The great football city of Pittsburgh hadn’t experienced a Super Bowl run since 1979, the last of the great Steel Curtain teams of Chuck Noll. The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers were the best team the franchise had produced since the dynasty years and looked poised to end the drought. They came up just three yards of short of returning to the NFL’s biggest stage.
A defense that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed was the foundation of success. Outside linebackers Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd combined for 24 sacks in an aggressive 3-4 blitzing scheme and each made the Pro Bowl. So did strong safety Carnell Lake and Hall of Fame corner Rod Woodson. The Steelers also got 8 ½ sacks from inside linebacker Chad Brown and free safety Darren Perry picked off seven passes.
The offense slipped, dropping from 13th in the league in points allowed in 1993 to 16th in 1994. The offensive line was still solid, with Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson and Pro Bowl guard Duval Love, but there was a lack of explosiveness at the skill positions.
Neil O’Donnell was an up-and-down quarterback, and none of the receivers—from Ernie Mills to Andre Hastings to tight end Eric Green—were incredibly productive. Pittsburgh got just enough offense from its ground game, led by Barry Foster and Bam Morris, to support the defense and win games.
Pittsburgh opened the season against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers looked overmatched, as the Cowboys and the eventual 1994 champion San Francisco 49ers had separated themselves from the rest of the league. Foster was held to 44 yards and Pittsburgh’s proud defense couldn’t stop Dallas running back Emmitt Smith in a 26-9 loss.
A road trip to Cleveland was up next. The Browns were set for a breakout year under a then-unknown coach named Bill Belichick. The Steelers fell behind 10-0 in the second quarter, by Perry intercepted three Vinny Testaverde passes and keyed a rally to a 17-10 win. The Steelers again rallied from a double-digit deficit at home against Indianapolis in Week 3, using touchdowns and special teams and defense, along with 261 yards rushing, to turn a 14-0 deficit into a 31-21 win.
O’Donnell played poorly in a loss at a bad Seattle Seahawks team, throwing four interceptions in a 30-13 defeat. Pittsburgh bounced back on Monday Night against the woeful Houston Oilers. Foster and Morris combined for 215 rush yards and an easy 30-14 win in front of the home crowd. The Steelers went into their early October bye week with a record of 3-2.
Pittsburgh didn’t exactly come out of the bye swinging, but they were good to grind out ugly wins over the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals. But the sluggish play caught up to them in Arizona on a Sunday night. The running game stalled and was held to 85 yards, the offense turned it over three teams and they lost to a mediocre team in overtime, 20-17.
The ugliness continued in Houston, when the Steelers and Oilers traded field goals and Pittsburgh finally won 12-9 in overtime. The Steelers could consider themselves fortunate—they had played four straight shaky games and managed to win three of them. But the schedule was going to get tougher.
Pittsburgh hosted the Buffalo Bills, and even though the Bills would only finish 7-9 in 1994, they were still the four-time defending AFC champion and very much in the playoff mix on November 14 when the Steelers welcomed them to town for Monday Night Football. Woodson set the tone with an early Pick-6, Greene got three sacks and the team got six overall. Pittsburgh won decisively, 23-10, and signaled the changing of the guard that was taking place in the AFC.
The Miami Dolphins, a playoff-bound team, came next to the Steel City. O’Donnell completed 26/42 passes for 343 yards and matched the play of Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino in a 16-13 win. The Steelers went on the road to the Los Angeles Raiders, who would finish 9-7 and continued their winning streak. Foster and Morris keyed a ground game that won the battle of rushing yardage 175-57 in an easy 21-3 win.
Pittsburgh was rolling now and they kept the momentum going at lowly Cincinnati. Morris ran for 108 yards, O’Donnell played efficient football, the defense forced three turnovers and the result was a 38-15 blowout. The Steelers then survived a home game with mediocre Philadelphia, trailing 3-0 in the fourth quarter before scoring two touchdowns to win it. The Pittsburgh defense held athletic Philly quarterback Randall Cunningham to a 9/27 for 59 yards showing.
The record was 11-3 and the stage was set for a big home game with Cleveland, set in the late Sunday afternoon national TV window. The Browns were 10-4. If Pittsburgh won, they clinched both the division title and the #1 seed in the playoffs. If they lost, the race would extend one more week and Pittsburgh had a visit to the AFC West-leading San Diego Chargers ahead of them.
O’Donnell struck early with a touchdown pass to Thigpen, and Foster tacked on a 1-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Belichick’s defense settled in, but the Steeler defense didn’t let up. Foster was able to rush for 106 yards, enough to control tempo and the defense helped close out a 17-7 win. Pittsburgh was able to relax for the season finale, losing 37-34 to San Diego, with O’Donnell only playing half the game.
Expectations were sky high. With San Francisco and Dallas safely tucked away in the NFC, the anticipation of at least getting to the Super Bowl was running through Pittsburgh. When Cleveland advanced out of the wild-card round and came to old Three Rivers Stadium it seemed like a dream matchup of rivals.
That it was, and for Pittsburgh the game truly was a dream. It started slowly, with a Steeler field goal being the only points. Then O’Donnell found Green on a short touchdown pass for a 10-0 lead. Pittsburgh was dominating the running game on both sides of the football. They were would win the rushing battle 238-55, with Foster going for 133 yards and Morris for 60 more.
O’Donnell threw another touchdown pass, this one to Thigpen, and the score was 24-3 by halftime. The party started early on Saturday afternoon in the Steel City. They won 29-9 and only San Diego stood in their way of a return to the Super Bowl.
For the better part of three quarters, the AFC Championship Game went to script. Pittsburgh’s offense was obviously flawed, but the defense carried them and the lead was 13-3. Then, inexplicably, San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries beat this great defense with pair of 43-yard touchdown passes. The Steelers trailed 17-13, but drove down the field for one last crack at the winning points. On 4th-and-goal from 3, O’Donnell’s final pass to the end zone was batted down and Pittsburgh came up short.
The AFC title game loss was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was a great motivating factor for a team on the rise. Throughout the following season, the motto “Three More Yards” was the battle cry. And it worked—Pittsburgh finally returned to the Super Bowl in 1995.