Mike Tomlin's decision to bring his offense back on the field on fourth-and-1 late in Sunday's game against the Cowboys has some historical context. In a similar position -- and against the same opponent -- late in Super Bowl X, Steelers coach Chuck Noll also elected to send his offense back on the field instead of sending out his special teams unit.
To the chagrin of both Steelers coaches, Pittsburgh failed to pick up the first down on both occasions. Last Sunday, with the Steelers one first down away from victory, running back James Conner came up short after taking the handoff from Ben Roethlisberger. He actually lost four yards on the play, as the Cowboys took possession of the ball at their own 19-yard-line with 38 seconds left. In Super Bowl X, with Pittsburgh clinging to a four-point lead over Dallas, Rocky Bleier fell well short of picking up the necessary nine yards (yes, Noll went for it on fourth-and-9) while giving the Cowboys the ball back at their own 39-yard-line with 1:28 left.
Both decisions were born from Pittsburgh's earlier issues on special teams. While Chris Boswell did make a franchise record 59-yard field goal just before halftime on Sunday, he also missed an extra point while having another extra point attempt blocked. In Super Bowl X, Pittsburgh punter Bobby Walden dropped the ball on a punt in the first half while nearly having two other punts blocked. Instead of risking having another special teams gaffe, Tomlin was hoping his offense would pick up the necessary yard to win the game. Noll's decision was less about picking up the first down than it was avoiding a special teams disaster that could have cost his team a second consecutive Super Bowl win.
After falling short on fourth down, Tomlin and Noll were both forced to watch the Cowboys throw the ball into Pittsburgh's end zone on the game's final play. Garrett Gilbert, after completing a 32-yard pass to rookie CeeDee Lamb, lofted a 23-yard pass in the end zone that was broken up by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, preserving the Steelers' 24-19 win. Speaking of Fitzpatrick, his fourth quarter interception of Gilbert helped set up Pittsburgh's second of three scores during the fourth quarter.
In Super Bowl X, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, standing his own 38-yard-line, threw an end zone pass to Drew Pearson that was intercepted by Glen Edwards, as the Steelers joined the Packers and Dolphins as the first franchises to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
In both games, the play of the Steelers' offense overshadowed the decisive stops by their defense. Roethlisberger, after momentarily leaving last Sunday's game with a knee injury, returned to lead three fourth quarter scoring drives that included his game-winning touchdown pass to Eric Ebron. In Super Bowl X, Lynn Swann's acrobatic catches -- including the game-winning, 64-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw -- continue to live on in NFL lore. Swann and Bradshaw would make more magic on pro football's biggest stage three years later, when the Steelers defeated the defending champion Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, 35-31.
While both offenses deserve credit, the late game heroics of their defenses, along with the bold decisions by Tomlin and Noll, also played significant roles in Pittsburgh's two victories over Dallas nearly 45 years apart.