The football fans of Pittsburgh were extra hungry for a Super Bowl in 1995. It had been sixteen years since their last appearance, the fourth championship won by Chuck Noll’s Steel Curtain Dynasty. The Steelers looked ready to return in 1994 before coming up three yards short in the AFC Championship Game. The 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers fulfilled their mission and returned the franchise to the NFL’s biggest stage.
Defensively, Pittsburgh slipped a bit from its elite status of 1994, but they were still ranked 9th in the league in points allowed. Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, the havoc-wreaking linebackers were 1st-team All-Pro. Carnell Lake had made the Pro Bowl a year earlier as a strong safety. For 1995, Lake switched to corner and did it again. Defensive end Ray Seals had 8 ½ sacks, and if you neglected inside linebacker Chad Brown he could also get to the quarterback.
What really lifted Pittsburgh was that the offense elevated from middle of the league in points scored to fifth in 1995. The skill positions were in transition—Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green had departed via free agency, and talented, but injury-prone running back Barry Foster was replaced. Neither loss hurt Pittsburgh.
The Steelers’ ground attack saw shifty Erric Pegram step up to share duties with the power-oriented Bam Morris. Neil O’Donnell was not spectacular at quarterback, throwing for just under 3,000 yards, but he was efficient and only threw seven interceptions all year.
Kordell Stewart was drafted as a quarterback and would eventually take on that role, but for now the speedy Stewart earned the nickname “Slash”, for playing a little quarterback and a lot of receiver—he was a QB-Slash-Wide Receiver.
But the big addition was Yancey Thigpen at wide receiver. Thigpen caught 85 passes for 1,357 yards, made the Pro Bowl and gave this offense the big-time threat outside they had been lacking. Up front, Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson continued to anchor the line.
Pittsburgh opened the season against what was then a good Detroit Lions team, a regular in the playoffs with the great Barry Sanders at running back. The bigger problem was that after completing seven of his first ten passes, O’Donnell was knocked out. Backup Mike Tomczak came in and threw three interceptions, but the Steelers were still able to survive 23-20.
Tomczak got the call the next week at the Houston Oilers, and the defense and special teams picked him up. Andre Hastings returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown to get the Steelers rolling, they held the Oilers to 38 yards rushing and won 34-17.
The problems at quarterback caught up to Pittsburgh the next two weeks. Tomczak and Jim Miller combined to throw three picks in a 23-10 loss at playoff-bound Miami. The two backups threw three more interceptions at home against Minnesota in a 44-24 loss.
Pittsburgh hosted San Diego, another team that would fight its way into the playoffs and the defense delivered. Defensive backs Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays each had Pick-6s, Pegram helped control tempo with 95 yards rushing and the Steelers posted an impressive 31-16 win. They lost the following week in lowly Jacksonville, but at least O’Donnell was now back in the lineup as Pittsburgh went into the bye week at 3-3.
The bye week wasn’t an automatic panacea though, as Pittsburgh lost to another division rival that was on its way to a sub-.500 season. A Thursday night home game ended in an embarrassing 27-9 loss, as the proud defense allowed Jeff Blake to go 18/22 for 275 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Pittsburgh responded with a complete game at home against Jacksonville, winning the rushing battle 138-84 and O’Donnell turning in an efficient 17/25 for 178 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. The 24-7 win got the season back on track and then the Steelers really found their groove.
A late Sunday afternoon national television tilt at Chicago produced a thrilling game. O’Donnell threw for 341 yards, with Thigpen catching ten passes for 108 yards. The Bears’ Erik Kramer responded with a big game of his own and the back-and-forth affair went to overtime before Pittsburgh won 37-34.
The Steelers blasted through four straight divisional games winning every way possible. They did it with defense in beating up Cleveland 20-3, although the Browns were in disarray since the midseason announcement that they would move to Baltimore and become the Ravens (not until 1999 did Cleveland get a franchise back). This game, on the Monday Night stage, saw Steeler fans wear orange arm bands to demonstrate solidarity with their rivals.
