The 1996 Pittsburgh Steelers were a team in transition. The signature players on offense changed, but the success under fifth-year head coach Bill Cowher. Even though Pittsburgh didn’t repeat their AFC title run of 1995, they still continued their streak of qualifying for the playoffs each year under Cowher, and they won a game when they got there.
Pittsburgh parted ways with quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who took a big offer in free agency to go to the New York Jets. Pittsburgh responded by making a big change that would strengthen their already solid running game—they sent two draft choices to the Rams and acquired Jerome Bettis, a deal which would prove laughably one-sided in the Steelers’ favor.
Bettis ran for over 1,400 yards in 1996 and was a 1st-team All-Pro, starting a 10-year run that would make him a Steel City legend. Dermontti Dawson, a future Hall of Famer at center, was also a 1st-team All-Pro.
The potent running game allowed 34-year-old backup quarterback Mike Tomczak to step into the starting role and have minimal pressure on him. Charles Johnson emerged as a 1,000-yard receiver and Andre Hastings was a good second option. The Steeler offense ranked 11th in the NFL in points scored.
Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense ranked fourth in the league. The talent shifted from outside linebacker—where Kevin Greene was no longer there—to the inside, where both Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown made the Pro Bowl.
In the secondary, Carnell Lake had made the Pro Bowl at strong safety in 1994, did the same at corner in 1995 and now flipped back to strong safety, still making the Pro Bowl in the process. So did steady corner Rod Woodson, one of the game’s all-time greats at his position.
Pittsburgh opened the season at Jacksonville and we quickly saw that the Steelers would still be a notch below their AFC championship level, and the Jaguars, in their second year of existence, we making rapid strides. Tomczak and new backup Jim Miller both struggled in a 24-9 loss.
The Steelers responded with two straight wins. They hosted the Baltimore Ravens, in their first year after relocating from Cleveland. Woodson picked off a pass and took it 43 yards to the house to start the scoring, Bettis ran for 116 yards and Tomczak threw a pair of second quarter touchdown passes in a 31-17 win.
Pittsburgh then beat playoff-bound Buffalo in a Monday Night home game, with Bettis going for 133 yards and backup running back Erric Pegram getting 84 more in a 24-6 win. The Steelers reached an early bye week with a 2-1 record.
Tomczak got clicking with Johnson when the scheduled resumed at the Houston Oilers, hooking up with the receiver twice for touchdowns. Bettis rolled for 115 yards and they won 30-16. Tomczak then played his best game on a Monday Night in Kansas City.
The Chiefs had been the AFC’s #1 seed the year before and the veteran quarterback went 20/32 for 338 yards. Johnson caught six of the passes for 125 yards. Bettis ran for 103 yards. The defense played great and the result was a 17-7 win.
A defensive struggle at home with the mediocre Cincinnati Bengals followed. The game was tied 3-3 in the third quarter until Tomczak hooked up with versatile Kordell Stewart, for a 32-yard touchdown pass and Pittsburgh pulled away 20-10. The five-game win streak came to an end the next week in Houston. Tomczak hit Johnson for an early 70-yard touchdown pass, but the running game was uncharacteristically cold and the result was a 23-13 loss.
Pittsburgh survived a back-and-forth 20-17 game in Atlanta thanks to Tomczak’s precision in the short passing game. He was 22/27 for 214 yards with no interceptions. Bettis ran for 126 yards and it was enough survive the trip. There were no such anxious moments with Bettis’ old team. St. Louis came to town, Bettis rumbled for 129 yards and Pittsburgh won the rushing battle 248-64, blasting the Rams by a 42-6 count.
The annual trip to Cincinnati seemed to be going well in the second quarter, with a 17-10 lead. But the Steelers allowed a 90-yard kickoff return to tie the game. Tomczak and Bengal quarterback Jeff Blake each threw three interceptions, but Blake made more big plays and Pittsburgh lost 34-23.
On the week prior to Thanksgiving, Jacksonville made the return trip north—prior to the realignment of 2002, the Jaguars were in the old AFC Central, along with the Steelers, Bengals, Ravens and Oilers (and the Browns, once they returned in 1999). Tomczak, as he had in Week 1, struggled, going 7/240 for 109 yards. But the defense picked up the slack and Pittsburgh pulled away to a 28-3 win.
When they followed it up with a 24-17 win on a Monday Night in Miami, thanks to complete control of the line of scrimmage, the Steelers were 9-3 and had a three-game lead in the AFC Central.
The lead was cut to two when they lost in Baltimore the following week, as Eric Green took some revenge on his old team, catching the touchdown that salted away the 31-17 win. Tomczak’s struggles continued against San Diego the following week—he threw three more interceptions. But the Steelers dominated the running game, with 167 yards to just 65 for the Chargers. The 16-3 win, coupled with a Houston loss, clinched a third straight AFC Central crown and fourth in five years.
Pittsburgh was in position to also get a first-round bye. The Denver Broncos had the #1 seed in hand, but the two-spot was up for grabs between the Steelers and the New England Patriots. Pittsburgh had the inside track, but they also had two extremely tough games, at home against the San Francisco 49ers and on the road at the Carolina Panthers, each teams that would win 12 games.
The game with the 49ers was never close, as Pittsburgh fell behind 22-0 and the Steelers had no answer for quarterback Steve Young and the Steelers lost control of the race for the 2-seed. They led in Carolina 14-9 at half, but Bettis only carried the ball three times as Cowher tacitly conceded the bye week in an 18-14 loss. It proved to be a good decision, since New England won anyway.
Pittsburgh’s first-round playoff game was at home with the Indianapolis Colts, a rematch of the previous year’s dramatic AFC Championship Game, and Jim Harbaugh was still at quarterback for the Colts. Pittsburgh started off well, building a 13-0 lead in the second quarter and nudging to midfield with a chance to put the game away early.
Then Tomczak’s interception problems jumped up again. He threw a Pick-6 and on the ensuing possession promptly threw an interception. Harbaugh tossed a touchdown pass to Aaron Bailey—the same receiver who almost hauled in a desperation pass that would have won the previous year’s championship game. Pittsburgh was down 14-13 at the half.
The defense was causing problems for Harbaugh though, and the Indy quarterback would be forced into an erratic 12/32 for 134 yards. And the Steelers got Bettis lathered up right after halftime. They opened the third quarter with a 91-yard drive that was capped off by Bettis’ TD run, a two-point conversion and a 21-14 lead.
Pittsburgh’s ground game completely took over the fourth quarter. They ultimately won the rushing battle 231-41 on this day and Bettis was one of three different Steelers to score rushing touchdowns in the final period. The game ended 42-14 and the Steelers were advancing.
The Steelers and Patriots took the field the following Sunday afternoon knowing their game had taken on added importance—Jacksonville had stunned Denver the previous day and now the winner of this game would host an AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh’s flaws were exposed though, as Tomczak played poorly. Stewart was called on in relief and failed to throw a completion in ten tries. The Steelers fell behind early and Bettis could run for only 43 yards in a 28-3 loss that ended the season.
The 1996 Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t an outstanding team, but they were still a good one and a well-coached team that maximized its strengths, continuing the pattern of success in the Cowher Era.