The Chuck Noll era in the Steel City came to an end with the 1991 Pittsburgh Steelers. The legendary head coach who had led the franchise to four Super Bowl wins in a six-year span during the 1970s stepped down after this season was over. It wasn’t a fitting conclusion to a great career—after consecutive winning seasons in 1989 and 1990, the 1991 Pittsburgh Steelers were never in serious playoff contention and finished 7-9.
Quarterback was a position in flux all year, with starter Bubby Brister missing half the season with injuries and giving way to rookie Neil O’Donnell, who would eventually became the permanent starter in future years. Running back Barry Foster also missed time, and wide receiver Louis Lipps suffered a decline.
The Steelers had a future Hall of Fame center in Dermontti Dawson, though the 26-year-old was not yet a Pro Bowler and a pretty good tight end in Eric Green. But by year’s end, the offense only ranked 17th in the NFL in points scored.
Defense had covered for a lack of offensive production the two prior years, but a disappointing decline on this side of the ball saw the D finish 22nd in the NFL. Rod Woodson was still a great Pro Bowl defensive back and linebacker Greg Lloyd registered eight sacks, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for unexpected decline elsewhere from players that were in their prime.
The season still began with optimism, with a late afternoon kickoff at home against the San Diego Chargers. Brister threw a 33-yard touchdown pass early and O’Donnell flipped an 89-yard touchdown pass to shifty running back Dwight Stone late in the game to key a 26-20 win. But Foster suffered an ankle sprain that would keep him out several weeks.
A road trip to Buffalo didn’t go well. The Bills would win their third straight AFC title this season, and offensively were at their peak. Running back Thurman Thomas won the MVP award, and quarterback Jim Kelly led an explosive attack. Kelly threw six touchdown passes and the Steelers were routed, 52-34.
Pittsburgh bounced back with a home win over the New England Patriots, but this was a bad Patriots team, and the game was tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter. Brister threw a touchdown pass to Green and finished 22/29 for 262 yards. But the 20-6 win wasn’t inspiring. It was followed by a 23-14 loss in Philadelphia where the Foster-less running game couldn’t get anything going.
After a bye week, the Steelers traveled to Indianapolis to play a prime-time game against a woeful opponent. They trailed 3-0 early, before Brister opened up. He threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Green, and a 24-yard scoring pass to the now-healthy Foster. Indy quarterback Jeff George couldn’t get the ball down the field, as he went 22/28, but the Steelers limited him to 191 yards and won 21-3.
With a 3-2 record, there was still reason to be hopeful. Then, over a four-week stretch, the season got away from Pittsburgh. They fell behind the New York Giants on the road 20-0. O’Donnell came in and rallied the Steelers to tie it 20-20 before they ultimate lost—to a non-playoff team that was in its first year without Bill Parcells as head coach.
O’Donnell got the start at home against Seattle and went 14/22 for 184 yards, but there was no running game and no defense in a 27-7 loss. A trip to Cleveland for a late afternoon kick again saw the running game fail, O’Donnell not able to pick up the slack and a 17-14 defeat. With the season basically on the line, Pittsburgh traveled to Denver for a Sunday Night game.
The Steelers and Broncos had played some big games in old Mile High Stadium. Pittsburgh pulled an upset here in the 1984 playoffs and almost did so in 1989. John Elway had this Denver team rolling again and they eventually reached the AFC Championship Game. Pittsburgh’s defense played well, holding Elway to 10/23 for 140 yards. O’Donnell threw an early touchdown pass to Green, and built up a 10-0 lead.
Pittsburgh was not able to stop the running of Greg Lewis though, and Denver moved out to a 20-13 lead when the Steelers mounted one last drive. On fourth down, O’Donnell spotted Green in the middle of the end zone and put the ball on the numbers. There were defenders in the area, and the tight end was under some duress. Nonetheless, it’s a catch that needs to be made, and this time it wasn’t. The Steelers lost, dropped to 3-6 and would require a miracle finish to have any playoff hopes.
O’Donnell threw for 309 yards the following week in a win at Cincinnati, while Green made amends by catching the winning TD pass in a 33-27 overtime victory. But the Steelers quickly lost to the powerful Washington Redskins, the eventual Super Bowl champs, 41-14.
The playoffs were realistically gone, but Noll could still inspire some Steeler pride. His team hosted the soon-to-be division champs, the Houston Oilers, as a (+7.5) point underdog. Foster, now fully healthy, keyed a running attack that rolled up 139 yards. The Steeler D held Houston to 24 yards rushing. They picked off prolific quarterback Warren Moon five times and won the game 26-14. It was the last really big win of Noll’s career.
Pittsburgh gave Dallas a tough game on Thanksgiving, trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter, before the playoff-bound Cowboys scored a clinching touchdown. The Steelers made another trip to the Lone Star State to play a rematch with Houston, and this one didn’t go well, a 31-6 loss.
The final two games of Noll’s career would be at home against division rivals in Cincinnati and Cleveland. The games wouldn’t affect the playoffs for anyone involved, so in that regard it was not a fitting finish, but the results of the games were.
Brister started the Bengal game, threw an early 47-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Cooper and won 17-10. In the Browns’ game, defensive back Richard Shelton intercepted three passes and returned one for a touchdown. Jerroll Williams recorded four sacks and it was another 17-10 win.
The Chuck Noll era was now in the history books. It would have been nice if the 1991 Pittsburgh Steelers could have given the old coach an ending in the playoffs, but nothing could detract from a great career and his last team still played hard all the way to the end.