1984 Pittsburgh Steelers: A Division Championship Run
The early 1980s aren’t a memorable part of Pittsburgh Steelers lore, not in a franchise that has won six Super Bowls. The early 1980s didn’t provide that, but the Steelers produced three respectable teams that made the playoffs in consecutive years. The 1984 Pittsburgh Steelers concluded that three-year run.
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1984 was also the first year of Terry Bradshaw’s retirement. Bradshaw had missed all but one game in 1983, so it wasn’t a drastic transition, but head coach Chuck Noll was still dealing with instability at the position.
The Steelers acquired David Woodley, who had ridden the strong defense of the 1982 Miami Dolphins to a Super Bowl appearance before losing his job to Dan Marino a year later. Woodley entered the season as the starter, but Mark Malone was also a contender for the job and would eventually take it.
Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had a Pro Bowl year at age 32 and anchored a line that paved the way for Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie, who shared rushing duty. The running game was still just a modest threat at best, and Pittsburgh would have been lost if not for the emergence of a fresh face at wide receiver.
Louis Lipps caught 45 passes for 860 yards, made the Pro Bowl and was named Offensive Rookie Of The Year. The rookie combined with a veteran of the Super Bowl years in the late 1970s. John Stallworth, now 32-years-old had a Pro Bowl year himself, catching 80 passes for over 1,100 yards. The performance of the receivers in carrying an unstable quarterback position was a terrific story for the ’84 Pittsburgh Steelers and a reason they were able to rank eighth in the NFL in points scored.
The talent level on defense had been decline for several years since the Steel Curtain Dynasty ended and the 1984 team finished 11th in the league in points allowed. They had two Pro Bowl linebackers in 1984, with Mike Meriweather coming off the outside for 15 sacks and Robin Cole getting Pro Bowl recognition on the inside.
They were the only two players to reach Honolulu, although there were nice years on the corners from Dwayne Woodruff and Sam Washington, along with veteran strong safety Donnie Shell. The secondary trio combined to intercept 18 passes.
Woodley got the call for the opener at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. He played well against a mediocre opponent, going 11/17 for 225 yards, but was knocked out with a concussion in the third quarter. Malone came on and also played well, going 11/23 for 233 yards. Lipps and Stallworth were productive all game long…but the running game and defense failed Pittsburgh and they lost 37-27.
The biggest win of the 1983 regular season came when the Steelers visited the Jets in the penultimate game, Bradshaw came back and made his one start, got Pittsburgh out to a lead before blowing out his elbow for the last time and the Steelers clinched the division. That was the final game ever played at old Shea Stadium. As Pittsburgh ended the Jets’ tenure at Shea, they would open a new era in Jets history by going to the Meadowlands for New York’s home opener on a Thursday night.
Thursday Night Football was a rarity in this era, and the Steeler defense responded to their opportunity on the national stage. They got four sacks and intercepted three passes, two by Washington. Woodley returned and went 14/25 for 187 yards and the Steelers won 23-17.
Ten days off helped prepare for a playoff-bound opponent in the Los Angeles Rams. Washington continued his ballhawking ways, getting a Pick-6 deep in Ram territory. The defense shut down the great Eric Dickerson on the ground and Woodley went 20/30 for 244 yards, no interceptions, with Stallworth the prime beneficiary. Pittsburgh won 24-14.
Sam Washington came out in Cleveland and continued to be all over the football, starting the scoring with a 69-yard interception return in the second quarter. But that was the last touchdown for Pittsburgh. There was no running game, Woodley could do nothing and five turnovers led to a 20-10 loss against a bad team.
The Steelers stepped onto the Monday Night stage against the Cincinnati Bengals and the defense continued to make big plays. This time it was Woodruff coming up with a 42-yard interception return to help build a 14-0 lead. With the lead at 31-17, Shell sealed it with a 52-yard Pick-6. It was dangerous going to the air against this secondary.
Unless, that is, you were Dan Marino. The Pittsburgh native was on his way to an MVP season with the Dolphins and he came home and put 31 points on the board. Woodley suffered another concussion and Malone returned, going 19/42 for 228 yards, but to no avail in a 31-7 loss.
The schedule didn’t get easier. Marino’s Dolphins would make the Super Bowl and the same was true of Joe Montana’s 49ers. Pittsburgh went to San Francisco as a (+8) underdog and got their running game going. Pollard ran for 105 yards, the Steelers kept the game close and then stole a 20-17 win in the fourth quarter after a late field goal by Gary Anderson. It was the only game San Francisco lost all year.
Coming off the high of winning in Frisco came the agony of blowing a game at lowly Indianapolis. Woodley returned and threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Lipps, but the quarterback hurt his hip and was finally done. The Steelers had a 13-0 lead, but played mistake-prone football, with eleven penalties and lost 17-16.
Pittsburgh needed to right the ship when a bad Atlanta Falcons team came north. Woodruff scooped up a fumble and went 65 yards to the house to start the scoring. Pollard ran for 111 yards and the Steelers rolled to a 35-10 win. They dominated another bad team at home, blowing out the Houston Oilers (the future Tennessee Titans) 35-7, thanks to a 191-97 edge in rush yardage, with the load distributed through the backfield.
