Monday, July 24, 2017

FORGED IN STEEL: The 1947 Steelers Earn a Playoff Berth

LOOKING BACK
By T. J. Troup
Beginning in 1972 to the present day the Pittsburgh Steelers have earned a playoff berth 29 times. Success is almost an expectation for Steeler Nation but it has not always been that way.

Next week the Steeler hopefuls begin training camp with thoughts of another playoff berth yet when entering the 1947 season Dr. Jock Sutherland hoped to bring a first division championship to Art Rooney.

So let us return to yesteryear—70 years ago. Line coach Frank Walton, and end coach Joe Skladany are in their only year as Steeler coaches, while backfield coaches John Michelson and Mike Nixon will continue to coach the next season. Dr. Sutherland had success at the college level at the University of Pittsburgh and during the 1946 season, with league MVP Bill Dudley, the Steelers were contenders for most of the season.

Dudley has been traded to Detroit; yet Sutherland as head coach and undeniable leader truly believes he can teach his young team how to play football HIS way and win. There are only a handful of veterans on this team led by captain and starting center Chuck Cherundolo.

The campaign begins at Forbes Field on a very warm September Sunday against the Lions. The first touchdown of the year is scored by former Steeler Bill Dudley. The "Bluefield Bullet" releases out of the backfield up the left sideline and takes Zimmerman's well thrown pass over his shoulder on the six and trots in. Pittsburgh with 15 rookies making the team has without question the best depth they have ever had, and as the game wears on many of the youngsters are proving they can play quality football.

The Black & Gold ground attack will gain only 89 yards today, but the passing attack gains 194 yards to keep the chains moving. Rookie tailback Walt Slater throws three interceptions, and rookie wingback Bob Sullivan one as the Lions hold off Pittsburgh for most of the game.

The hard-nosed defense has kept the game close, and the pass rush has forced two fumbles already in the game, but the third forced fumble is the turning point. Lightning-quick right defensive end Bob Davis thunders in uncontested and knocks the ball loose. Rookie tackle Joe Repko picks up the ball and trundles 48 yards for the winning score.
Pittsburgh is humiliated at home on a Monday night game against Los Angeles 48-7. The Washington Redskins lost an exciting high scoring close game to contending Philadelphia to begin their season, and are looking to even the slate in their home opener. Ray Didinger captures the essence of this game in his outstanding book Great Teams' Great Years. Rookie Joe Glamp misses four field goals in a 27-26 defeat. There are bright spots in the loss though as tailback/wingback Johnny "Zero" Clement shines both running and passing. He gains 92 yards rushing (including his season long run of 43), and gains 157 passing on his 9 completions.

There are plays in the Sutherland wing where Johnny lines up as a traditional tailback and either runs or passes, but he also lines up as a wingback and when the ball is snapped to the fullback (usually Steve Lach) he takes the ball from Steve on a reverse and drops into a protective pocket to pass (most of the time from left wing since Johnny is right handed).

The Steelers are in Boston for week four and come away with a 30-14 victory. Wingback Bob Sullivan was injured during the loss to the 'Skins and taking his place in the lineup is the man who came in the trade for Dudley—Bob Cifers. One of the best punters in the league; Bob has the best game of his career running the ball as he gains 97 yards on just 11 carries (the Steelers gain 276 as a team on the ground). Clement is pinpoint in completing 8 of 13 as he is now the centerpiece of the offense. Walt Slater plays very little tailback, yet proves his worth to the team as a fine safety in the Steelers 5-3-3 defense, and ranks among the league leaders in punt returns.

Next up the 2-1 Philadelphia Eagles who are coming off a loss to the Bears 40-7. The Sutherland Wing runs the ball 52 times for 229 yards against a very tough and talented Philadelphia defense, and now is an appropriate time to detail the men who opened those holes. The tackles are Jack Wiley, Frank Wydo,  Paul Stenn, and Ralph Calcagni. The guards are veteran John Perko (the oldest player on the team at 33), Nick Skorich, John Mastrangelo, and outstanding rookie William "Red" Moore.

