The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers Re-Establish Championship Dominance

It would be a stretch to say the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers entered the season on hard times, but the previous two seasons hadn’t gone according to script for a franchise that won Super Bowls in both 1974 and 1975 and looked poised to dominate the decade.

The Steelers were a combined 22-5-1 in the 1974-75 regular seasons. That slipped to 19-9 over the next two years. Injuries cost them a chance to three-peat in ’76, and then the ’77 season saw a 9-5 year end with a playoff loss in the divisional round to the Denver Broncos.

In the NFL of today, with its top-to-bottom parity, this sort of decline would be barely a blip on the radar screen. But in the more top-heavy environment of the late 1970s, this left the 1978 Steeler team needing to re-establish its dominance. They did that in spades, and became the first team in the Super Bowl era to win the Lombardi Trophy three times.

The NFL underwent significant changes in 1978. The most obvious were the change to a 16-game schedule and the addition of a second wild-card to the playoffs, adding a fourth tier to the postseason structure. But another rules change would be even bigger—defensive backs were no longer allowed to make contact with a receiver more than five yards off the line of scrimmage. It was even called the “Mel Blount Rule”, after the Steelers’ physical corner.

Pittsburgh adjusted to the rules change better than anyone. A team that had won its Super Bowls on the strength of the running game, now became pass-oriented. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw stepped up and won the MVP award. Wide receiver Lynn Swann was a first-team All-Pro, and fellow wideout John Stallworth emerged as a big-time target. The Steelers ranked 2nd in the NFL in yards-per-pass, making up for the fact the running game went down to 22nd in the league.

Whether the offense moved by air or by ground, whether it was Bradshaw-to-Swann or Franco Harris running the ball, the Steel Curtain defense was still the immovable force that anchored this franchise. Defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene were now 32-years-old, but were both still Pro Bowlers.

Blount was still one of the game’s top corners, able to adjust to the new rules. Donnie Shell was a top strong safety, and the linebacking core, led by 1st-team All-Pro Jack Ham and Jack Lambert was the NFL’s best. It added up to a defense that was the best in the NFL in points allowed.

Pittsburgh opened with two easy games, at Buffalo and against Seattle, and won both. A Week 3 road trip to Cincinnati should have been a tough test. The Bengals had been a consistent contender in the middle part of the 1970s. But the Steelers’ easy 28-3 rout on September 17 foreshadowed the Bengal collapse to a 4-12 campaign.

The Cleveland Browns had gone 6-8 the year prior, but were getting better. They had started the season 3-0 and had the core of a team, around quarterback Brian Sipe, that would win the old AFC Central (Steelers, Bengals, Browns and the Houston Oilers) in two years. Pittsburgh hosted their archrival for Week 4 on September 24 and it would be the first real test of the 1978 season.

Bradshaw and Sipe both struggled to erratic 14-for-32 days and the teams combined for 19 penalties. The defenses were in control, and the Browns led a field goal war by a 9-3 count in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh rallied the only one could in this game—with two consecutive field goal drives that forced overtime. The Steelers became the team that finally cracked the end zone, when Bradshaw found tight end Bennie Cunningham for a 37-yard scoring strike and a 15-9 win.

Pittsburgh went to New York and beat the Jets to move to 5-0. The Steelers’ October 8 game at home with the Atlanta Falcons was their first against a team that would eventually make the playoffs. Pittsburgh met the test easily. Harris ran for 104 yards, Stallworth caught six balls for 114 yards, and after a slow first quarter, Pittsburgh heated up and won 31-7.

It was time for the return trip to Cleveland. The Browns were now 4-2, and would ultimately finish 8-8. Their slippage from the strong start would be evident in this game. The Steelers trailed 7-6 early on, but Larry Anderson brought a kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown and the rout was on. Pittsburgh played a clean football game, with zero turnovers and coasted to a 34-14 win.

With a record of 7-0 it was time for Pittsburgh to make its first appearance on the Monday Night stage. They were hosting the up-and-coming Houston Oilers, with a dynamic rookie running back in Earl Campbell. There would be considerable MVP support for Campbell at season’s end (while Bradshaw won the AP award, other organizations picked Campbell). The Oilers, while still looking for consistency with a 4-3 record, were beginning a two-year run that would see them as Pittsburgh’s primary foil in the AFC.

Houston certainly made a statement on this Monday Night, playing a brilliant game in handing Pittsburgh their first loss. The Steelers held Campbell to a manageable 89 yards, but Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini was an efficient 13-for-19 for 160 yards and no interceptions. The Houston defense completely collared the Pittsburgh rushing attack, and took away Swann and Stallworth. Bradshaw was only able to hook up with tight end Randy Grossman (9 catches, 116 yards) and that wasn’t going to be enough in a 24-17 loss.

The season’s first loss began a stretch where Pittsburgh began to look alarmingly human. They narrowly won two home games with bad teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. Bradshaw had to throw a late 24-yard touchdown pass to Rocky Bleier to escape the Saints game with a 20-14 win.

