January 7, 1995
A.F.C. Divisional Playoff Game
“’94 Steelers go 3 for 3 vs. Browns”
Steelers 29 – Browns 9
When you talk about pre-game angst and how tensions can boil over before the kickoff, this game had it . Before the game even started, Earnest Byner thought it would be a great idea to stomp on the “Terrible Towel” that Steeler DE Brentson Buckner had waved and dropped near midfield in a pre-game frenzy. I do not think I need to remind anybody what happens to people and teams which besmirch and soil the Towel. Right T.J. “Douchemandzadeh?” Right “LenWhale” White?
I was personally so nervous before this game because Cleveland had played the Steelers tough twice already in the regular season, and I just wasn’t ready to see Pittsburgh fall in the Playoffs yet again after the disappointments in ’92 and ’93 against the Bills and Chiefs. The Steelers however wouldn’t be denied that brisk January day, and Cleveland essentially lost the game in the 1st Half with a “dumpster fire” like performance combined with the Steelers not doing anything wrong.
Pittsburgh’s Offense came out of the gate firing and scored on their first possession of the game. O’Donnell led his troops down the field well, but the drive itself stalled just outside the Red Zone. Gary Anderson came into the game, and booted a 39 yard Field Goal to put the Steelers ahead 3-0 in the early going.
As salty as I was to see a nice drive go to waste and 4 points to be left on the board, my adolescent mind was put at ease to see the Steelers leading early in the game. The running game had gotten going against the Browns and the Offense had been able to score on Cleveland’s stingy Defense. Thankfully for me, Cleveland was in no condition to cut into the lead at all. And the Browns began to commit a litany of self-inflicted wounds courtesy of dropped passes.
Cleveland’s running game was thought to be kept in check all day by the Steelers’ 7th ranked Run Defense (they were, Byner led the team with 43 yards rushing and Eric Metcalf and LeRoy Hoard had a combined 12 on the ground). Thus, Cleveland intended to go to the air to hurt the Steelers. Unfortunately for Vinny Testaverde, his WR’s had some issues holding onto the ball.
4 of Testaverde’s first 7 pass attempts were dropped, including two in a row by Rookie WR Derrick Alexander. Testaverde also threw 2 INT’s in the 1st Half (one to Darren Perry and the other I’ll get to later). Miscues like that weren’t the norm for Belichick coached teams, and the sight of Browns players doing poorly was always welcome in my book.
To this day I won’t forget sitting on the couch in my parents living room cackling with glee at the sight of Alexander and Co. dropping those passes. For those of you that don’t remember, these were balls that should have been easy completions for Testaverde and ones he put in catchable spots for his guys to make plays. That isn’t to say Testaverde wasn’t erratic that day either, his final stat line read: 13 for 34 for 144 yards!
Pittsburgh’s Offense seized the opportunity to capitalize on Cleveland’s boners and just kept hammering away at Nick Saban’s vaunted Defense with their running game and their big maulers up front. The Steelers’ put together another nice drive on their second possession and were poised to take the game over at that point. From the 2 yard line O’Donnell found Green and the Steelers TD put Pittsburgh up 10-0 early in the 2nd Quarter!
Cleveland’s Offense still could not find any traction down 10-0, and Pittsburgh got the ball back ready to strike again. Backed up at close to their own 20, the Offense seemed unfazed and began their march. The Steelers managed to get the ball inside Cleveland’s 30 before the most critical play of the game was about to take place.
On 3rd and 2 from the Cleveland 26, the Steelers were in makeable Field Goal range for the automatic Gary Anderson. A solid running play was all that was needed to sustain the drive and keep it moving. I’ll never forget thinking to myself, “Just pound it, you got Barry or Bam-Bam, all you need is 2 yards. Up the gut!” I wasn’t so worried though if Pittsburgh failed to get the 1st Down, because they likely would have gone for the Field Goal to make it 13-0 and allowed their Defense to preserve the shut out. Win-win I thought at the time, but I wanted that drive to keep going and have it end in 6. Much to my surprise and delight, the Steelers drive ended on that 3rd and 2 play, WITH A TD!
Ron Erhardt dialed up his pass-catching FB’s number on that 3rd and 2 play, and John L. Williams wouldn’t be denied. Williams ran up the gut and once he got to the 2nd Level, he was gone. The blocking on that play was fantastic and the O-Line illustrated exactly why they were regarded as one of the best in the League in ‘94. When Williams crossed the Goal Line, I was a one man cheering section from my parents’ living room! My youthful ecstasy spewed out in the form of high-pitched “Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!” chants! Never had I seen the Steelers start a Playoff game so hot, and all seemed right with the world as I watched the events unfold on the television screen.
It’s funny, because when the Steelers raced to a 24-0 lead over the Jets in the 2010 A.F.C. Title Game, all I kept thinking to myself was “This is their most dominating start to a playoff game since ‘94 against Cleveland.” In that one brief moment of reflection last January I was taken back to my parents’ living room in Denver and remembered exactly how happy I was as a kid that day in ‘95.
Anyways, before I get too off topic, let’s get back to discussing the game. After being blitzed by Pittsburgh’s version of “shock and awe,” Cleveland was in need of a response to dig themselves out of their 17-0 hole in the 2nd Quarter. To their credit, the Browns at least managed to put some points on the board. Testaverde got the Offense moving enough and drove the Browns inside the Steelers 10 yard line. It finally appeared as if Cleveland could cut their deficit to 10 points, and I crossed my fingers that the Defense would step up their game and limit the Browns to a Field Goal. Luckily, the Defense held and a young Matt Stover came on and kicked a 22 yard Field Goal to make the score 17-3.
