´ Steel Curtain Rising: The Pittsburgh Steelers History vs. the Dallas Cowboys

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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Pittsburgh Steelers History vs. the Dallas Cowboys

“Best” in the National Football League is defined by Super Bowl Championships. But how do you decide who is “the best of the best” when comparing championship teams from different eras? It’s an irresistible, unending, and most often unanswerable question because it’s rare when two truly great teams clash in a single era.

The glory earned by Bill Walsh’s 49ers was real, but in none of those Super Bowls did San Francisco defeat another team that also laid claim to the term “Dynasty.”

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys of the ‘70´s established dynasties, and they did play each other in the Super Bowl. Twice. And that’s what makes their rivalry so special.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys have played 30 times and the series stands at a 15-15 stalemate. The links below take you back games that I have memories of starting with the Super Bowls.

Super Bowl X
Super Bowl XIII
The Pittsburgh Steelers First Game without Art Rooney
The Steelers Regret not Drafting Emmitt...
Dallas Embarrasses Pittsburgh on Opening Day I
Super Bowl XXX
Cowboys Embarrass Steelers on Opening Day II
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Vinny Testaverde...
Tony Romo Meets the Zone Blitz


Super Bowl X

January 18, 1976, Miami Orange Bowl
Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17

First a little poetic license. I’m too young to remember Super Bowl X, but omitting this NFL classic would be a sin. Chad Millman and Sean Coyne chronicle this series in their 2010 book The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, arguing that the tensions between the two teams mirrored the 1970’s Sun Belt-Frost Belt social shift. While that’s interesting, this Super Bowl magnum’s true richness is in the Hall of Fame Talent found on both sides of the ball.

Although the Steel Curtain defense was at its prime, it couldn’t stop Roger Staubach from striking quickly to Drew Pearson for a 29 yard touchdown pass. Pittsburgh rallied quickly, thanks in part of the first of several acrobatic “Lynn Swann” catches. Dallas struck back by with three more, and the two teams stood at a stalemate until Cliff Harris’ ill-advised taunting of Roy Gerela after a missed kick. Jack Lambert would not stand for it, and tossed Harris to the turf.

Although Lambert pleaded with the official not to get ejected, his boldness inspired the Steelers. In short order, Reggie Harrison blocked a punt for a safety, and Roy Gerela kicked two field goals to put Pittsburgh ahead by 3, which they clung to until late in the 4th.

On third and 6 with 3:06 to play Dallas KOed Terry Bradshaw with a helmet-to-helmet hit on all out safety blitz, but not before he lofted a 64 yard pass to Lynn Swann, who put the Steelers up 21-10.

Pittsburgh had the lead, but Bradshaw was out and 3 minutes was a lot of time to give Roger Staubach…
  • What separates a great player in his era from an all time great?
For one, the all time greats elevate those around them. Roger Staubach only need 1:14 to put Dallas back in the game, and he did it with a 34 yard bullet to Percy Howard for a touchdown, making that the first and only pass reception of Howard’s NFL career.
  • Without Bradshaw, the Steelers failed to kill the clock. 
  • Chuck Noll refused to punt, giving Roger Staubach ample time to go 61 yards.
But Noll had the best defense in NFL history at his disposal. He trusted them. And they delivered and they delivered as Mike Wagner tipped Staubach’s final pass into the arms of Glen Edwards.

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Super Bowl XIII
January 21, 1979, Miami Orange Bowl
Steelers 35, Cowboys 31

This was the first Super Bowl rematch and arguably the best Super Bowl ever, with 7 touchdowns, a 22 yard touchdown run, and a fumble returned for a touchdown.

While still strong, the Steel Curtain had begun its decline. But Chuck Noll and Tom Moore compensated by unleashing Lynn Swann and John Stallworth with the help of Terry Bradshaw´s cannon.

The day’s defensive accolades belonged to the Dallas “Doomsday Defense” led by Randy White, Harvey Martin, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and the coke sniffing Hollywood Henderson. This was the year that Tom Landry unveiled the famous “flex defense” that befuddled the league.
  • Who would triumph? The Irresistible force or the Immovable object?
Super Bowl XIII was Terry Bradshaw’s finest game.
  • Lynn Swann and John Stallworth caught touchdown passes of 18 yards, 28 yards, and 75 yards, respectively
  • Although he threw just 30 times, he had 318 yards passing
Rocky Bleier closed the first half with another touchdown catch, making a play that a former Vietnam vet who was never supposed to walk again had no right to.

