In the world of the 21st century, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a model NFL franchise, with their six Super Bowl championships the most of any team. To say this wasn’t this always the case would be a gross understatement. In the world of the early 1970s, the Steelers had never won a title, and finished under .500 each year from 1964-71.
There was a quarterback controversy in Pittsburgh when the 1974 season began. Noll had turned to Joe Gilliam over erratic Terry Bradshaw, the #1 overall pick in the 1970 NFL draft, but mistake-prone and the target of a lot of boos from the home fans. It was a good thing the Steelers were built on defense and the running game—they ranked second in the NFL in both categories.
Franco Harris was a 1,000-yard rusher and a Pro Bowler. On the defensive side, linemen L.C. Greenwood and Joe Greene were first-team All-Pro, as was linebacker Jack Ham. Veteran linebacker Andy Russell made the Pro Bowl at age 33, and the unit also included a rookie named Jack Lambert and other future components of the “Steel Curtain”, in corner Mel Blount and strong safety Mike Wagner.
There might have been instability at quarterback and questions at receiver—Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, who would soon elevate the latter position dramatically were rookies in 1974—but you could win plenty of games with the defense and running game the Steelers had.
Pittsburgh began the season 1-1-1, and there was reason to be concerned. The only victory was over the Baltimore Colts, who were uncharacteristically awful in 1974. The Steelers had played the Denver Broncos to a tie at home and then lost to the Oakland Raiders. In both cases, the Broncos and Raiders ran the ball effectively.
In both cases they were good teams—Denver finished 7-6-1, the only non-playoff team in the AFC to have a winning record (only four teams per conference made it prior to 1978) and Oakland was one of the top teams in the league. But if Pittsburgh was going to take that proverbial next step, these were the kind of games they needed to win. Not only had the Steelers failed to do that, but the tie and loss happened at home and because they were beaten up front.
The Steelers were able to restore consistency. They won three games in a row, although after a narrow victory over lowly Cleveland, Noll pulled the plug on the Gilliam idea and put Bradshaw in. Pittsburgh won six of their final eight games and took the AFC Central (including Cleveland, Cincinnati and the old Houston Oilers, since re-named the Tennessee Titans).
Pittsburgh’s 10-3-1 record was impressive, but if you wanted to be skeptical about their playoff chances, the ammunition was there. The Steelers had not beaten a team with a record over .500 all year long. In the age before parity, simply stringing together wins over a series of mediocre teams wasn’t as hard as it is in today’s NFL.
What’s more, the Steelers had not shown well in either of the two previous postseason appearances. They won one game in 1972, but that took the miracle “Immaculate Reception” to get them past Oakland. Pittsburgh then lost the AFC Championship Game to the Miami Dolphins—and while yes, that was the Dolphin team that went undefeated and won the Super Bowl, it was also a home game for Pittsburgh. It wasn’t until 1975 that the NFL used merit to establish homefield advantage rather than a rotating system among the divisions.
Then in 1973, the Steelers were blown out by the Raiders. Pittsburgh’s performance over two playoff years was certainly not terrible, nor was their 10-3-1 run in 1974. But if you wanted to be skeptical about their ability to string together wins against high-quality opponents, you weren’t without reasons.
Pittsburgh got a break in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. They drew the Buffalo Bills, who had an exciting young runner in O.J. Simpson, but were making their first appearance in the playoffs. Even though the Bills had an early 7-3 lead, the Steelers were too strong in the trenches and took the game over.
Rocky Bleier, the #2 running back, took a 27-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to give the Steelers the lead. Then Harris bulled through for three short touchdown runs and it was 29-7 by halftime. Pittsburgh finished with 235 rush yards. The defense was in lockdown form, holding Simpson to just 49 yards.
Now it was time to go west and face Oakland, and again the Steelers got a bit of a break. Miami was the two-time defending Super Bowl champs and the week before, the Raiders had knocked off the Dolphins in the final minute of one the great playoff games ever played. Could Oakland do it all over again?
Perhaps it was emotional fatigue that made the difference. The Raiders led 10-3 in the third quarter, but the Steelers were again winning the battle in the trenches and they broke Oakland down in the final period. Harris ran in from eight yards out to tie the game. Bradshaw tossed a short touchdown pass to Swann. After a Raider field goal, Harris sealed the deal with a 21-yard touchdown run.
Harris finished with 111 yards on the ground and Bleier tacked on 98 more. The Raiders had just 29 yards as a team. The 24-13 win sent Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl venue alone tells you how much the NFL has changed. The game was in New Orleans. What’s so unusual about that you ask? It was at Tulane Stadium. At least they got 80,000-plus in the building to watch the Steelers play the Minnesota Vikings.
Minnesota was in its third Super Bowl in the last six years and still looking for their first victory. The game was a defensive war that appropriately saw the Steelers ahead 2-0 at halftime. But Pittsburgh’s basic victory plan—run the ball and stop the run—was again holding firm. Harris was on his way to a 158-yard game and he ran in from nine yards out for the game’s first touchdown.
The 9-0 lead in a game like this was huge, but the Vikings blocked a punt, recovered in the end zone and cut it to 9-6. But they couldn’t run the ball to save their life—17 yards on 21 carries—and Bradshaw eventually flipped a four-yard touchdown pass to Larry Brown that put it out of reach.
Harris was named Super Bowl MVP in the 16-6 win. The Pittsburgh Steelers were finally the champions of the NFL. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time.