By TJ Troup
Last night was one of those games that will be seared in my memory forever. Before detailing why; really believe that perspective is needed. My high school had the best public school football program in the '60s, and as a sophomore in 1966 the varsity team at Anaheim was talented, tough, and on a mission to win the C.I.F. title.
Probably the best player on the team was senior tight end Gerry Mullins. The NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in 1971, after his career at USC.
In the last week of the '71 season, Los Angeles needed a victory and a 49er loss to win the NFC West, and the Rams traveled to the Steel City to take on Pittsburgh. A Steeler victory at home would even their slate for the season (an impressive achievement considering what they went through in '69).
Gerry Mullins started at right guard and had to face All-Pro Merlin Olsen. Was riveted watching the youngster battle the veteran in the trenches. From that day on, became a Steeler fan. Only got to see Penn State play on New Years' Day, and Paterno sure had some outstanding players, and of course, some of those Nittany Lions are going to head to the NFL.
Street & Smith's Pro Football Preview 1972 edition tabbed the Steelers to finish third in the AFC Central behind Cincinnati and Cleveland. Quoting Larry Felser, "(T)he desire for better depth led the drafters to select Franco Harris of Penn State in the first round. He's a bull-type fullback with good blocking credentials."
Mr. Felser did not evaluate Harris's ability to be in the right place at the right time and pluck the ball out of the air . . . inches off the ground. We all know what Franco accomplished in his career, and this will not be a war & peace narrative on his whole career. Four weeks into the '72 season the Steelers have a record of 2-2.
Coming off the bench at this point in his career Harris has carried the ball 26 times for just 79 yards, and his longest run is 12 yards. Taking the time to do the math tells us that Franco gained 976 yards on 162 carries in the last ten games of the year. Tremendous speed for a big man and his ability to cut back led to many long runs that year as the Steelers were just a field goal away from going undefeated in the ten-game stretch.
"This Week in the NFL" was a must-see in those days, and the one game will detail is October 29th in Buffalo. Quoting Sal Maiorana from his superb book Relentless, "(D)espite not even starting Franco Harris rushed for 131 yards, and scored three touchdowns." The humble yet confident Harris stated, "I wasn't disappointed and won't be disappointed if I don't start next week."
Watching Harris rumble through the mud at War Memorial told us all that this was a young man on a path to greatness. Though much has been written about Pittsburgh Steeler history, have never read anyone who told the significance of the victory over the Bills.
Entering this game Chuck Noll had won just three of the twenty-four road games his team had played since he took over. The intense passion displayed by Steeler fans last night has continued on; fifty years of Black & Gold fervor. A rookie quarterback throws the winning touchdown pass to a rookie receiver in a come-from-behind victory over the Raiders. Franco is smiling in football heaven and would probably state "how appropriate."
The title of this narrative is from Chuck Noll and dovetails into a birthday celebration for Jack Ham; who turned 74 a few days ago. Having so many valuable sources, film, books, magazines, and my background in coaching; let's take a long hard look at Jack Ham and the Steeler defense of '72.
Credit: Merv Corning
Ham starts as a rookie in 1971 and finishes seventh in the voting for defensive rookie of the year. No doubt everyone expected the athletic, quick, and well-coached rookie to improve in 1972, but how many second-year outside linebackers had a season like Ham did?
Opening day at home against a Raider team looking to rebound from not earning a playoff berth in '71 stood out in that all three facets of Noll's team played well. Jack Ham recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass and of course a number of impressive tackles. Ham also intercepts the next week in the loss to Cincinnati. Jack intercepted for the third time in four weeks in the loss to Dallas.
The 1972 Patriots were destroyed by Pittsburgh, and for the second week in a row exhibited a ferocious pass rush. Chuck Noll, and his lieutenant Bud Carson used a variety of blitzes to attack Plunkett in the pass pocket. Ham rockets in from his left outside linebacker position and takes down Plunkett for a 22-yard loss.
