The 1993 Pittsburgh Steelers were Bill Cowher’s second team, and while they weren’t quite as good as the 1992 edition that got the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs before losing, the ’93 Steelers were still a playoff team and nearly sprung a big upset when they got there.
Pittsburgh was built on defense, though the gap between the D and the offense wasn’t as dramatic this year as it had been in some past seasons and would be in future years. The defense ranked 8th in the NFL in points allowed, while the offense was 13th in points scored.
Dermontti Dawson, a future Hall of Famer, anchored the offensive line from the center position and helped clear the way for running backs Barry Foster and Leroy Thompson. Tight end Eric Green caught 63 passes for over 900 yards, and quarterback Neil O’Donnell threw for over 3,200 yards with a 14/7 TD-INT ratio.
Defensively there was more talent. Greg Lloyd, the outside linebacker with six sacks, and Rod Woodson, the Hall of Famer corner with eight interceptions were each 1st-team All-NFL. The Steelers also broke in two talented linebackers at the inside spots in their 3-4 scheme, in Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland. And if a game was close? Gary Anderson was a Pro Bowl kicker.
The 1993 NFL season opened with the Steelers hosting the San Francisco 49ers, who joined the Dallas Cowboys as the pre-eminent powers in all of football between 1992-95. The Steelers dug themselves a 17-0 hole in the second quarter and lost 24-13.
That loss wasn’t as alarming as the one that happened next week—a road trip to face the Los Angeles Rams, a non-playoff team ended in a 27-0 shutout. The only consolation was that Pittsburgh got a glimpse of their future—Jerome Bettis, who would one day become a Steel City legend, was starting his NFL career with the Rams.
Pittsburgh got themselves back on track when lowly Cincinnati paid a visit and O’Donnell carved the Bengals up with short passes, going 21/25 for 189 yards, while Foster ran for 103 yards in a 34-7 win. The Steelers then faced another bad team, the Atlanta Falcons in a Monday Night road trip and hung a 45-17 beatdown on the Falcons in spite of giving up a kickoff return and a defensive touchdown.
A bye week came with the Steelers at 2-2, and they continued their resurgence. Pittsburgh won a home game with the San Diego Chargers, the defending AFC West champ, albeit one headed for an 8-8 year. In a late afternoon game, it was a defensive battle that Pittsburgh led 6-3 before Kirkland recovered a fumble deep in Charger territory and returned it for the clinching touchdown.
Another home win over an 8-8 team followed, as Woodson set the tone against the New Orleans Saints by returning an interception 63 yards for a touchdown and the Steelers coasted to a 37-14 win. The four-game win streak then came to an end in a tough loss at the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh led 23-21 in the fourth quarter before allowing a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown.
It was time for another break in the schedule—the league experimented with two bye weeks for the 1993 season, a test that was not well-liked by anyone and quickly dropped. Pittsburgh returned to action at Cincinnati. They fell behind 16-0, but O’Donnell hit Green on a 71-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, Foster rolled for 120 yards and the Steelers won 24-16. Then they hosted Buffalo on Monday Night and it was what one might call a “statement game.”
Buffalo had won the AFC title each of the previous three years and would do it again in 1993. The previous year they had dismantled Pittsburgh in the playoffs. On the prime-time stage, it was the Steelers who did the dismantling. They won the rushing battle 227-47, with Thompson doing most of the damage. The defense throttled prolific Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, holding him to 7/19 for 93 yards. The result was a 23-0 whitewash and Pittsburgh had won six straight.
The Monday Night win over Buffalo was the peak of the season though, and the Steelers began to struggle. They played consecutive road games against the Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers, future playoff teams both. The defense was lit up, first by John Elway and then by Warren Moon. The Steelers lost the turnover battle in these games by a combined 7-1 and they lost the games themselves by a combined score of 60-16.
A home game with 11-point underdog New England saw the hangover continue through the first quarter, with Pittsburgh digging themselves a 14-0 hold. But the secondary turned things around, picked off Drew Bledsoe five times and the team ground out a 17-14 win.
It was time for another Monday Night game, this one in Miami. The Dolphins had reached the AFC Championship Game in 1992 before suffering a similar fate to Pittsburgh when they faced the Bills. Like the Steelers, the Dolphins had slipped just a bit this year and were fighting to make the playoffs. This was a game critical to shaping the postseason push for the final three weeks of the year.
Pittsburgh had gotten a break when Dan Marino was unable to play for Miami, but the Steelers secondary still struggled with Steve DeBerg, who threw for 344 yards. But the Pittsburgh defense shut down the Miami running game, won the turnover battle 3-0 and escaped South Beach with a 21-20 win. They were 8-5 and in good shape for a playoff berth.
But over the next two weeks, the Steelers gave that away. Houston, on its way to the title in the old AFC Central (which also included the Bengals and Browns), came into Pittsburgh and won 26-17. O’Donnell threw an early Pick-6 and the Steelers were unable to run the ball. Even worse was a road loss to a six-win Seattle Seahawks team, in which Pittsburgh was pummeled up front for 267 yards on the ground.
Now they were 8-7 and though still alive, the Steelers would need some help. Presuming they could beat Cleveland at home, Pittsburgh needed Miami and the New York Jets to each lose.
The Browns were 7-8 coming in and didn’t just roll over. The Steelers trailed 9-3 at the half, and not until O’Donnell found Green on a 14-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, did they get the lead. Pittsburgh won 16-9. The word came in that the Dolphins had lost in overtime to the Patriots. All that was left to wait for prime-time.
Sunday Night Football featured the Jets going to Houston. The Oilers were sitting down Moon and playing backup quarterback Cody Carlson. It was ripe with irony—in 1990, the Steelers had visited Houston for the final Sunday Night, needing to win to make the playoffs. Carlson got the call in that game too and he lit up Pittsburgh to knock them out. Tonight was payback time—the backup did the same to the Jets and the Steelers were back in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh lost their first-round game in Kansas City, who now had Joe Montana at quarterback. The Steelers suffered some classic heartbreak at the hands of Montana who made a legend for himself as the comeback artist. Pittsburgh led 24-17 in the fourth quarter and Montana faced 4th-and-goal from the 7-yard line in the closing moments. Montana converted, the Chiefs won in overtime and the Steelers season was over.
The 1993 Pittsburgh Steelers still built on the success of Bill Cowher’s first year. After having missed the playoffs the last two years prior to Cowher, they had now gone to postseason play for two consecutive years. And deeper advancement into January was right around the corner.