SAN FRANCISCO — This is not the same as it was in 1972, when the Steelers franchise that had been a NFL punching bag grew up in a hurry one afternoon in the Houston Astrodome and established a historical template that has been impressively followed by its playing descendants for decades.
This is not similar to the time in 1984 when the Steelers, facing Joe Montana and the mighty San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park, overcame a battery of injuries to hand the 49ers their only loss in a season in which they won their second Super Bowl — a victory so emotionally palpable that Chuck Noll, their four-time Super Bowl-winning coach, proclaimed he had never been more proud of his football team
Nor is this like it was in 1989 when the Steelers, after losing their first two games by a combined 92-10, went to Houston for a wild-card playoff game with one of the worst offenses in the league and their best player so sick from the flu he almost didn’t make the trip. With the odds so stacked against them, they managed a victory that was so improbable the Oilers fired their coach, Jerry Glanville.
No, this is much worse.
Riding a four-game winning streak and with eight victories in their past nine games, the Steelers (10-3) go into Candlestick Park at 8:30 p.m. today against a 10-win 49ers team with a defense that allows points (a league-low 182) almost as grudgingly as it allows rushing touchdowns (0). And they will do so with a lineup devoid of many of its top players, including suspended linebacker James Harrison, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and with a hobbled quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger is expected to play. On top of that, sack-leader LaMarr Woodley will try to play again after missing all but two series of the past five games with a hamstring injury.
“I don’t think I can ever recall a game like this,” said veteran receiver Hines Ward, who been around since 1998.
“Not like this one with a lot of guys banged up at key positions,” said linebacker Larry Foote, who has played nine of his 10 seasons with the Steelers.
Even if Roethlisberger, who has a Grade I high-ankle sprain, is able to play, his mobility will be severely restricted, putting him in the crosshairs of a defense that is second in the league with 31 takeaways. Roethlisberger is listed as questionable, but that is a hopeful designation.
“It’s going to be a true test of the type of team we are, the type of determination we have,” Foote said.
With three games remaining, the Steelers cannot afford a loss if they want to maintain the one-game lead they hold after Baltimore’s loss last night in San Diego. Of their remaining opponents, the 49ers are their only legitimate obstacle.
While it is unlikely they have never entered a big game minus so many of their top players, the Steelers have not blinked or flinched all week at the task in front of them. Not once.
“We’re a pretty resilient bunch,” said defensive captain James Farrior.
Indeed, the Steelers will likely face the 49ers with Charlie Batch at quarterback, Doug Legursky at center and Jason Worilds at right outside linebacker, and if that’s the way it unfolds they will never consider the possibility they are playing short-handed against one of the best teams in the NFC.
They wear coach Mike Tomlin’s mantra that “the standard is the standard” as though it is a badge of honor, and they embrace the principle and belief behind it with the same fervent passion of a religious doctrine.
“I think we do a better job than most of not crying about it and just accepting it and going out there and playing,” nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “It’s the coach; he doesn’t let us feel sorry for ourselves. He preaches the standard is the standard, and you believe that when you go in.”
“We can’t be sulking about that and thinking about who we don’t have,” Farrior said. “Nobody cares about our problems. They’re glad we got ’em.”
Like other teams, the Steelers have had their share of injuries, not to mention suspensions. Last year, they played the first four games of the season without Roethlisberger, who was serving a suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. This year, they lost right tackle Willie Colon and defensive end Aaron Smith to season-ending injuries; played four games without Harrison because of his fractured orbital socket; and have endured nearly all of the past five games without Woodley.
Yet the Steelers went 3-1 when Roethlisberger was suspended, 4-0 without Harrison and are 4-1 without Woodley.
Now, though, they are facing maybe their biggest game of the season without nearly all those players … and Pouncey.
“Regardless of the situation, we’ve still got to go out there and play the ballgame,” Ward said. “The guys who are playing have a great opportunity to go out there and play. We’re never going to make excuses for anybody being injured. This game isn’t predicated on one person. Yes, you can’t win games without your core guys, but, at the same time, it’s a way of all the guys rallying around each other to offset some of the guys we don’t have.”
It has been this way with the Steelers for a long time, going back all the way to the year the franchise made it to the playoffs for the first time after 40 years of frustration.
Here is a look at some significant moments in their history where the Steelers had to overcome monumental odds, much like they will against the 49ers:
The Steelers were in a battle for the division title and a spot in the playoffs, something they had never accomplished before, when they went to Houston to play the 1-11 Oilers.
They were without defensive end L.C. Greenwood and guard Sam Davis. Tackles Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins were weakened by the flu — Mullins only made it into the third quarter.
