Chuck Noll, the legendary coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers who had won four Super Bowls, was at a rut late in his career. The Steelers had missed the playoffs four consecutive years, and it didn’t look like that was about the change. But a group of young players came together for the veteran coach and the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers fought their way into the postseason and played well when they got there.
The Steelers only had two Pro Bowl players in 1989, right tackle Tunch Ilkin and the great corner Rod Woodson. But there was a cadre of talent, age 25 or younger that was being assimilated into the lineup.
It started up front with center Dermontti Dawson, a future Hall of Famer, and included the running back combination of Tim Worley and Merrill Hoge. On defense, Hardy Nickers and Greg Lloyd were future stars at linebacker, and safeties Carnell Lake and Thomas Everett would make their own impact on the NFL.
Noll was able to make it work with an offense that depended primarily on the running game, and the occasional outbursts from mediocre quarterback Bubby Brister. The top receiver was Louis Lipps, who caught 50 passes for 944 yards. The offense only ranked 24th in the NFL in points scored, but the defense was at least middle of the pack at 15th.
There was nothing in the way the season started that suggested the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers would be something special. The opening game was against the Cleveland Browns, a playoff perennial. The Steelers, in front of their home fans, turned it over eight times and their offense gave up three touchdowns. That same offense only rushed for 36 yards and the result was a 51-0 humiliation.
It got only marginally better the following week at the Cincinnati Bengals, who had reached the Super Bowl in 1988. Pittsburgh at least hung in for a quarter, tied 3-3, before the avalanche started and they lost 41-10, rushing for only 86 yards.
There was no reason to expect Week 3 to be different. The Minnesota Vikings had reached the playoffs each of the previous two seasons and would do so again. They were widely regarded as one of the more talented rosters in the league.
But the Steelers turned it around at home. The Worley/Hoge combo rushed for 159 yards. Brister was efficient, 16/22 for 157 yards and no interceptions. Pittsburgh won 27-14 and got of the mat.
After going to Detroit and winning 23-3, behind another strong game from Brister and holding the Lions to 18 rush yards, the Steelers had the chance to test their improvement. The Bengals and Browns were up on the schedule again.
Pittsburgh didn’t win the home rematch with Cincinnati, but the Steelers demonstrated progress had been made. The game was tied 13-13 after three quarters and played evenly in the trenches, before Cincinnati got a long touchdown run and ended up winning 26-16. The only downside—admittedly a significant one—was that Brister was hurt and would miss two weeks.
The defense came up with a big-time effort in Cleveland. Backup quarterback Todd Blackledge was erratic, but the Steelers picked off Browns’ QB Bernie Kosar four times in a shocking 17-7 win. Pittsburgh’s record was 3-3 and they were still hanging around.
Regression seeped in the next week at a Houston Oilers team that had one of the top passing offenses, with Warren Moon and a spread-the-field approach. Moon threw three first-half touchdowns, the Steelers couldn’t run and Blackledge was in over his head, in a 27-0 loss.
The next game, at home with the Kansas City Chiefs loomed large. The Steelers were under .500, and a road trip at AFC front-runner Denver was up next. Kansas City was an improved team, in the first year under Marty Schottenheimer and the game in old Three Rivers Stadium was a good one.
Pittsburgh jumped out to a 16-0 lead, but Kansas City eventually came all the way back and led 17-16 late in the third quarter. Brister then found Lipps on a 64-yard touchdown strike and the defense held firm the rest of the way. Even though Pittsburgh fell in Denver 34-7 the following week, the 4-5 record still had the Steelers in a packed AFC playoff picture.
One week later the most disheartening loss since the early season blowouts took place. The Chicago Bears, on their way to a 6-10 season, came in to Pittsburgh and hung a 21-0 shutout. The Steelers turned the ball over six times and were outrushed 203-54.
In fairness, this was a Bears team that had been a consistent Super Bowl contender under Mike Ditka from 1984-88 and would return to contention in 1990, so their talent was better than the 1989 record. Nonetheless, it’s a game you win if you want to make the playoffs and at 4-6, that now looked like a longshot for the young Steelers.
Pittsburgh trailed another 6-10 team at home, the San Diego Chargers, by a 17-13 count in the fourth quarter. But the running game eventually paid off, and the Steelers won it in the final quarter. Then they got a huge win at the playoff-contending Miami Dolphins. After falling behind Dan Marino 14-0 early, Pittsburgh forced five turnovers, ran for 131 yards and delivered a stunning 34-14 blowout. The unexpected road win reversed the damage of the Chicago loss.
