1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: A Three-Peat Bid Derailed By Injuries

The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers were looking to make history. In 1974 and 1975, they had joined the Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins as the only teams to win consecutive Super Bowls. With the biggest stage in professional sports then only a decade old, those were also the only three teams to have two championships at all, regardless of whether they were repeats. The ’76 Steelers bid for a historic trifecta was sustained by a historically good defense, but undermined by injuries on offense.

The great Steel Curtain defense was led by middle linebacker Jack Lambert, who took home Defensive Player of the Year. Joe Greene at the defensive tackle was a two-time winner of Defensive POY and “Mean Joe” enjoyed another Pro Bowl season in 1976. So did L.C. Greenwood up front. Jack Ham was 1st-team All-NFL at another linebacker spot. The entire secondary—Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas at the corners, Mike Wagner at strong safety and Glen Edwards at free safety—were all Pro Bowlers.

In fact, the only Steeler defensive starters to not make the Pro Bowl were Dwight White up front and Andy Russell at linebacker—but both had Pro Bowl resumes throughout their career. All of which makes it seem redundant to say that the Pittsburgh defense was the best in the NFL for points allowed.

But on offense, Terry Bradshaw went through an injury-riddled campaign where he missed six of the fourteen games. Bradshaw’s final numbers of 48% completion rate, 6.1 yards-per-attempt and 10-9 TD/INT ratio weren’t as hideous as they would be today, but they were still only in the middle of the league. That’s in spite of having the great field-stretching Lynn Swann, who averaged better than 18 yards a catch, on the outside.

At least the Steelers could run the football. Franco Harris ran for over 1,100 yards. Rocky Bleier stepped up with the best statistical season of his career with a 1,000-yard campaign. The quality of the running game, combined with the defense setting them up in good situations, allowed the Pittsburgh offense to rank fifth in the league for points scored.

The hottest rivalry in the AFC—perhaps in all of football—was the Steelers and Raiders. Pittsburgh had dispatched Oakland in each of the two previous AFC Championship Games. The teams had met in the divisional round of the playoffs in 1972 and 1973. And this 1976 season would open with Steelers-Raiders out west for the 4 PM ET national television audience.

Bradshaw played well and made big plays, going 15/27 for 253 yards. A third-year receiver named John Stallworth, still coming into his own, had a big day with six catches for 94 yards. Pittsburgh led 28-14 in the fourth quarter. Then, inexplicably, the defense collapsed. Oakland rallied for 17 points and handed the Steelers a 31-28 loss.

The negative momentum continued for the first half against a good Cleveland Browns team back at home. Pittsburgh trailed 14-0. But with the defense recovering four fumbles and Harris running for 118 yards, the Steelers took over the second half and got in the win column, 31-14.

A difficult early schedule continued against what would prove to be a really good New England Patriots squad. Bradshaw again played well, going 20/30 for 291 yards. Swann and Frank Lewis combined for nearly 200 yards receiving. But with a 20-9 lead in the third quarter, the defense again inexplicably collapsed, allowing three consecutive touchdowns. A 30-27 loss at home was a tough pill to swallow.

And there was no rest in sight—not with a Monday Night date at perennial 1970s contender Minnesota coming up. An excellent Vikings defense sacked Bradshaw five times, intercepted him four times and beat Pittsburgh 17-6.

The poor start to the season hit its low point six days later in Cleveland. Not only was Bradshaw again sacked four times. Not only did the Steelers lose again, this time 18-16. But Bradshaw was knocked out. The Steelers were 1-4 and the offense was now in the hands of Mike Kruczek, a rookie out of Boston College.

Pittsburgh’s situation was even more alarming than it might appear to readers of today. Only four teams per conference could qualify for the postseason. In what was then a three-divisional format, there was just one wild-card available. Cleveland and the Cincinnati Bengals were both good teams within the AFC Central that the three clubs shared with the Houston Oilers.

In short, the Steelers weren’t just in trouble. Their back was to the wall and we weren’t even halfway through October.

But maybe the Bradshaw injury is what the defense needed. Because it’s at this point in our story that the 1976 Steel Curtain defense becomes the unit they are historically remembered as.

Cincinnati came to town with a chance to deliver a dagger blow. Pittsburgh dominated the line of scrimmage to the tune of a 201-75 rush yard advantage. Harris carried 41 times for 143 of those yards. The Steelers stopped the bleeding with an easy 23-6 win.

