The team began the 1978 season with seven straight victories, before losing to the Houston Oilers in prime time on Monday Night Football. They finished the season with a league-best 14–2 record, including a 5-game winning streak to close the season. This record assured them they would play at home throughout the 1978 playoffs. It was also the best record compiled in the team's history (since surpassed only by a 15–1 mark in 2004).
The 1978 Steelers team was rated the thirty-fifth best team in the history of the NFL (to September 2015) by FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation and statistical service. The rating is based upon FiveThirtyEight's proprietary Elo rating system algorithm. Only two Steelers teams were rated higher: the 1975 team at twelfth and the 2005 team one slot ahead of the 1978 team at thirty-fourth.
The NFL instituted several major changes for the 1978 season. Chief among these were the extension of the regular season and playoff expansion. The regular season was extended from 14 to 16 games, with an offsetting decrease in the number of preseason games from six to four. Two playoff slots were added expanding the field from eight teams to ten, with each conference adding a second wild card entrant.
Additionally, several rules were changed to help open up the offense, particularly the passing game. One rule which prohibited defenders from contacting receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage, came to be known as the "Mel Blount rule" after the Steelers notably physical cornerback. Another rule allowed offensive linemen to use their hands in blocking.
The rule changes upset coach Noll, who years later said of the teams who supported the changes,
They ganged up on us the way they legislated the rules. People were trying to win a championship through legislation. I don't think you do that. ... But whatever the rules are, you have to adjust to them and play with them. ... When they changed the rules Terry (Bradshaw) took advantage and his passing game blossomed. And all that happened to Mel (Blount) is that he got more interceptions.
In the end, though, the Steelers were one of the quickest teams to adjust to the new rules; the team's offense benefited more from the changes than the defense was hampered by them. The rule changes catalyzed the team's transition from a power running game to more of an air attack.
Several of these moves were made in the name of eliminating "distractions". Ernie Holmes, Jimmy Allen and Glen Edwards had all had contract disputes which saw them leave the team for brief periods during the previous season. Holmes, Edwards and Frank Lewis had all lost their starting jobs. None of the moves brought the Steelers a player who had a significant impact on the team in 1978.
The Frank Lewis trade was a complete flop for the Steelers. Paul Seymour failed his physical when the Steelers learned he'd had surgery on both arches within the past five months. His rehabilitation from the surgery was not complete and he was unable to run. Seymour was returned to the Bills who released him, and the two teams failed to work out any other compensation for Lewis. Lewis was the Steelers first round draft choice in 1971, but was unlikely to have made the Steelers roster anyway due to the ascendancy of John Stallworth opposite Lynn Swann and the training camp performance of the younger Jim Smith and Randy Reutershan. Lewis did have some football left in him; he made the 1982 Pro Bowl for the Bills.
The Jim Clack trade also netted the Steelers nothing when John Hicks was injured in the pre-season and placed on the injured reserve list. Meanwhile, both Clack and Ernie Pough made the Giant's 45-man roster, Clack as a starter on the offensive line. Longtime Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette called the Lewis and Clack trades Chuck Noll's "two worst trades in his 23 seasons with the Steelers."
In addition to the players traded away and cut, J. T. Thomas was lost for the season to a blood disorder known as Boeck's Sarcoidosis. Thomas had been the team's starting left cornerback (opposite Mel Blount) and his loss coupled with the Jimmy Allen trade left the team thin at the cornerback position.
The 1978 season began with some controversy, when players were caught wearing shoulder pads in off-season drills in violation of league rules. The infraction occurred during a late May rookie camp and was uncovered and reported by Pittsburgh Press reporter John Clayton.
"That story had no news value whatsoever. The thing that made it very bad was that the story was of no news to the people of Pittsburgh. So I have to assume that he [referring to John Clayton] is working for the competition. He certainly wasn't working in the interest of the paper or the fans. As far as I'm concerned he was working for the other people. The only way I can read it is espionage. I know for a fact that other people use other media for their interests, to spy."
Clayton was not the paper's regular Steelers beat writer at the time, but was just filling in that day. While the practice in which the violation occurred was closed to the media by head coach Chuck Noll, Clayton uncovered the story in interviews with players whom he found wearing pads in the locker room. Clayton contacted the league office for clarification on the rule, which stated that teams must have "no contact work or use of pads (except helmets) in an off-season training camp."
The story caused an uproar among the team's local fanbase, with most of the vitriol directed at Clayton for reporting the story, rather than at Noll and the team for breaking the rule. This sentiment was stoked by Noll's angry reaction to the story, in which he referred to the reporting as "espionage." Even some members of the local media spoke of Clayton as a traitor to the Steeler cause.
