"The road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh." -- Bum Phillips, Houston Oiler coach
How do you beat the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers? That's the question of foremost importance in the NFL on the verge of the playoffs.
The Houston Oilers, who do it better than any team -- which is to say with extremely mixed success -- have some ideas.
First, you get an extremely big stick. Then you hide behind the goal post.
No, no, that's not it.
"There may not be a way to beat the Steelers," Houston linebacker Gregg Bingham said. "But there is a way to have a chance to beat them." g
That, at present, is all any team can ask.
It is almost a given proposition that when a champion surpasses a certain level a champion surpasses a certain level of excellence, it becomes the first order of public business in that sport to find a way to defang the monster.
So far, only Houston has discovered a repeatable plan. The Oilers pulled the trick again, 20-17, after midnight on Tuesday a.m. for their fourth victory over the Steel Curtain in six seasons.
That doesn't sound too good, you say. After all, in the three previous meetings between Pittsburgh and Houston, the Steelers had won three times, by a combined score of 85-15.
That, however, is the point. When you wrestle a 400-pound gorilla, you have to regard one fall out of three as a victory.
"The problem with most teams when they play Pittsburgh is that they aren't willing to get humiliated," Houston tight end Mike Barber said. "We are."
"The only way to beat Pittsburgh is to top them at their own game -- simple, straight-ahead football," Barber explained. "If you can beat them man-to-man, then you can win a close game. If they beat you man-to-man, then they will crush you."
Monday's Black-and-Blue Bowl -- the black-clad Steelers and the blue Oilers -- was either sluggish or glorious, depending on one's view of sport.
The strategic crux of the game was that each team agreed, for reasons of honor, to tie one hand behind its back and simply punch each other in the face all night with straight rights until somebody visited the slumber zone.
"That was as close to the vest a game as you'll ever see," said an almost disbelieving Tom Landry, the coach of the razzle-dazzle Dallas Cowboys.
"Everybody on both teams knew what was coming on almost every play," Barber said.
Such Ain't-the-Single-Wing-Grand games bring out the worst in the Steelers. If ever a team was multifaceted, it is the one that has Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Bennie Cunningham among its ball luggers.
Nevertheless, it is the first article of Chuck Noll's faith that any team which wants to face his club nose to nose will get what it came for.
When Steelers and Oilers meet, the combat is as much gladiatorial as athletic, as much extracurricular as legal.
Powerful as the Steelers are at mayhem ball it is not their best style of play. In fact, it is the best way to beat them. Or get beheaded.
For instance, for the first 28 scoreless minutes of the battle, Pittsburgh played primarily by the macho rules -- run off tackle on first and only pass when you must.
Houston loved it. They stacked up the predictable runs, then put in their nickel defense and blitz pass rush on long yardage. By thumbing their noses at the Steeler muscles, the Oilers enabled themselves to dictate Pittsburgh's game plan.
Only when Pittsburgh fell behind, twice by 10 points, did it pass repeatedly on first down. For the night, Terry Bradshaw threw on first down -- when Houston wasn't expecing it -- nine times. He completed eight for 184 yards -- more than 20 yards per play.
"It almost frightens me how quickly and effortlessly we can score when we get behind," Swann said.
When the Steelers were in their caveman attack, however, it was on the ropes -- constantly forced out of the pocket.
"The only way to play Pittsburgh," said Phillips before the game, "is to give first priority to pressuring Bradshaw. Then you just hope that he forgets he's also a great runner."
On passes other than first down, Bradshaw completed just six of 20 for 53 yards with two interceptions.
"Terry seemed a little confused by the drops our linebackers were taking," one Oiler said. San Diego used the same tactic -- coupling a hard gambling pass rush with deep drops -- in its 35-7 win over Pittsburgh three weeks ago when Bradshaw was intercepted five times.
Houston had the ball, it also had a scheme -- run directly at Pittsburgh's strength. This is an old ploy. It gives the appearance of being tough-guy, but really exposes the fact that many great linemen and backers, such as Joe Green and Jack Lambert, are the greatest when they pursue (wrecking plays they should never reach), while they are vincible (to the straight-ahead double-team block).
Despite all this fine theorizing, one disconcerting matter remains. The Oilers did virtually everything right Monday night, while Pittsburgh could hardly have hindered itself more with dropped passes and penalties, including one holding call that nullified a touchdown.
Under these near-ideal circumstances, with a rabid Astrodome crowd behind it, Houston might well have lost if side judge Willie Spencer had not missed a call on an onside kick.
Pittsburgh, trailing 20-10 with 2:10 to play, and freed from the necessity of playing "here I come off left tackle" foodball, swept to a touchdown in 62 seconds.
Then, Pittsburgh's Larry Anderson recovered that onside kick. Except the zebras got it backwards. Even the NFL office issued a statement today concurring that Pittsburgh should have been given the ball.
"If we'd gotten it," Bradshaw said flatly, "I think we'd still have won."
The moral of this tale is simple, though extremely problematical.
To Pittsburgh's playoff foes to come, heed this advice: Spit into the wind, step on Superman's cape, pull off the Lone Ranger's mask and mess around with Jim.
Tell the Steelers that their mothers wear combat boots. Do anyting to make them hate you. Then, if you are very lucky, you could end up with a dozen players in the intensive care ward. And a Super Bowl ring.