January 12, 2011

1975: Steelers Beat Vikings in Super Bowl IX for First Title

From the time they joined the NFL in 1933 through the 1973 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had not won a championship or even played in a title game. They had been in the postseason on three occasions in 39 years, and two of those were in 1972 and ’73. But in 1974, the Steelers went 10-3-1 to top the AFC Central, triumphed easily in the Divisional playoff round over Buffalo, and then defeated the Raiders in the AFC Championship game to advance to Super Bowl IX at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on January 12, 1975.

The heart of the Steelers, coached by Chuck Noll, was the strong defense. The “Steel Curtain” line of ends L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White and tackles Joe Greene and Ernie Holmes was outstanding. Outside linebackers Andy Russell and Jack Ham were joined by rookie MLB Jack Lambert, and the backfield led by FS Glen Edwards was talented as well. The ground-oriented offense featured FB Franco Harris (pictured above), who was paired with HB Rocky Bleier. Fifth-year QB Terry Bradshaw was still a work in progress, lost the starting job at the beginning of the season to Joe Gilliam, but regained it halfway through the schedule and showed improvement.

Facing Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl were the Minnesota Vikings, coached by Bud Grant. They had been participants the previous year, losing to the Miami Dolphins, and finished the ’74 season with a 10-4 record to again top the NFC Central. From there, the Vikings had soundly beaten the Cardinals in the Divisional playoff game and then just got past the Rams for the conference title. 34-year-old QB Fran Tarkenton was the key to the offense that also included Pro Bowl WR John Gilliam and multitalented FB Chuck Foreman, who ran for 777 yards and caught 53 passes for 586 more. The veteran defense was sound and featured DE Carl Eller, DT Alan Page, and FS Paul Krause.

There were 80,997 fans in attendance on a chilly and windy day in New Orleans, and they saw a game that featured defense and ball control – especially by the Steelers. The Pittsburgh defense kept the Vikings in poor field position, particularly in the first half. However, the Steelers offense controlled the ball well but couldn’t score points. A possession midway through the first quarter resulted in a missed 37-yard field goal attempt by Roy Gerela, and the next time the Steelers had the ball they put together an eight-play drive to the Minnesota 16 that came up empty when, on another field goal attempt, holder Bobby Walden fumbled a bad snap and had to fall on the ball.

The Vikings got a break in the second quarter when Bleier fumbled the ball away at the Pittsburgh 24 yard line. But they went nowhere in three plays and Fred Cox was wide to the right on a 39-yard field goal attempt.

Late in the second quarter, a pitchout to HB Dave Osborn was fumbled and rolled into the end zone. Tarkenton recovered and was pounced upon by the Pittsburgh defense for a safety (pictured below) - the first in Super Bowl history, and the first points of the game.

After a short possession by the Steelers, the Vikings responded with a good drive, but a pass from Tarkenton intended for Gilliam was batted away from the receiver by Edwards and intercepted by CB Mel Blount. The score remained 2-0 in favor of Pittsburgh at the half.

The first touchdown for the Steelers came four plays after FB Bill Brown fumbled the squibbed second half kickoff, which was recovered by LB Marv Kellum at the Minnesota 30. Bleier was stopped for no gain, but then Harris ran for 24 yards. After being thrown for a loss on his next carry, Harris ran nine yards around end for a touchdown.

On the ensuing series, the Vikings picked up nine yards, six on a pass to Foreman, and faced a fourth-and-one situation at their own 37. The offense stayed on the field and Tarkenton went into a long count to try and draw the defense offside. There were indeed flags thrown, but both teams were ruled offside, resulting in offsetting penalties; Bud Grant elected to take no further chances and punted.

On the next series, Tarkenton threw a pass that was batted back to him. Startled, he then tossed to Gilliam for what would have been a 41-yard gain, but drew a penalty for an illegal second forward pass on the play. While Tarkenton later connected with TE Stu Voigt for 28 yards, the drive ended at midfield when another batted pass was intercepted by Greene. The tally remained 9-0 after three periods.

Early in the fourth quarter, after Krause recovered a fumble by Pittsburgh’s Harris near midfield, an interference call on SS Mike Wagner gave the Vikings a first down and goal at the Pittsburgh five. However, on the next play Foreman fumbled and Greene recovered for the Steelers.

The Steelers were unable to get a first down and had to punt from their own end zone. The resulting kick by Walden was blocked by LB Matt Blair and recovered by DB Terry Brown for a Vikings touchdown, although Cox missed the extra point when it struck the left upright. Still, Pittsburgh’s lead was narrowed to 9-6.

With ten minutes to play, the Steelers launched a 12-play, 66-yard drive that resulted in a four-yard TD pass from Bradshaw to TE Larry Brown. The key play along the way was a pass to Brown for 30 yards to the Pittsburgh 42 in which it appeared that the receiver fumbled the ball away to the Vikings when hit, but the officials ruled that he was down before losing the ball.

Tarkenton was immediately intercepted by Wagner, and the Steelers were able to run the clock down to 37 seconds before Minnesota’s offense got the ball back, by which time it was too late. The Steelers had won their first championship by a score of 16-6.

Pittsburgh dominated the Vikings statistically, outgaining them by 333 yards to 119. In particular, the Steelers gained 249 yards on the ground to a mere 17, on 21 carries, for Minnesota.

While Pittsburgh’s front four didn’t sack Tarkenton, they harassed him all game, forcing him to throw on the run and blocking four passes as well as intercepting three. Dwight White played despite being down with viral pneumonia during the week preceding the game.

Franco Harris was the game’s MVP, keying Pittsburgh’s strong running game with 158 yards on 34 carries with one TD. Rocky Bleier added another 65 yards on 17 attempts, and even Terry Bradshaw outrushed the Vikings with 33 yards on five runs. Bradshaw (pictured below) didn’t throw often but was effective when he did, completing 9 of 14 passes for 96 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Larry Brown caught three passes for 49 yards and a TD and WR John Stallworth also caught three, gaining 24 yards.

For Minnesota, Fran Tarkenton was successful on only 11 of 26 passes for 102 yards with three picked off. Chuck Foreman caught 5 passes for 50 yards and led the club’s anemic running game with 18 yards on 12 attempts. Only one completion was made to a wide receiver, and that was to John Gilliam for 16 yards.

It was an especially sweet win for the long-time owner of the Steelers, Art Rooney, on the cusp of his 74th birthday. “I'm grateful to the players, to Chuck Noll and all the coaches, and to our entire organization,” said an emotional Rooney afterward. “It is great for me and for Pittsburgh. Our players are a great bunch of fellows. I'm not surprised they won.”

“I'm really proud of this football team,” said Chuck Noll. “We came in with the idea of getting the job done and let nothing stand in our way. It's especially fitting that in a championship game our defense shut out the champions of the National Football Conference. I can't think of anything more fitting.”

“It wasn't a very good football game,” summed up Bud Grant from the Minnesota perspective. “There were enough chances for both teams to win a number of times with all the penalties, interceptions and official fumbles.”

“We lost to a better team,” admitted Tarkenton. “We had our chances. Pittsburgh has a super defensive team. They controlled the game. We're not frustrated or dejected. We came to win and we couldn't do it.”

The Steelers went on to repeat as NFL champions in 1975, and won twice more before the decade was over. Minnesota continued to dominate the NFC Central, returning to the Super Bowl following the ’76 season but losing once again.