PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers recaptured their formula for success yesterday. Great defense. Ball-control offense. Solid special teams play.
The Steelers buried the Indianapolis Colts with a relentless pass rush and hitched a ride on a running back nicknamed "The Bus" in a 42-14 win over the Colts in an AFC wild-card playoff game yesterday before 58,078 at Three Rivers Stadium.
Poor Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh. He had either his mouth or chin bloodied during the first series of the game ("It just all kind of ran together," said Harbaugh). He was sacked four times and hurried 13 other times, as Captain Comeback became Captain Flatback.
Next up for the Steelers (11-6) are quarterback Drew Bledsoe and the New England Patriots on Sunday at Foxboro, Mass., in an AFC semifinal.
"Obviously, this is a good win for us because we haven't played this well in quite a while," said coach Bill Cowher, whose Steelers are the defending AFC champions. "This is something we can build off of, and I just thought we played really a complete game, outside the couple of mistakes that they capitalized on."
The Steelers dominated the Colts (9-8) in every phase of the game. Pittsburgh had 407 yards of total offense to 146 for Indianapolis. The Steelers had 231 yards rushing to 41 for the Colts, and held more than a 15-minute advantage in time of possession.
But the Steelers couldn't take control until their opening drive of the second half, when they unleashed running back Jerome Bettis, a k a "The Bus."
The Steelers had a vintage 16-play, 91-yard drive that lasted 9: 30 and was finished by Bettis' 1-yard touchdown run off left tackle. That put the Steelers ahead 21-14 after the two-point conversion pass from Kordell Stewart to tight end John Farquhar.
And this wasn't pretty stuff, just Bettis barreling ahead eight times during the drive for 42 yards. It was demoralizing.
"I've been around the game for a while, but that was one of the most methodical, exciting drives I've ever seen," Cowher said.
"We gave them 14 points in the first half, and they walked away with a 14-13 halftime lead," said Bettis, who finished with 102 yards on 25 carries. "So we came out to take control and dominate. I wanted to get our sideline jacked up and get the crowd back in the game. Once that happened, I felt the wind come out of them."
Linebacker Levon Kirkland picked off a pass from Harbaugh on the Colts' next possession, and then Harbaugh tossed a low pitch to running back Marshall Faulk and safety Carnell Lake recovered the fumble at the Colts' 18, setting up another 1-yard touchdown run by Bettis with 14: 21 left in the game.
The Steelers made those kinds of defensive plays all afternoon. The defensive unit is an unselfish bunch, willing to make sacrifices if they lead to big plays.
Steelers linebacker Chad Brown had three sacks yesterday, but two were the results of stunts on which a teammate drew a double team to free Brown.
"It's a well-designed defensive scheme," Brown said. "Other teams imitate it, but can't duplicate it. It's a total team commitment."
Faulk had only 25 yards rushing on nine carries, and Harbaugh was 12 of 32 passing for 134 yards. Meanwhile, Steelers starting quarterback Mike Tomczak completed 13 of 21 passes for 176 yards and kept some of his critics at bay for at least another week.
"People like Kordell because he is electrifying," Tomczak said. "Me, I'm just a blue-collar guy. I figure if I stay out of trouble, I'll keep my job."
The Steelers overpowered the Colts in the opening half, but two interceptions led to two Indianapolis touchdowns and a 14-13 lead.
Pittsburgh scored the first three times it had the ball.
On the Steelers' opening possession of the game, they went 51 yards in eight plays, and Norm Johnson ended the drive with a 29-yard field goal. The big play was a 30-yard pass from Tomczak to receiver Charles Johnson to the Colts' 32.
Pittsburgh scored on its next possession, thanks to a 31-yard punt return by Jahine Arnold to the Colts' 36. One play later, Tomczak threw a 20-yard pass to Johnson on a flag pattern down to the Colts' 8. A play later, Stewart, subbing for Tomczak in the short-yardage offense, dived in from the 1 for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 4: 55 left in the first quarter.
The Steelers continued their domination when Johnson kicked a 50-yard field goal with 14: 50 remaining in the half, but then things started to fall apart.
With 4: 35 left in the half, Tomczak's short pass in the left flat, intended for receiver Ernie Mills, was intercepted by cornerback Eugene Daniel and returned 59 yards for a touchdown.
Tomczak made two big mistakes on the play. First, he watched Mills from the time he released from the line of scrimmage, giving Daniel a chance to break on the ball, and then the pass was thrown behind Mills.
The play silenced the crowd and seemed to unnerve Tomczak.
"I think he would like to have that one back, but otherwise I think tTC he played well," Cowher said.
On the Steelers' next possession, Tomczak threw a short pass over the middle that bounced off the shoulder pad of tight end Kirk Botkin and into the hands of strong safety Ray McElroy at the Colts' 40 with 2: 21 remaining.
On the next play, Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who had burned Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson down the right sideline earlier in the game, beat him again for a 48-yard pass to the Steelers' 12.
On third-and-seven from the 9, Harbaugh threw a touchdown pass to receiver Aaron Bailey, who had curled in front of Lake and behind the goal line to put the Colts ahead with 31 seconds left in the half.
"This game is just a mental thing," Kirkland said. "We went out in the second half thinking that it was 0-0. We showed a lot of poise, we showed a lot of class and we just played hardball. We know that we can do that. We have the potential to kind of slow down sometimes, but when we have somebody by the neck, we have to choke them. We did that in the second half."
Steelers 42, Colts 14
49ers 14, Eagles 0
49ers at Packers,
12: 30 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Jaguars at Broncos,
4 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Steelers at Patriots,
12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Cowboys at Panthers,
4 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Pub Date: 12/30/96