The Steelers were only 6-4, but the old AFC Central, which included the Browns, Bengals and Oilers, was a truly bad division and Pittsburgh had a three-game lead. They went to Cincinnati on November 11 with a chance to all but put the division away.
Trailing 15-13, Lipps got the ball on a run and went around the edge for 36 yards to the end zone. Malone was playing poorly though, throwing three interceptions and the Bengals rallied for a touchdown that won 22-20. The race was still on with five games left, though Pittsburgh was still plus-two games on Cincinnati.
A Monday Night visit to New Orleans, a mediocre team, was next. Lipps took a punt back 76 yards for an early 7-3 lead, but Malone threw two interceptions, including a Pick-6 and the Steelers lost 27-24. Fortunately, the Bengals also lost, and it looked like Pittsburgh could backpedal all the way to the division crown.
Malone got heated up at home against San Diego on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. He went 18/22 for 253 yards and four touchdowns, while making no mistakes. Lipps and Stallworth each caught seven passes for 100-plus yards and an easy 52-24 win got Pittsburgh back on track.
Then they went back off the track at Houston. This was the first NFL season for Warren Moon, and while he threw three interceptions, he also racked up 303 yards and stunned Pittsburgh in overtime, 23-20. The Bengals won and closed the gap to one game…and Cincinnati had the tiebreaker. There was no slack left.
Malone stepped up in a home game with Cleveland, throwing a 61-yard TD pass to Lipps early on and helping build a 17-6 lead. But even though Pittsburgh intercepted four passes, the Browns tied the game 20-20, before an Anderson field goal saved the day and the division lead. Cincinnati won and the race went to the final week.
It was tough to imagine a much tougher situation than the one the Steelers faced. An 8-7 team, they had to find a way to win on the road at the Los Angeles Raiders, who were merely the defending Super Bowl champion, had crushed Pittsburgh in the playoffs and who needed this game to get homefield advantage for the AFC wild-card game.
The 4 PM ET kickoff on the West Coast meant that Pittsburgh would know the stakes by the time they took the field. In the early games, Cincinnati blew out Buffalo. It was win or go home for the Steelers in the L.A. Coliseum as a (+6.5) underdog.
Pittsburgh’s defense played a good time to play the game of their lives. They completely shut down Marcus Allen, holding him to 38 yards on 13 carries. Abercrombie had his best game of the year, pounding out 111 yards. Pollard ran for 78 more. The game was still just 3-0 after three quarters, with no passing game going. Pollard ran for a short TD for breathing room and the final was 13-7.
The Steelers were AFC Central champs and in the playoffs for the third straight year. No one had any expectations of a lengthy stay. They were a (+4.5) underdog at Denver, who had gone 13-3 in John Elway’s second year. The Steelers-Broncos game was the final one of Divisional Round Weekend and the NFL world was anticipating an Elway-Marino battle for the AFC Championship.
Pittsburgh got an early break when Denver’s first drive ended with a missed field goal. Then the Steelers made a break, when nose tackle Gary Dunn intercepted an Elway screen pass when Denver had driven to the 6-yard line. The Broncos still got on the board after a turnover set up an Elway touchdown pass, but Pittsburgh’s deficit could have been worse than 7-0.
The second quarter saw the tide turn, as Anderson kicked a field goal, Pollard ran in from a yard out and the Steelers took a 10-7 lead into the locker room. The Broncos tied with a third-quarter field goal and then Elway threw a touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh in a 17-10 hole.
Malone would have to step up and he played a big game on this afternoon, finishing 17/28 for 224 yards and no interceptions. By contrast, Elway was an erratic 19/37 for 184 yards and two picks. Malone found Lipps with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 17-17 going into the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh was completely controlling the ground game. They won the rushing battle 169-57, even though this edition of the Broncos was built as much on the running of Sammy Winder as it was on Elway’s arm. Pittsburgh got 25 first downs and kept the clock moving. And with three minutes left, after an interception by safety Eric Williams, the Steelers got the go-ahead touchdown from Pollard. The defense closed it out and Pittsburgh had a 24-17 upset.
The magic lasted for a quarter and a half the next week in Miami. The Steelers were a decisive (+10) underdog to the Dolphins, but took a 14-10 lead when Malone hit Stallworth from 65 yards out. Malone finished 20/36 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. But he also had three interceptions. It was a heavy burden, trying to keep up with Marino, who threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns. Pittsburgh trailed 24-14 by halftime, 38-21 after three quarters and lost 45-28.
It wasn’t an epic season in 1984, but it’s one that deserves its own niche in Pittsburgh Steelers history. They won consecutive upsets in Los Angeles and Denver to close the regular season and open the playoffs and reached the AFC Championship Game. It would be five years before Pittsburgh got back into the postseason, but those wins over the Raiders and Broncos provided some memories to keep the faithful warm.