The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers. The Steelers represented the Gold Standard for excellence in the 1970’s and the 49ers dominated the 1980’s. Time of course robbed history for a definitive match up between Titans of separate decades.
Nonetheless, the two franchises have played some memorable games, which we recount here. Click on the links below to relive a specific game, or simply scroll down to read them all.
1984, Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I
1987, Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II
1990, Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I/YES, Kickoffs ARE Live Balls, Mr. Foster
1993, Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II
1996, You Can’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points
1999, The Solar Flare, Before a TOTAL Eclipse
2003, Tommy Gun Misfires
2007, Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin...
Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana I"
Steelers 20, 49ers 17; October 14, 1984, Candlestick Park
Is there a more celebrated Steelers victory of the 1980’s? Who can say, but no matter what, this game nearly tops the list. The year was 1984, and the 49ers were steamrolling the league. In fact, were it not for one game, the 49ers would have been perfect.
This would be the first time that the duo of Chuck Noll and Mark Malone would square off against Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and this game shows you why we play games instead of leaving the contest to Madden-like computer simulations. The Steelers matched San Fran with tough defense with smart ball control to keep the 49ers off balance the entire day, and in the process added the lone blemish to the 49ers would-be perfect season.
- For more on this game see One Sunday in October and #12 in the Steelers Greatest Non-Super Bowl Wins in History on Behind the Steel Curtain. Also see the Steel Curtain Rising's Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh series.
Chuck Noll & Mark Malone vs. Bill Walsh & Joe Montana II
Steelers 30, 49ers 17; September 13th, 1987, Three Rivers Stadium
Joe Montana finished the 1987 season with a 102.1 passer rating. Mark Malone finished the 1987 season with a 46.6 passer rating. And although Montana did outplay Malone on this fateful day, it wasn’t enough.
Rookie cornerback Delton Hall, linebacker Mike Merriweather, and veteran cornerback Dwayne Woodruff all picked off Montana’s passes. Delton Hall, who won the Steelers rookie of the year award only to fade, opened the game with a 50 yard fumble return to put the Steelers up by 7. Mark Malone only completed 9 of 33 passes, but one of those was for a touchdown to tight end Preston Gothard (who?). Ernest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Harry Newsome teamed to rush for 184 yards and a rookie named Merril Hoge caught his first NFL pass for 27 yards.
- With this win, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Walsh's mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL's all time win list
Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice I/YES, Kickoffs ARE Live Balls, Mr. Foster
49ers 27, Steelers 7; October 21st, 1990, Candlestick Park
The 49ers entered the game at 6-0 looking every bit the team en route to a 3 peat, while Pittsburgh entered with a 3-3 record, looking every bit like the team suffering from a hangover following the Steelers storybook 1989 season.
Joe Montana was on fire that year, but the Steelers came with a secret weapon – the NFL’s number one defense that had only given up 3 touchdown passes in 6 games. The Steelers felt they could win this game, if only they could avoid mistakes….
…And mistakes the Steelers made. Although Rod Woodson and Thomas Everett intercepted Montana twice, Joe Walton’s offense failed to capitalize. Barry Foster ‘forgot’ that uncaught kickoffs are live balls, setting up an easy San Fran TD, and a Charles Haley strip sack of Bubby Brister set up another. A 49er’s interception would stop any chance of a Pittsburgh comeback.
- In their first face off, Rod Woodson held Jerry Rice to 3 catches for just 31 yards.
Rod Woodson vs. Jerry Rice II
49ers 24, Pittsburgh 13; September 5th, 1993, Three Rivers Stadium
After taking the league by storm in 1992, the NFL scheduled what was to be one of their marquee match ups of opening day by pitting the Steelers vs. the 49ers on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. With Neil O’Donnell on the sidelines with tendonitis during the first half the 49ers built up a 17-3 lead.
Neil O’Donnell came off the bench to get Pittsburgh back in the game narrowing the score to 17-13, before Steve Young connected with Brent Jones for a touchdown, making the Steelers regret that Chuck Noll cut tight end whose sin was to be a better pass catcher than run blocker.
- In his second match up with Rice, Rod Woodson held him to just 78 yards, but 2 of Rice's 8 catches were for touchdowns…
You Can’t Spot the 49ers 16 Points (and Expect to Win)
49ers 25, Steelers 15; December 15th, 1996, Three Rivers Stadium
It was a tricky time for the Steelers. Already with 10 wins and the division title in the bag, a first round playoff bye remained in their grasp…
…But Mike Tomzack was faltering as the team’s starter, and injuries had ravaged the team all season. The Steelers gave up a quick touchdown, and then a safety to spot the 49ers 9 points. If memory serves, another turnover set up the 49ers next score, putting the Steelers in the hole 16-0.
The Steelers rebounded scoring 15 with touchdowns from Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart. But it was not enough as the 49ers also scored a Terrell Owens touchdown and kicked a field goal.
- In their final match up, Rod Woodson again held Jerry Rice under 100 yards, although Rice did score a touchdown with one of his 8 catches.
Solar Flare, Before a Total Eclipse
Steelers 27, 49ers 6; November 7, 1999, Candlestick Park
After watching the 49ers both beat them 3 straight times and beat them to one for the thumb this was supposed to be the one that Steelers fans had been waiting for. And on paper it was. The Steelers jumped to a 17-3 first half lead on the strength of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward touchdowns and a field goal. The Steelers dominated the score board winning the game 27-3.
After a 2-3 start, the Steelers had now won 3 straight to improve to 5-3. All looked well but… the 49ers Charlie Garner rushed for 166 yards. The following week Kordell Stewart’s fumbled snap led to the upset at the hands of the expansion Browns.
- The ensuring quarterback controversy would dominate the news, but the failing defense, as Joel Steed’s knees gave way, was one of the under reported stories of the Steelers 1999 meltdown.
Tommy Gun Misfires
49ers 30, Steelers 27; November 17, 2003, Candlestick Park
Tommy Maddox had been the 2003 version of Tebowmania having gone from out of football, to the XFL, to resurrecting the Steelers 2002 season. Alas, 2003 was not as kind to Maddox, as the Steelers pass defense struggled, injuries decimated the offensive line, and Cover 2 defenses frustrated Maddox. The ’03 Steelers had gone 2-1 before losing five straight. By the time they were 2-6 they mounted the “win a game, lose a game” see-saw.
Unfortunately, the Steelers trip to San Francisco came on the downside of that see-saw. San Francisco opened a 14-0 lead at the end of the first half, and the Steelers feigned making go at it by scoring the first touchdown in the second half, but the 49ers would score 20 unanswered points until Tommy Maddox hooked up with Randel El for a final, face saving touchdown.
Make that 3-0 for Mike Tomlin...
Steelers 37, 49ers 15; September 23, 2007, Heinz Field
Just two weeks earlier Steelers Nation had no idea about what to make of Mike Tomlin, the man who leapfrogged Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. By the time the 49ers arrived at Heinz Field, Tomlin was already 2 and 0 and notched his third win at San Francisco’s expense.
What stands out when looking at the stat sheet is that role players made all of the splash plays for the Steelers that day. Allen Rosseum got his 15 minutes of fame as a Steeler with a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Jerame Tuman caught the only touchdown pass, and Najeh Davenport ran for 39 yard touchdown, while Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six.
On defense the story was a little different, as then starter Bryant McFadden had a 50 yard pick six and veteran James Farrior and rookie LaMarr Woodley both sacked Alex Smith.
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