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Steelers- Rams: Thanks for the 1990s

by David Finoli

Photo courtesy of Steel Curtain Rising.

Lately, we’ve talked about some great rivalries in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Steelers-Raiders, Steelers-Ravens, two matchups that brought some of the greatest moments the franchise has enjoyed. As Pittsburgh visits Los Angeles this weekend to face the Rams, we can truly say one thing: a great rivalry it ain’t!

You can break this non-storied matchup into three parts. Between 1938 and 1978, the Cleveland/LA Rams thoroughly dominated our men of steel, going 12-1-2. The lone classic contest in that era was a 27-26 loss in 1955 mainly because the KDKA-TV had to take out an ad in the local paper to tell the sad tale that they didn’t have enough cable facilities on the west coast to broadcast the game in Pittsburgh, therefore the fans would have to listen on KDKA Radio 1020.

The second era was Super Bowl XIV (thank God I remembered to use roman numerals there). Can it be an era if it's only one game? Well, in this case, we will make an exception. Despite the fact the Rams were the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home area (they actually called the Los Angeles Coliseum home, and this was in the Rose Bowl but a car ride versus a plane ride to the game, we’ll call it a home contest), the Steelers came in to Super Bowl XIV as prohibitive favorites, 10-point favorites to be exact. While Los Angeles won the NFC West, they did so with a very mediocre 9-7 mark. In the playoffs, they were road warriors upsetting both the Dallas Cowboys (21-19) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-0) to capture the NFC crown and earn an unlikely home matchup in the biggest game on the planet.

I was a freshman at Duquesne University at the time, looking forward to the Steelers completing the victory that would make Pittsburgh the official City of Champions (the Bucs captured the World Series title only three months earlier). What I remember is two things, this game irritated me far more than any other Super Bowl Pittsburgh had competed in during the 1970's, and every time my college buddy Bill Letrent would head to the bathroom, the Steelers would score…and yes, we made him drink quite a few beers so he would go often.

Quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who had only started five games during the season, was at the controls for the Rams and having the game of his life, and Wendell Tyler, Los Angeles running back, was making several clutch runs to keep his team competitive. It was a back-and-forth affair that the Rams led 13-10 at the half. Letrent went to the bathroom in the third quarter when Lynn Swann caught a 47-yard TD strike to put Pittsburgh back on top 17-13. Unfortunately, a trick play as wide receiver Ron Smith took the ball and then passed it to Tyler for a 24-yard touchdown once again put the upset minded “home” team ahead 19-17 going into the final quarter. In the newspaper bin on the way to Market Square for the after-game celebration, I saw the headline on the Pittsburgh Press that said, “Steelers down to Rams 19-17”, so of course I had to buy it.

Yes, in that fourth quarter, Bill had one beer too many and retired once again to the lavatory when Bradshaw connected on the play of the game, a 73-yard bomb to the other Pittsburgh Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth to give the Steelers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. With Ferragamo leading the Rams down the field for a score he made his lone big mistake of the game by tossing the ball to Pittsburgh linebacker Jack Lambert. Bradshaw took them once again on a scoring drive culminating with a Franco Harris one-yard dive (Letrent was around for this one) and a 31-19 win. While they did beat the spread, it was perhaps the most tense filled of all four Super Bowl victories, so yes, in this case one game makes an era.

The final era was Steeler domination, winning seven of the last ten contests going into this weekend’s encounter, including the last four games. So, after a long winded account of this series, why are we even writing about it? Because, my friends, without the Cleveland-Los Angeles-St Louis-Los Angeles Rams, we may never have begun the second greatest run in franchise history.

As you now may be scratching your head wondering what I’m talking about, let me explain. As of this year, 82 players have competed for both teams including, most recently, Ahkello Witherspoon and Allen Robinson. There have been several great players we’ve gotten over the years, such as the incredible defensive tackle Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, a Hall of Fame talent who tragically died of a reported overdose, and quarterback Tommy Maddox. There were also a few who we gave up and really shouldn’t have such as linebacker Myron Pottios. In the 90's, though the moves seemed very one-sided in Pittsburgh’s favor, including two that transformed them into one of the best teams in the league.

It all started with guard Duval Love, who started all 48 games with the Steelers between 1992-1994, becoming second team All-AFC in his final year with the club. Fullback Tim Lester came over in 1995 for four seasons, starting in 33 of his final 41 contests in a Pittsburgh uniform and defensive lineman Donald Evans, who truth be told only played in one game for the Rams in 1987, but surprisingly was an important part of the Pittsburgh defensive line beginning in 1990, starting in 62 of the 64 contests in a black and gold uniform between 1990 and 1993. Those were all great acquisitions, but when it came to putting the Steelers over the top, it started with their first great signing in the free agent era, Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene.

After eight seasons with the Rams, Greene became a free agent candidate. After Pittsburgh declined to match San Diego’s offer to restricted free agent Jerrol Williams, GM Tom Donohue aggressively pursued Greene. The Rams had decided to shift to a 4-3 defense and the linebacker felt he was better suited to in the 3-4. After visiting Pittsburgh, coach Bill Cowher convinced him the Steel City is where he needed to be. He went from being a very good player to a Hall of Fame one with the Steelers, accumulating 35.5 sacks in three years while leading them to two AFC Championships and a Super Bowl. While he only spent three of his 15-years in a Pittsburgh uniform, it’s here that he most cherished, and claimed it made him the Hall of Famer that he eventually became.

Signing Greene made the Steelers phenomenal D, the Blitzburgh Defense that it was noted for in the 1990's, but it was another acquisition that was even more pivotal in their success.

After three years in a Ram uniform, Jerome Bettis had eclipsed 1,000 yards twice, but in his third season, he ran for only 637 yards prompting St. Louis to make their first mistake, drafting running back Lawrence Phillips in the first round, which led to a second one, trading Bettis to the Pittsburgh Steelers with a third-round pick for a second and fourth rounder. Talk about a one-sided trade. Here Bettis went from a disappointing season in 1995 to the Bus. A legend was born… as was a Hall of Fame career.

Bettis became a Pittsburgh Icon. In ten years with the franchise, he ran for 10,571 yards to finish his career with 13,662. He was the 1996 comeback player of the year in the NFL and currently is eighth on the all-time NFL rushing list and 11th in career touchdowns. More importantly, even though his career ended in 2005, he was a catalyst for them finally capturing their long sought one-for-the thumb, their fifth Super Bowl title in his final contest that was played in his hometown of Detroit.

There are few true Pittsburghers that don’t smile when they hear the name Jerome Bettis, and few Steelers that had such a dramatic effect on the franchise. But bottom line, the most important attribute in this rivalry that will be played Sunday is the gifts the Rams gave the Steelers during the 1990's. Without them, they may never have had the incredible success they enjoyed during the decade, so let me say “Thank You Cleveland-Los Angeles-St Louis Los Angeles Rams”. Your contributions were very much appreciated.

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