The game featured Hall of Fame caliber plays from both teams. Tony Dorsett gouged Pittsburgh’s defense for 96 yards on just 15 carries – an astonishing 6.4 yard average. Roger Staubach himself had a 3 touchdown game, including two in the game’s final 2 and a half minutes.

Looking back at Dorsett’s rushing dominance one might ask, why were Staubach’s heroics even necessary? Why didn’t Dallas run more?
  • The answer lies in Dallas’ inability to take advantage of opportunities, and in that age old flaw – cockiness.
With Dallas trailing 21 to 14 in the third quarter, Staubach hit Jackie Smith perfectly alone in the end zone – Smith dropped the ball

Midway through the 4th, Randy White recovered a muffed kickoff, only to fumble and then watch Dennis Wilson emerge with the ball from the ensuring scrum
  • One play later, Bradshaw hit Swann for an 18 yard touchdown strike
But it was the touchdown that set up the botched kickoff that provides the instructive tale.

Prior to Super Bowl XII, Hollywood Henderson had talked a lot of trash:
  • Insulting Randy Grossman
  • Calling Jack Lambert a “toothless chimpanzee”
  • charging that Bradshaw could not spell “cat” if you spotted him the “c” and the “t”
Midway through the fourth quarter Henderson slammed Bradshaw to the turf on a play whistled dead before the snap. Not content with an illegal it, Henderson took his time climbing off of Bradshaw, taunting him all the while.

Franco Harris, normally reserved to a fault, took exception to the taunts and got into Henderson’s face. According to Millman and Coyne, Henderson rebuffed him, “_uck you in your ass, and your mama, too.”

Harris’ response was simple. It was 3rd and 9 and Harris returned to the huddle and said “give me the ball.” Bradshaw complied, calling a special trap the Noll and Moore had designed to exploit a weakness in the Flex defense.
  • Harris ran straight through the hole, and went 22 yards later he found the end zone.
Staubach’s of course would lead two 4th quarter touchdown drives, leaving Dallas 22 seconds for an on-sides kick and a final shot at glory. But Rocky Bleier recovered the kick, sealing the Steelers 3rd Super Bowl victory.

Afterwards, a Cowboy’s radio commentator proclaimed “It was a triumph of blue collar over white collar.” Maybe that’s true. The grandson of a Mt. Oliver butcher who lived by the sweat of his brow certainly likes that ending to the story.
  • But truth is something perhaps grander yet.
It was a historical rarity that pitted two dynasties clashing in the game’s greatest show, with Pittsburgh coming out on top.

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Pittsburgh and Dallas would meet three times between Super Bowl XIII and 1988, games that unfortunately have no place in my memory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers Begin Life without Art Rooney
September 4th, 1988, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Dallas 21

Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr. passed away on August 28th, 1988. The Chief’s death marked a transition for the team. Gone was Mark Malone, drafted in 1980 to replace Terry Bradshaw. Gone too were John Stallworth and Mike Webster, leaving Dwayne Woodruff as the final link to the Super Steelers.

As fate would have it, Rooney’s team would confront their historic rivals 7 days after his death, making it the final time that Chuck Noll and Tom Landry’s final contest. The game marked Bubby Brister’s first non-injury start and Michael Irvin’s NFL debut. It also began a sort of last hurrah for 1980´s Steelers stables such as Ernest Jackson who would soon find himself benched in favor of an unheralded second year player named Merril Hoge.

The Steelers won 24 to 21, allowing Noll to open with a victory over Landry in a season that would see him close it with a victory over Shula – and get precious little in between.

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Emmitt Smith Makes Steelers Regret not Drafting Him...
November 28th, 1991, Texas Stadium
Cowboys 20, Steelers 10

The 1989 Steelers rekindled the passions and imaginations of an aspiring Steelers Nation. They also left the 1990 Steelers with the 17th pick, and Emmitt Smith was still on the board when their time came.

But Pittsburgh felt good about its 1989 draft in general and especially about Tim Worley. So Noll traded the 17th pick to Dallas, and grabbed Eric Green with the 21st pick….
  • …Dallas of pounced on Emmitt Smith, and Number 22 would make Pittsburgh pay for that error several times, beginning on Thanksgiving Day 1991.
Dallas scored the first 10 points on the heels of an Emmitt Smith touchdown and Ken Willis field goal. Floundering under Joe Walton´s offense, Pittsburgh got its first score in the third quarter thanks to Gary Anderson.