These men all go both ways though of course some see more playing time than others. Mastrangelo is a fine pulling guard, and plays both left linebacker and defensive guard. Wiley and Calcagni both play left defensive tackle and are adept at shedding blocks, and creating havoc. Wydo is strong at the point of attack on defense, and a powerhouse drive blocker on offense; the rangy lad just needs experience.

Red Moore earns some All-Pro recognition as a guard and he is also very effective at middle guard. This youngster has a very bright future in the Steel City. All-Pro Val Jansante is by far the best receiver on the team(35 catches for 599 yards), and does a fine job at left defensive end when called upon.

Bob Davis has his moments on offense at right end, yet he is by far the best pass rusher on the team and pursues the quarterback with a vengeance. Charley Mehelich rarely gets the ball thrown to him, but he is asked to play left defensive end (usually the strong side) and also earns some All-Pro recognition.

Rookie Elbie Nickel earns his letter on both sides of the ball, but needs experience. Old pro Tony Bova fills in when called upon, but has seen better days. Paul White plays very little offense, but is the starter at left corner in his only season in the league. Tough as nails Tony Compagno starts at right corner; and he is a force against the run and during the campaign returns two interceptions for touchdowns. Tony also rotates in at fullback to give Steve Lach a breather. They combine to gain 498 yards rushing on 154 carries.

You cannot run the single wing without a fullback willing to run hard up the middle or lead block. Lach catches a few short passes, but Tony proves to be a valuable asset in the passing game with 9 catches for 190 yards (usually on screen plays).

The game at Forbes Field against Philadelphia is a turning point as the Black & Gold gain 406 yards in total offense in the 35-24 victory. Pittsburgh has won only 3 of 13 against the Giants in the Polo Grounds, but today Sutherland's boys storm to victory 38-21. For the first time in team history the Steelers have scored over 100 points in a three-game stretch, and head to State Fair Park in Wisconsin to take on the 4-1 contending Packers.

Green Bay jumps out to a 7-0 lead on their first possession as Clyde Goodnight scores on a 69 yard pass from Indian Jack Jacobs. The Steelers respond with a 59-yard drive culminating in Joe Glamp's 17-yard field goal. The Packer come right back and score again on Ward Cuff's 15-yard field goal.

Late in the second quarter the Steelers are denied on 4th and one at the Green Bay one. Jacobs punts on first down, and with 38 seconds left in the half Johnny Clement pitches to Jansante for 22 yards and the go ahead score. Clement completed 7 of 12 for 122 yards in the first half against the best pass defense in the league.

The Packers take the second half kick-off and drive 58 yards, but are stopped on 4th down. When the Steelers punt Green Bay takes over on their own forty-seven. Second down and seven at midfield when Tony Compagno makes the key play of the game: he swipes Comp's pass and dashes 63 yards to score a touchdown.

Ralph Calcagni then sacks Jacobs in the end zone for a safety in the 4th quarter to put the Steelers up 18-10. Jacobs throws to Luhn for 26 to close the gap to 18-17 with seven minutes left, but gets the ball back just once more, and Jacobs is again sacked, and the Steelers run out the clock. The Black & Gold return home and exact revenge on Washington 21-14 as Johnny Clement runs and throws for a score. He now ranks among the leaders in the league in both rushing & passing.

Can the Steelers win six in a row? They have never done this, and here comes the Giants into a smoke filled, hazy Forbes Field with folks lined up all around the field in anticipation. The Steelers lead 3-0 at the half, but an interception by Tarzan White of the Giants puts New York on the nineteen yard line, and they punch it in to lead 7-3 late in the game. The young Steeler defense has reached a new level today as the longest run by a Giant is five yards, and they complete only three passes.

