared to be Davis's denizens of destruction.
Then, the two teams seemingly swapped roles. By reversing their fortunes, the Steelers ultimately rode a momentous high to Super Bowl XXX. Meanwhile, Al Davis surely wanted to make like the emblem about his players' helmets by sticking two swords into his own head!
After all, the Raiders first season in Oakland in over 13 years was quickly turning sour. In early December, the Silver and Black were in the midst of a three game losing streak. With the previous two AFC teams to have won Super Bowls at the time scheduled to meet at Oakland Alameda Coliseum, the glimmer of an 8-2 start was beginning to see an eternal dusk. The Raiders were falling from grace like the warm California sun setting behind the nearby hillsides.
As with any sunset, ominous shadows fell over the Raiders.
After beginning the '95 campaign white hot, Oakland's struggle began around midseason when quarterback Jeff Hostetler was forced from action, a three week hiatus caused by a serious shoulder injury. In two starts by backup passer Vince Evans, Oakland fell to 8-5 with consecutive losses, not scoring an offensive touchdown in either game with the backup behind center. In the latter game against the Chiefs, Billy Joe Hobert relieved Evans, leading the offense to two scores in garbage time and polishing a blowout defeat to Kansas City with a veneer of competitiveness.
Heading into Week 15, Hobert would get his first career start against the hungry and intimidating Pittsburgh Steelers.
Whereas the slope of the season for the Raiders was downward, Steelers Country was rife with optimism in the midst of a six-game winning streak. Having fallen three yards short of a Super Bowl berth months earlier, the Steelers were stunned to begin 1995 with a 3-4 record. However, coach Bill Cowher rallied his "Men of Steel," showcasing the team's steely resolve in what he described as a brand new nine game season.
Up to the date of their clash with Oakland, the Steelers were 6-0 in season 1995 "B."
Separated by a game in the standings, both clubs knew that this critical showdown in their classic rivalry would have huge implications. Breaking the momentum on both sides would depend on a clean game from Hobert.
Instead, the image of the Oakland quarterback by day's end would serve as a poignant portrait of the day. By game's end, Hobert's jersey was ripped, a portion of it hanging loosely below his waist line, his rib pads exposed for all to see. Battered and bruised, both in body and ego, Hobert would be the perfect caption for a contest in which the Raiders simply got ripped up.
Indeed, December 10, 1995 would be another stake into the good eye of Oakland piracy!
The Pittsburgh game plan was incredibly basic: shut down the running game of Napoleon Kaufman and Harvey Williams and force the game into the hands of Billy Joe. By holding the Raiders run "attack" to 28 yards on 15 carries, the Steelers put the contest on the arm of the backup Q.B. On the first series for Oakland, Brentson Buckner, Ray Seals and Joel Steed dominated the Raiders offensive line, coming into the backfield practically uncontested and converging on the opposing backs for negative yardage.
While Billy Joe Hobert endured no sacks, he was scrambling on a wet field to avoid pressure all game, and he ultimately threw four interceptions.
Steelers defensive end Ray Seals recalled the youngsters' first start in the locker room post-game:
"I felt as though I was in his face almost every other play. That's his welcome to the league."
The first pick came early on as Hobert overthrew James Jett or Rocket Ismail—either was in the vicinity for a decently thrown pass—and found Willie Williams instead. It was the first of two pigskin prizes seized by Williams on the late afternoon.
Erric Pegram, the historically underrated Steelers running back, got the majority of snaps against the Raiders following Bam Morris's pulled hamstring (second quarter), and he sliced his way behind a meaty offensive line—Dermontti Dawson? Leon Searcy?—to the tune of 26 carries for 122 yards. His effort in the running game helped the Pittsburgh offense, despite a couple of miscues and poor execution in the red zone throughout to effectively control the game with 39 minutes of possession.
After spotting Andre Hastings and Yancey Thigpen on consecutive plays against corner Terry McDaniel, including a nifty 26-yard reception by the latter, quarterback Neil O'Donnell found an unlikely hero of the '95 season for the game's first points.
Getting the start instead of the injured Charles Johnson, Ernie Mills continued a magical season. While Yancey Thigpen was chasing John Stallworth's team record for yards in a season, the rare focus on Mills early in the year was becoming more and more laughable by the week.