Later in the game, he combines with safety Ralph Anderson to sack Plunkett. Jack Ham expertly drops into his zone coverage quickly reads the errant pass by Plunkett, darts in front of the intended receiver, and dashes 32 yards for a touchdown. Having recorded 12 sacks over the course of the past two weeks; Lou Saban was convinced his Bills had to run the ball and forced the Steeler defense to adjust alignments since Buffalo used unbalanced line formations many times in the game.
Buffalo attempted to control the game by keeping the ball away from the Steelers (68 plays)—in this era always wise to keep the clock ticking, and move the chains. Joe Greene recorded the only sack and was by far the most heralded player on the Steeler defense. Jack Ham again intercepts giving him 5 interceptions in seven games.
At this point in the season if he could have maintained this pace he would break Bulldog Turner's record for linebacker interceptions in a season. The Steelers will record 40 sacks during the year, and as you would expect Joe Greene led the charge (his game in December against the Oilers is still a record with 5 sacks). Mean Joe was not alone as Noll & Carson would blitz defensive backs, and of course linebackers. Yet, most of the pass rush came from Greene and right defensive end Dwight White (his game against the Chiefs stood out).
Ham ties a team record with two opponent fumble recoveries against Kansas City. Losing a cliffhanger to Cleveland in November set the stage to test the resolve of this young team. Game of the Week in late November at Three Rivers brings in the Vikings, and announcers Jack Drees & George Conner stated emphatically how impressed they were with Jack Ham's performance. His technique, quickness in the pursuit, and strong tackling sure contributed to the victory.
The rematch with the Browns was one of those statement games....a 30-0 whitewash, and on a third and four play from the Browns sixteen-yard line, Ham intercepts on the Cleveland twenty-four and returns 18 yards. The 1972 Houston Oilers are one of the worst teams in league history, and as mentioned earlier was a game for the ages for Joe Greene.
We all know that a strong pass rush is vital in helping the secondary defend the forward pass. Chuck Noll and Bud Carson aligned the Steeler defensive backs in a coverage that would revolutionize defense; using Cover 2 more than any other team in the league. Wish I could tell you how often, and the comparative percentages, yet watching film you can see quarterbacks struggling in reading this coverage.
The defensive passer rating is a tool to evaluate team defense pass efficiency. Noll's maiden voyage in '69 the Steelers ranked 11th out of 16 with a mark of 75.0 (league average) was 71.6. Improved in 1970 to finish 11th out of 26 with a mark of 63.1.
At times in 1971, the Steeler pass defense looked like they not only did not understand the concepts, but they lacked the talent and athleticism to do the coverage as they fell to 24th out of 26 with a mark of 77.0. None of the Steeler defensive backs receives any kind of individual recognition in 1972, yet Pittsburgh finishes 1st with a mark of 47.0 (the league average was 63.3). The rest of the decade is a Black & Gold blanket as they finish either 1st or 2nd every year, go to the playoffs every year, and hoist the silver trophy four times.
Late in the season the secondary of Blount and Rowser at corner, and Edwards, and Wagner at safety stifled opposing quarterbacks knowing the pass rush would pressure the quarterback, and all they had to do was stay disciplined in their zones. Since Pittsburgh also used man-to-man, and combination coverages, and would slide the defensive line over to what we call "under" and "over" these motivated youngsters are on the verge of dominance.
Veteran Andy Russell had a strong year at right linebacker and has been recognized in the All-Pro voting, and Pro Bowl rosters, thus Jack Ham is still being overlooked as we travel to San Diego for the last regular season game. Recording his seventh interception of the season (most by any linebacker), the Steelers convincing win has earned them a division title, and the right to again host the Raiders, and of course their day with destiny.
Jack Ham will go on to have a Hall of Fame career, and still stands above all others in the ability to take the ball away from an opponent with 32 interceptions, and 21 opponent fumble recoveries. He will be successful on the blitz at times in his career; especially since as he ages he cannot cover the tight end man-to-man all over the field anymore.
He is the only linebacker in league history to recover an opponent fumble and intercept a pass every year for twelve consecutive years. Is he the best strongside linebacker of all-time?
The Mount Rushmore of strongside linebackers remains these four men: Ham, Bobby Bell, Ted Hendricks, and Dave Wilcox.