The first weekend of January 1990 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers in a place that no one expected them to be – playing in Mile High Stadium for the right to contest the AFC Championship.
No one, it is, except for themselves.
Steelers director of pro personnel Tom Donahoe, perhaps revealing himself to be at least a latent doubting Thomas, characterized the Steelers’ attitude this way: “These guys are amazing. They actually think they’re going to the Super Bowl, and at this point, don’t put anything past them.”*
This group of men had suffered the indignity of a 92-10 start, followed by numerous ups and downs during a stretch where the team would be shut out 3 times and the offense failed to outgain its opponent for ten straight weeks.
- As opposed to weakening them, the entire ordeal only galvanized their resolve.
Donahoe again explained, “…the most amazing thing about these guys is how much character and guts they have. They’ve had so many opportunities to say, ‘We’re too young, we’re too, we’re too that. Let’s wait until next year.’ But they don’t want to wait until next year.”
So, when the Steelers sat at 4-6 after ten weeks and Chuck Noll proclaimed the playoffs to be his team’s target, the rest of the league smirked. The Steelers buckled their chin straps and won five of their last six, and upset the Houston Oilers in the AFC Wild Card game.
The NFL Meets Merril Hoge
With Merril Hoge leading the way, the Steelers immediately took control of the game, giving every impression that another 1984esque upset was in the making.
During Pittsburgh’s disastrous 5-11 1988 campaign, the fact that the Steelers featured a starting running back named Merril Hoge became fodder for analysts and color commentators. Steelers Nation, however, knew better.
Merril Hoge was the Hines Ward of his day – he might have lacked a little in the measurables, but he compensated for it by working harder and playing harder – on every play.
- Never was that more apparent than when Hoge ran against Denver in the playoffs.
The 1989 Broncos had not allowed a hundred yard rusher all year, but that was about to change. The Steelers jumped to a 3 nothing lead after a 32 yard Gary Anderson field goal. Hoge had broken out for a 10 yard bust on that drive, and he was only getting started.
Hoge opened the Steelers’ second quarter Hoge by exploded on the first play from scrimmage for a 45 yard gain, the longest of his career. In total, he gained 60 yards on four carries during that drive, and capped it off with a 7 yard touchdown that put the Steelers ahead by 10.
The Broncos fought back, however, as Elway led them on a 12 play, 75 yard drive that ended with a one yard Melvin Bratton touchdown, making he score 10-7 Pittsburgh.
The Steelers were ready to yield nothing, however, as Bubby Brister took the reigns on a 12 play 77 yard drive, where he hit Mike Mularkey for 25 yards Louis Lipps for a 9 yard touchdown pass. Rookie Tim Worley also notched his own double-digit run of 19 yards on this drive, which put the Steelers in control 17-7.
Denver’s two minute offense evened the score to 17-10 at the half with a David Tredwell field goal, but Merril Hoge had already stolen the show.
- By the time the two minute warning arrived, Hoge had already amassed 100 yards, leaving the Denver defense stupefied.
One Bronco defender was over heard saying in the huddle “that guy number 33, Hode, Hogg, whatever his name is, he’s killing us.”
Broncos defensive end Ron Holmes candidly admitted to thinking “What in the world is it with this guy?” Holmes’s sentiments were shared by Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was “amazed” that Hoge kept getting up because “we really put some licks on him,” confessing that,
At one point I even called a blitz because I knew [Hoge] had been hit hard the play before, and I didn’t think there was any way he’d run again. But darned if he didn’t. And darned if that play didn’t go for a big gain.Chuck Noll, not one wont to lavish excessive praise, compared Hoge’s performances to Franco Harris and Rocky Bliers, explaining:
Merril exemplifies this whole team. He runs with great determination. You could see it, you could feel it…. We may have had a running back make more yardage [in a playoff game], but not with a greater effort.
The biggest praise Hoge received came from the Denver locker room, where All-Pro Safety Steve Atwater declared, “It was like we were playing Jim Brown.”
