7. 2001 Steelers
Lost in Conference Championship Game against New England (24-17)
After three consecutive years of missing the Playoffs, the Steelers responded in a big way in 2001, their first season at the then-brand new Heinz Field. A Kordell Stewart career “Renaissance,” a “ground-and-pound” Rushing attack, and a dominant Defense propelled the Steelers to a 13-3 record and the final A.F.C. Central Division crown.
As I stated before, the strength of the Steelers was a rejuvenated Jerome Bettis, who until an injury late in the season (which hampered him in the Playoffs), was destroying the opposition behind Pro Bowl Center Jeff Hartings and Pro Bowl Guard Alan Faneca. Still, Bettis ran for 1,072 Yards and 4 TD’s in his 11 games. Because the Steelers ranked #1 in Rushing Offense that season with Mike “Inspector Gadget” Mularkey running the Offense, backups Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Amos Zereoue picked up the slack in Bettis’ absence and rushed for 453 and 441 Yards respectively.
Kordell Stewart made the Pro Bowl in 2001, and it was due in large part to the emergence of two fine Wide Receivers. Hines Ward (1,003 Yards) and Plaxico Burress (1,008 Yards) became the first Steelers duo to go over 1,000 Yards receiving apiece in the same season. Ward and Burress formed a perfect team as Ward established himself as the go-to #1 Wide Receiver who could move the chains better than anybody in the League, and Burress established himself as one of the best deep threat’s around, and made circus catch after circus catch.
As for the Defense, like so many before them, the 2001 unit’s strength was the Linebacking corps. Linebacker Kendrell Bell earned Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors (82 Tackles 9.0 Sacks), Joey Porter (9.0 Sacks) and 1st Team All-Pro Jason Gildon (12.0 Sacks) supplied the pass-rushing heat, and Earl Holmes led the League’s #1 Ranked Defense in Total Yards Allowed and Rushing Yards Allowed with 118 Tackles. Also in 2001, Aaron Smith illustrated why he was such an awesome 5-Technique that season and notched 8.0 Sacks from his Defensive End spot, and Cornerback Chad Scott led the team with 5 INT’s and 2 TD’s. Scott’s finest moment came when he put an exciting game in Tennessee out of reach with a Pick-6 off of Steve McNair to ice the game for the Steelers in Nashville, a place which had been a “house of horrors” for them in the past.
As good as this team was all season, it looked like the Steelers would struggle as they began the year listless and suffered a 20-3 Loss in Jacksonville in Week 1. However, after a three week hiatus (Bye Week plus Week missed due to 9/11 Attacks), the Steelers resumed play and began to play good football. The team won 5 straight games, the most impressive of which included a 34-7 trouncing of Tennessee on Monday Night Football, and a 17-10 win over the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay which featured Bettis throwing a Touchdown pass. Then after a Week 8 Loss to the hated Ravens thanks to Kris Brown’s 5 missed Field Goals, Pittsburgh won 7 more games in a row, and got revenge on the Ravens in a thrilling Sunday Night Football matchup in Week 14 with a 26-21 win to clinch the Division title.
The Steelers were able to rub salt in the Ravens wounds one more glorious time that year as both teams met for a third time in the Divisional Playoff Game at Heinz Field. Elvis Grbac was harassed all day long as the Ravens Offense mustered only three points, and Amos Zereoue scored two Touchdowns as the Steelers rolled 27-10. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Kordell Stewart’s bad decision-making, and Special Teams mishaps denied the team a chance to play in Super Bowl XXXVI as the Steelers laid an enormous egg against the Patriots in the Conference Championship Game at home. While the Steelers came up short in 2001, they did get the franchise back on track to playing winning football, and up and coming players like Ward, Smith, and Faneca were beginning to enter the primes of their careers.
6. 1994 Steelers
Lost in Conference Championship Game against San Diego (17-13)
When I think “Blitzburgh,” I think of this 1994 squad, this Defense led by Dom Capers, and how “oh so close” this team came to achieving ultimate glory. The Offensive unit was pure “ground and pound,” as Barry Foster (851 Yards), Rookie Bam Morris (836 Yards), and veteran John L. Willams (317 Yards) helped the Steelers lead the League in Rushing Yards and finish 2nd in Rushing Attempts that season. Thanks to that trio, the pressure was greatly taken off of Quarterbacks Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak (who got the Steelers two big wins in the middle of the year). Yet to say that the Steelers’ passing game was not potent would be an understatement as Tight End Eric Green enjoyed a Pro Bowl season, Williams led the team in Catches with 51, and the young quartet of Receivers in the forms of Yancey Thigpen, Andre Hastings, Ernie Mills, and Rookie Charles Johnson all chipped in with contributions of their own.
Yet for as much fawning as one can do over the Steelers’ Offense in 1994, it was the Defense which really featured the shining stars of the team. Four starters made the Pro Bowl in the forms of Linebackers Greg Lloyd (87 Tackles and 10.0 Sacks) and Kevin Greene (14.0 Sacks), Cornerback Rod Woodson (83 Tackles, 4 INT’s, 1 TD, 3.0 Sacks), and Safety Carnell Lake (82 Tackles, 1 INT, 1.0 Sack). Three other starters should have made the Pro Bowl as well, because Linebackers Chad Brown (119 Tackles and 8.5 Sacks) and Levon Kirkland (100 Tackles and 3.0 Sacks), as well as Safety Darren Perry (7 INT’s), all enjoyed great seasons as well. Heck, even the Defensive Line was solid that season as the rotation of Gerald Williams, Ray Seals, Brentson Buckner, Joel Steed, and Kevin Henry all performed well and plugged up the gaps so the Linebackers could dominate. After all was said and done, the 1994 Defensive unit finished 2nd in the League in Points Allowed and Total Yards, and allowed the fewest Passing and fewest Rushing Touchdowns of any team that season.
The Steelers however had a few hiccups as they began the year 5-3. They looked impressive in Wins against Houston and Indianapolis, but struggled against Dallas on Opening Day, a loss to Seattle at The Kingdome, and lost to lowly Arizona in Overtime in Week 9 to drop to 5-3. However, the Defense came even more alive than they had been in the first half of the year, and the Steelers won 7 games in a row. Over that stretch, Pittsburgh did not allow more than 15 points in a game and limited five teams (including defending AFC Champion Buffalo) to 10 or less points. What was even more impressive was that the Steelers won games against high powered Miami at home and the Raiders in Los Angeles in back to back weeks with Neil O’Donnell sidelined. Mike Tomczak played well enough to win both games, and the Defense gave up only 1 Touchdown between the two contests.
By the end of the year, the Steelers had locked up the #1 seed and were the favorites to go to the Super Bowl. They furthered that thought even more when they trounced A.F.C. Central rival Cleveland 29-9 in the Divisional Round, and were matched up with San Diego in the A.F.C. Championship. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan and the over-confident Steelers looked past the Chargers. In spite of the fact that they were the flat out better team, Pittsburgh lost to San Diego, and now all we can do is wonder: “What If?”
What if the Steelers got to play against Steve Young and the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX? Would they have kept the game close? Could they have pulled an upset? We will never know, because once that pass to Barry Foster hit the turf at the Goal Line, all of our hopes and dreams were dashed.
Well there you have it, Teams 10-6. Look out for Teams 5-1 coming up on Thursday morning. I hope you readers enjoyed this piece, and if you have any special memories about any of these seasons, post it in the “Comments” section and share.
Statistics Courtesy of http://www.pro-football-reference.com/