The Redskins left Three Rivers Stadium battered, bruised and bewildered today after absorbing a punishing pounding, 38-7, from the Pittsburgh Steelers and their magnificent quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.
Bradshaw, accepting Washington's challenge to throw against its fine secondary, carved up the Redskin defense for four touchdown passes and 311 passing yards, both personal regular-season bests.
But he hardly was a one-man show. Those dandy receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, roamed almost unchecked on pass patterns and the Pittsburgh defense allowed only a four-yard scoring run by John Riggins to blemish an otherwise outstanding showing.
"There is no mystique about what happened out there," Riggins said in the quiet Redskin locker room. "We were manhandled by a superior football team. We were stomped. There is no use dwelling on it. I'm forgetting it as soon as I walk out of here."
The Redskins knew that to win, they had to play a nearly perfect game and hope the defending Super Bowl champs chose to imitate the San Francisco 49ers.
Instead, the Steelers played one of their best games of the season, rolling up 545 total yards. From Washington's standpoint, the result was devastating. The Redskins had neither the personnell nor the strength to handle what was thrown at them by Chuck Noll's splendidly coached creation.
The most yards gained in Noll's 11 seasons with the Steelers helped inflict the visitors with their worst margin of defeat since December 1970, when the Cowboys won, 34-0
To make matters worse, Washington suffered a potentially crippling injury. Kick returner Buddy Hardeman, who doubles as a third-down pass receiving threat, had his jaw fractured on a clean but wicked tackle by safety J. T. Thomas.
Hardeman probably will be lost for the year, with possibly Ike Forte taking over his return duties.
Two over Redskins, Lemar Parrish and John McDaniel, have damaged ribs, but Coach Jack Pardee said they'll play Sunday against St. Louis.
This best shows how dominating the Steelers were: Bradshaw was dazed on a sack by Perry Brooks at the end of the first half, so after intermission, center Mike Webster began calling running plays in the huddle. Yet, the Steeler offense never showed a sign of being off the track.
"It's important for us now to regroup and start doing the same things we did to be 6-2," safety Ken Houston said. "Whether you lose 38-7 or 7-6, it's a loss, Our playoff chances will be decided in our final six games, so we're still alive."
Despite the loss, the Redskins, now 6-4, didn't lose ground to NFC East rival Philadelphia, also 6-4 after falling to Cleveland. Washington is still in the running for a wild card spot but only if it can regain its composure after today's debacle.
To explain away Bradshaw' 15-of-27 success story, the Redskin players pointed a long finger at the defensive front four, which mounted such a puny pass rush against a fine offensive line that the Pittsburgh quarterback was rarely concerned about being sacked. "I had all the time in the world," he said.
Swann, who had five catches for 106 yards, and Stallworth, who had six for 126, more than made up for Pittsburgh's ground game and Franco Harris' 62 rushing yards. Bradshaw said the "only reason" he passed so often was "they tried to stop our running game."
"Bradshaw was hot and we didn't get enough pressure on him," Pardee said. "After a while, we had to take a couple of risks and, like all gambles, they were bad ones. It's the best I've ever seen Bradshaw play. In the first half, he was perfect."
The Redskins, playing their safeties tight to the line and having their cornerbacks cover man to man, were determined to disrupt Pittsburgh's running game. These tactics worked against other opponents this season, especially St. Louis and Philadelphia, but neither of those clubs has receivers such as Stallworth or Swann. And neither team had Brawshaw.
"They played a lot of man to man and they blitzed with their linebackers", said Bradshaw, whose best previous regular-season output was 291 yards. "I told Franco (Harris) I'm going to throw this son of a gun until they get off backs."
"When you play a lot of man to man, you can't give the quarterback time to pass," Houston said. "No more than three or so seconds. You can only cover a receiver so long, especially their receivers."
And when Parrish left early in the second quarter after falling on Swann's helmet, hurting his ribs, the Redskins were left without their best cover man. Houston, who had started at free safety (instead of Mark Murphy) for the first time in his 13-year career, had to move over to his regular strong safety spot while Tony Peters went to cornerback.
But Parrish's injury ultimately did not matter. The Steelers were so superior that they all but toyed with Washington most of the game, even after backup quarterback Mike Kruczek, a Washingtonian from St. John's High, replaced Bradshaw in the third period.
It took the Steelers two possessions to get untracked. After a 19-yard punt by Mike Bragg gave them a first down at their 45, Bradshaw clicked off completions of 12 and 33 yards to Randy Grossman and 11 to Stallworth, who ran a turn-in pattern in the end zone while Bradshaw roamed out of the pocket to his left.
The Redskins answered with their lone scoring drive. Mixing power runs and short passes to avoid Pittsburgh's strong rush, Washington moved 77 yards in 11 plays before Riggins romped around right end from the four for the touchdown and a 7-7 tie.
Quarterback Joe Theismann, who completed 14 of 31 passes for 147 yards today, set up the score.He picked up two first down on thirddown successes to Hardeman and Clarence Harmon before connecting with Ricky Thompson on a stop and go for 35 yards.
That gave Washington a first down at the four. Last week against New Orleans, the Redskins stumbled consistently in the same situation. But on second down today, Riggins' sweep enabled him to coast untouched into the end zone.
A 21-yard field goal by Matt Bahr put the Steelers in front for good, 10-7, with 12:36 left in the half. A dropped pass by John McDaniel in Pittsburgh territory -- one of a handful of muffed receptions by Washington -- forced another Redskin punt and Bradshaw again drove his team quickly for a score, which came on a 16-yard screen pass to tight end Bennie Cunningham.
With a minute left in the half, Theismann tried a pass from his own seven. Forte caught it and ran to the 15 before Jack Lambert tackled him from behind. Forte fumbled and Mel Blunt returned it to the four, where Bradshaw tossed to a wide-open Grossman on first down for a 24-7 Steeler lead.
Bradshaw, who was 14 of 25 for 246 yards in the first half, needed to play only one series in the second half. Starting from his own 23, he picked up a first down at the 35 before finding Stallworth with a bullet at the 50. Stallworth juggled the ball, turned and pulled it in with his left hand while eluding cornerback Ray Waddy. It then became a footrace to the end zone with Stalworth outdistancing Peters for a 31-7 margin.
"Were we embrassed? Yes, I think if you are looking for a word, that's it," Theismann said. "It's not easy to swallow. They are a tough team. iBut you can't let a game like this totally discourage you.
"It hurts and hurts bad, but it's something you have to forget."
That became the theme of the Redskin dressing room. Look to next week. the players said, and chalk the loss up to experience. But middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz lingered a bit longer on the subject of today's fearsome opposition.
"I thought they were a good team going into the game but now, geez, they are great," he said. "for the first time, I felt like a rookie. They had my head spinning. They do so many things and they do them so well. It was so impressive."
Bradshaw put it another way in the Steeler locker room.
"I had lots of time to throw the ball," he said, "and we had everything going for us.
"It was a lot of fun."