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Robinson: Big Ben's absence has precedent

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 10:50 p.m.
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ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 1: Quarterback Terry Bradshaw #12 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks for an open man during the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Fulton County Stadium on November 1, 1981 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Steelers defeated the Falcons 34-20. (Photo by: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images).
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger braces for a second quarter hit against the Cheifs at Heinz Field Nov. 12, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

The Steelers are dealing with arguably their most worrisome in-season quarterback injury since Terry Bradshaw's in 1976, so let's call on a crisis management expert for advice.

And who knows more about getting out of a major predicament than John “Frenchy” Fuqua?

Fuqua, of course, was the intended receiver and point man on the most miraculous play in NFL history — the Immaculate Reception. He was also a backup running back when the Steelers transformed a potential season-wrecking calamity — Bradshaw's extended injury absence — into a never-duplicated turnaround 36 years ago.

With Ben Roethlisberger sidelined indefinitely with multiple upper body injuries and the 2012 Steelers' playoff fate still undecided with seven games remaining, Fuqua hopes their strategy is exactly what it was when Bradshaw went down. Namely, run the ball and wear down defenses to set up the pass and lean on a No. 1-ranked defense that appears to be getting better each week.

“It was the defense then, and today it's the Steelers' defense,” Fuqua said. “We'd ask them to get the ball back because we knew we were going to put together a drive, and even if we didn't get a touchdown, we'd get a field goal. And we gave our defense a chance to rest.”

Not that it ever did. To this day, no team ever played defense the way those Hall of Fame-laden '76 Steelers did, with a lineup that included Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.

Then, with fewer teams making the playoffs than today and the two-time defending Super Bowl champions off to a troubling 1-4 start, the Steelers had almost no chance of making the playoffs unless they won their final nine games. Amazingly, they did.

Such a comeback would have been near impossible even if Bradshaw were playing, which he wasn't. Instead, the quarterback was Mike Kruczek, a rookie from Boston College with a tough demeanor but soft-as-a-knuckleball passes.

“A lot of teams in those days had a great offense and no defense or no offense and a great defense,” Fuqua said. “We were a well-rounded team. We had a great defense, and we couldn't necessarily pass when we wanted to, but we could ground up the time and the first downs on the ground.”

Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both rushed for more than 1,000 yards — the Steelers ran the ball nearly 70 percent of the time — and the defense shut out five of its final nine opponents. In a four-game stretch from Oct. 24-Nov. 14, the Steelers allowed three points.

Then, after beating Houston, 32-16, they gave up only three points in their final three games. Along the way, the Chargers gained only seven first downs, the Chiefs committed six turnovers, the Bucs had 11 yards passing and the Oilers, in a 21-0 rematch loss, had more punts (11) than first downs (nine).

“We had great practices,” Fuqua said. “We didn't think as an offense anyone could stop us. The defense's best games were during the week.”

Kruczek, who started six consecutive games and played much of the rest of the season, completed only 51 passes — an average of about 5 12 per game — and never threw a touchdown pass.

Even after Bradshaw returned from neck and wrist injuries caused when Browns defensive end Joe “Turkey” Jones spiked him into the turf, he wasn't the same again until the playoffs; he completed only 30 passes after Oct. 10.

Now, with another best-in-the-league defense and a far better replacement quarterback (Byron Leftwich) than the '76 Steelers had, Fuqua expects a lot from these Steelers, starting with what he predicts will be a Sunday night win over Baltimore.

“Their percentage of winning would be higher if Roethlisberger was playing, but these Steelers have been able to step it up when they have situations like this,” Fuqua said. “And I don't look for anything less.”

It won't even take a miracle.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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