They went on to play a bad New York Giants team. Even with a sloppy effort resulting in 15 penalties, Pittsburgh’s 230-88 edge in the ground game resulted in a 27-0 win. More of the same came the next week at home against mediocre San Diego.

The Steel Curtain sacked future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts five times, recovered four fumbles and rolled up a 255-44 advantage on the ground. A game that was only 3-0 after three quarters ended 23-0.

Bradshaw returned in time for a road trip to Kansas City. Facing a bad team, the ground advantage was an overwhelming 330-34. With the defense also intercepting four passes, they spun their third straight shutout, 45-zip.

A key home game with Miami was on deck. The Dolphins were struggling to regain their own Super Bowl form from earlier in the decade. In a late afternoon game that both teams had to have, Bradshaw was again knocked to the sidelines.

Kruczek came on and did his job—he gave the football to Harris and Bleier, who went for 110 yards apiece. And the rookie let the defense win the game for him. The Steelers delivered 14-3.

They were 6-4, but there was a long way to go. With the Colts (then in Baltimore) and Patriots enjoying monster seasons in the AFC East, the wild card was off the table. The Steelers and Browns both trailed the 8-2 Bengals by two games.

What Pittsburgh did have going for them was another game with Cincinnati, one in which they could also ensure the tiebreaker. And the Bengals still had to play in Oakland, where the Raiders were en route to the AFC’s best record. So a realistic path to the playoffs was there.

The Steelers hosted the Oilers and won 32-16, blowing open a close game after halftime. That set up the late afternoon battle in Cincinnati on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

The Bengals got an early field goal. With Kruczek in the lineup, that three-point deficit seemed pretty big. But the kid made some big throws to Swann, who caught five balls for 97 yards. Bleier and Harris keyed a 204-110 edge in rush yardage. That wasn’t the landslide advantage the Steelers had been rolling up, but it was enough to keep Cincinnati from any more points. And a third-quarter touchdown gave Pittsburgh a 7-3 win.

Pittsburgh hosted Tampa Bay the following Sunday. This was the Buccaneers’ first year in the league and they would finish winless. The 42-0 rout was completely expected. Even better was that Bradshaw played the second half. He would be ready for the playoffs…if there was to be a postseason in Pittsburgh.

Monday Night held the key. That was when Cincinnati and Oakland took the field. There was talk that maybe the Raiders should tank, for the purpose of keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs. But Oakland not only had integrity, they still needed a win to lock up homefield advantage. The Raiders won 35-20.

Pittsburgh improbably controlled its destiny the following Saturday afternoon down in Houston. With Bleier and Harris both going over the 100-yard mark and Bradshaw tossing a 21-yard touchdown pass to Swann, a comfortable 21-0 win sewed up the AFC Central.

The Steelers might be the 3-seed, but with nine wins in a row—five by shutout—and the last two Super Bowl trophies sitting in their offices, they were now the team to beat. Pittsburgh was installed as a solid (-3.5) road favorite in Baltimore for the divisional playoff game the following Sunday.

It turned out the oddsmakers underestimated how hot Pittsburgh was. Bradshaw opened up the game with a 76-yard TD strike to Lewis. A missed PAT followed, although kicker Roy Gerela later added a field goal and it was 9-7 going into the second quarter.

Then the game got out of hand. Harris ran for one touchdown. Bradshaw went up top again, this time 29 yards to Swann. A field goal made it 26-7 by halftime. Bradshaw finished the afternoon at 14/18 for 264 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. By today’s standards, that’s a really good performance. But the standards of 1976, with more physicality allowed by defensive secondaries and more interceptions generally, it’s positively dazzling.

Pittsburgh was peaking. A third straight AFC Championship date with Oakland was at hand and the Steelers were again a comfortable (-3.5) road favorite. But now the injury bug hit the backfield. Harris and Bleier were both knocked out in Baltimore. The running game that had carried this offense all season long was sidelined.

On the day after Christmas, Bradshaw couldn’t take the game into his own hands. He still made some downfield throws, but the final numbers were 14/35 for 176 yards. The rush yard advantage, such a big edge for Pittsburgh during the win streak, turned on them to the tune of 157-72. When the Steelers fell behind early 10-0, they were not going to catch up. It was 17-7 at half and ended at 24-7.

There would be no third consecutive Super Bowl triumph, a feat that no one has accomplished now more than fifty years later. This was the first of two seasons where the Steel Curtain took a modest step back from greatness. But that was only temporary. By 1978, they would become the first team to win three Super Bowls in total. In 1979, they added #4 and sealed their status as the best team in a great decade of NFL football.