Ready for Primetime

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October 23, 2000
Ready for Primetime

by Ric Sweeney

at Pittsburgh (October 23, 1978)
Site: Three Rivers Stadium
Records: Oilers (4-3); Steelers (7-0)
Attendence: 48,021

The 1978 Oilers had not won nor lost a game by more than 7 points. Standing 4-3, they could have just as easily been 7-0. Or 0-7. What they needed was a spark, something to help get them over the hump. And the last place they figured to find said spark was Three Rivers Stadium.

Arguably the best team ever assembled, the Pittsburgh Steelers were on a roll. They weren’t just unbeaten, they were unbeatable. Their offense was ranked number two in the NFL; their Steel Curtain defense number one. Top to bottom, their roster was dotted with future Hall of Famers and any talk of reaching the Super Bowl in the late 70’s began, and usually ended, with them.

Amazingly, the Oilers would accomplish the impossible, stealing one from the Steelers while winning the hearts of Monday Night Football watchers across the nation. And they’d do so behind an ingenious game plan specifically designed to expose the Steelers’ lone weakness. 

Early, the Oilers had reason to believe the football gods might be on their side. Terry Bradshaw, the NFL’s top-ranked quarterback, found John Stalworth 42 yards downfield to put the Steelers on Houston’s 15. But two runs netted only a yard and Bradshaw’s third down pass fell incomplete, setting up a 31-yard field goal attempt for Roy Gerela. But Gerela, only 6 of 12 on the year, shanked the kick and kept the game scoreless.

The Oilers, taking over after Gerela’s miss, mounted a drive of their own. Hitting on three third down situations, Houston drove 80 yards in 13 plays, mixing the short pass and Earl Campbell beautifully to keep the Steelers’ defense off-guard. Campbell scored the game’s first points on a 2-yard run. Just 2:05 into the second quarter, the Oilers led, 7-0. It would not last long.

Bradshaw led Pittsburgh 68 yards on the strength of his short, underneath passing before hitting a wide open Lynn Swann in the end zone for the 25-yard tying touchdown. Three plays later, Mike Barber fumbled at the Oilers’ 28 and Bradshaw and company were again knocking on Houston’s door. Franco Harris rumbled 12 yards before two successive passes intended for Stalworth, one a sure touchdown, fell incomplete, stalling Pittsburgh at the 13. This time, Gerela hit from 30 yards giving Pittsburgh its first, and last lead, 10-7.

With 1:01 remaining in the half, the Oilers began a 41-yard drive culminating in a 21-yard pass from Dan Pastorini to Rich Caster. Toni Fritsch’s 39-yard field goal tied the score with just a tick remaining on the first half clock to tie the score, 10-10. And the Oilers’ momentum-seizing drive spilled into the second half.

After stuffing Pittsburgh’s opening drive, the Oilers marched 70 yards, again mixing up their plays while executing flawlessly. Barber caught a 19-yard strike to put Houston in Steeler territory and Mike Renfro out jumped a crowd of Steelers to erase a key third down. Campbell carried the final three yards, scoring his second touchdown of the night. Houston began the fourth quarter on top, 17-10, but would need some help from the unusually sloppy Steelers to secure the victory.

Into the final quarter, Pittsburgh faced a crucial fourth and inches at the Houston 22. Perhaps leery of Gerela, the Steelers elected to go for the first down. But Bradshaw’s flare pass to Harris fell incomplete and the Oilers had temporarily dodged a bullet. 

On their ensuing drive, Campbell coughed up the football in Steeler territory to end what was shaping up to be a potential game-ending drive. Oiler fans, accustomed to heartbreak and horrible misfortune, no doubt flashed back to week six when Campbell’s fumble helped the Oakland Raiders wipe out Houston’s 17-7 lead. But the Steelers were called for a personal foul on the play, negating the turnover and giving Campbell a second chance. The all-world rookie responded by scoring his third touchdown of the night, a 1-yard plunge that seemingly iced the game, 24-10.

But things are never that easy in Oilerland.

With 10:23 still left on the clock, it would be up to the Oilers’ defense to hold the 14-point lead. And they would have ample opportunity as Bradshaw and company spent the remainder of the game camped in Oiler territory. 

