It's Friday and we're oh so close to training camp 2019. To help ramp up camp fever for Steelers Nation, let's look back at one of the best rivalries in the NFL; the battle between the Steelers and the Raiders. What made it so nasty? Why was there so much animosity between the two teams? Finally, could there be a renewal of hostility on the football field on the horizon for these two teams?
The Raiders and Steelers have met each other 22 times during the regular season and six times during the playoffs. Although the Raiders lead the all-time regular-season series - which began on October 25, 1970 (12-10), the two teams have split their playoff meetings (3-3). While the Raiders have been in Los Angeles and Oakland, the Steelers have always been Pittsburgh's team.
During the offseason, one player who wore '84' created quite a stir before he exited the Steel City and joined the black and silver. In 1976, it was tight end Randy Grossman wearing the '84' who was giving George Atkinson and the Raiders issues. Grossman wasn't the first, or only, Steelers player during the 1970s to make trouble for the "team by the bay". The famed "Steel Curtain" defense and infamous "Immaculate Reception" made by Franco Harris will always haunt the Raiders. That isn't to say that Pittsburgh has always had the Raiders' number, however. They haven't. But with all the buzz among the media and across social media, it may not be a shock if these two teams renew a rivalry that was one NFL fans will always remember.
The rivalry begins
Three Rivers Stadium was a hostile environment to enter for Steelers opponents long before Heinz Field and "Renegade" gave Pittsburgh notoriety. Between 1972 and 1974, the Steelers and Raiders faced each other head-to-head six times. On September 17, 1972, the Steelers held on for a 34-28 win as the Raiders sent three different quarterbacks into the game. Both teams won their divisions (Pittsburgh 11-3, Oakland 10-3-1). When the two teams met in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, Harris' miraculous catch happened, and the Steelers won, 13-7. Many NFL experts and fans will say that the playoff game was what spawned "the rivalry" that peaked when both teams were arguably among the Top 5 in the league due to their physical, hard-nosed level of play.
During the 1973 season, Pittsburgh grabbed their first win in Oakland. With Daryle Lamonica in at quarterback, the Raiders withered as he threw four interceptions (Nov. 11) and could not recover. Revenge came in the form of an AFC Divisional Playoff win by the Raiders (33-14) when Kenny Stabler threw for 142 yards while Terry Bradshaw threw three picks. It was the end of the Steelers' hopes for a chance at the Super Bowl.
Noll rallies the troops
In 1974, the Steelers were shutout at home during the regular season (17-0 on Sep. 29), but fate would have the two teams back at each others' throats in the AFC Championship game.
Chuck Noll was not known for being the type of coach to put on much of a performance, preferring a stout countenance and no-nonsense style. Detail. Focus. Execution. A lack of outward expression of much emotion. That was Noll's style. Reportedly, after reminding his team that games were won at practice, Noll said, "Remember, let's make Sunday Fun Day." The Steelers players knew that meant they were going to be pushed all week so there'd be no question as to their level of preparation come game day.
If Raiders coach John Madden hadn't made a television appearance after his team defeated the Don Shula-led Dolphins, 28-26, in the divisional round and stated that the best two teams in the NFL had just played, it's likely Noll would have maintained the status quo. Noll couldn't quite swallow what Madden had stated, however, and just days before the AFC title game, Noll pounded on a table as his players sat in the locker room and told them the best team in the league was right there in the room. His team, the Steelers, were the best - and he expected nothing but the best from them.
Joe Greene used the tiny spark of outrage that Noll expressed to go on a terror streak on the gridiron and be voted NFL defensive player of the year. One of the top matchups at the line of scrimmage was between Greene and Jim Otto; Greene peaking and Otto aging out. Both of them set the tone for their squads by entering a no-holds-barred grudge match for turf.
On offense, the plan was simple for Pittsburgh: feed the ball to their rushers. The Cowboys, Broncos, and Dolphins had all run the ball straight down Oakland's throats, so the Steelers would ask Rocky Bleier and Harris to be their bell cows. Behind an offensive line that included Jon Kolb, Noll and Bradshaw were confident the secret to beating the Raiders was to keep the ball protected and close to the field.
On defense, Jack Ham (with Andy Russell, Jack Lambert, and safety Glen Edwards gunning on a blitz) grabbed his second interception of Stabler and returned it 25 yards. He'd been waiting for his moment as Greene, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, and L.C. Greenwood had their big plays. By the end of the game, the Steelers only allowed 29 yards on 21 rushes, earning a win and a trip to their first NFL championship - Super Bowl IX.
There were plenty of hard hits, dirty shots from all sides, bad calls, penalties, and name-calling involved. Players from both teams still remember, to this day, things that were said and done; the type of action or speech that sparks the tinder that becomes an inferno in competition.
The Steelers and Raiders would secure AFC Championships as springboards to the Super Bowl during the 1970s. Pittsburgh used their wins in 1974 and 1975 to get to Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X. The Raiders held off the Steelers in 1976 on their way to Super Bowl XI.
Will the rivalry renew itself?
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 1983. The Raiders, playing in Los Angeles, rolled the Steelers, 38-10, on their way to a win in Super Bowl XVIII. With Pittsburgh in the AFC North and Oakland (until they move again) in the AFC West, things have cooled off in the last few years - mainly due to the Raiders' inability to field a competitive-enough team to hold off their rivals in the West, let alone the conference. In Week 14 (2018), the Steelers put together a decent game only to watch the win slip away as their placekicker lost his footing on a game-tying field goal attempt. It was deflating and led to the Steelers ultimately losing to the New Orleans Saints (despite a seriously flawed call that should have never been called against Pittsburgh) and missing the playoffs.
If Antonio Brown is to be believed, or even Derek Carr and Vontaze Burfict for that matter, the Raiders are going to run the AFC West this season. That won't kickstart a rivalry with Pittsburgh in 2019, but it could make things interesting in 2020 when the two teams meet. Regardless of the outcomes over the next two seasons, the rivalry will never be as competitive, hard-nosed, or nasty as what the original rivalry between the Steelers and Raiders was. Partly due to rule changes. Partly due to an overall difference in the type of game the NFL has become as compared to the 1970s.
I know, first-hand, from interactions on social media with Raiders fans that they faithfully believe in their team's dominance over Pittsburgh; and there is no way Steelers Nation is going to give in to that line of thinking and abandon their Steelers. It would be fun to see these two teams take a real run at each other when they next meet, however, even if it is just to get a few jabs in here and there for old-time's sake.