The previous two seasons had been rough ones for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The proud franchise had collapsed at the end of 1998 and 1999, going a combined 13-19 in those two years. The 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers continued one negative pattern—they missed the playoffs—but in the bigger picture the ’00 Steelers showed some life, got over .500 and set the stage for a renewal.
Pittsburgh’s defense returned to being one of the best in the league in 2000, ranking sixth in points allowed. Jason Gildon set the tone with 13 ½ sacks from his outside linebacker position. The offense lacked Pro Bowl players, but the offensive line was manned by one proud veteran—35-year-old center Dermontti Dawson, a future Hall of Famer—and one up-and-comer in 24-year-old guard Alan Faneca.
Kordell Stewart was in his fourth year as the starting quarterback and his play continued to be spotty, though he cut back his interceptions to just eight in 2000. Hines Ward was in his second year as a primary target at receiver, and Pittsburgh gave three rookies regular playing time on offense. Fullback Dan Kreider, right tackle Marvel Smith and wide receiver Plaxico Burress all contributed, and helped the offense at least get to mediocrity—17th in the NFL in points scored.
No one did more for the offense and to control tempo than Jerome Bettis though. “The Bus” had gone through a couple years that while pretty good—a little over a thousand yards each season—were below his standard. Bettis rumbled for over 1,300 yards in 2000.
The signs of hope didn’t come right away. The future Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, with Ray Lewis leading their great defense, dominated the Steelers 16-0, with Pittsburgh only able to get 30 rushing yards at home. A more inexcusable loss came to the lowly Cleveland Browns 23-20. It marked the second straight time over two years the Steelers had lost to the Browns, a period in which Cleveland only won five games total.
The losing streak continued at home against Tennessee, the defending AFC champion and on their way to a 13-3 record in 2000. The Steelers played well, intercepted Steve McNair three times and led 20-16. But McNair finally beat them on an 18-yard touchdown pass with 1:31 left.
Pittsburgh’s season—indeed, the entire Bill Cowher era that started back in 1992—were hanging by a thread. They traveled to Jacksonville. The Jaguars had been a playoff team each of the previous three years and had gone 14-2 the prior season. They fell to 7-9 this year, but on October 1, a visit there with an 0-3 record was hardly a source of comfort.
The Steelers were a (+11) underdog in Jacksonville, and they responded by winning in true Pittsburgh fashion—dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. They won the battle of rushing yardage 209-26 and they won the football game 24-13, with Jacksonville’s only touchdown coming with 0:15 left.
Another road win over a pretty good team followed with a 20-3 victory against the New York Jets. Stewart played efficiently, completing 17/26 passes for 140 yards and no interceptions, while Bettis ran for 107 yards and the defense forced four turnovers. The defense then locked down the Cincinnati Bengals in a 15-0 home win and the Steelers’ record was back to .500.
Cleveland came to town and in a late afternoon kickoff, the defense continued its great play, stopping the hold Browns’ quarterback Tim Couch had enjoyed over them the last two meetings. Pittsburgh held Cleveland to 104 total yards and won 22-0. And on October 29, the Steelers showed the Ravens they could play a little defense too, fighting out a 9-6 road win with the aid of three Baltimore turnovers.
Pittsburgh’s win streak came to an end in Tennessee, although the defense’s strong play did not. The Steelers kept the Titans out of the end zone and only a field goal with eight seconds left beat them, 9-7. It marked the third straight year Pittsburgh had lost a tough game at this venue, and the second time it had been due to a last-second field goal.
A good team came to Pittsburgh in the Philadelphia Eagles, on their way to an 11-win season and the start of success in the Andy Reid era. The Steelers trailed 13-6 in the third quarter when they got a touchdown run from Bettis and a 32-yard fumble return for a touchdown from Joey Porter and took a 23-13 lead with 3:47 left.
But the defense finally came up short. Philadelphia rallied to tie it on a field goal on the last play of regulation and then won in overtime, 26-23. A worse loss followed—Jacksonville came to town and led 34-10 after three quarters before a couple meaningless Pittsburgh touchdowns made the score look respectable. Five turnovers and allowing 240 yards on the ground did the Steelers in as they fell to 5-6 and the playoffs looked shot.
It seemed as though Pittsburgh was still in a funk in Cincinnati, trailing a terrible team 24-21 midway through the third quarter. Then they erupted—Stewart threw a 45-yard touchdown pass, Bettis ran for another and Gildon took a fumble to the house. The Steelers won 48-28 and a final push was underway.
Pittsburgh won a big home game with the Oakland Raiders, a team that would finish 12-4 under Jon Gruden and reach the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers trailed 17-7 at the half, before Stewart threw a touchdown pass in the third quarter and ran 17 yards for another in the final quarter to escape with a 21-20 win.
The defense was unable to slow New York Giants’ quarterback Kerry Collins the following week. Collins threw for 330 yards and the Giants—on their way to a 12-win season and Super Bowl trip—won 30-10 in the Meadowlands. But Pittsburgh kept themselves alive with a 24-3 home win over the collapsing Washington Redskins, who would finish 8-8 but had just fired head coach Norv Turner.
We were down to the season’s final week and the Steelers still had a chance at 8-7. The Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets were both 9-6, and in the pre-2002 divisional alignments, both were in the AFC East. The Jets held the tiebreaker on the Colts, and the Steelers, thanks to their head-to-head win, held the tiebreaker on the Jets. Therefore it was simple—Pittsburgh needed both teams to lose and they would win a three-way tie at 9-7.
The scenario was made even more appealing by the fact the Jets were in Baltimore, and the Colts had to host the eventual NFC runner-up Minnesota Vikings. In the early time slot, the Jets lost to the Ravens. The late window would see Pittsburgh’s game in San Diego, along with Indy-Minnesota.
Pittsburgh’s defense came ready to go to war in the trenches and they held San Diego to 31 rush yards, six first downs and recorded six sacks. The Chargers still managed to muster three touchdowns, but the Steelers led 24-21 after three quarters and tacked on ten clinching points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the word from Indianapolis wasn’t good—the Colts grabbed a 21-10 lead at halftime and pulled away to a 31-10 victory.
The Steeler season was over, but it was also apparent that the doldrums of the end of 1998 and all of 1999 were as well. The 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers turned the tide for the franchise and one year later they would be back in the playoffs.