This was the only defeat the 49ers had in 1984. The Steelers were 9-7 and this win was one of the best in their entire history.
At the start, the 6-0 49ers defense saw the Pittsburgh running game seemingly gain four and five yards at every clip, controlling the sticks and establishing themselves on a fine first drive. Ultimately, Rich Erenberg (yep, that guy…raise your hand if you can picture his face!) capped off the drive with a two-yard touchdown plunge.
The drive was a clock-killer. While Joe Montana observed, Steelers hogs Larry Brown, Mike Webster, Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley played their finest game of the season. Stuckey and Tuiasosopo were being pancaked and pushed around, and Keena Turner and the linebackers were hard-pressed to bring down Frank Pollard and Abercrombie.
The running game was executing the perfect plan to perfection, and Noll had to have a shimmer of glee inside his poker-faced soul at the team’s statement start.
Roger Craig and Earl Cooper found running room non-existent, and Montana was unable to connect with his prime targets—Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon.
Pittsburgh would get the ball back quickly, engineering another long march down the field. Their second possession ultimately stalled near the San Francisco 30-yard line, but Gary Anderson’s attempt from 48 yards was true. The field goal made the score 10-0 midway through the second quarter.
It was nearing halftime, and the 49ers offense had barely seen the football. However, those optimistic for an intermission goose egg got another round gift courtesy of Montana and crew—a pie in the face! The opportunistic 49ers had been dominated for nearly an entire half, but the offense proved how quickly it could respond with a solid drive to close the first half.
Refusing to go into the locker room without point production, Joe “Cool” scampered for a seven-yard score moments before intermission, making the halftime score of 10-7 closer than the bold Black and Gold effort.
While Pittsburgh’s offense got first downs in the third quarter, drives stalled shortly after the sticks moved. Yet, in a fine showing, the Steelers defense—coordinated by Tony Dungy and led by sack-master Mark Merriweather (15 sacks in ’84) and interception-machine Donnie Shell (seven)—returned the favor to San Francisco, not allowing the typically rhythmic offense to get into that normal poetry into motion.
Instead, the unit seemed more like quandary in commotion in the unexpectedly tight contest.
Reminiscent of Super Bowl XXXVI, when the Patriots defense kept the high-flying Rams offense in check, San Francisco got its first downs, but they seemed unable to make the big play when it mattered or the explosive play downfield. Pittsburgh’s game plan was the stuff of Chuck Noll legend.
Toward the end of the third quarter, the defense was unable to get pressure on Montana, and the undefeated 49ers started to have their way. After an early afternoon of sideline rest of precise execution by the Pittsburgh defense, the approaching evening invited unrest and self-execution. San Francisco tied the game to start the fourth quarter.
Then, after the Steelers offense stalled, which had become a disconcerting habit after halftime, Joe Montana and his deadly attack took to the field again. This time, the Steelers’ hopes for an upset took a huge hit. Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell, old pillars of a former championship unit, watched as Wendell Tyler zipped past them for a seven-yard touchdown.
Which was Chuck Noll’s most impressive win over the 80’s 49ers?
1981, 20-17 Win @ San Francisco 1987, 30-17 Win vs. San Francisco Submit Vote vote to see results
The 49ers led 17-10. Just like that, a monumental effort at the start of the game seemed to be wasting away.
Order had been reestablished at Candlestick Park, and the world suddenly made sense again to NFL fans. Few were the Steelers fans, despite their deepest hopes for victory, that didn’t have self doubt trickle into their minds. Despite a perfect start that saw everything fall into place for Pittsburgh, San Francisco had turned momentum completely around.
Then, it happened. The offense took its gut check and responded with a gutsy effort.
Showing fortitude, the Steelers answered with a 15-play, 83-yard drive. As time wound down in the final quarter, fans in the Steel City surely hoped that the unit could force overtime. First down after first down, the offense drove methodically down the field on the efforts of running backs putting in yeoman’s work.
Leading the way in the contest was Frank Pollard with 24 carries for 105 yards. Most of those were tough-earned, physical, five-yard bursts.
After matriculating into the red zone, Pittsburgh had a 1st-and-goal, six yards out. Surprisingly, they went to the air, and Mark Malone’s pass found iconic receiver John Stallworth to tie the game. While jubilation in Steelers Country resulted, their celebration was tempered by an ominous factor:
Three minutes remained for “Montana the Maestro’s” magic.
For all of the exuberance and excitement in tying the score, fans around the NFL knew this as the perfect opportunity for the calm-and-collected Montana to build upon his growing fourth-quarter heroics.
George Rose/Getty Images
Instead of magic, hopeful 49ers fans and skeptical Steelers fans got tricked. Right outside linebacker Bryan Hinkle intercepted Montana’s pass attempt into the flats, returning the football 43 yards deep into Steelers territory.
While they didn’t score a touchdown, despite nearing the goal line, the Steelers offense watched as Gary Anderson kicked the ball through the uprights from 21 yards away. Pittsburgh led 20-17, but time remained once again, forcing fans to reconsider Montana magic for a second time.
This time, the legendary quarterback answered the call.
With 1:42 remaining, Montana hit Dwight Clark to the San Francisco 38-yard line, hurried to the line before hitting Earl Cooper, found Cooper again to midfield, and the rhythmic nature of the 49ers’ frighteningly efficient two-minute offense begged for a 24-20 lead.
After those two consecutive completions to Earl Cooper, Montana’s fourth pass attempt was perfect—or, it should be said, perfectly dropped.
Any reprieve felt by Steelers Country was short-lived as Joe hit Roger Craig for a first down before getting two more completions to Cooper, setting up San Francisco at the Steelers’ 20-yard line.
Though completing 6-of-7 with a drop, Montana’s inability to find receivers open downfield forced the offense into time-eating intermediate routes. San Francisco would have only a chance to tie in the final seconds.
Ray Wersching came in to attempt a 37-yard field goal. A successful field goal would send the game into overtime, giving the 49ers a shot to improve their record to 7-0.
Only now do we realize that his miss quite possibly have prevented the second-ever undefeated NFL season. As his attempt sailed wide, 49ers fans fell into silence, while the elated Steelers jumped for joy!
Their huge upset propelled Pittsburgh to 4-3. On one of the most underrated games in the history of a great franchise, the team that was recently removed from current greatness beat the best team in the 1980’s NFL.
The annals of time haven’t recalled the ’80’s Steelers with fondness, despite their penchant for reaching the postseason and suffering losing seasons only thrice. Despite the intermittent success, fans relate the decade with a dynasty’s decline. Meanwhile, history remembers the 49ers as a legendary squad, rife with talent that knew how to win like men.
These reflections are, at least to a degree, accurate.
Yet, on October 14 ,1984, those who look back will recall that reputations and prognostications were simply irrelevant.
It was the day when Montana fell to the Men of Steel and a day when Chuck Noll showed Bill Walsh that there was still a place in the NFL for an old dog—even without too many new tricks!
Both the 49ers and Steelers would end their campaigns against the Miami Dolphins, who were highlighted by Dan Marino’s record-setting 48 touchdown passes. Pittsburgh would lose the AFC Championship Game, 45-28, done in by Marino’s four scoring strikes.
Conversely, the champion 49ers would remind everyone of their greatness, defeating Miami 38-16 in a Super Bowl remembered as the game in which Montana beat Marino.