November 18, 2010

1979: Chargers Defense Keys Romp Over Champion Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers had won the Super Bowl following the 1978 season and looked to be well on their way to repeating as they took on the Chargers at San Diego Stadium on November 18, 1979. Under the guidance of Head Coach Chuck Noll, who had built the club into a winner with three championships since arriving ten years before, they were 9-2. Moreover, they had won their last four games, the previous two by a combined score of 68-10.

The Chargers had been far less successful during the past decade – after regularly contending in the 1960s in the AFL, they had not been in the postseason in 14 years. However, they were in their first full season under Head Coach Don Coryell and, featuring a high-powered passing offense, were 8-3. Eighth-year QB Dan Fouts was flourishing and had an outstanding group of receivers to throw to – most notably, wide receivers John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner. However, they also had an aggressive and solid defense, as the Steelers would find out.

There were 51,910 loud and enthusiastic fans in attendance as the defense set up San Diego’s first touchdown of the game. LB Ray Preston intercepted a pass by Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw that gave the Chargers possession at the Pittsburgh 37 yard line. Two plays later, Fouts completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson. The score stood at 7-0 after one quarter.

In the second quarter, the Chargers put together a 72-yard drive with Fouts completing a six-yard TD pass to TE Bob Klein to cap it and extend the lead to 14-0. Later in the period, Preston picked off another Bradshaw pass and returned it 35 yards to the three yard line. RB Bo Matthews plunged into the end zone from two yards out and San Diego took a 21-0 lead into halftime.

As for the Steelers, Bradshaw had failed to complete a pass to a wide receiver in the first half. San Diego’s linebackers left the pass-rushing to the linemen and played back, thus forcing Bradshaw to throw short passes to his running backs. Standout wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were both double-covered throughout the game.

Pittsburgh’s only score came at 6:30 in the third quarter on a two-yard carry by RB Rocky Bleier. But Chargers LB Woodrow Lowe  intercepted a deflected Bradshaw pass later in the period that he returned 77 yards for a touchdown and 28-7 score.

CB Mike Williams intercepted another pass by Bradshaw that set up the last San Diego touchdown in the fourth quarter. RB Hank Bauer, the team’s short-yardage specialist (he carried just 22 times for 28 yards all season, but scored eight touchdowns), plowed over from two yards out, and that provided the final tally of 35-7. It was the worst loss for the Steelers in nine years.

San Diego’s offense had a relatively ordinary day, but the defense was superb. The Chargers outgained the Steelers, 218 yards to 191, but the clubs were even in first downs with 14 apiece. Pittsburgh turned the ball over eight times, to four by San Diego, and Bradshaw was sacked four times. Every Charger received a game ball, and Woodrow Lowe and Ray Preston each got two.

Dan Fouts completed just 11 of 24 passes for 137 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. John Jefferson (pictured at right) was the leading receiver with 5 catches for 106 yards and a TD. The Chargers running attack was ordinary (at best) throughout the year and RB Mike Thomas was the leading rusher in this game with 53 yards on 13 carries (the team ended up ranking 27th in the league in rushing).

Terry Bradshaw, who was relieved by backup QB Mike Kruczek in the fourth quarter, was successful on 18 of 36 pass attempts for 153 yards with no TDs and five interceptions (two each by Preston and Lowe). RB Franco Harris, who led the club with just 44 yards on 20 attempts, was also the leading receiver with 7 catches, for 50 yards. John Stallworth gained 55 yards on four receptions while Lynn Swann was held to two catches for 28 yards.

“We have to credit San Diego with beating us,” said Chuck Noll, a former Chargers assistant coach in the 1960s. “They had a lot to say about what went on. They made it happen. Bradshaw was 100 percent, but the only receivers that were open were linebackers.”

“I got real acquainted with the defense today,” Bradshaw added. “They played awesome. They put on the best rush I've ever seen all year, by far. We ran into a team ready to play a lot more than we were. We were bad, and when we're bad, we're really bad.”

San Diego lost just once more to finish the regular season on top of the AFC West with a 12-4 record. However, they were upset by the Houston Oilers in the Divisional playoff. The Steelers also ended up with a 12-4 tally but were far more successful in the postseason, beating the Rams to win a second straight Super Bowl (their fourth in six years).

While the Chargers were best known for their league-leading passing offense that ended up tied with New England for second in the NFL with 411 points scored (the Steelers were first with 416), they also surrendered the fewest points of any AFC club (246) and were second in the conference in passes intercepted (28).

Dan Fouts didn’t have a strong performance against Pittsburgh, but he went on to set a new passing yardage record with 4082. Terry Bradshaw wasn’t far behind with a career-high 3724 yards (the Hall of Fame quarterback also had another career-high figure by throwing 25 interceptions).