The precedent for punishment of such a rule violation was set by an earlier incident for which the Green Bay Packers were stripped of a fourth-round draft pick. The Packers were able to argue at that time that they were unaware of the rule they broke. The Steelers had no such defense, since the team's president, Dan Rooney, was instrumental in negotiations to get the "no pads" rule included in the collective bargaining agreement with the league's players.
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle eventually stripped the Steelers of their third-round selection in the 1979 draft for the transgression.
The biggest difference in this camp compared to last year is that this camp is about football, not gossip. Everything that’s happening in this camp is about football. That’s not saying we’re going to go out there and kick butts, but that’s saying we’re going to be going about our business, what we’re being paid for.
The Steelers exhibition schedule did not start off smoothly, despite coming away with a 22–10 victory against the Baltimore Colts. Starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw suffered a broken nose on a scramble in the first quarter of the game. In addition, the kicking game was unimpressive and the team committed a considerable number of penalties including three personal fouls.
The second pre-season game against the Atlanta Falcons was the Steelers' lone home exhibition contest. The defense led the way, as they had so many times in the team's back-to-back championship seasons in 1974 and 1975. The defensive strength was illustrated in the first quarter when a blocked punt gave the Falcons the ball on the Steelers three-yard line. After failing to gain yardage on two running plays, the Falcons' third-down pass was intercepted by Donnie Shell (one of five Steelers interceptions on the evening). The Falcons' offense was held scoreless, their only points in the 13–7 loss came off a fumble recovery.
The next game, against the New York Giants, was a completely different story. The game seemed to be over almost before it started when the Giants scored on a 78-yard touchdown pass in just the second play of the evening. The Giants went on to control the game en route to a 13–6 victory over the listless and mistake-prone Steelers. Coach Noll said of the opening score, "We didn't recover, and that's not a good sign. They outdid us all down the line. They hit harder."
In the fourth and final pre-season game, the Steelers' defense once again played well, but the offense was the weak link in a 16–13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys (in what would turn out to be a preview of the Super Bowl XIII matchup). The Steelers had difficulty running the ball, with six players combining for just 101 yards on 29 rushing attempts. Despite the offensive sluggishness, the Steelers led 13–3 after three quarters. Unfortunately, the defense was worn out (they faced a staggering 82 plays in the game) and they gave up two touchdown passes to Roger Staubach in the fourth quarter. The lack of offensive rhythm led Terry Bradshaw to comment, "I feel terrible. I'm concerned. It's easy to say that it'll come. But I don't want to go into the Buffalo game worried about the offense. ... If you looked at this, you'd have to say we have a lot of work to do."
The Steelers came into the season opener as heavy favorites over the Buffalo Bills. The Steel Curtain defense was dominant early, holding the Bills to just 59 total yards and only six first downs in first three quarters of play. New defensive coordinator George Perles employed the blitz to a much greater degree than the team had in the past. Bills quarterbackJoe Ferguson, who was coming off a knee injury suffered in the pre-season, struggled with just three completions and 20 yards on ten passing attempts before being pulled from the game.
Meanwhile, the Steelers scored two second-quarter touchdowns, the first coming on a throw from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth. Stallworth caught three passes of twenty yards or longer in the Steelers first two possessions. The Steelers second score came on a one-yard plunge by Franco Harris. When the Steelers scored again on a Sidney Thornton rush at the start of the first quarter to go up 21–0, the game appeared to be all but over.
However, Bill Munson came into the game in relief of Ferguson and sparked the Bills to two quick scores that brought the Bills to within 11 points. The Steelers put the game away with a 73-yard drive capped by Bradshaw's second touchdown of the game.
This game marked the second ever meeting between the Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks, who were playing in just their third NFL season. The Seahawks entered the game hoping to stop the Steelers running game – while that effort was largely successful the Steelers and quarterback Terry Bradshaw won with the passing game. After a scoreless first quarter, the Steelers took a 14–0 lead which they wouldn't relinquish on a pair of Bradshaw touchdown passes. Linebacker Jack Lambert led the Steelers defense with an interception, a fumble recovery and five solo tackles.
The first quarter saw Bradshaw injure his throwing hand when he jammed his index finger on a helmet. However, he played through the soreness and threw the two second-quarter scoring passes to Lynn Swann and Sidney Thornton. The Seahawks scored on a David Sims rushing touchdown to stay within one score at halftime. The Seahawks caught the Steelers off guard with a successful onside kick following the Sims score, however the subsequent drive ended in a missed field goal. In the third quarter, the Seahawks narrowed the lead to just four points off an Effren Herrera field goal.
At the start of the fourth quarter Franco Harris, who was hampered in the game by a bruised thigh, was stopped less than a yard short of the goalline on a third down play. Coach Chuck Noll initially sent the field-goal team on, but after a timeout he reconsidered and sent the offense back out. Harris ran behind the right guard and pushed the ball across the plane of the goalline before being pushed back. The play was ruled a touchdown, though the Seahawks disputed the call.