The Cowboys matched with 3 of their own, but with a late 4th quarter Warren Williams touchdown the Steelers threatened to make a game of it. Dallas responded, when Steve Beuerlein hit Michal Irvin across the middle. Gary Jones missed the tackle and even Rod Woodson could not chase him down as Irvin iced the game with a 66 yard touchdown.

Emmitt Smith had 109 yards on the day, more than the entire Steelers rushing offense….

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Dallas Embarrasses Pittsburgh on Opening Day I
September 4, 1994, Three Rivers Stadium
Dallas 26, Pittsburgh 9

Jimmy Johnson brought the Lombardi back to Dallas in 1992, the year an rookie head coach ignighted the passions of Steelers Nation with the phenomenon known as “Cowher Power.” Dallas repeated as champions in 1993 and, although the 1993 Steelers just snuck into the playoffs, they entered 1994 as the class of the AFC.

The stage was set Pittsburgh vs. Dallas at Three Rivers Stadium for FOX´s first NFL broadcast - the Steelers were to have their official coming out party as a legit contender….
  • …And the Steelers fell flat on their faces.
The Steelers did nothing right. Barry Foster was held to 44 yards rushing, and one of the game’s enduring images was Bill Cowher imploring Neil O’Donnell on the side lines “Throw the Ball Neil! You’re a quarterback, throw the ball!”
  • The Cowboys sacked Neil O’Donnell 9 times, including 4 by Charles Haley alone
  • Emmitt Smith decimated the Steelers for 171 yards
  • Michael Irvin had 8 catches for 139 yards
Overconfidence was the Achilles heal of Bill Cowher’s early teams. Every time they had a showcase game they failed miserably. And so it was on opening day 1994 vs. Dallas and so it remained later in January when the San Diego Chargers upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.

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Super Bowl XXX
January 28th, 1996, Sun Devil Stadium
Cowboys 27, Steelers 17

As mentioned above, Chuck Noll opened and closed 1988 with wins over Landry´s Cowboys and Shula’s Dolphins with only 3 victories in between. That 5-11 was a low point for Noll, but it disqualified Pittsburgh from the Aikman Derby, an “honor” which fell to Dallas.

Had the 1988 Steelers finished 2-14 Noll almost certainly would have drafted Aikman and probably also would have picked Emmitt Smith in 1990. Could that alternate scenario have led to a Super Bowl XXX pitting a Steelers team led by Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith vs. a Dallas Cowboys squad led by Steve Walsh and Barry Sanders?

We’ll never know. Dallas got Troy Aikman, leaving Pittsburgh to draft Neil O’Donnell in 1990. And those two picks would make all the difference in the big dance.

Dallas started fast, scoring the game’s first 13 points, as stage fright slowed the Steelers. But the Black and Gold got back into things when Yancy Thigpen caught a touchdown pass despite Slime Time Dieon Sanders’ blatant pass interference.

The Dallas Cowboys deserve full credit for winning this game, but Pittsburgh wounds were self inflicted. Early in the third quarter Neil O’Donnell threw a pass directly to Larry Brown who returned it deep into the Red Zone, where Emmitt Smith easily converted.

Undaunted, the Steelers got back on the board with a 46 yard Norm Johnson field goal, and then Bill Cowher made one of the gustiest calls in Super Bowl history with a surprise on-sides that Deon Figures recovered. The Steelers marched down the field and Bam Morris brought them to within 3, as the score stood 20-17 Dallas.

The Steelers defense held, but that did not stop Neil O’Donnell from striking again, as he once age threw directly to Larry Brown, who again returned it to the Red Zone. O’Donnell apologists argue that Andre Hastings ran the wrong route, but it’s the quarterback’s job to deliver a ball, and there was nary a black jersey in sight on Brown´s second interception.

Emmitt Smith put the Dallas Cowboys ahead for good a few plays later, sealing Super Bowl XXX for Dallas.
  • For the record, Troy Aikman was flawless in the game, going 15-23 with one touchdown and no picks.
The game evened Dallas’s Super Bowl record with the Steelers to 1-2, and pulled the Cowboys ahead in the Lombardi count by 1.

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Cowboys Embarrass Steelers on Opening Day II
August 31, 1997, Three Rivers Stadium
Dallas 37, Pittsburgh 7

Opening day 1997 for the Steelers marked the first day of the Kordell Stewart era, the first day of the post-Rod Woodson secondary, and the beginning of the end for Greg Lloyd.

Throughout the 1990’s free agency and injury had eroded the Steelers talent base, yet they always seemed to be playing in January. The question was, how much longer could it last?

As Ed Bouchette opined in his post game write up, “If the Dallas Cowboys were the measuring stick, the Steelers were the baby seals.”

