All week they made pests of themselves, Erric Pegram and Bam
Morris, the Pittsburgh Steelers' scatback and fat back. In the
days leading up to their AFC divisional playoff game against the
Buffalo Bills, they gave their offensive coordinator, Ron
Erhardt, no peace. "Coach Ron, just give us the ball," they
pleaded. "Let us do it for you. Run us to death."
In the end Erhardt gave the ball to Bam. Nine times during the
regular season Pittsburgh had passed more times in a game than
it had run. But the Steelers will return to the conference
championship game for the second consecutive year because when
it mattered most last Saturday, they returned to their roots--or,
as western Pennsylvanians say, rutz. A season highlighted by the
passing of quarterback Neil O'Donnell, the catching of wide
receiver Yancey Thigpen and the panache of a rookie called Slash
was extended in more familiar fashion as Pittsburgh clubbed
Buffalo into submission with a pair of fourth-quarter rushing
touchdowns that turned a close 26-21 game into a 40-21 rout.
Give the Bills credit, though, for putting some suspense back
into the proceedings with a strong second half. After receiving
a shot to alleviate pain in his right collarbone caused by a
third-quarter hit--the injury was later diagnosed as a separation
of the collarbone and the sternum--Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly
emerged from the dressing room two minutes into the fourth
quarter, like El Cid without a horse. Kelly promptly led the
Bills to a touchdown that narrowed the score to 26-21--this after
Buffalo had trailed 23-7 at halftime. As long-maned Pittsburgh
linebacker Kevin Greene could not resist putting it, "Things
were getting hairy out there."
Indeed, the Terrible Towel-twirling denizens of Three Rivers
Stadium began experiencing terrible flashbacks to last season's
conference championship game, when their beloved Stillers came
from 10 points ahead and lost 17-13 to the San Diego Chargers.
Two significant events followed Buffalo's fourth-quarter
touchdown last Saturday: Thigpen made a gorgeous catch of a
21-yard pass from O'Donnell on third-and-eight, keeping the
Steelers' ensuing drive alive and delighting in particular the
occupants of a small corner of Three Rivers known as Thigpen's
Pigpen. Then Morris took center stage. "I'm at my best just
pounding and pounding the ball," he said after scoring two
touchdowns and rushing for 48 of his 106 yards in the fourth
quarter. "I'm in the huddle, my eyes are buggin', I'm hearing
the play, nothing else. At that point I need the ball. I'm
craving it. All I can think about is, When do I get to run over
some more people?"
This is a vast improvement over last summer, when it seemed that
all Morris, a second-year player out of Texas Tech who had
broken Earl Campbell's Southwest Conference single-season
rushing record, could think about was his next meal. As a
235-pound rookie he had led the Steelers with seven touchdowns.
But in July he reported to camp at 255-plus pounds. Morris
tiptoed through holes, fumbled three times in his first four
games and was soon benched in favor of Pegram.
However, as Steeler coach Bill Cowher said in November after
watching Pittsburgh storm back from a 31-13 deficit to defeat
the Cincinnati Bengals 49-31, "It's not how you start, it's how
you finish." Morris, who has dropped 20 pounds (but still sports
an ample belly), is finishing strong. He scored five touchdowns,
rushed for 258 yards and averaged 5.1 yards a carry in Games 11
through 13 of the season. Having recovered from a pulled
hamstring that kept him out of the final two games of the
regular season, he is running like his old self again. And is
sounding like his old self. "Please," he said last Thursday,
"just give me the ball about 25 times, and I'll get you about
250 yards and send the game ball home to Mama."
Four plays after Thigpen's acrobatic catch, Morris scored on a
13-yard rumble, at the midpoint of which he pulverized Buffalo
safety Matt Darby like a bull trampling a slow-running rodeo
clown. Morris's second touchdown of the quarter, a two-yard
burst with 1:58 left, made the final score 40-21.
The Bills showed their customary class by refusing to blame the
loss on the absence of eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Bruce
Smith, who was laid low by a nasty flu--he was in bed Friday
with a 103-degree fever--and did not make the trip to
Pittsburgh. Smith, whose 12 postseason sacks are the most in NFL
history, was replaced by Karl Wilson, who is playing for his
ninth team in eight years. While Wilson did not embarrass
himself, he posed little threat as a pass rusher, allowing the
Steelers to concentrate on sackmeister Bryce Paup, who spent the
season playing King Kong to Smith's Godzilla. Said the downcast
Paup, from whom the Steelers spent the day running, "They did
just about everything they wanted to on us."
The only bitter note came from Kelly, who said the game
officials stunk "like they stunk all year." And then he
intimated that the league, horrified at the prospect of another
Buffalo trip to the Super Bowl, was no doubt delighted by the
outcome of the game. "The NFL got its prayer answered," said
Kelly, who apparently has seen too many Oliver Stone movies.
The main object of Kelly's anger was a blown call by back judge
Scott Steenson, who ruled that Pittsburgh wideout Ernie Mills
scored a touchdown on a 10-yard pass early in the second
quarter. On that play Mills made a spectacular catch in the back
of the end zone but got only one foot inbounds. Steenson thought
Mills had been forced out by strong safety Kurt Schulz; replays
clearly showed that Mills was only lightly touched and would
never have gotten his right foot inbounds. But the play stood,
giving the Steelers a 14-0 lead. Said the disgusted Kelly,
"Stevie Wonder could've seen that one."
On Pittsburgh's next possession after Mills's controversial
score, Steeler rookie Kordell (Slash) Stewart, who has lined up
at quarterback, running back and receiver this season, took a
shotgun snap on fourth-and-12 and quick-kicked, for crying out
loud. This week he brings back the drop-kick.
Slash is merely the gaudiest manifestation of an offense that
has become less predictable and more fun this season. Several
things happened to separate the Steelers from their customary
smash-mouth ways, including the loss of free-agent tight end
Eric Green, who signed with the Miami Dolphins in the
off-season. Green's departure ensured that O'Donnell would be
throwing more to his wide receivers. Anticipating terrific
things from Morris, who had rushed for 836 yards as a rookie,
Pittsburgh traded Barry Foster to the Carolina Panthers in May.
Then Morris showed up for training camp looking like Fat Albert.
Morris believes a falloff would have been inevitable even if he
hadn't reported to camp as a tub of guts. "Coming into this
year, everybody was very high on me, so there's only one way to
go from there," he says. "We started 3-4, and everybody was
looking for a scapegoat, and it was me. Fine. Throw it all on my
back. I've shown I can carry it." And how.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Mills's leaping grab was called a TD by an official who ruled that Schulz had pushed him out-of-bounds. [Kurt Schulz defending against Ernie Mills]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS O'Donnell moved the Steelers through the air in the first half, completing 13 of 19 for 169 yards. [Neil O'Donnell]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER No matter how many Bills were in his path, Morris kept on going--for 48 yards in the fourth period alone. [Bam Morris]