The win gave the Steelers a 2–0 record – a mark they had achieved only once since 1956.
The Steelers entered the third week 2–0 and favored to win, though one sportswriter called the Steelers "convincing but not overpowering," and noted that they had not beaten the point spread in either of their first two games.
The Bengals came into the game without their starting quarterback, Ken Anderson who was nursing a broken finger. Steelers running back Franco Harris busted through the Bengals 3–4 defense for a 37-yard gain on the game's first offensive play. Five plays later, Rocky Bleier scored on a 5-yard run and the Steelers never looked back. The Steelers didn't punt for the first time until the end of the third quarter and they dominated statistically. Center Mike Webster noted, "From the first play on, everything worked."
The Steelers players were beginning to feel that the team might be once again approaching the level of the Super Bowl teams. Bleier said after the game, "At some point, I don't know when, people are going to start saying, 'Hey, it's the Steelers again.'" When asked about his performance through the first three games, Bradshaw admitted he was playing the best football of his life, saying, "Yes and I don't know why, but I don't even want to find out. Whatever it is, maybe, it'll last all year. Maybe it will be one of those dream years people have been wantin' me to have." Linebacker Jack Lambert stated, "We're playing well and we've got a good attitude. Last year was no good. This is good."
Coach Noll tried to tamp down expectations, saying "We're happy to be there. We'll take any kind of crumbs we can get." But even he had to admit that, "It was a good day for us." He added, "Our football team is functioning with a pretty good concept of what it's all about, what it takes. Things aren't out of perspective at all."
The 28–3 final was the Steelers largest ever margin over the Bengals, eclipsing the 27–3 win from 1974. The 3–0 start to the season was only the third in the franchise's history and they stood tied atop the AFC Central division with the Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers and Browns came into their week four matchup tied atop the AFC Central standings, but Cleveland was without their four-time Pro Bowl running back Greg Pruitt who had been hospitalized by a leg contusion. The Browns had never previously won in the two teams' eight previous meetings in Three Rivers Stadium. Coach Noll predicted, however, that the Browns would remain competitive without Pruitt, going so far as to say that the game "is their Super Bowl."
The Browns contained the Steelers offense all game, and after four quarters the game was tied at 12 with neither team managing to score a touchdown in regulation. The Browns had two apparent scores nullified by penalty: a 61-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter was called back when it was ruled that Browns quarterback Brian Sipe had crossed the line of scrimmage prior to releasing the ball and later a 17-yard pass was nullified by a holding penalty. A Hail Mary attempt by the Browns on the final play of the fourth quarter was intercepted by Steelers defensive back Tony Dungy.
The Steelers won the overtime coin toss and chose to receive the kickoff. On the kickoff, Steelers returnerLarry Anderson lost the ball as he was being tackled. While the Browns felt that Anderson had fumbled (and replays later showed that it probably was a fumble), the officials ruled that Anderson was down and the play had been whistled dead before he lost the ball. Steelers retained possession at their 21-yard line. A few plays later, the Steelers were forced into a fourth down situation just over mid-field with 1 yard to go. Coach Noll chose to go for the conversion, which was gained by a short Franco Harris run. When asked about the decision Noll said, "It wasn't that much of a gamble, especially when the players had such a strong conviction of going for it — when you want something you try that much harder to attain your goal."
A few plays after the fourth-down conversion, a Steelers trick play turned out to be the game's final decisive play. On the play, Terry Bradshaw handed off to running back Rocky Bleier who gave the ball to wide receiver Lynn Swann on an apparent reverse. Swann, however, pitched the ball back to quarterback Terry Bradshaw who completed a 37-yard pass to tight end Bennie Cunningham for the decisive touchdown. Coach Noll revealed after the game that the flea flicker was actually a part of the team's specific game-plan for the Browns saying, "It was called high school right. We resurrected it this week and worked on it Wednesday and Thursday in practice."
Several Steelers players received individual honors in recognition of their play during the 1978 season. Terry Bradshaw swept the season's Most Valuable Player (MVP) recognition, earning both the regular season and Super Bowl honors as well as the team's internal MVP award. The team led the league with ten players selected to the 1979 Pro Bowl (a full quarter of the 40-player AFC squad). Among the Pro Bowlers were three offensive and two defensive starters. Eight Steeler performers were recognized as All-NFL by various publications and four others made All-Conference squads.
The following players were selected to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl. The team was selected on the basis of ballots submitted by each of the conference's 14 head coaches as well as a consensus of voting by each team's players.
^ abCarroll, Bob; Michael Gershman; David Neft; John Thorn (August 4, 1999). Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (v. 2). William Morrow. pp. 418–419. ISBN978-0-06-270174-9.