Pittsburgh’s offense led them past Cincinnati 49-31, with O’Donnell throwing for 377 yards and Morris rushing for 101 as the Steelers rallied from 21-3 down. A return visit to Cleveland produced a closer game, as the Steelers coughed up a 17-3 lead before winning 20-17 behind O’Donnell’s 21/30 for 251 yards performance. Then Morris ran for 102 yards at home against Houston, as Pittsburgh overcame four turnovers and won 21-7.
Two more victories followed, as the Steelers wrapped up a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. They beat up the Oakland Raiders in the trenches, winning the rushing battle 144-28 behind Pegram and winning the game 29-10. On a Saturday afternoon at home against the New England Patriots, the Steelers returned two fumbles for touchdowns and won 41-27.
There was no chance at the top seed when Pittsburgh visited the Green Bay Packers for the finale. The Kansas City Chiefs had that wrapped up in the AFC. The Steelers had nothing to play for, while the Packers were playing to win their first division title of the Brett Favre Era. Pittsburgh still outplayed Green Bay and would have won had not Thigpen dropped an easy pass in the end zone at the very end of a 24-19 loss.
In spite of the loss, Pittsburgh was as hot as any team in the NFL and there was every confidence they could fill the “Three More Yards” mantra that had driven the team and their town since last year’s AFC Championship Game. After the bye week, Pittsburgh hosted the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round.
Buffalo had won the AFC championship each year from 1990-93 and was back in the postseason after missing the previous year. In a sign that perhaps things were breaking Pittsburgh’s way, the Bills’ Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith got sick right before the game.
O’Donnell connected with Thigpen on a 43-yard pass that put the Steelers on the doorstep in the first quarter and they turned that into an early 7-0 lead. O’Donnell threw a touchdown pass to Ernie Mills in the second quarter, the lead grew as large as 20-0 in the second quarter and it was 23-7 at the half. Morris was running well, on his way to 106 yards and enabled the Steelers to control the flow of play.
Fate again smiled on Pittsburgh when Buffalo’s Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly was injured in the third quarter, although the lead was still cut to 26-21 and created some anxious moments. Morris took the game back over. A 13-yard touchdown run gave the Steelers breathing room again and then a Levon Kirkland interception set up one more Morris score. The final was 40-21 and Pittsburgh was back in the AFC Championship Game.
The Steelers-Bills game was the first of the divisional weekend, so Pittsburgh assumed they would be going to be Kansas City. But by early evening on Sunday, the Steelers got another unexpected bonus. The Indianapolis Colts upset KC and Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium would again host the battle for the AFC title.
Indy was led by quarterback Jim Harbaugh, and though they weren’t as good as the Chiefs, the Colts were another team that had a “destiny” feel about them. When they intercepted a tipped O’Donnell pass and got a quick field goal, it was a sign that this championship game was going to be a protracted battle.
Pittsburgh took the lead 10-6 when O’Donnell competed a touchdown pass to Stewart, though replays would show Stewart’s foot was partially out of bounds. The Steelers still led 13-9 in the fourth quarter when Harbaugh threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner. It was eerily reminiscent of the previous year when San Diego’s Stan Humphries threw two TD passes of over 40 yards in the second half to beat Pittsburgh.
Just as they had a year earlier, the Steelers went on one more drive. Starting at their own 34 with 3:03 to go, they marched down the field, with the big play being O’Donnell’s 37-yard pass to Ernie Mills to get them inside the 5-yard line. Morris finished it off with a touchdown run and they had a 20-16 lead.
Indianapolis still had one more answer and reached the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with time for one last pass into the end zone. Harbaugh’s throw hit Aaron Bailey in the chest, but it bounced off, and by the time Bailey recovered, the ball was trapped against the ground. It had been anything but easy, but Pittsburgh was going back to the Super Bowl.
A familiar foe awaited in Tempe. The Steelers had beaten the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl following the 1975 and 1978 seasons. This time Dallas, going for its third title in four years, got their revenge. O’Donnell threw two bizarre interceptions to corner Larry Brown, where it was obvious the quarterback and his receivers weren’t on the same page and the passes went directly into the hands of the waiting Brown. Dallas won 27-17.
The Cowboys were a dynasty team and a heavy favorite, so there was no shame in the loss. The 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had finally gotten over the hump in the AFC and brought the Super Bowl back to the Steel City.