November 3, 2013

1957: Morrall Leads Steelers to Upset of Slumping Colts

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a 3-2 record and were struggling to score points as they faced the Baltimore Colts on November 3, 1957. Buddy Parker had taken over as head coach following his abrupt departure from the Lions during the preseason, and while Pittsburgh had a tough defense, the offense had deficiencies at running back and on the line. Second-year quarterback, Earl Morrall (pictured at right), who had been obtained from the 49ers, showed promise but was inexperienced and having difficulty against teams that sent a heavy pass rush. To help Morrall and the passing game, Parker countered against Baltimore by realigning the running backs so that FB Fran Rogel was behind G Mike Sandusky and could thus provide extra protection.

The Colts, under Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, had gotten off to a 3-0 start before losing their last two games prior to hosting the Steelers. Second-year QB Johnny Unitas, originally drafted by Pittsburgh, was rapidly developing into a star, and there were plenty of other formidable weapons on offense, such as ends Raymond Berry and Jim Mutscheller, FB Alan Ameche, and HB Lenny Moore. The defense was good, in particular the line – a further reason for Buddy Parker to sacrifice the already-suspect running game in order to better protect the young quarterback.

There were 42,575 fans in attendance at Memorial Stadium. The Colts scored the first time they had the ball, going 81 yards in 15 plays. On a third-and-five play, Unitas connected with Raymond Berry in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown. However, DHB Jack Butler blocked Bert Rechichar’s extra point attempt and the score remained 6-0.

In response, the Steelers put together a long drive of their own that extended past the opening period. While they had problems running the ball, Morrall made up for it with his passing. As the second quarter began, Pittsburgh had second-and-goal at the Baltimore nine but came up empty when Morrall was sacked for a seven-yard loss, overthrew a pass into the end zone intended for end Ray Mathews, and Gary Glick missed a 24-yard field goal attempt that was wide to the right.

The Colts had to punt following their next possession and Cotton Davidson’s kick went only 25 yards to give Pittsburgh good starting field position near midfield. A fumble and incomplete pass brought up third down, but then Morrall went deep for Mathews, who pulled it in for a 48-yard TD. Glick added the extra point and the Steelers led by 7-6.

The Colts had a chance to score before the first half ended, but a pass intended for end Jim Mutscheller in the end zone was picked off by Butler.

In the third quarter, the Colts had a promising series that reached Pittsburgh territory, but Butler (pictured at left) intercepted a Unitas pass at his 22 to end the threat. Later in the period, LB Aubrey Rozelle picked off a pass to give the Steelers the ball at the Baltimore 21. After HB Billy Wells lost a yard, Morrall again fired a long pass to Mathews for a 22-yard TD. Glick added the PAT and the visitors were up by 14-6.

After DB Dick Nyers returned the ensuing kickoff 38 yards for the Colts, George Shaw relieved Unitas at quarterback and directed the home team on a seven-play, 61-yard drive. Keeping the ball on rollouts, Shaw gained 20 rushing yards himself and went the final eight yards around right end for a TD. This time Rechichar successfully converted to make it a one-point game at 14-13.

Early in the fourth quarter, Rechichar missed a 41-yard field goal attempt that would have put the Colts in front. The Steelers then added to their lead on a possession highlighted by Mathews made a tumbling catch to gain 31 yards. Glick added a 16-yard field goal to make it a four-point game.

The Colts hurt themselves further when the kickoff bounced away and was finally corralled by Nyers at the two, who was only able to pick up two yards. Following a one-yard carry by Alan Ameche, the Colts were penalized half the distance and Unitas, fading back into his end zone, was pulled down by DE Bill McPeak for a safety. That was it for the scoring as Pittsburgh’s defense continued to frustrate the Colts. The Steelers won by a final score of 19-13.

Pittsburgh outgained the Colts (271 yards to 255) although Baltimore had the edge in first downs (17 to 12). The Steelers managed only 15 yards on the ground in 30 attempts, to 168 rushing yards for the Colts, but Baltimore was held to just 87 net yards through the air. The Colts also turned the ball over four times, all on interceptions, to one suffered by Pittsburgh.

Earl Morrall completed 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns with one intercepted. He also led the anemic running game with 23 yards on three carries. Billy Wells gained 20 yards on 13 attempts. End Jack McClairen had 7 pass receptions for 64 yards and Ray Mathews (pictured at right) contributed 6 catches for 165 yards and two TDs. Of Pittsburgh’s four interceptions on defense, Jack Butler accounted for three of them and also had the blocked extra point to his credit.

For the Colts, Johnny Unitas had an abysmal day as he was successful on only three of 9 throws for 56 yards and a TD. George Shaw went three-of-six for 44 yards. Alan Ameche rushed for 56 yards on 10 carries. Raymond Berry had three catches for 56 yards and a score.

The game did not mark a turnaround for the Steelers – they lost their next three contests and finished third in the Eastern Conference at 6-6. Baltimore recovered to win four straight and stay in contention in the Western Conference, but losses in the final two games put them in third place at 7-5.

Earl Morrall had a respectable season, ranking second in the league in pass attempts (289) and third in completions (139) for 1900 yards and 11 touchdowns with 12 intercepted. His completion percentage (48.1) and yards per attempt (6.6) were ordinary, but he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first of two times over the course of his long, 22-year career.

The game against the Colts was the biggest of the season for Ray Mathews, who ended up with 15 catches for 369 yards (24.6 avg.) and four touchdowns. Jack Butler, on the other hand, co-led the NFL with 10 interceptions and was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection as well as Pro Bowl honoree.

Johnny Unitas went on to have an outstanding breakout season, leading the NFL in pass attempts (301), yards (2550), TD passes (24), and yards per attempt (8.5). He was named league MVP by the NEA as well as receiving first-team All-NFL recognition from the organization and second-team honors from the AP, UPI, and New York Daily News. He was also chosen to the Pro Bowl for the first of an eventual ten times over the course of his career.