For many years, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the clear superior squad to their AFC Central Division rivals, the Houston Oilers.
From Dan Pastorini to Warren Moon and Bum Phillips to Jerry and Jack (Glanville and Pardee, respectively), no matter the man with the headset or his quarterback behind center, the Black and Gold generally defeated Houston, particularly in the spotlight.
Sure, the "Luv 'Ya Blue" bunch had the Steelers singing blues on occasion; Earl Campbell and crew were certainly no slouches, and the Men of Steel fell short of success more than once against their Texas foe.
However, when the stakes rose, Pittsburgh sent Houston packing. Steelers Country didn't particularly love blue, but they certainly relished in watching Houston players' bodies and egos being bruised. Indeed, the Steel City's nickname for the Oilers was "Luv 'Ya Black n' Blue!"
The Steelers celebrated back-to-back conference title wins over the Oilers beginning in 1978-79. A decade later, they were a catalyst for the ousting of cocky coach Jerry Glanville—courtesy of a Wild Card Playoff loss to Chuck Noll's underdogs in Houston.
As the 90s took shape with Bill Cowher at the helm in the 'Burgh, the general winning ways over the Oilers continued. The Steelers built an AFC champion with their "Cowher Power." Houston wasn't even in the playoff picture by the middle of the decade.
Slowly but surely, the core talent that propelled Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl berth saw inevitable turnover, and the Black and Gold were not winning with quite the same regularity.
Change and transition were even more radical in Houston, or should I say Tennessee?
The Oilers turned into nomads, leaving Texas and heading for the Music City. In Tennessee, they spent one year with no true home field of their own, playing in the Liberty Bowl and Vanderbilt Stadium while awaiting the completion of Adelphia Coliseum, now LP Field. From 1997 to 1998, during the time prior to their new stadium opening, they were still the Oilers.
The Tennessee Oilers transformed into the Titans in 1999, trading in their oil-rig derricks for battle swords fancily made to look like the letter "T." Fittingly, "t" is a letter that looks like a crossroads, and this was a change in the general course of the rivalry between the Steelers and the former Oilers.
With Jeff Fisher's ears beneath the headset and Steve McNair behind center, the Titans would become a bigger pain in the backside of Pittsburgh than a combination pilonidal cyst and hemorrhoid.
In the '97 season finale, the Steelers traveled to Nashville for a meaningless game, resting starters and ultimately falling to McNair and crew, 16-6. Little did the team know that this would be the start of a frustrating losing skid to a franchise that would quickly rise among the AFC's elite—a status that had been previously reserved for Pittsburgh.
After extending the winning streak over the Steelers to three games with a series sweep in '98, the first-year "Titans" duplicated the feat in '99. At the start of the new millennium, the most painful loss of the series occurred when Pittsburgh dominated the Titans and former hometown quarterback Neil O'Donnell, leading 20-16. With 3:11 remaining, Jason Gildon sacked O'Donnell, setting up 3rd-and-11. McNair willed his injured body onto the field.
His four passes, all completions, covered 64 yards. The Titans won 23-20. They rallied again to defeat Pittsburgh down south, extending the winning streak to seven games over the Steelers. And, though the Steelers twice ousted the hated Titans in '01, their final season as division rivals, the hatred carried over to 2002, when Tennessee twice defeated Pittsburgh.
This included a devastating and controversial overtime playoff win that sent the Steel City into a frenzy.
In 2003, fresh off the memory of a harsh postseason loss, the Black and Gold quickly raced to a 10-0 lead at Heinz Field. Then, Tommy Maddox promptly imploded, while McNair completed 16 of his 17 passes in a 30-13 rout.
The Steelers weren't what they used to be, and the Titans wouldn't stop winning, nor would they stop reminding Pittsburgh of their shift in the power polls.
Eventually, just as free agency bled the Steelers in the late 90s, the same happened to the Titans. After having to rebuild in 2001, Tennessee was faced with the same circumstance in 2004.
Conversely, the '04 Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger, and the results were emphatic and immediate. The 15-1 Steelers won 14 straight regular-season games before falling just short of Super Bowl XXXIX. The upcoming 2005 season saw a Pittsburgh team very optimistic about their odds of a fifth championship.
Fittingly, an opening-day contest against the Tennessee Titans was an opportunity to close a dark chapter against an old rival, hence exorcising those demons. After all, in an era that saw the Oilers/Titans franchise enjoy its most flourished success, the Fisher-McNair combo had defeated the Steelers in 10 of their previous 12 matchups.
Despite the Steelers being favored to win on opening day, the Steel City had voiced its concerns about the opening-day affair at Heinz Field. Of concern, the offense did not score a single touchdown in the preseason, causing the harshest of critics to predict the certain sophomore slump (or, based on their tone, complete and utter demise) of No. 7.
Additionally, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were both injured, thus propelling Willie Parker into the spotlight at running back.
Could the small, albeit fleet of foot, rusher—a former undrafted free agent from the University of North Carolina—really be ready to run hard for a full 60 minutes?
