On September 28, 1958 the San Francisco 49ers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first week of the NFL season. The 49ers, coached by former star quarterback Frankie Albert, had come close to winning the Western Conference in ’57, going 8-4 and losing a tiebreaking playoff to Detroit in a dramatic second half comeback. QB Y.A. Tittle had received some MVP recognition, but was competing with second-year QB John Brodie (pictured above), who had a good preseason and was the opening-game starter. FB Joe Perry, who entered the opening game 60 yards behind Steve Van Buren’s NFL career rushing record, and HB Hugh McElhenny, a top open-field runner, were stalwarts in the backfield and the receiving corps was a good one.
The Steelers were coming off of a 6-6 finish in their first season under Head Coach Buddy Parker, who had led the Lions to two championships but abruptly resigned and joined up with Pittsburgh during the ’57 preseason. Third-year QB Earl Morrall, originally drafted by the 49ers, started at quarterback for Pittsburgh. The Steelers had newcomers in end Jimmy Orr and HB Dick Christy, and the offense was thus still coming together as the season began.
There were 32,150 fans in attendance at Kezar Stadium. The Steelers had first possession and punted, and the 49ers drove 59 yards in just four plays. John Brodie passed down the middle to Hugh McElhenny for 45 yards. A pass to end Gordie Soltau was good for seven more. McElhenny ran to the one and then, attempting to run to the right, he reversed field and barely reached the corner of the end zone, diving for a touchdown. Soltau kicked the extra point.
The teams traded punts before San Francisco appeared to be driving to another score later in the period, reaching the Pittsburgh 17, but DHB Dick Alban intercepted a Brodie pass. FB Tank Younger promptly broke away for a 29-yard gain, but as the series extended into the second quarter, the Steelers were ultimately forced to punt after Morrall was sacked by DT Leo Nomellini for a 15-yard loss.
Following another punt by the Niners, the Steelers threatened to score as they advanced to the San Francisco 20, the biggest play being a Morrall completion to Christy for 26 yards. However, he was then picked off by safety Bill Stits.
The 49ers went three-and-out and, following the punt, Pittsburgh came back on the next series to travel 49 yards in seven plays and this time didn’t come up empty. Morrall completed three passes and, under pressure, fired a desperation throw to end Ray Matthews in the right corner of the end zone for a TD. Tom Miner successfully converted to tie the score at 7-7.
As time ran down in the first half, the 49ers reached the Pittsburgh 41 before Brodie was sacked by LB Bob Dougherty for a loss of 16 yards and, after two passes were incomplete, they had to punt. Younger, heading toward left end and about to be tackled, lateraled back to Morrall and the quarterback ran 40 yards on the last play of the half.
The veteran Y.A. Tittle came in at quarterback for San Francisco in the third quarter, but the 49ers had to punt following their first possession of the second half. The Steelers moved quickly down the field as a Morrall pass to end Jack McClairen picked up 33 yards and set up a Miner field goal of 22 yards to give the visitors a 10-7 lead.
DHB Jack Butler then intercepted a Tittle pass on the next series, and with the help of a lateral to safety Gary Glick on the return, the Steelers were at the San Francisco 10. Four plays later, Younger plowed over for a one-yard touchdown and, with the successful PAT, the Steelers were up by 17-7. A poorly-thrown pass by Tittle again was intercepted by Butler, who returned it 19 yards. The result of the turnover was another Miner field goal, this time from 33 yards.
Down by 13, Coach Albert sent Brodie back into the game. The 49ers responded by driving 73 yards in eight plays, two of them outstanding catches by flanker R.C. Owens (pictured at left) for 17 and 11 yards. Brodie connected with end Clyde Conner for 21 yards and HB Jim Pace then ran for an 11-yard touchdown. Alban blocked Soltau’s extra point attempt, but the home team had narrowed the Pittsburgh lead to 20-13.
As the game headed into the fourth quarter, the teams exchanged punts. An interception of a Morrall pass by Stits, his second of the game, led to an eight-play scoring drive by the 49ers. Brodie had two more completions to Owens and end Fred Dugan caught a pass for 22 yards to the Pittsburgh three. Brodie capped the drive by sneaking over for a TD from a yard out. Soltau converted this time to tie the score.
On the first play following the kickoff, Morrall went long from his 20 and the pass was again intercepted by Stits, this time at the Pittsburgh 48. Brodie threw three passes to Owens for 12, 8, and 14 yards. The drive stalled at the 15, and with 2:31 left in the contest, Soltau kicked a 22-yard field goal to put the 49ers on top. The Steelers mounted a furious drive in the last two minutes, but time ran out on the visitors at the San Francisco 17 and the 49ers prevailed by a final score of 23-20.
San Francisco had the clear lead in total yards (322 to 217) and first downs (18 to 10). The Steelers turned the ball over four times, with decisive effects in the second half, to three suffered by the 49ers.
John Brodie completed 19 of 28 passes for 244 yards, 11 of 16 coming after he returned in the second half, and had no touchdowns but one interception. Y.A. Tittle was one-of-five for six yards and had two picked off. R.C. Owens had a big game with 9 catches for 103 yards. However, Joe Perry came up short in his quest to pass Steve Van Buren, rushing for 42 yards on 15 carries (he moved past Van Buren the following week). Hugh McElhenny contributed 35 yards on eight attempts. On defense, Bill Stits intercepted three passes – his only interceptions of the season.
For the Steelers, Earl Morrall was successful on 9 of 24 throws for 117 yards and a TD but gave up three interceptions. He also ran the ball twice for 43 yards. Tank Younger (pictured at right) gained 60 yards on 11 carries while Dick Christy led the Steelers with four catches for 53 yards.
The come-from-behind win for the 49ers was followed by two losses in which they scored a total of nine points, and they went on to a disappointing 6-6 record that placed them fourth in the Western Conference. Pittsburgh was beaten by the Browns in the second week but, at that point, Coach Parker swung a trade that included Earl Morrall going to Detroit for star QB Bobby Layne. The Steelers surged through the second half of the season and ended up third in the Eastern Conference at 7-4-1, which was the franchise’s best record since 1947.
John Brodie continued to split the quarterback duties with Y.A. Tittle, although Tittle ultimately regained the starting job. Brodie still threw 172 passes and led the league with a 59.9 completion percentage, accumulating 1224 yards and six touchdowns, but also 13 interceptions. His best years were still well ahead of him. R. C. Owens caught 40 passes for 620 yards (15.5 avg.) and a TD.
Tank Younger, who starred with the Rams for nine years before coming to the Steelers, ended up rushing for 344 yards in what was his last NFL season. Dick Christy, who was supplanted at halfback by ex-Detroit Lion Tom Tracy, primarily returned kicks during the rest of the season and would have his most productive years with the New York Titans in the AFL.