A home date with the Oilers resulted in a tough 23-16 loss. Pittsburgh led 10-0 early and got 103 rush yards from Worley, but Moon was steady and Houston got a running game of their own from Lorenzo White to key the win. Pittsburgh still had a chance, but at 6-7, they needed to run the table.
The schedulemakers smiled on Pittsburgh and gave them three lousy teams, in the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Steelers took full advantage, winning the three games by a combined 72-32 count and getting to 9-7.
The teams of the old AFC Central (Pittsburgh, Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati) all were packed on top of each other. The Browns had eked out the division at 9-6-1, winning a head-to-head battle at Houston in the final game. The Oilers would get one of the two wild-card spots at 9-7. The last playoff berth was down to the Steelers, and to the Bengals. Cincinnati was 8-7 and playing in Minnesota on Christmas Night, the final Monday Night Game of the season.
When Minnesota jumped out to a 19-0 lead, the good people of western Pennsylvania were ready to celebrate. But Cincinnati wasn’t giving up its AFC crown without a fight. Boomer Esiason threw for over 360 yards, and crawled back to within 22-21.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Vikings faced a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line. They decided to go for it—in the era prior to the two-point conversion, a touchdown would put it away. Minnesota made it, and Chuck Noll’s Steelers were going back to the playoffs.
On the late afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Pittsburgh traveled to Houston for the AFC wild-card game. It’s a game that produced one of this writer’s favorite sports memories. Four of us were gathered to watch the game at my parents’ house. One, an old college roommate, was a diehard Steelers fan. I had a bet placed on the Steelers, getting (+6.5). Another friend hated Houston coach Jerry Glanville, so he was on the Pittsburgh bandwagon. The fourth only leaned the Steelers, but with the raw passion in the room, he freely got swept up into it, and a house in southeast Wisconsin turned into a big Steeler playoff party as we ate barbeque and got ready to go out later in the evening.
The game was a roller coaster ride. Pittsburgh blocked a punt early in the game and then faced a 4th-and-1 on the Houston 9-yard line. Noll decided to go for it. Worley not only got it, he scored the touchdown. The Oilers drove into the red zone twice, but the Steeler defense held both times and forced field goals. A red-zone drive of their own was stopped for a field goal attempt and it went to halftime with Pittsburgh ahead 10-6.
A tense field goal battle continued through another quarter, as each team traded threes and it was 13-9 going into the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh got a 48-yard field goal from Gary Anderson. Then Moon got heated up.
The game had been in a contrast in styles the whole way. Pittsburgh outrushed Houston 177-65, while Houston got 315 yards passing from Moon compared to 127 for Brister. Moon orchestrated two straight drives that ended with touchdown passes to Ernest Givens for a 23-16 lead.
Pittsburgh got the ball back on their own 18-yard line with 5:16 left. They needed a drive to force overtime and enable me to win my bet, since if we got OT, my (+6.5) was guaranteed to stand up. The Steelers put together the long grinding drive and when Hoge punched it in near the goal line the game was tied 23-23.
Our group watching the game went to refill plates for overtime. Relieved that I was cashing in, and drenched with sweat from all our wild jumping around, I said simply “That was a heckuva game.” Heads whirled to look at me for the past tense reference. Was? My Steelers fan roommate demanded I stay on board the bandwagon, at least in gratitude. Of course, I did.
Pittsburgh punted away after their first possession and when Houston had the ball on their own 45-yard line—playing in the Astrodome with perfect kicking conditions—it seemed all set up for Moon to lead them into field goal range. But before the quarterback could do that, Woodson came up on a running play, helped force a fumble and then recovered the ball. Now, the Steelers were in business.
They ground their way to the 33-yard line behind Hoge, who finished with 100 yards rushing. Anderson came into the field for a 50-yard field goal. He nailed it. Our living room exploded, with the lightest of the four guys getting hoisted onto the shoulders of the other three in a big celebration (I wasn’t the lightest, in case anyone was curious). Pittsburgh had a big playoff upset.
The Steelers nearly did it one more time the following week at Denver, the AFC’s top seed. Pittsburgh led 10-0, 17-7 and 23-17. But John Elway in the playoffs is never dead, and he led one final drive that beat the Steelers 24-23.
Chuck Noll would never make it back to the playoffs. His team narrowly missed in 1990 and he retired after a tough 1991 season. But the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers were a special one to go out on. It was a group of young kids who got punched in the mouth, came off the mat, came together and produced special moments for an entire fan base.