3. 2004 Steelers
Lost in Conference Championship Game to New England (41-27)
As the Steelers headed into the 2004 season I figured that a 9-7 to 10-6 season was do-able for the club. They had enough talent on Offense and Defense, had an incredibly down year in 2003 but still made the postseason in 2001 and 2002, had themselves a favorable enough schedule, and thus had a good shot to at least earn one of the Wild Card spots in the A.F.C.. Boy did I undershoot my prediction, because after Baltimore Cornerback Gary Baxter injured then-starting Quarterback Tommy Maddox in Week 2, the fortunes of the Steelers and the fate of the N.F.L. would never be the same.
After Rookie Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished the Ravens’ game, all he did over the next four months was win. Luckily for Ben, he had a stout Running Game led by veterans Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley which was all “ground and pound.” In 2004, the Steelers led the League in Rushing Attempts and Rushing Yards as Bettis ran for 941 Yards and 13 TD’s and Staley ground out 830 Yards and 1 TD to boot. The ’04 Steelers were not just relegated to a ground attack as Hines Ward again topped to 1,000 Yard plateau during the regular season (1,004 Yards), Antwaan Randle El had 43 Catches for 601 Yards and 3 TD’s, and until he was hurt, Plaxico Burress was Big Ben’s favorite target and averaged almost 20.0 Yards Per Catch with 35 grabs for 698 Yards and a team leading 5 TD’s via the air.
Like all teams on this list, the Defense was top notch. In 2004, Dick LeBeau was re-hired as the team’s Defensive Coordinator, and the team finished the regular season ranked 1st in Fewest Points Allowed and 1st in Total Yards Allowed as well. James Farrior was the star of the Defense in 2004, and earned All-Pro honors for the first time of his stellar career. Farrior recorded 95 Tackles, 3.0 Sacks, 4 INT’s, 3 Fumble Recoveries, and even scored a Touchdown on a Pick-six that season.
The Linebacking corps was stellar that season as Joey Porter and Clark Haggans combined for 13.0 Sacks, and Larry Foote performed well in his first season as a starter. Aaron Smith bolstered the pass-rush with a team-leading 8.0 Sacks, and Kimo von Oelhoffen and backup Nose Tackle Chris Hoke (who filled in for a then injured Casey Hampton) played stout against the run as the Steelers finished 1st against the run in Yards, 2nd against the run in Rushing Attempts, and most importantly ranked 1st in Total Yards overall. 2004 also saw the emergence of some guy named “Polamalu” as well. Troy logged 97 Tackles to lead the team, 5 INT’s, 14 Passes Defended, and made ridiculously athletic play after ridiculously athletic play from his Strong Safety position. Free Safety Chris Hope (90 Tackles) teamed with Polamalu to make up a formidable duo in the back-end Secondary as the Steelers allowed the fewest Passing Touchdowns in the League that season.
Big Ben and his calm impressed me so much that season during his first season as a starter. Granted, he did a fantastic job managing the game and used his running game and Offensive Line led by Pro Bowlers in the forms of Jeff Hartings, Alan Faneca, and Marvel Smith to perfection. Ben performed terrifically when he took out two undefeated teams in consecutive weeks at mid-season against the Patriots and Eagles, and helped to end New England’s 21 Game winning streak.
Yet when Roethlisberger was needed to make a game-winning drive, Big Ben led the team to victories over Dallas, Jacksonville, and the New York Giants when the chips were down. Ben notched 5 4th Quarter Comebacks on the season, and put together 6 Game Winning Drives during the regular season, and it appeared that it was fate that the Steelers would win the Super Bowl. Yet after a long and grueling season, the team was tired and sluggish in the postseason and lost steam.
After they won in the Divisional Round against the Jets in Overtime thanks to Doug Brien missing two Field Goals, the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the Conference Championship Game, and the “dream season” was dead. As salty as I was that the Steelers did not get a chance to add “One for the Thumb” in 2004, there was at least hope on the horizon for the club. Unlike the teams of the late 90’s and early 00’s which were awesome but came up just short, the ost-2004 Steelers you knew that there was nothing to worry about for future success and competing for titles because #7 had arrived and quality play at the Quarterback position came along with him. You know, something that Steelers fans of my generation had not seen, and the older fans had not seen since the days of Terry Bradshaw, let alone Bobby Layne from the decade before.
2. 1995 Steelers
Lost in Super Bowl XXX to Dallas (27-17)
“Three More Yards” was the motto of the 1995 season as the Steelers looked to avenge their devastating Loss to San Diego in the Conference Championship from the previous year. Stopped 3 Yards from the goal line and a trip to Tampa and Super Bowl XXIX, Pittsburgh was hell-bent on getting to their first Super Bowl in 16 years in 1995. Luckily for them, they had a pretty talented team coming back.
