1977 Pittsburgh Steelers: Modest Regression In A Dynastic Decade

The 1977 Pittsburgh Steelers were looking to get back on top of the football world. After Super Bowl victories in 1974 and 1975, the Steelers had “slipped” to losing in the AFC Championship Game in 1976. But that loss had been riddled with injuries and Pittsburgh still had the best defense in the league. There was every reason to see ’77 as a year they returned to the top. Instead, the season saw regression across the board and it required some breaks simply to earn a sixth consecutive playoff trip.

Franco Harris continued to be reliable on offense. The future Hall of Fame running back went for over 1,100 yards and was 1st-team All-NFL. Lynn Swann had a Pro Bowl year on the flanks, catching 50 balls for 789 yards. John Stallworth was starting to emerge as a big-time threat on the other side, catching 44 passes for nearly 18 yards a pop. Bennie Cunningham was a reliable tight end.

Terry Bradshaw was pulling the trigger on the offense and Terry could make big plays. His 8.0 yards-per-attempt was the best in the league. But his TD-INT ratio was 17-19. While that’s considerably more normal for this era than it would be today, the interceptions still amount to over 6 percent of his total passes. And that ranked 20th in the 28-team league. The completion percentage of 52 percent was mediocre.

Even so, the offense wasn’t the problem. With the running game and the boom-or-bust passing attack, the Steelers ranked seventh in the NFL in points scored.

Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense had been its crown jewel and the D was coming off a ’76 campaign where they had spun five shutouts in what was then a 14-game schedule. This year, there was drastic slippage.

The Steelers still got Pro Bowl years from great players in defensive tackle Joe Greene and linebacker Jack Lambert. Jack Ham, another great linebacker, was 1st-team All-NFL. Mel Blount intercepted six passes from his cornerback spot. Steve Furness and Dwight White combined for 15 sacks up front. But it wasn’t enough. Pittsburgh tumbled to 17th in the NFL in points allowed.

A home game with subpar San Francisco opened the season on Monday Night. The defense picked up where they had left off, allowing just four completed passes. Harris ran for 100 yards and the Steelers won 27-0.

It set up another visitor from the Bay Area—a more hated one. Pittsburgh and the Oakland Raiders had met five previous times in the playoffs in this decade alone, including the past three AFC Championship Games. The Steelers were 3-2 in those games, but the Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champs. Pittsburgh had played the previous year’s playoff game without Harris or fullback Rocky Bleier. This was their chance to show the loss had been a fluke.

In today’s NFL world, this would probably be a Sunday Night Game. At the very least, in the late afternoon TV window. In the world of 1977, it was a 1 PM ET kickoff. And it showed that the 1977 Pittsburgh Steelers might not be what their recent predecessors had been.

Bradshaw was intercepted three times. He was sacked five times. A 16-7 home loss showed that there was going to be no immediate re-establishment of the old guard.

The Steelers went on the face mediocre Cleveland. Trailing 14-7 in the second quarter, Bradshaw hit Frank Lewis on a 65-yard TD strike. Terry went on top again, 14 yards to Swann in the third quarter. With a 218-80 edge in rush yardage, Pittsburgh pulled away to win, 28-14.

A road trip to Houston showed that the Oilers were an up-and-coming contender in the old AFC Central Division that they shared with the Steelers, Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh turned the football over nine times and lost 27-10.

The Steelers and Bengals had gone to the wire for the division title the previous season and would do so again this year. Cincinnati came in to old Three Rivers Stadium for Monday Night Football. Playing in 18mph winds, the Pittsburgh D picked off four passes and chiseled out a 20-14 win. Then they got a revenge home win over Houston 27-10 behind a 16/24 for 227 yards performance from Bradshaw.

A late Sunday afternoon home visit to the Baltimore Colts was up next. The Colts were a consistent contender, but one the Steelers had usually handled—like the previous year’s 40-14 blowout in the playoffs in Baltimore. This one went down differently. Pittsburgh committed 17 penalties and Bradshaw threw five interceptions. They trailed 24-0 in the third quarter before making the final score a cosmetically respectable 31-21.

