The 1990 Pittsburgh Steelers were coming off a season where they caught everyone by surprise and made a run to the playoffs with a young team and then won a game when they got there. In ’90, they matched the previous year’s 9-7 record, but the tiebreakers fell against them and they missed the postseason after a hard-to-swallow loss in the season finale
Pittsburgh was probably a slightly better team in 1990 over the previous year. Their offense improved from 24th to 20th in points scored, and the defense jumped from 15th all the way to third. The D was led by 25-year-old Rod Woodson, a first-team All-Pro as both a defensive back and kick returner.
Though Woodson was the team’s only Pro Bowler, the defense had rising young talent in linebackers Hardy Nickerson and Greg Lloyd, safeties Carnell Lake and Thomas Everett, center Dermontti Dawson and rookie tight end Eric Green.
Bubby Brister wasn’t going to remind anyone of Terry Bradshaw at quarterback, but Brister improved his own game and he had a good receiver in Louis Lipps and a balanced running attack. Merrill Hoge was the leading rusher, and even though Tim Worley missed several games, the Steelers got contributions from Barry Foster.
Pittsburgh opened the season at Cleveland. It was a late afternoon game against a big rival who had won the old AFC Central (including the Houston Oilers and Cincinnati Bengals) four of the previous five years, including 1989. It was a defensive battle, and the Steelers could only manage 49 yards on the ground. Their own defense was up to the task, but the Browns produced a defensive touchdown and won the game 13-3.
The Steelers hosted the Oilers the following Sunday night and while the Pittsburgh offense wasn’t much better, they found a way to get points in other phases of the game. D.J. Johnson intercepted prolific Houston quarterback Warren Moon early in the game and returned it for a touchdown. Later in the game, with the Steelers leading 13-9, Woodson returned a punt for a score that sealed the 20-9 win.
Two poor games against teams bound for the playoffs followed. Pittsburgh only scored nine points combined in consecutive losses at the Los Angeles Raiders and at home against the Miami Dolphins. On October 7, with the record at 1-3, Pittsburgh got a must-win home game over a bad San Diego Chargers team. Brister threw two second-quarter touchdown passes and the running game churned out 183 yards in a 36-14 rout.
The bad news was that Worley was lost for a few weeks just a big trip to Denver, where the Steelers had a lost a crushing divisional playoff game the year before awaited. Pittsburgh fell behind early 10-0, but Brister got loosened up and the defense put the clamps on John Elway. Brister and Green connected three times for touchdowns and Lipps caught another TD pass in a surprising 34-17 rout of a team that had been in the Super Bowl one year earlier.
Another road game with a previous years’ Super Bowl participant was up next in a trip to San Francisco and this one didn’t go quite as well. The Steelers scored the game’s first touchdown, but the 49ers completely took over after that and won 27-7. Pittsburgh’s record was 3-4 as they got set to host the Los Angeles Rams for Monday Night Football.
The Rams had been regular in the playoffs since 1984, so even though this year’s team was on their way to 6-10, the talent was still in place. And they returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Then Hoge, Foster and the shift Warren Williams combined on a balanced rushing attack that took the game over. The Steelers rushed for 189 yards with no one back going over 100 individually. Brister finished drives by throwing four touchdown passes. The result was a 41-10 rout.
Pittsburgh then took care of the subpar Atlanta Falcons six days later. Atlanta had three first-half drives that ended in field goals. Pittsburgh had three second-half drives that ended in touchdowns. 1990 was the year first year that byes were put into the schedule and the Steelers now went into theirs with a 5-4 record.
The results coming out of the bye were not good. Pittsburgh played Cincinnati twice in the next three weeks and lost both times. They dropped the first game on a Sunday Night in old Riverfront Stadium in Ohio. In spite of Worley’s return, the offense did nothing and the defense was pounded up front in a 27-3 final. The Steelers lost the home game with the Bengals two weeks later 16-12. A defensive battle defined by field goals saw Cincinnati make the one big play—an early 50-yard touchdown pass from Boomer Esiason.
In between the two Cincinnati losses, the Pittsburgh was able to take care of a bad New York Jets team, winning 24-7 and controlling the running game, 165 rush yards to 79. On the far side of the two Bengal games, the Steelers cleaned up on the woeful New England Patriots, the worst team in the league, rushing for 251 yards and winning 24-3.
A road game to New Orleans, a team that would scrape its way into the playoffs, was up next. It ended up a defensive war where teams could barely find the red zone, much less the end zone. The teams combined for five field goals and only one of them came on a drive inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Pittsburgh got the last two, in the fourth quarter, and won 9-6.
The record was 8-6, but in a packed AFC Central, Pittsburgh controlled its destiny. If they could beat Cleveland and Houston to close out the year, they would win the division. The Browns had fallen apart and won just three games. They were playing without quarterback Bernie Kosar, and the Steelers forced nine turnovers—eight of them fumbles—in crushing Cleveland 35-0 at home.
Pittsburgh’s game with Houston was the final Sunday Night game of the season—a stroke of good fortune for ESPN in an era where late-season Sunday Night games were pre-determined at the start of the year and not subject to change the way they are now. It was all-or-nothing: if Pittsburgh won, their 10-6 record would win the Central. If they lost, their 9-7 record would lose tiebreakers, thanks to a 2-4 division record, and they would miss the playoffs entirely. Houston could only be a wild-card, but they were in with a win and out with a loss.
Even though the Steelers were on the road, fate seemed to be working in their favor. For the second straight game, they would face a backup quarterback. Cody Carlson would make his first start of the year with Moon on the shelf. But Houston, perhaps driving by losing a heartbreaking playoff game to Pittsburgh in this same Astrodome the previous year, had something else in mind.
Carlson played the greatest game of his NFL career. He went 22/29 for 247 yards and threw three touchdown passes. The damage came early and it came often, and Houston’s was running game was equally effective. The result was a 34-14 Oiler win and Pittsburgh was going home.
The stretch drive of the 1990 Pittsburgh Steelers season were the last big games for head coach Chuck Noll. The man who had won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and produced several more playoff teams, only coached one more year, a non-contending team in 1991. The Steelers had put the foundation in place for a defense that would contend throughout the 1990s, but that seemed hollow on a Sunday night in Houston.