Earlier in the season, Ernie Mills caught two key passes in a game-tying drive at Chicago, aiding a key overtime victory that had propelled the Steelers on their current win streak. Now, just like his opening catch of the game-tying march in the Windy City, Mills was about to duplicate the reception with another fingertip grab down the right sideline.
O'Donnell floated the pass, which landed perfectly over the chasing corner Bruce Pickens and onto the stretched fingertips of Mills, who secured the football and crossed the goal line. Pittsburgh led 7-0.
After another series that saw Hobert running for his life amidst of sea of fearsome would-be tacklers, including Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland, the Raiders offense was again easily dispatched. During the series, Kevin Greene managed the infamous tear of Hobert's jersey, and in the team's highlight film released the next summer, fans couldn't help but smirk when hearing Greene scream along the sidelines to his teammates, "Hang on! Hang on like a rottweiler!"
Punting back to Pittsburgh, the Raiders defense commenced with showing off a lack of discipline that would plague the second half of their season.
Facing 3rd-and-9, O'Donnell's incomplete pass was rendered inconsequential by Austin Robbins, called for defensive holding. Later in the drive, Pittsburgh faced enormous odds against just past midfield with 3rd-and-22. An 18-yard pass to Andre Hastings would have merely resulted in a long field goal attempt at best. However, with Oakland being called for "too many men" on the previous play, the Steelers did pick up the necessary 17 yards and one extra for good measure.
What the Steelers needed, the Raiders gave them. Norm Johnson's 41-yard field goal extended the lead to 10-0.
On a dozen possessions, the Oakland offense managed six punts, four interceptions, a field goal and a loss on downs. Their longest drive of the day covered a mere 28 yards. They were entirely stifled. Yet, midway through the second quarter, Hobert managed to get his team past midfield, one of only two such occasions. A fine punt pinned the Steelers at the shadow of their own goal line.
Despite their complete early dominance, the Men of Steel were about to face their toughest trials of the contest. Neil O'Donnell received the center snap from his 3-yard line, dropping back quickly and looking over his left shoulder for an open receiver on an apparent screen attempt. However, instead of a teammate, he saw defensive end Anthony Smith barreling toward him.
Haphazardly, the quarterback attempted to throw, only to see the football flutter into the air. In what surely became a slow motion moment for O'Donnell, the outcome would be devastating. Audrey Bruce caught the football in the air and stepped into the end zone for the 1-yard gift.
On the next possession, Neil would find himself in more trouble. The events just before halftime would mark the tipping point of the crucial contest between two key combatants in the AFC playoff race.
Ernie Mills' fake reverse on the kickoff effectively froze the Oakland kick coverage, allowing the surprising play-maker to return the ball 57 yards into Raiders territory.
A few plays into the ensuing drive and facing 2nd-and-9 from the Oakland 20-yard line, O'Donnell dropped back to pass. He was surprised by immediate pressure from the outside, courtesy of defensive end Pat Swilling. The defender dove toward the passer, but Neil spun in an attempt to evade him. With Swilling hanging onto his jersey from the ground below, O'Donnell attempted to throw the football away in the vicinity of a receiver, but Chester McGlockton bumped into his arm.
The pigskin fluttered once again, falling directly into the arms of Anthony Smith.
Smith ran 80 yards for an apparent Oakland Raiders lead. However, much like the popular television show of the 90's Saved by the Bell, the Steelers were about to be "Saved by the Whistle." Official Larry Nermers blew the play dead, ruling that O'Donnell was in the grasp of Swilling, thus resulting in a sack.
With the "Black Hole" vehemently arguing the decision, a cool and collected quarterback found Andre Hastings for a 12-yard gain on third down to set up a manageable Norm Johnson field goal attempt.
Johnson would connect again, and the Steelers led 13-7 instead of trailing 14-10.
If the momentum shift of the key call hadn't exasperated the fledgling Raiders enough, a key Hobert turnover just prior to the two minute warning would take the wind from their pirate ship sails. Forced to scramble again (again...again...), B.J. (Billy Joe) did a B.J. (bad job) and used B.J. (bad judgment) as he threw while slipping on the wet grass.
The football was easily intercepted by the waiting arms of Greg Lloyd.