In a contest that marked arguably his finest and most physical performance, the underdog back responded to his cynics with an emphatic "YES!"
Preseason concerns about the offense seemed a bit misplaced early in the game. In the opening minutes, it was the Steelers defense that struggled.
Titans running back Chris Brown gained 21 yards on three straight carries to open play. The first series saw the defense surrender four plays of 10 yards or greater, including a trio from McNair. The quarterback completed all four of his attempts on the march. Having eaten up nearly half of the first quarter, McNair culminated a fine drive with a one-yard scoring pass to Ben Troupe.
With the scoreboard showing the Titans up by seven, even the least cynical fans at Heinz Field thought for an iota of a second early on, "Here we go again..."
If the pessimism ushered from the crowd by a slow start caused a hush, the torqued twirl of tens of thousands of Terrible Towels was revitalized by Big Ben and the offense. On their first possession, the unit proved naysayers wrong in both of their regards, showcasing back Willie Parker and quickly tying the score with a touchdown.
On the drive, after hitting Hines Ward for his first completion of the season, Roethlisberger threw his arms in the air when tackle Marvel Smith was drawn into a personal foul penalty. Backing the offense into its own territory and establishing 1st-and-25, No. 7 would have to showcase his full arsenal of tricks to tie the score.
Or, Parker would just have to start his day of damage.
After connecting with Ward again for 11 yards, Big Ben craftily fakes the handoff before dumping a pass off to Parker. The freakishly fast back rocketed down the middle of the field before cutting down the left sideline on a 48-yard burst, stopped just shy of a touchdown by a great Lamont Thompson tackle.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger rolled right and pump faked twice, going through his progressions and waiting until the last second before finding rookie tight end Heath Miller along the back of the end zone for his first NFL touchdown, tying the score.
On their answering drive, Tennessee again began driving, their momentum and confidence clearly on display. McNair completed four more consecutive passes, leading his offense past midfield. However, on the first of a few untimely miscues by the Titans on the afternoon, running back Chris Brown negated the positive surge into Steelers real estate with a costly fumble.
Needing a positive play, James Farrior forced the fumble, and Ike Taylor recovered.
The Steelers subsequently took the lead on a short drive, all of the yardage earned by the former Tarheels running back soon to be turned "Super Steeler." (Parker would set the Super Bowl record for longest run later that season.)
Chris Brown seemed determined to make up for his miscue, hitting the hole hard and bursting for a 35-yard gain into deep Pittsburgh territory. Trailing 10-7, McNair finally felt the sting of a pass hitting grass after completing each of his first nine throws.
Yet, that sting was mild compared to the outcome of the drive—a missed Rob Bironas 47-yard field goal effort—a commonality at Heinz Field—a.k.a. the big "Kicker-Killing" Ketchup Bottle.
And, as the ranking of stings is concerned, an even more painful sting hit McNair whenever Big Ben connected with Antwaan Randle El on the first play following Bironas' miss.
Following play-action, Roethlisberger threw a perfect deep pass down the left hash markings, and the receiver slowed enough to come back for the football. The defensive back in coverage was tripped by the sudden stopping action by Randle El, leaving nobody in the way of the wideout and the end zone.
Recalling the play, "El" gave props to his sophomore quarterback, according to Tom Williams of Vindicator Sports:
"Ben gave me a shot by putting the ball up there. The safety couldn't find it, so put my foot on the ground and cut back. Then I avoided the collision (with the fallen safety) to get in."
Despite moving the ball on offense, a combination of bad defense and untimely mistakes had put the Titans in a 17-7 hole. The Titans were going to continue moving the ball, bad karma was going to continue for McNair and crew and the Steelers were going to continue taking advantage of opposition errors.
In baseball, errors take away outs and often result in runs. In football, the same principle applies, particularly if you turn the football over as you're about to score, then watch as your opponent earns the points you should have seized.
McNair hit tall receiver Drew Bennett for a 53-yard gain, promising to cut the deficit before halftime. Set up with at the Pittsburgh 12-yard line, Tennessee was already in range for a chip-shot field goal to get themselves back into the contest.
A false start derailed the drive, setting up a long down and distance. Following a short Chris Brown run, McNair fired a short pass to his previous long-distance receiver Drew Bennett. Well-covered, Bennett did all he could to secure the accurate throw. With a defensive hand on the ball, the coveted prize floated into the air where Troy Polamalu plucked it.
The interception by No. 43 took more points off the scoreboard for the Titans. Afterwards, a drive highlighted by two long Willie Parker runs (15 and 25 yards) and a 27-yard pass to Jerame Tuman set up Jeff Reed's second field goal.
Pittsburgh led 20-7 at the intermission.
With an opponent that had so frustrated them hanging onto the ropes, the Steelers offense brought the same boxing gloves into the third quarter that blackened the collective eye of the Titans defense in the first half.