With 5:20 remaining, the Steelers found pay dirt when Bradshaw hit Swann from 6 yards out to bring Pittsburgh within a touchdown, 24-17. After a successful onside kick, the Steelers were once again threatening.

Bradshaw hit Randy Grossman three consecutive times for 40 yards, putting the Steelers back in business at the Oilers’ 15. But Kurt Knoff intercepted a pass intended for Swann at the 2 to end the drive. Unable to drain the clock, the Oilers punted the ball back to Pittsburgh, who came charging again.

On third down at the Oilers’ 25, Bradshaw scrambled 11 yards to keep the drive alive, putting the Steelers just 14 yards away from tying the game. But Bradshaw’s final three passes, one nearly intercepted by Knoff, fell incomplete and the Oilers had found their much-needed spark while in the process, sparking one of the fiercest and most brutal rivalries the NFL has ever known. Twice before the decade was done, Houston and Pittsburgh would play with a Super Bowl berth on the line. And twice the Oilers would lose.

Huston would win six of their final nine games to sneak into the NFL’s newly expanded playoffs. The Steelers would lose just once more all year, beating Houston twice in the process, once in December in a regular season game marked by several injuries and hard hits, and then in the AFC Championship game. They would claim their third Super Bowl of the decade in January.

Campbell finished the evening with 89 tough yards. While not flashy, and eventually overshadowed by gaudier Monday Night performances, it was probably Campbell’s best game as an Oiler considering the opponent, location and circumstances. In all, Houston rushed for 169 yards, far surpassing the 106 Pittsburgh’s defense was allowing per game. Pastorini also shined. The recipient of excellent protection, Dante completed 13 of his 19 passes for 160 yards. He was not intercepted. 

The defense’s play was also inspired. They held Harris and Rocky Bleier to 87 rushing yards on 28 carries, and flustered Bradshaw, who completed just 51% of his 31 passes for 226 yards. 

But perhaps the night’s biggest star was Bum Phillips. He used Rob Carpenter and the tight ends to exploit the one weakness in the Steelers’ defensive arsenal — the short game. Carpenter, Caster and Barber caught 9 of Pastorini’s 13 passes for 100 yards. With Campbell and the underneath game working, the Oilers were able to control the ball, leading to scoring drives of 80, 70 and 78 yards, virtually unheard of against the Steel Curtain defense.

After the game, Campbell would say about his effort, "I knew mom was watching." She wasn’t the only one. The Oilers soon became MNF darlings, appearing nine more times through 1982, including three more match-ups with Pittsburgh. During Campbell’s tenure, Houston was 8-2 when playing for the ABC cameras.

GAME STATS Oilers Steelers First Downs ? ? Rushing Yards 169 87 Passing Yards 160 226 Passes 13/19 16/31 Interceptions 0 1 Punts ? ? Penalty Yards ? ?

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Week 8 Earl Campbell Earl Campbell gives and takes with Steeler defenders. Final Score Houston Oilers 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Game Notes

Prior to their week 8 match-up with Pittsburgh, the Oilers were 0-4 on Monday Night Football. Starting with the Steeler game in 1978, the Oilers would win seven in a row on primetime, including a Thursday night win over Pittsburgh in 1980.

The Oilers’ 24 points were the most allowed by the Steeler defense in 1978. The Chiefs would duplicate the Oilers’ feat a week later in a 27-24 loss. Eight times the Steelers held opponents to single digits, yielding just 12 points a game. Over his next five MNF appearances, Earl Campbell would total 664 yards on 138 carries, an average of 111 yards on 23 attempts. The Dream Season Week Opponent Result 01 @ Oakland 37-22 02 @ Cleveland 16-7 03 NY Jets 26-20 04 @ Cincinnati 30-27 05 Denver 42-14 06 @ New England 28-14 07 @ Buffalo 28-16 08 @ Pittsburgh 24-17 09 Washington 41-17 10 NY Titans 49-13 11 @ New England 26-23 12 Miami 35-30 13 @ Dallas 30-24 14 Pittsburgh 31-6 15 @ San Francisco 10-7 16 @ Baltimore 24-21 17 Bye Week N/A 18 @ Cleveland 24-23 19 @ San Diego 17-14 20 LA Chargers 24-16  RETURN TO THE DREAM SEASON