The Pittsburgh Steelers won a breakthrough Super Bowl in 1974, ending decades of frustration for a passionate football fan base. The 1974 run saw the Steelers glide through a soft schedule and get the right breaks in the postseason. But the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers were different—they were juiced-up version of the same model and their run to a repeat championship left little doubt about who the best team was.
Pittsburgh’s division rivals included, as they do now, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. The fourth team in the old AFC Central was the Houston Oilers, who have since relocated to Tennessee and changed to the Titans. The AFC Central had been mediocre in 1974, with Pittsburgh the only winning team. There was no such luck in 1975—the Bengals and Oilers each won double-digit games in what was then a 14-game schedule.
The Steelers were ready for the challenge. The Steel Curtain defense ranked #2 in the NFL and sent eight starters to the Pro Bowl, including 1st-team All-Pro members in end L.C. Greenwood, linebacker Jack Ham and corner Mel Blount. The running game, keyed by Franco Harris and including Rocky Bleier, finished second. The number two rankings of both the defense and running game replicated 1974.
What separated the 1975 team was the improvement in the passing game. Terry Bradshaw had spent half of 1974 on the bench and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were rookies. Bradshaw was now entrenched and Swann had a breakout year. It gave the Steelers the extra element they needed.
Pittsburgh still took a disappointing early loss at home to Buffalo. It was a revenge game for the Bills and O.J. Simpson, who had been knocked out of the playoffs here in ’74. Simpson, after being collared in the playoffs, ran wild, for 227 yards. Buffalo would not repeat their playoff run, but they looked the part in Week 2. The score was 30-7 in the fourth quarter and ended a deceptively close 30-21.
The Steelers got their bearings by winning four straight games against sub-.500 teams. At 5-1, they were tied with Houston and a game back of undefeated Cincinnati in the AFC Central. And both teams awaited them the next two weeks.
Bradshaw and Swann showcased the revved-up Steeler passing game in Cincinnati, connecting on touchdown passes of 25 and 37 yards. Pittsburgh also won the old-fashioned way, outgaining Cincy on the ground, 239-69. The Steelers built a 23-3 lead, then hung on for a 30-24 triumph and created a three-way tie for first.
Houston came north and gave Pittsburgh a much stiffer test. The game was tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter. Bradshaw had a good day, 17/28 for 219 yards with three touchdowns. The final TD pass was a 21-yarder to Stallworth to give his team a 24-17 win.
Pittsburgh took care of business against a bad Kansas City team and then had to quickly get ready for the Oilers again. This one would be a Monday Night in the Astrodome. And as luck would have it, Cincinnati was upset by Cleveland the preceding Sunday, meaning the Steelers could take sole possession of first place.
Houston wasn’t quite ready for prime-time and it literally showed on the Monday Night stage. Pittsburgh defensive end Dwight White sacked Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini for an early safety and that set the tone. Harris rushed for 149 yards, and the Steelers coasted to a 32-9 win.
Victories over bad teams in the New York Jets and Cleveland set up the penultimate game of the regular season with Cincinnati. The Steelers had a one-game lead and they also had the tiebreaker, so there would be another opportunity if he Bengals won. But Pittsburgh’s season finale was on the road against the Los Angeles Rams, one of the best teams in the NFC, so there was every reason for urgency.
Urgency is exactly what Pittsburgh brought. Bradshaw and Swann struck for an early touchdown pass. Defensive back J.T. Thomas returned a fumble for a touchdown and it was 14-0 by the end of the first quarter. The game ended 35-14 and the Steelers were division champs for the fourth straight year.
Pittsburgh dropped the finale in LA, but they were 12-2 and in 1975 that had an extra reward. This was the first year the NFL used won-loss record to determine playoff matchups and homefield, eschewing the divisional rotation system that had previously been in place. The road to the Super Bowl would go through the Steel City.
The Baltimore Colts, one of the AFC’s best in the early 1970s and a good team at the end of the decade, were back in the playoffs after a bad 1974 campaign, and they matched up with Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoff.
Pittsburgh trailed 10-7 in the third quarter, but the formula of 1974—dominate the running game on both sides of the ball—was in place. They would win the rushing battle 211-82. Blount came up with an interception that set up a touchdown run by Bleier to give Pittsburgh the lead. Then Bradshaw ran for another TD. With Baltimore making a last desperate attempt to get in the game, Russell scooped up a fumble on his own seven-yard line and ran 93 yards for the touchdown that clinched a 28-10 win.
The Steelers and the Oakland Raiders met in the playoffs every year from 1972-76, and the last three of those were in the AFC Championship Game. It’s the only time the AFC has had a conference championship game matchup “three-peat”, and the only other instance is the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers of 1992-94.
It’s no surprise that the game was a physical war. After three quarters, the Steelers had mustered only a field goal, but they led 3-0. They weren’t able to overwhelm the Raiders in the trenches—the rush margin was a normal 117-93 in favor of Pittsburgh. But after the teams traded touchdowns, Bradshaw made the big throw—he hit Stallworth on a 20-yard touchdown pass that made it 16-7.
Pittsburgh’s defense held on—Oakland got a field goal and got the ball to the 48-yard line. Stabler hit receiver Cliff Branch down to the Steeler 15-yard line, but with no timeouts, Pittsburgh prevented Branch from getting out of bounds and the game ended. The Steelers were returning to the Super Bowl.
Dallas was waiting at Miami’s Orange Bowl, and with a 10-7 lead after three quarters, the Cowboys looked poised to become the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl. But Pittsburgh took over the fourth quarter and it was appropriate that the Bradshaw-to-Swann combo would make this game’s signature play.
Pittsburgh blocked a punt for a safety to make it 10-9. Then two deep drives gave them the lead, but both ended in field goals, so it was still a game at 15-10. The Steeler got the ball back, were on their own 36-yard line when the Cowboy defense threw the kitchen sink at Bradshaw.
Swann was running a deep post and the quarterback read the blitz and let the ball fly just in time. Bradshaw hit the deck and was knocked out—the Orange Bowl was artificial turf at this time and there was nothing to cushion the blow. Not until Bradshaw was in the locker room did he hear that Swann made a circus catch for a touchdown.
The game ended 21-17. Swann had caught four passes for 161 yards and became the first wide receiver to be named a Super Bowl MVP. Ironically, he had suffered a concussion himself in the AFC Championship Game and his status had been questionable leading up to the game. It was fitting that he played, and that it was he and Bradshaw teaming up to make the biggest play of the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl run.