Pittsburgh traveled west to face the Los Angeles Rams on what was then a rare Sunday Night kickoff, a special edition of Monday Night Football, which had two prime-time games this week. The Steeler problems persisted. Facing an opponent that would make the NFC Championship Game this year and the Super Bowl a year later, the Steelers again could not run the ball. This time they couldn’t stop the run either—LA’s John Cappelletti ran for 106 yards and the Rams had a 10-7 win.

A home win over Cincinnati was no less alarming. The final score was 7-6, both teams committed five turnovers and Bradshaw threw four interceptions. The Steelers now had a five-week stretch that had seen them either barely escape bad teams, or lose to good ones because they couldn’t run the ball. What’s more, the only win of note was still the Atlanta game. If you wanted to doubt the Steelers, they were giving you reasons.

Pittsburgh went to San Francisco for Monday Night Football. The 49ers were on their way to a 2-14 season, and were still a year from getting Joe Montana to play quarterback. It wasn’t an inspiring performance—the Steelers turned it over four times—but at least the 24-7 win came without giving the fan base a nervous breakdown.

The Steelers were also being saved by their division and the conference. Houston had lost the week after their Monday Night triumph. No other team in the AFC would finish with a record better than 11-5. And for whatever struggles Pittsburgh was having, they were still 11-2. Again, this not being the age of parity, it was fair to question if they were really a top-heavy favorite going into December, but they were still winning more than anyone else.

Pittsburgh made a revenge trip to Houston on Week 14. The margin in the AFC Central was two games, but if Houston could trim the lead to a single game, and take the tiebreaker, it would make for a very interesting finish to the regular season. But this time, the Steelers ran the ball. Harris ran for 102 yards, Rocky Bleier added 66 more and a hard-fought 13-3 victory clinched the division and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

The Steelers closed out with wins over the Baltimore Colts and Denver Broncos. They would rematch with the latter for the divisional playoffs two weeks later. Denver followed up their conference championship year of 1977 with an AFC West title and #3 seed for the playoffs. Houston won the wild-card game and prior to 1990 there was a rule that teams from the same division could not meet prior to the conference championship game. So Houston went to 2-seed New England, and Pittsburgh got set to host Denver.

Over the next four weeks, covering two AFC playoff games and the Super Bowl, any doubts that one might have had watching the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers were washed away.

The Pittsburgh-Denver game was the first of divisional playoff weekend and after the Broncos got an early field goal, the Steelers stripped the game of its drama. Harris, on his way to a 105-yard day, ran for two first-half touchdowns and it was 19-10 at the half. Bradshaw broke it open in the fourth quarter with a 45-yard touchdown strike to Stallworth and a 38-yarder to Swann. The Pittsburgh defense owned Denver all afternoon in a 33-10 win.

Houston upset New England, a team that collapsed from internal dissension prior to the playoffs. The Oilers arrived in Pittsburgh with rain and sleet hitting the artificial turf that was in old Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers adjusted, getting first-quarter touchdown runs from Harris and Bleier. Bradshaw threw second-quarter touchdown passes to Swann and Stallworth. The defense locked up Campbell, and the game was a turnover-fest. Pittsburgh had an ugly five miscues, but Houston turned it over nine times. It was 31-3 by halftime and ended 34-5.

It was time for the ultimate showdown in the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers and Cowboys, along with the Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers, were the only franchises that had two Super Bowl wins. The winner of this game would be the first to three.

Dallas was coming on strong, having won six straight to close the season, and then went to Los Angeles to rout the Rams 28-zip in the NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys and Steelers would combine to play an outstanding Super Bowl game.

It was back-and-forth in the first half. Bradshaw was stripped by Cowboy linebacker Mike Hegman, giving Dallas a defensive score, but Bradshaw was locked in when throwing the ball. He would finish with a then-record 318 yards and a seven-yard pass to Bleier gave Pittsburgh a 21-14 lead going into halftime.

A key sequence of plays in the third and early fourth quarter swung the game. Dallas was driving for the tying score. On third-and-fourth, tight end Jackie Smith was alone in the end zone and got a perfect pass from quarterback Roger Staubach. Smith dropped the ball and Dallas had to kick a field goal.

Pittsburgh started driving and was aided considerably by a controversial pass interference call on defensive back Bennie Barnes on Swann. It set up a 22-yard scoring run by Harris. Then a fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave the Steelers yet another touchdown. Now it was 35-17 and the game was close to over.

Dallas made it interesting, scoring two touchdowns and lining up for an onside kick with 22 seconds left. But Pittsburgh covered the kick and the game was over. Bradshaw’s season of emergence ended with his first Super Bowl MVP award.

The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers had completed their return to the top of the NFL world. It wasn’t always easy, and it didn’t always seem preordained, but they saved their best football for the end and made history in the process.