Along the way, they lost two more offensive linemen — guard Bruce Van Dyke pulled a calf muscle and center Jim Clack injured an ankle — and quarterback Terry Bradshaw (dislocated finger). Wide receiver Ron Shanklin went out with an injury, too, forcing tight end Larry Brown, a future offensive tackle, to play flanker. Craig Hanneman, Greenwood’s backup, aggravated a knee injury and didn’t return.
It was the game when a star grew into a legend.
Defensive tackle Joe Greene had five sacks, blocked a field-goal attempt, recovered a fumble and forced another. Those takeaways led to two Roy Gerela field goals in a 9-3 Steelers victory. Afterward, the usually placid Noll had tears in his eyes, calling it the single greatest performance he had ever witnessed.
The Steelers were five years removed from their fourth Super Bowl victory and only a handful of Super Bowl veterans remained for a game in San Francisco against the unbeaten 49ers (6-0).
Most of the future Hall of Famers had been replaced by players such as Frank Pollard, Walter Abercrombie, Keith Willis, Keith Gary, David Little and Bryan Hinkle. The quarterback was Mark Malone, who was making his first start for injured David Woodley (concussion).
During the game, the Steelers lost guard Terry Long and tight end Chris Kolodziejski to injuries, forcing tackle Tunch Ilkin to play tight end. Linebacker Jack Lambert started, but took himself out of the game with the toe injury that would end his career.
Despite a vastly inferior roster, the Steelers rallied from a 17-10 deficit to hand the 49ers a 20-17 defeat, thanks to a field goal by Gary Anderson with 1:42 remaining and a last-second 37-yard miss by the 49ers’ Ray Wersching. It was the only loss by the 49ers in a season in which they won Super Bowl XIX.
Despite losing their first two games of the season by scores of 51-0 and 41-0, the Steelers rebounded to be a wild-card team and opened the postseason on the road against the Oilers, who had beaten them twice during the regular season.
The Steelers had one of the worst offenses in the league and had been shut out three times during the regular season. In addition, their best player, cornerback Rod Woodson, was so sick with the flu that the team doctors didn’t want him to make the trip to the game.
But team president Dan Rooney intervened, and Woodson not only played, he was the hero.
After running back Merril Hoge scored on a 2-yard run with less than a minute remaining to force overtime, the Oilers had the ball near midfield when Woodson crashed into running back Lorenzo White, forcing a fumble.
Woodson recovered and several plays later Anderson kicked a 50-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 26-23 overtime victory. The Oilers fired Glanville after that bitter defeat.
The Steelers were 4-4 when they played the Bears (6-2) at Solider Field in Chicago, a place where they had never won in franchise history.
Two weeks earlier, after a slide in which they lost three of four games, the Steelers had moved Pro Bowl safety Carnell Lake to cornerback to compensate for the season-ending injury to Woodson in Week 1.
Employing rookie quarterback Kordell Stewart as a wide receiver for the first time in his “Slash” role, the Steelers came back from three seven-point deficits to win in overtime, 37-34, propelling them on a seven-game winning streak that carried them to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers were coming off of three consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs — their longest drought under Bill Cowher — and headed to Tampa to play the Buccaneers, a team with nine Pro Bowl players who many had predicted for the Super Bowl.
But the Steelers had quietly built a 3-1 record with the defense that led the league in all three categories — total yards, rushing yards and passing yards. And they sacked quarterback Brad Johnson 10 times — four by Joey Porter — and held the Buccaneers to 64 yards rushing in a 17-10 victory.
Afterward, safety Lee Flowers ran off the field, calling the Buccaneers “paper champions.”
In a season fraught with injuries, the Steelers went to Dallas and lost two more of their top players during the game to season-ending knee injuries — nose tackle Casey Hampton and cornerback Chad Scott.
But Roethlisberger, who had won his first three starts since replacing injured Tommy Maddox, brought the Steelers back from a 20-10 deficit by completing 11 passes in a row, including nine on the final two touchdown drives, for a 24-20 victory against the Cowboys.
Now, at the site one of their finest achievements, they will try to do it again tonight, perhaps in need of another Greene-like performance. Or perhaps a performance from a player who has to replace one of their ailing stars, upholding the standard.
One of the few times that did not happen was the 1976 AFC championship game in Oakland when the Steelers played without their two 1,000-yard running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, each of whom had been injured a week earlier in Baltimore. Noll tried to change the offense into a one-back set featuring Reggie Harrison — a mistake, he admitted later — and the Steelers lost to the Raiders, 24-7.
“The coaches preach that soon as you walk in that door — if you’re in this locker room, we expect you to make plays,” Foote said. “And they hold everybody to that standard. They coach you up like you’re supposed to know it, even if it’s not fair. That’s the mindset around here. If you’re in this building, we expect you to play at a high level and you ain’t going to get patted on the back when you do it, either.”
It has been their standard, if not their legacy, for nearly 40 years.