The following drive was painstakingly easy for the Steelers, making it painfully hard to watch for the Coliseum crowd. O'Donnell found Kordell Stewart, affectionately "Slash," who dashed for 23-yards into the red zone. Then, Ernie Mills went into motion before running a slant over the middle, which turned out to be a completely unimpeded path into the back of the end zone for six points. Eddie Anderson and Dan Land simply looked at each other, deciding where the blame should land for Mills' uncontested score right between them.
The hyped and well-advertised bout between former great rivals, the last two AFC Super Bowl winners and a pair of winning teams were on the verge of becoming a blowout at halftime, 20-7. After intermission, it appeared that the Steelers would secure such a result, picking up two cakewalk first downs courtesy of the run game.
However, Erric Pegam fumbled shortly thereafter, his fifth such folly in six games, and the Raiders recovered.
While such a key play could have given the Raiders a huge and momentous lift, Billy Joe Hobert was reminded that nothing was going to come easy in his first NFL start. On two consecutive passes into the end zone, Hobert hit open receivers perfectly. Neverthless, Darryl Hobbs and the ever-reliable Tim Brown actually dropped both throws, forfeiting the key touchdown that would have pulled the struggling team to within a score of their nemesis.
The gift turnover resulted in an Oakland field goal. While this was a feint sign of life for the Silver and Black, trailing now 20-10, it was in an odd way more uplifting for the Steelers.
In the Steel City, fans bravely watched in the cold of winter as their eventual AFC Champions ever so effectively squeezed the life out of the Raiders. In a game in which Pittsburgh outgained Oakland in first downs (21-9), rushing yards (144-28), penalties (1-9), total offense (355-190) and time of possession (+16 minutes), the Steelers made the result of the game authentic to the statistics, completely controlling the final 27 minutes of play.
In fact, if not for poor execution in the red zone, the 29-10 Pittsburgh statement could have been far worse. Norm Johnson finished with five field goals, including two fourth quarter chip shots of 21 and 22 yards.
A final interception by Hobert, his fourth of the game and the second for Willie Williams, capped the contest.
The game was symbolic of the state of both franchises. The Steelers were completely hitting their stride, winners of seven straight and soon-to-be the AFC representative in Tempe, Arizona for Super Bowl XXX. Knowing they could clinch a bye week with an eighth straight win against the Patriots one week later, the Black and Gold would once again take care of business.
Quite conversely, the Raiders were a shell of their September selves, and their return season to Oakland was quickly becoming a punchless plummet.
Brentson Buckner spoke of their performance after the game with scathing remarks:
"Mystique my butt! They should have stayed in L.A. if they're going to play like that!"
The fourth straight loss for Al Davis's squad was in great contrast to the famous "Commitment to Excellence" that the owner stressed to his team with capital letters. While the win was a statement for Pittsburgh, the loss was a tragic testimonial for Oakland. The Raiders would lose their next two games, finishing 8-8 and missing the NFL playoffs despite an 8-2 start.
Quite painfully, they blew a 28-20 lead over the Broncos in the season finale (see video), the last fatal blow of their complete fall to mediocrity from atop the NFL standings.
Additionally, the loss to the Steelers marked the team's third consecutive defeat at Oakland Alameda Coliseum, the first time they had EVER lost three straight at the venue. Indeed, the return back to their original city was not "just like old times" for the Silver and Black.
While the autumn wind showcased a pirate, the winter wind presented nothing more than a mere bumbling buccaneer.
Falling to 8-6, the Raiders were suddenly in a tie with another postseason hopeful, a certain "Cinderella" team from a basketball state quarterbacked by an alleged "Captain Comeback" named Harbaugh.
While the Oakland Raiders could be checked off of the Black and Gold's to-do list in easy fashion, the surprising Indianapolis Colts would be coming to the Steel City to give Pittsburgh fits soon enough!
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!
Periodically throughout 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. For links to volumes 1-11, please check out my writer's profile!
Vol. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, at New England Patriots
Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004, at New York Giants
Vol. 4: The Jinx Survives Sudden Death; 1978 and 1979, vs. Cleveland Browns
Vol. 9: Elvis (Grbac) Has Left the Building; 2002, vs. Baltimore Ravens
Vol. 11: " We Dey!"; 2006, at Cincinnati Bengals
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