January 20, 2013

1980: Steelers Make Big Plays to Overcome Rams and Win Super Bowl XIV

It looked to be a mismatch in Super Bowl XIV on January 20, 1980 as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepared to defend their NFL title against the Los Angeles Rams. Head Coach Chuck Noll’s Steelers had won the AFC Central with a 12-4 record and blew past the Dolphins and Oilers to reach the Super Bowl for the second straight year and fourth time in six seasons. QB Terry Bradshaw (pictured at right), running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and the line anchored by All-Pro C Mike Webster were familiar cogs on offense and the defense still contained DE L.C. Greenwood, DT “Mean Joe” Greene, MLB Jack Lambert, OLB Jack Ham, CB Mel Blount, and SS Donnie Shell. This was a well-seasoned club that slumped briefly during the regular season but was getting the job done when the games counted most and was strongly favored to retain its title.

Meanwhile the Rams, coached by Ray Malavasi, had topped the NFC West at just 9-7 and then defeated the Cowboys and upstart Buccaneers on the road to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time. To be sure, LA was no stranger to the postseason, having topped the division in each of the previous six seasons under Chuck Knox and then Malavasi, who was at the helm for the second year. The Rams had even reached the NFC Championship game four times, as recently as 1978, and had lost in each instance. Now, following their worst regular season showing since 1972, they had finally broken through in the playoffs. Injuries had played a big role in ’79, most notably when QB Pat Haden went down with a broken finger. But unproven backup QB Vince Ferragamo proved capable in relief and, relying on the sound running game and a very tough defense, the Rams won their last four games of the regular season and were at their best in the playoffs.

There was a huge crowd of 103,985 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California for the Super Bowl. Los Angeles went nowhere in the game’s first series and punted. The Steelers then drove 55 yards on their initial possession, with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier carrying the ball on eight of the ten plays and Harris gaining 32 yards after catching a swing pass from Bradshaw. However, a pass into the end zone intended for Lynn Swann was broken up by CB Pat Thomas and the series ended with Matt Bahr kicking a 41-yard field goal for the early lead.

Following a short kickoff, the Rams had good starting field position at their 41 and made the most of it, going 59 yards in eight plays. A short completion by Vince Ferragamo to HB Wendell Tyler was followed by seven runs, including one by Tyler that covered 39 yards to the Pittsburgh 14, and the last was for a touchdown from a yard out by FB Cullen Bryant.

Pittsburgh came right back as CB Larry Anderson returned the ensuing kickoff 45 yards. The Steelers took nine plays to score, with Harris running for a one-yard TD and, with the successful extra point, it was 10-7 two minutes into the second quarter. Along the way, Bradshaw completed passes of 12 yards to Swann and to TE Bennie Cunningham for 13.

LA put together another scoring possession, driving 67 yards and tying the game with a 31-yard Frank Corral field goal. The series was helped along by a pass interference penalty on Donnie Shell that picked up 20 yards.

The scoring subsided as the teams traded punts until SS Dave Elmendorf intercepted a Bradshaw pass to give the Rams the ball at the Pittsburgh 39. They were only able to advance 12 yards in eight plays, with Ferragamo sacked twice, including one by DE John Banaszak for a 14-yard loss on a third-and-10 play, but Corral kicked another field goal, this time from 45 yards with 14 seconds left before halftime. LA was on top by 13-10 at the intermission. The first half had been remarkably even on both sides, with the one turnover accounting for the difference in the score.

The Steelers got off to a fast start in the third quarter. Anderson returned the kickoff 37 yards and five plays later Bradshaw connected with a double-covered Swann who made a leaping grab for a 47-yard touchdown. However, Los Angeles responded in kind. It took just four plays as Ferragamo threw to WR Billy Waddy for a 50-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 24 and, on the next play, Ferragamo handed off to RB Lawrence McCutcheon who, sweeping to the right, held up and tossed an option pass to WR Ron Smith that resulted in a TD. Corral shanked the extra point attempt but the Rams were back in front by 19-17.

Near the end of the period, CB Rod Perry intercepted a Bradshaw pass deep in his own territory to snuff out a promising Pittsburgh drive. After advancing to its 23, Los Angeles had to punt it back. Three plays later, and early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers struck back as a heavily-pressured Bradshaw passed to John Stallworth, the ball barely making it over Perry’s outstretched hand, for an electrifying 73-yard touchdown (pictured at left).

After the teams traded punts, the Rams again drove into Steelers territory but Jack Lambert intercepted a Ferragamo pass at the Pittsburgh 14 to snuff out the threat. The Steelers drove 70 yards for another score. Bradshaw again went long for Stallworth, who gained 45 yards to the LA 22. Four plays later, and with the help of a pass interference penalty on Thomas, Harris scored a second TD from a yard out.

The last gasp by the Rams ended when they had to give up the ball on downs at the Pittsburgh 37. The Steelers were once again league champions by a score of 31-19.

Pittsburgh led in total yards (393 to 301) and first downs (19 to 16), although the Rams defense performed remarkably well against the vaunted ground attack of the Steelers, which compiled just 84 yards on 37 running plays. The Steelers sacked Ferragamo four times, while the Rams pressured but failed to sack Bradshaw. Pittsburgh turned the ball over three times, all on interceptions (neither team fumbled during the game), to one by the Rams.

Terry Bradshaw, the contest’s MVP, completed 14 of 21 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns as well as the three interceptions. Lynn Swann caught 5 of those throws for 79 yards and a TD while John Stallworth, thanks to the two big plays in the fourth quarter, gained 121 yards on his three receptions that included a score. Franco Harris had two short touchdown carries but gained only 46 yards on 20 attempts while Rocky Bleier contributed 25 yards on 10 carries. Also of note, Larry Anderson (pictured below) gained 162 yards on five kickoff returns, a Super Bowl record at the time.

For the Rams, Vince Ferragamo was successful on 15 of 25 throws for 212 yards with no TDs and had one picked off while Lawrence McCutcheon had the one option scoring pass. Wendell Tyler, who took such a beating during the game that he had to leave periodically due to bouts of nausea, topped the running game with 60 yards on 17 carries and was one of three LA receivers with three catches. His gained 20 yards while Billy Waddy totaled 75 yards on his three receptions and Cullen Bryant picked up 21 to go along with his 30 yards on 6 running attempts that included a touchdown.

With the fourth NFL Championship in six years, the Steelers were at the pinnacle of their success during the Chuck Noll era. The club slipped from its perch in 1980, dropping to 9-7 and missing the playoffs. While the decline would not be precipitous – Pittsburgh returned to the postseason in 1983 and did not post a losing record until 1985 - the players who were keys to the four titles began to age and depart and their successors were not as talented. The Steelers did not appear in another Super Bowl until the 1995 season.

The Rams, who moved from the Memorial Coliseum to Anaheim Stadium in 1980, failed to win the NFC West but still made it into the playoffs again as a Wild Card entry with an improved 11-5 tally. They were eliminated in the opening round of the postseason, however, and fell under .500 in ’81. They would not participate in another NFC title game until 1985 or reach the Super Bowl until 1999, when the franchise was in St. Louis.