The 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers came into the season looking to build on a breakthrough year from 1972, when they went to the AFC Championship Game. By that standard, the ’73 Steelers came up short. What this team did do, however, was prove that the breakthrough of 1972 was no fluke, establish themselves as a steady contender and set the stage for Super Bowl trophies in the very near future.
Terry Bradshaw was continuing to develop at quarterback. His 49 percent completion rate was poor, as was his 10/15 TD-INT ratio. Bradshaw was intercepted on 8.3 percent of his passes. Even allowing that this was an era when defensive secondaries had a much freer hand under the rules, these were very poor numbers.
What Bradshaw could do was make big plays. His 6.6 yards-per-attempt was more respectable and his receivers could really stretch the field. Ron Shanklin’s thirty catches went for an astonishing 23.7 yards a pop. Frank Lewis only caught 23 balls, but those receptions produced over 400 yards. Barry Pearson was a third downfield threat in an era when most offenses struggled to find one big-play target.
Franco Harris made the Pro Bowl, but the second-year back slipped after a 1,000-yard season in his rookie year of ’72. Franco rushed for just under 700 yards. More alarming was a nearly two-yard dip in his yards-per-carry, which clocked in at a mediocre 3.7.
Fortunately, Preston Pearson and John “Frenchy” Fuqua combined for over 1,000 yards on their own behind an offensive line anchored by Pro Bowl guard Bruce Van Dyke. And the Steeler offense was still a solid fourth in the league in points scored.
The defense was keyed by an outstanding front four. Joe Greene was 1st-team All-Pro at the defensive tackle spot. Greene, a future Hall of Famer, drew the attention of opposing blockers and that freed up L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White on the edge and Ernie Holmes inside. The other three lineman combined for 23 sacks. Greenwood and White went to the Pro Bowl.
Jack Ham had a breakout year at the linebacker spot, getting the first Pro Bowl ticket of his Hall of Fame career. Ham joined another Pro Bowler, veteran Andy Russell, on the second line of defense. The secondary was manned by ballhawks John Rowser at corner and Mike Wagner at strong safety, who combined to intercept fourteen passes.
Even though the Steeler defense had the bigger names and even though they eventually outpaced their offensive counterparts, they were still the relatively weaker part of this 1973 team. Pittsburgh ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed.
The Steelers opened the season at home against the mediocre Detroit Lions. The game was tied 10-10 after three quarters. But Pittsburgh was enjoying a massive edge in ball control. They would end up running 83 plays from scrimmage, compared to just 55 for Detroit. In the fourth quarter, Bradshaw found tight end John McMakin on a 24-yard touchdown pass to get the lead. Bradshaw then tossed a six-yard scoring pass to Shanklin that sealed the 24-10 win.
Pittsburgh shared the AFC’s Central Division with the Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Oilers and Cleveland Browns. In 1972, the Steelers dethroned the Browns and the first meeting between the two rivals this year came in Week 2. Cleveland came to town.
The Steelers showed that 1972’s 30-0 rout in December that took control of the division was no fluke. With a 196-84 edge in rush yardage and three interceptions, Pittsburgh coasted to a 33-6 win. They followed that up with a 36-7 romp at lowly Houston, keyed by second half Pick-6s from Russell and Glen Edwards that broke open a 12-7 game. One more rout of a terrible team followed when the Steelers hosted the San Diego Chargers and picked up six turnovers, en route to a 38-0 lead by halftime and an eventual 38-21 win.
At 4-0, it was time for a trip to face contending Cincinnati. The Pittsburgh offensive line did not play well. There was no running game and Bradshaw was sacked four times. The defense allowed 172 yards on the ground themselves and even though some red zone stiffening kept them game close, the end result was still a 19-7 loss.
With Cincinnati making the return trip to Pittsburgh in just two weeks, there was no time to lose in getting back on track. At home against a bad New York Jets team, Harris went over 100 yards in a 26-14 win. It was time for another crack at the Bengals.
When Bradshaw was knocked out early, this game and the entire division race could have gotten away from the Steelers. But backup QB Terry Hanratty stepped up and hit Shanklin on a 51-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter. It was the difference in a tough 20-13 win.
Pittsburgh stayed at home to face the playoff-bound Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football, with Hanratty still in the lineup. The one-time hot prospect from Notre Dame who had never quite panned out, Hanratty was making the most of his opportunity to play. He threw two more touchdown passes, while Harris muscled out 90 yards in a 21-16 win.
Hanratty stayed in the lineup at Oakland on November 11. The Steelers had knocked the Raiders out of the playoffs last year and Oakland was on its way back to the postseason. Hanratty took care of the ball and Pittsburgh enjoyed a 5-1 turnover advantage. White, working his defensive end spot, intercepted two passes and the Steelers got a big 17-9 road win.
Pittsburgh welcomed in Denver, a decent team on the fringes of playoff contention in an era when only four teams per conference qualified for the postseason. Trailing 13-6 in the fourth quarter, Hanratty went up top to Shanklin for a 42-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
But deficiencies in the running attack were coming home to roost. Pittsburgh was outrushed 184-83 for the game and Denver pulled away to win 23-13. A week later in Cleveland, the running game failed down close. Having to settle for three field goals meant a 21-16 loss in a game the Steelers had otherwise controlled.
Pittsburgh was still 8-3, but the two-game skid had allowed Cincinnati to get back in the race at 7-4. There was only wild-card spot available. Denver was giving chase at 6-3-2, with Buffalo at 6-5.
Bradshaw was coming back, but Miami—the defending Super Bowl champions and on their way to a repeat title—was not in a welcoming mood on the first Monday Night in December. Bradshaw was intercepted three times. The Steelers were in a 30-3 hole by halftime. They made the final score respectable, but the 30-26 loss still made it three defeats in a row.
What’s more, Cincinnati had knocked off Super Bowl-bound Minnesota to move into a tie for first place and the Bengals had the tiebreaker. The good news is that Denver had lost to another playoff team in Dallas, so the AFC Central was looking good to produce the wild-card.
If Pittsburgh could take care of business that is. They hosted Houston and got the ground game rolling against the bad opponent, with a 188-58 edge in rush yardage making up for four Bradshaw interceptions in the 33-7 win. Cincinnati knocked off Cleveland. In the meantime, Buffalo moved up to 8-5. At 9-4, the Steelers were still on track to make it, but they would also lose a tiebreaker to the Bills.
That made Saturday afternoon at San Francisco effectively a must-win spot. Facing a bad team, Rowser sparked Pittsburgh early on with a 71-yard Pick-6 that was the reason the Steelers led 14-7 at the half. Pittsburgh gradually took control in the second half, with a couple field goals extending the lead to 20-7. Finally, Bradshaw hit Lewis on a 50-yard touchdown strike to blow it open. The 37-14 win sent Pittsburgh back to the playoffs.
In a decade that had a lot of great playoff rivalries, the Steelers and Raiders was the one that would end up remembered the best. The following Saturday afternoon they met in the second of what would turn out to be five postseason battles in the 1970s.
Pittsburgh generally fared pretty well, having won the previous year and with two more victories ahead of them. Today, not so much. The Steelers were pounded up front, losing rush yardage 232-65. Trailing 16-7 in the third quarter, Bradshaw threw a Pick-6 that effectively ended the game. The final was 33-14.
After reaching the AFC Championship Game a year earlier, it was a disappointment for Pittsburgh to fall as a wild card in the divisional round this year. But an observer that would have taken a step back, even in the moment, might have noted that after several decades of irrelevance, simply getting back to the playoffs had proven the Steelers were no fluke. And with the advantage of history we know that by 1974, they would be champs.