Scoring on their fifth straight possession to start the game, the unit that was labelled inept and incapable days earlier by fans placing far too much stock in the milquetoast preseason picked right up where they left off.
Haymaker: first play, Randle El, 26-yard reception.
Uppercut: second play, Parker, 14-yard run.
Jab: third play, Parker, five-yard run.
Jab: fourth play, Parker, four-yard run.
Backfist: fifth play, (Cedrick) Wilson, 14-yard reception.
A series of blows set up Willie Parker, the star of the game and sudden phenomenon, to deliver the KNOCKOUT—an 11-yard touchdown right down the throat of the Titans' defensive front.
After squeezing between the tackle and guard, Parker lowered his shoulder, popping pads with defenders and refusing to be brought to the ground. After spinning, dodging and burrowing his way through the defense, fast Willie's electrifying score essentially ended the competitive phase of the game.
Down 27-7, the Titans drove into Pittsburgh territory, only to see Clark Haggans lying atop Steve McNair's sacked body to end the scoring threat.
In 2001, amidst a down season and their only set of defeats to Pittsburgh, Jeff Fisher's Titans were embarrassed on national television, losing to the Steelers on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field, 34-7. The Men of Steel were about to give fans a Sunday afternoon encore of that result.
A sixth straight scoring drive was highlighted by the featured run that most fans would see on a career highlight film for Parker. Coming off the end, the fast back showed more muscle, emphatically stiff-arming a would-be tackler to the ground before racing down the right sideline for a 45-yard burst. The blur of Willie Parker sent Heinz Field into a frenzy!
As he caught his breath along the sideline, Coach Cowher reminded his young starter to focus on his breathing. Needing rest after the long burst, Verron Haynes spotted the winded Parker some relief. Haynes lost three yards on his first play, but the crumbling Titans gave it all back, and far more, with a personal foul face-mask infraction on Brad Kassell on the next down.
Two plays later, Haynes was the beneficiary of the penalty, scoring on a five-yard scamper to make the score 34-7. The opening-day crowd at Heinz Field certainly couldn't help but to be rife with optimism.
McNair and crew attempted to gain some lost momentum on the following drive. After hitting Erron Kinney for a 13-yard gain on 3rd-and-15, McNair found Brandon Jones for an 18-yard gain on 4th-and-2.
Can you guess what happened next? (Hint: What had happened after anything remotely positive took place for the Titans all game?)
Did you say turnover? Well, not quite. Instead, a holding call negated the gain, setting up a mile to gain on fourth down. Despite the deficit, the Titans opted to punt.
After running on all three downs, the Steelers offense did not score for the first time in the contest. In fact, Pittsburgh would not throw another pass for the remainder of the game.
On two final full possessions for Tennessee—a painfully familiar result ensued—success followed by sudden tragedy.
On the first drive, McNair rallied his unit into the red zone. Andre Frazier subsequently sacked Steve McNair, jarring the football loose, but the ball was recovered by Benji Olson. The Steelers would not settle for this outcome. One down later, Joey Porter nailed McNair as he rolled right, jarring the ball from his hands. This time, Chris Hope recovered, and the Titans threat officially ended.
On the second such drive, Billy Volek played quarterback (and by "played," I mean in the "acting" sense and certainly not "sports performance"). After three straight runs by Travis Henry netted a first down for a Titans team simply ready to board buses, Volek's only throw was intercepted by Ricardo Colclough.
The opening-day final score of 34-7 was indicative of both squads in 2005. The Steelers, despite some bumps in the road, won Super Bowl XL. The Titans went 4-12.
The victory not only served as a positive catalyst for bigger 'Burgh bouts in the future. It ended the Titans' three-game winning streak in the series. It also extended the undefeated regular-season winning streak of Ben Roethlisberger to 15 games.
In fact, despite his minimized passing role, the game still marked the first perfect passer rating of his young career.
More importantly, however, was the gift that was unveiled on that September 11th afternoon. While fans knew the potential of the blazing Willie Parker, nobody knew if he could be a featured back in the long term for a team so accustomed to the combination mesomorph/endomorph bodies of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Many asked if he could even carry the load by himself on opening day:
22 att, 161 yds, TD
1 rec, 48 yds
According to Tom Williams, Jeff Fisher commented on the Titans' inability to stop Parker:
"When you go toe-to-toe with these guys, you better be able to stop the run. We were not."
On an afternoon where Willie pulled out all the stops, he secured himself a position as the starting running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was responsible for half the team offense during a contest in which Big Ben was only called upon to throw the football 11 times. His production was invaluable, and his magnificent season culminated with a record-breaking run at Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
Fans' opinions vary on the effectiveness of the undrafted back, but nobody can deny the skills he showcased in spades many times throughout his Steelers career. Until he broke his leg in 2007—and to a lesser degree, even beyond that point—Parker was a key component in earning championship rings about both proverbial thumbs in the Steel City.
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
Vol. 13: Marino vs. Tomczak; 1994, vs. Miami Dolphins