It really was that bad.
  • The secondary was Dallas weakness, yet the Steelers never attempted to go deep
  • Deion Sanders was injured and played baseball all summer, yet the Steelers never tested him
  • Donnell Wolford, Rod Woodson’s replacement, got burned early and often
  • Jerome Bettis was held to 63 yards
  • Troy Aikman torched the Steelers secondary for 4 touchdown passes
Yes, the Steelers effectively shut down Emmitt Smith, but that didn´t matter, as Dallas jumped to a 37-0 lead and held it until Mark Bruner hauled in a face-saving 4th quarter touchdown.

This game was neither the first nor the last of Bill Cowher’s infamous opening day blow outs. And true to form the Steelers rebounded landing in the AFC Championship later that year, while Dallas imploded losing their last 5 en route to a 6-10 finish as Barry Switzer lost control of the team.

But that future seemed very distant for both teams during that 37-7 drubbing one hot Sunday in August at Three Rivers Stadium.

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Ben Roethlisberger vs. Vinny Testaverde...
October 17, 2004, Texas Stadium
Steelers 24, Cowboys 20

The Dave Campo in Dallas ended with the faithful at Texas Stadium demanding that Jerry Jones bring Bill Parcells to Irving. Bring him he did. Tuna brought Vinny Testaverde with him….

…Vinny Testaverde got and still gets better press than any other overrated under achieving quarterback in the history of the NFL. But Parcells coaxed the best out of Vinny. Yet not even Big Tuna could will success out of Testaverde against his old AFC Central Nemesis….

Vinny Testaverde started the day 1-9 vs. the Steelers who came to Dallas led by rookie Ben Roethlisberger who was looking for his fourth straight win.
  • …and for a while it looked like Vinny might just deny him it.
The Cowboys quickly jumped ahead on a Richie Anderson touchdown, but Ben Roethlisberger struck back with touchdown to Plaxico Burress, followed by a 51 yard field goal from Jeff Reed.

But Dallas tied it at the half, added another three to start the third quarter, and as the third quarter was ending the Cowboys appeared to pull away when Testaverde connected with Meshawn “Will You Just GIVE ME the DAMM BALL” Johnson for a 22 yard touchdown.
  • The Steelers tied it late in the fourth quarter with a touchdown, but Testaderde began masterfully killing the clock.
At third and 13 with 2:36 remaining Dallas only needed a first down to ice the game, but James Farrior knocked the ball lose and Kemo Von Oelhoffen recovered. Five plays later Jerome Bettis was in for the go ahead touchdown, dropping Testaverde´s record vs. the Steelers to 2-10.

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Tony Romo Meets the Zone Blitz
December 7, 2008, Heinz Field

The glory of Super Bowl XLIII tends to make Steelers Nation forget the nerve wracking nature of that entire season. The Steelers special teams were even, its defense phenomenal, but the offense?

…Let’s just say Bruce Arians’ boys sort of applied “Just in Time” principles to putting sufficient points on the board. And the Cowboys first visit to Heinz Field provided a perfect example.
  • Through 3 quarters Dallas only managed 13 points
  • The Steelers defense sacked Tony Romo 3 times
  • Tony Romo threw interceptions to Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor
  • James Harrison forced 1 fumble that the Steelers recovered
Yet the Steelers entered the 4th quarter down 13 to 3. As Dallas held Willie Parker to 25 yards, Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller lost fumbles, and the Steelers converted a woeful 3 of 16 third downs.

Early in the 4th quarter the Steelers finally put together a long drive reaching the one, but despite trying on both third and fourth downs, Gary Russell could not punch it in. The Dallas defense celebrated as if it had won the game.

Dallas offense lasted 6 plays and ‘Tone responded with a 35 yard punt return, giving the Steelers excellent field position, but the Steelers were forced to settle for 3. Again the Steelers defense responded with a three and out. Ben Roethlisberger hooked up 3 times with Nate Washington on the ensuring drive before throwing a 5 yard pass to Jeff Reed, trying the game with just over two minutes to play.

On its first play Dallas ran two yards up the middle.

Mike Tomlin called a time out. Tony Romo was audibly incredulous and visibly fluster by Tomlin’s take no prisoners move. You can watch the results for yourself, with a little music interlude, courtesy of “Renegade” (available as of 12-13-12):



On the next play Dick LeBeau disguised a Zone Blitz to look like Cover 2, but as Romo tried to hit Jason Witten in the flat, Desha Townsend lay in wait, intercepted the ball, and took it to the house, securing the win for Pittsburgh.

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