Another big road game was up in Denver where the Broncos were emerging as a legitimate contender for the first time in their short history. The Steelers again dug a huge hole, this time 21-0. Bradshaw was sacked six times by Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense. The final was 21-7.

At 4-4, Pittsburgh needed to stop the bleeding when Cleveland came into Three Rivers. The big-play passing attack was ginned up. Bradshaw was 13/21 and those 13 completions went for 283 yards. Swann and Stallworth each had 120-plus yards receiving. This time it was the Steelers getting the big lead, 35-10, before hanging on to win 35-31.

It was time for another big game. The Dallas Cowboys, another one of this decade’s outstanding teams and on their way to a Super Bowl title in 1977, were coming in for a late Sunday afternoon kick. The game was tight at halftime, with Pittsburgh’s 14-13 lead coming to thanks to a missed extra point from Dallas.

But the Steelers were pounding the football. Harris rolled up 179 yards on the ground. Bradshaw found Stallworth on a 28-yard touchdown pass. In their best performance of the season, Pittsburgh won it 28-13.

The AFC Central was very balanced, but no one stood out. That was enough for Pittsburgh’s 6-4 record to still be tied with Cleveland at the top. Houston and Cincinnati were both 5-5. It was anyone’s race to take in these final four weeks.

The Steelers went to old Shea Stadium in New York to play the lowly New York Jets. Pittsburgh did not play well, giving up over 200 yards on the ground. But five interceptions, two from free safety Glen Edwards, were enough to get out of Queens with a 23-20 win. In the meantime, the Bengals lost, while the Browns and Oilers won. Pittsburgh was 7-4 and the field was chasing at 6-5.

Another bad opponent, the Seattle Seahawks in their second year of existence, came to Three Rivers. The Steelers again played less than inspired football and were in a 13-13 tie after three quarters. But Bradshaw’s 22-yard TD pass to Swann triggered a fourth quarter outburst and Pittsburgh won 30-20. Good news came from elsewhere in the league—while Cincinnati kept the pressure on, Cleveland and Houston both lost, falling two games back.

What the Steelers did not have was the tiebreaker on Cincinnati—at least if they lost their second game to the Bengals. That made an early Saturday afternoon game between the two teams seem like a de facto winner-take-all battle.

In a game where the temperature was (-17) with the wind chill, Bradshaw threw an early Pick-6. Even though Terry turned it around and went 20/39 for 246 yards, the defense was not playing well and allowed over 300 passing yards. Pittsburgh lost 17-10. They were 8-5. So was Cincinnati. The tiebreaker was gone. There was only one wild-card available and Denver and Oakland, jousting in the AFC West, had a stranglehold on that. It was all but over.

But not so fast. Cincinnati still had to go Houston, a game that was far from a sure thing. Pittsburgh was closing the season at mediocre San Diego. Steeler fans were able to watch with delight in the early TV window on the final Sunday, as the Oilers knocked off the Bengals 21-16.

Pittsburgh again had control of their fate. They spent the first half in San Diego showing that this team wasn’t what previous editions of the Steel Curtain had been, falling behind 9-0. They spent the second half showing that whatever their flaws, they were still the Steelers, pulling out a 10-9 win and crawling back into the postseason.

For the second straight year, Pittsburgh was the 3-seed. Last year, they were highly regarded enough to be a road favorite in both of their playoff games. This year, as they went to Denver, they were a modest two-point underdog.

In the late afternoon on Christmas Eve, two franchises that have since developed a nice playoff history, met for the first time in postseason play. For three quarters, they traded blows and the game was tied 21-21. But Bradshaw’s play was pedestrian, 19/37 for 177 yards and three picks. The Steelers committed ten penalties. They only forced one turnover of their own. The fourth quarter got away and ended with a  34-21 loss.

1977 was still a good year by any reasonable measurement. It was still the sixth straight year in the playoffs and the fifth AFC Central crown in that timeframe. But it wasn’t what Pittsburgh Steelers fans had gotten used to. Not to worry though. In 1978, Pittsburgh regrouped and won another Super Bowl. In 1979, they did it again. The 1977 regression was just a blip on the radar.