Reporters asked Chuck Noll during week 11 if the Steelers 4-6 record meant that he was ready to begin focusing on 1990 and write 1989 off as a rebuilding year.
“No,” Noll insisted, the Steelers would attempt to win their final six games and make the playoffs.
As Noll scoffed, the media snickered.
Playoffs for a team that had started 51-0 and then 41-0? Playoffs for the first Chuck Noll team to suffer three shut outs in a season? Wild dreams of wild cards for a team that was 1-4 in the AFC Central, and who had already lost 27-0 to Houston, their only remaining divisional opponent?
In the pages of the Pittsburgh Press, Gene Collier entertained the question of how early spectators could leave Three Rivers Stadium and still be considered “loyal” fans.
Fortunately, Noll paid no heed to the critics. Fortune, however, had nothing to do with Noll’s success in convincing his players to turn a deaf ear to their critics.
Such was the setting as the San Diego Chargers arrived at Three Rivers Stadium for week 11 of the 1989 season.
Special Teams Strike Force
During the Steelers sprint to the playoffs at the end of the 1989 season, each unit would step up, and special teams led the way against San Diego.
For three quarters plus, as it had been for much of the season and particularly in the two games prior, the Steelers offense was the little engine that couldn’t, managing a meager 100 yards.
So while Jim McMahon and the Chargers were racking up 396 yards, the Steelers special teams kept San Diego honest.
Football is a game of field position, and Harry Newsome’s first punt bounced off of Lester Lyle’s helmet and Carnell Lake recovered at the 18. While the Steelers did not score on that series, the defense held, and two series later Gary Anderson hit a 49 yard field goal for the games first points.
Dana Brinson fumbled the Newsome’s next punt, which Carnell Lake recovered at the 47. Again, the Steelers offense failed to take advantage, but Newsome was able to pin them deep in their own territory.
Special teams paved the way for the Steelers next score, as Cedric Figaro’s roughing the punter penalty set up Anderson’s next kick, although by that time Jim McMahon had gotten the Chargers on the board with a touchdown to Anthony Miller.
The Chargers added another field goal midway through the first quarter, but their 10-6 lead was short lived.
In Rod We Trust
Rod Woodson fielded the ensuring kickoff at the 16 yard line, started up the middle, but then saw daylight to the left. David Johnson and Tyronne Stowe sealed off San Diego’s containment team. Nothing lay between Woodson and the endzone Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf.
Woodson sailed 84 yards down the field scoring the Steelers first touchdown in eight quarters and electrifying Three Rivers Stadium and the Steelers sidelines in the process. Woodson had given the Steelers a 13-10 lead and the all important momentum, or had he?
The McMagician Has Another Rabbit in His Hat
In the 1980’s NFL Films once described Jim McMahon as Mike Ditka’s “magician-like quarterback” for his ability to lead comebacks. McMahon appeared ready to do it again.
From the shores of Monmouth county, to the tree-lined groves of Falls Church generations of Jim McMahon fans were enthralled as number 9 hooked up twice with Anthony Miller on a 68 yard drive that put the Chargers ahead 17-13 as the third quarter came to a close.
90 Yards Away from Winning This Game
And so the Steelers offense found themselves with the ball at the 9, down 17-13, with 11:42 remaining. Could an offense that had not scored a touchdown in nine quarters, and had barely managed 100 total yards in the game, go the distance?
It was time to find out.
Bubby Brister led the charge with a 19 yard strike to Louis Lipps. Merril Hoge took over from there, accepting a hand off and trying to go left, off tackle, but no room was to be had. Hoge instead cut back to the right and ripped off a (then) career-long 31 yard gallop that brought the Steelers to the Chargers 37.
Next, Brister hit Mike Mularkey for a 22 yard strike that took them to the 12, and a few plays later, the Steelers found themselves 1st and goal at the one.
But Pittsburgh couldn’t punch it in.
Hoge ran on first and lost a yard on first down, and all Tim Worley could mange to do on two straight carries was regain that yard. At fourth and one, with a little less than seven minutes left to play, a field goal would have made it a one score game.
The Emperor Opens His Bag of Tricks
Chuck Noll had other plans. As Chuck Noll explained after the game, “I felt we needed to score a touchdown.”
Noll decided to go for it, but to do so with a little deception. He inserted third down specialist Rodney Carter into the game and split both tight ends wide, the Steelers preferred goal line passing formation.
The Chargers defenders started shouting “Carter, it’s a pass going to Carter!”
Carter circled to the right at the snap, feigning a pass route.
It was Noll’s best bluff. Brister handed off to Hoge. John Rienstra pulled to the left while Dermonti Dawson and Terry Long opened the gap, Merril Hoge plowed into the end zone, and the Steelers had a 20-17 lead.
McMiracle Not to Be
Jim McMahon wasn’t done, driving his team down to the Steelers 42 yard line. But, 30 seconds before the two minute warning, he got greedy, and David Little intercepted him sealing the Steelers victory.
On the face of it, it appeared that one 4-6 team had vanquished another 4-6 team. Decidedly ho hum in the NFL. But for the 1989 Steelers, it was the start of something much bigger.
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