Most probably do not know this, but the ’95 squad ranks 2nd in franchise history for most points scored in a season with 407. While the Offense might not have had a Ben Roethlisberger running it, Neil O’Donnell (2,970 Yards and 17 TD’s) and Mike Tomczak worked well with the underrated weapons they had in the passing game, relied on an always potent rushing attack led by Erric Pegram (813 Yards Rushing and 5 TD’s, 206 Yards Receiving and 1 TD) and Bam Morris (559 Yards Rushing and 9 TD’s), but also got some help from the most interesting and intriguing “X-Factor” in the form of Kordell “Slash” Stewart to hit the N.F.L. in quite some time.
While I do remember “Slash” and his versatility, “Pee-Wee” and “Bam-Bam” grinding it out, the one thing I will also remember is that the Steelers came out with their “5 Wide Receiver Formation” quite a bit in 1995. Yancey Thigpen was the star of the Wide Receiving corps in 1995, and made the first of his two Pro Bowls (85 Catches for 1,307 Yards and 5 TD’s), Ernie Mills (39 Catches fo 679 Yards and 8 TD’s), Andre Hastings (38 Catches for 502 Yards and 1 TD), and Charles Johnson (38 Catches for 432 yards) all had solid campaigns as well. While none of these guys were elite super-star caliber players, they made the plays when they needed to, and all were reliable and steady targets for O’Donnell and Tomczak to find.
Sure, Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers left to become the Head Coach in Carolina in 1995, but the Steelers’ Defense hardly missed a beat under then-new replacement Dick LeBeau. And even though All-Pro and future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson was injured in Week 1, the Steelers Defense stepped up their games in 1995 and proved to the League they were once again a dominant unit. Like he did two years later in 1997, Carnell Lake illustrated why he was an ultimate “team player” and stepped in at Cornerback during Woodson’s absence and did a solid job when he logged 73 Tackles, 1.5 Sacks, and 1 INT plus 1 TD. And even though he was not the most talented player, Willie Williams enjoyed a career year in 1995 and led the team with 7 INT’s, scored a TD on one of them, and notched 77 Tackles that season. Linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene again enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons, and Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown continued their development as future Pro Bowl players as well. The Defensive Line played stout as well as Ray Seals logged 8.5 Sacks, and Brentson Buckner and Joel Steed helped the unit finish 2nd in Rushing Yards Allowed and 3rd in Total Yards Allowed on the season.
Woodson’s injury, plus the fact that Steelers started the year at 3-4 should have put a damper on their dreams of avenging their loss to San Diego the previous year and making the Super Bowl in 1995. Yet like the professionals they were, the Steelers only appeared to relish the challenge and won 8 games in a row to clinch the A.F.C. Central and the #2 seed in the Conference. Thrilling wins like the 37-34 Overtime marathon against the Bears at Soldier Field and the 49-31 comeback versus the Bengals in Week 12 to keep their postseason hopes alive, were peppered in during the 8 game win streak as the Steelers hit their stride going into the Playoffs.
Pittsburgh dismantled Buffalo 41-20 in the Divisional Round, and because Indianapolis had upset Kansas City, the Steelers got to host their second consecutive A.F.C. Championship Game. Yet like the previous year’s version, the Steelers came out flat and allowed a vastly inferior team to gain a 16-13 lead into the 4th Quarter against them. But unlike the previous year, Willie Williams and Ernie Mills made the plays of their careers, and the Steelers took a 20-16 lead. After a Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary thankfully fell to the turf, the Steelers found themselves in the Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys.
Like Super Bowl XLV fifteen years later, the 1st Half was an absolute cluster-you-know-what for the Steelers that afternoon. I get sick still thinking about how the Steelers Offense just went stagnant over the first Quarter and a half of the game. Had the Offense not turned it over/made a splash play or two, things could have been different. Yet the Steelers hung tough and after an Onside Kick and a Bam Morris TD, the Steelers had cut Dallas’ 20-7 lead down to 20-17, and had the ball late in the 4th Quarter with a chance to at least tie the game.
I will not go into any details as to what happened next, because it disgusts me to this day. All I will say is that the Steelers, and most famously Neil O’Donnell made too many mistakes on Super Sunday to pull out a “W” and get the franchise its 5th ring. Had this team come back from down 13 in the 4th Quarter to win the Super Bowl after a 3-4 start and missing arguably their best player for the entire regular season, it would have been nothing short of incredible. However, all we are left with is a memory of a tremendous season dashed by the thought of Larry Brown running down the sideline with the football.