Due to New York's "A" formation and big line splits; the Steelers must adjust their defense, and adjust they do—going from the 5-3 to a 6-2, and even align in the old 7-diamond. The key man again today is the middle linebacker Charlie Seabright. Though listed as a quarterback in their offensive alignment; Charlie is basically a blocking back. He carries the ball once all season, but on defense he shines repeatedly all season. Instinctive, quick, and a fine tackler Seabright has his best game today.

That said, let's take a look at the Steeler linebackers for the 1947 season. Left linebacker is handled by Al Drulis, John Mastrangelo, and Bryant Meeks. Chuck Cherundolo begins the year as the right linebacker, but as the season wears on Bill Cregar, and Frank Sinkovitz get plenty of playing time. Seabright is the lynch pin of the defense, as he moves before the snap into different alignments.

There is less than two minutes left in the game, but the Steelers score twice, and that leaves New York with no choice but to pass. The errant throw is pilfered by Seabright, and he dashes 39 yards to clinch the victory. The first place 7-2 Steelers head to Wrigley for a showdown with a team they have never beaten. The Bears also must win to stay in contention with the Cardinals. The Bears wallop Pittsburgh 49-7 and inflict pain, as more than one Steeler is not only knocked out of the contest, they will not heal in time for the showdown with the Eagles. The key injury is to Johnny Clement. Can he be replaced? The second half of the year Gonzalo Morales has earned some playing time at safety, but can he do the job at tailback? Steve Lach and Bob Cifers gain 78 yards rushing (rest of the team loses 3 yards), while Morales gains just 1 yard in seven carries, and completes only 4 of 14 for 24 yards.
Watching the film of this debacle the better team is Philadelphia as they make all the plays in the 21-0 victory. The Cardinals knock off the Eagles on December 7th . . .thus with a victory today against Boston the Steelers will clinch at least a tie for the eastern division title.

Morales again plays tailback, but coming through when needed most is Walt Slater. He gains 70 yards rushing on 18 carries, and completes 5 passes for 68 yards. He also contributes on defense with his 4th interception of the season. Final—Pittsburgh 17 Boston 7.

The analysis of stats sometimes tells the story of a team, and the 1947 Steelers are no exception. In the eight wins opponents averaged only 100 yards rushing, but in the four losses 200 a game. Though the Steelers played adequate pass defense during the six game winning streak; for the season they ranked 8th in the league in efficiency with a mark of 63.7. Opponent passers completed many a long pass during the campaign. Pittsburgh set a team record for rushing yards gained in a season with 1,948; with an average of 132 a game when they lost, and 177 when they won.

This was by far the best passing team in Pittsburgh history, but in the four losses they completed just 29 of 81 for only 378 yards, with just 3 touchdowns, and 8 intercepted. The eight victories show marked improvement with 57 of 128 for 1,032 yards with 7 touchdowns, and 11 intercepted. The Eagles beat Green Bay in their final regular season game and again took care of Pittsburgh 21-0 in the playoff.

Johnny Clement was just not the same player that he was earlier in the season. Quarterback Tommy Thompson of the Eagles picked apart the Steeler secondary. Art Rooney knew his team was finally headed in the right direction. Right? No, it all came apart so quickly. Dr. Sutherland dies of a brain tumor in the off season, and many of the fine young players have very short careers. Clement is injured early in 1948 thus ending his promising career, and Walt Slater retires because he cannot get a $500.00 raise. Pittsburgh will continue in the single wing through the '51 season, but without Jock Sutherland's guidance and ability to teach it is just not the same. This is the saga of the FIRST playoff team in Steeler history.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting article, Coach! A tough, hard nosed team that was done in by injuries.

    By coincidence, Indian Jack Jacobs was inducted into the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Ring of Honour last week. Jacobs lit the skies in western Canada up with footballs in the early 50s. Old Winnipeg Stadium (1953-2012) was known as "The House that Jack Built".

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  2. Very interesting piece, now I need to go do more research on Bob Davis - any insights in addition to the above on him?

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