Steelers Stay Ahead in Second Half, Until 2:27…
The Broncos got off to a strong start in the second half when veteran linebacker Carl Mecklenburg and Greg Kragen forced a fumble by rookie Tim Worley. From there it only took John Elway three plays to connect with wide out Michael Jackson on a 17 yard touchdown pass to tie the score 17-17.
Pittsburgh fought back immediately. The Broncos defense keyed on Hoge, limiting him to only 20 yards on 6 carries in the second half, but Number 33 found other ways to do damage.
- Hoge caught 8 passes for 60 yards, serving as Brister’s check off receiver in a second half that saw Broncos defense turn up the heat.
The Steelers broke the tie before the end of the half with a Gary Anderson field goal on a drive where Bubby Brister completed passes of 19 yards to Hoge and 30 yards to rookie Mark Stock.
Later, on a 26 yard Thomas Everett interception return brought the Steelers to just shy of midfield, the Steelers, conceivably, could have ended it there, but could only manage 34 yards, forcing them to settle for another Gary Anderson field goal that put them up 23-17.
The Steelers defense forced a punt, and it looked liked Brister and Hoge might end it, as they hooked up twice to produce a first down. Fate was not so kind to the Steelers on the next series, as Tyronne Braxton tackled Hoge one yard shy of the first down at the Denver 41.
Clinging to a 6 point lead , the Broncos defense had forced the Steelers to punt it back to Elway with just over seven minutes left to play....
Doing what he did best, taking advantage of defenses winded after four quarters of playing in the thin, Mile High air, John Elway led a 9 play 71 yard drive that saw him make completions of 16 and 36 yards.
The Broncos also burned close to five minutes off of the clock by the time Melvin Bratton pushed in the go ahead score from the one.
A Dropped Pass, An Errant Snap and One Point Separate ‘89 Steelers from Victory
Denver held a 23-24 point lead with 2:20 left.
But Bubby Brister had been a force the entire game, playing what was probably the best game of his life. And the Steelers had successfully mounted a similar drive against Houston the week before…
…All they needed was 45 yards to get inside Gary Anderson’s range.
On first down Brister rocketed a perfect pass to rookie Mark Stock at the Steelers 41, who made the mistake of looking up field too soon. The ball bounced to the turf, incomplete.
Ron Holmes flushed Brister from the pocket as he fired downfield incomplete to Louis Lipps on second down.
On third down, Brister dropped into the shot gun, an innovation Noll had only grudgingly incorporated into the Steelers offense the summer before.
Dermonti Dawson, who’d go on to be a perennial All-Pro at center, was out of the game. Chuck Lanza stood in his place. Brister was trying to hurry the play, Lanza looked back as Brister yelled ‘hut’ but the snap was too low.
Bubby was unable to recover the snap, and Broncos safety snapped it up, allowing Elway to take a knee as time expired.
The 1989 Steelers story book season had ended.
Down, But Never Defeated
In the lingua franca of Steelers Nation, “Super Bowl” is the word for success. Yet, if ultimate success remained elusive, the 1989 Steelers were no one’s failures.
It was, as Ed Bouchette wrote in the Post Gazette, “A victory over expectations.”
After the game Chuck Noll simply said, “There’s not a whole lot to say, except I’m proud as heck of our football team.” Of the team’s future, Bubby Brister simply said, “we’re headed in the right direction.”
It was a view almost universally shared inside and outside the Steelers locker room, as veterans such as Ray Mainsfield thought the Steelers had planted seeds for future glory with their effort at Mile High.
Greater glory, would of course be much farther off than anyone anticipated on that January evening.
But a victory over expectations and promising future made the Steelers 1989 season special.
*All quotes taken from Post Gazette articles available through Google Newspaper Archives.
Thanks for visiting. This is the penultimate installment in the Steelers 1989 season series. The final article will cover Chuck Noll’s decision to hire Joe Walton and the subsequent aftermath. In the meantime, click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.