When Cleveland eventually got the ball back, the 2nd Quarter was coming to a close and the Browns were faced with a difficult decision: Take the 14 point deficit into the locker room, or gamble on a scoring drive with not great field position. I think you all know which decision that the Browns went with.
Instead of playing for the 2nd Half, Testaverde kept throwing the football, and eventually made his costliest mistake of the afternoon. Vinny lobbed a cake-easy pass that was picked off by veteran CB Tim McKyer who took off from around the Cleveland 30 and returned the ball inside the Cleveland 10 yard line! Three Rivers Stadium was going nuts from my T.V. screen and I had visions of the Steelers “pouring it on” and hanging 50 points on the scoreboard dancing in my head. With under a minute left, all Pittsburgh’s Offense needed to do was put up a quick 6 and they would put the game out of reach Lucky for me, Neil O’Donnell came through yet again.
From the 9 yard line, with just over half a minute remaining O’Donnell fired a TD strike to Yancey Thigpen streaking across the Goal Line! To add a cherry on top of the play, Thigpen grabbed a Terrible Towel from his hand-warmer and started waving it around! I’ll never forget how awesome that play and the aftermath of that play was! Up by 21 going into Half Time, the Steelers had used Cleveland’s idiocy against them and Pittsburgh was 30 minutes away from their first postseason win in 5 years!
Half Time provided me with some adequate time to relax. The game was basically “out of hand” and I could not have been happier to see the Steelers up in a rout than dealing with a heavy-weight fight against their biggest rivals. I remember being too excited though to take a shower and I wanted to just relish the rout that was going on that morning/afternoon.
The 2nd Half itself saw the Steelers’ Defense put the finishing touches on the win and the Offense grind it out with their solid ball-control style. Cleveland’s Offense remained stagnant, and down by 21 that was not something that they could have afforded to let happen. Pittsburgh managed to get the ball on the outskirts of the Cleveland Red Zone once again, and Gary Anderson was called upon to kick another Field Goal. Anderson’s kick from 40 was true and the Steelers held a commanding 27-3 lead in the 3rd Quarter.
By the beginning of the 4th Quarter, Pittsburgh was coasting but they still did allow a hiccup on the scoreboard. Cleveland finally scored their first TD of the game when Testaverde found Keenan McCardell (who abused the Steelers when he was with Jacksonville during the rest of the ’90s) for a 20 yard score. Cleveland was unable to convert the 2 point try, which was good because it would have cut the Steelers’ lead to a two score margin, and the Browns were down 27-9.
Up by 18 late in the 4th Quarter, the Steelers’ Defense put the finishing touches on their dominating performance and scored the game’s final points. Dropping back in his own End Zone, Testaverde began to fold like a lawn-chair when his Offensive Line began to collapse. And just he did so many times throughout his career, Carnell Lake got to the QB. Hopefully Carnell is bestowing his knowledge of blitzing to the Steeler DB’s he’s coaching now, because those guys are learning from one of the greats at that specific craft. Lake’s Sack of Testaverde made the score 29-9 and Cleveland had zero hope at that point. The game finally ended by that 29-9 score, and when the proverbial dust had settled, Pittsburgh bested the Browns in an ultimate butt-kicking!
I was so happy when the final gun sounded. The Steelers had taken their most worthy foe of the season and dragged them up and down the field. I can still remember thinking that the ’94 team could finally be the A.F.C. team to end the Conference’s misery in Super Bowls (they had lost 10 in a row to that point). The media had been fluffing the 49ers the entire season and they appeared to be the team to beat. Yet that Divisional Playoff performance put on by the Steelers gave me hope that they could be the team to beat or at least compete with San Francisco come later that month.
What made this win so dominant was that Pittsburgh had stayed true to their ground-and-pound style and wrestled the Browns into submission for the third time. Barry Foster had 16 carries for 99 yards in the First Half, and finished the game with 133 yards on the ground. Bam Morris added 60 more, and the Steelers finished the game with 238 yards rushing!
Going into the game, had believed that Pittsburgh’s Defense would be the driving force behind a Steeler victory that day. And granted, forcing 2 Turnovers, getting 2 Sacks, and giving up only 9 points was a tremendous stat line. But kudos had go to the Steelers’ Offense for delivering some butt-whipping shots out of the gate and stunning Cleveland before they had a chance to realize what was happening to them. I figured that if the Steelers could sustain any sort of Offensive success, they would be able to have a chance against any team that the N.F.C. had to offer. The following week though, my heart was crushed and Steeler Nation was left to mourn a season that had ended two steps short of greatness.
The heart-breaking loss the Steelers sustained the following week in the A.F.C. Title Game to the visiting Chargers was a bitter pill to swallow. The Steelers dominated in every sense of the game, except the scoreboard, and that 16-13 loss to such a heavy underdog still boggles my mind. Disappointment of how the season ended aside, what we should still remember is that the 1994 team was an amazing squad that typified what Steeler Football has always been about: Physicality, Defense, and Running the Football. Most importantly however, the 1994 squad did something equally as special: they were the first Steeler team in franchise history to beat the “old” Browns three times in a season. Sure, we will never know what would have happened had the Steelers taken the field against San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX, but there is no way the Steelers would have laid quite the egg the Chargers did that evening.
Statistics Courtesy of http://www.pro-football-reference.com/