Monday, October 22, 1990


By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

The platoon leader, too gravely wounded to lead his troops, gives a speech that inspires his battle-weary men to a rousing victory without him.

What sounds like the theme for a bad war movie could be a synopsis of the 49ers' 27-7 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

After a locker-room speech by injured veteran safety Ronnie Lott, the Niners ran their record to 6-0 and notched their 14th consecutive win with their stingiest defense this season.

Of course, there was also rookie Dexter Carter, turning in this season's best performance by a Niners running back (90 yards in 17 carries).

And the Niners' first two rushing touchdowns of the season, provided by Tom Rathman. And the world's deepest onside kick recovery, courtesy of a big mistake by the Steelers.

All that aside, the defense may have deserved as much credit for Victory No. 6 of the season as the Niners' offense did in last week's 45-35 win over Atlanta. In fact, last week's game may have spurred this week's result.

''We were kind of upset after giving up that many points last week," Lott said.

Which brings us back to Sunday's feature. Starring as platoon leader was Lott, who donned his red-and-gold battle fatigues but didn't play because of a pulled left hamstring. Lott's role Sunday was to stand up before the game and warn his teammates that their 5-0 record would not daunt the Steelers, who arrived with a two-game winning streak in tow.

Lott's message: Don't fake it, take it. He used the A's being swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series as an example.

''It's not my place to comment on it, but it's a lesson to be learned," Lott said. "It shows you what can happen. . . . You can't fake it when you're playing in this league. There's no way you can line up and fake like you want to win. You've got to take it."

The Steelers' ground-oriented attack also represented a change in diet for the Niners' defense, which had been digesting game plans for run-and-shoot offenses for its previous three games.

''Our defense, after seeing all that run-and-shoot . . . realized that it was going to be a punch-in-the-mouth kind of game," Lott said. "In the past three or four weeks, it's been, 'You've got to execute, you've got to be in the right place.' This week it wasn't a matter of being in the right place. It was a matter of going and knocking the hell out of somebody and worry about the other stuff later."

That they did. The Steelers' offense, which had amassed 825 yards and nine touchdowns in the previous two games, was held to 200 yards and one touchdown, scored in the first quarter. Both the yardage and the point total are season lows for a 49ers opponent.

It didn't appear that would be the case at the outset. Despite Lott's caution, the Steelers collected nearly half (84) of that offensive yardage in the first quarter. An opening 57- yard drive went for naught when Gary Anderson was wide right with a 50-yard field-goal attempt, but the first of two interceptions gave the Steelers the ball back less than two minutes later at the Niners' 35.

Eight plays later, quarterback Bubby Brister lofted a pass into the right corner of the end zone for running back Richard Bell. It took an instant-replay official and a weird anatomical equation to determine that Bell's diving catch was worth a touchdown, but the result was that the Steelers had a 7-0 lead.

''I knew it was a touchdown," said linebacker/defensive end Charles Haley, who was covering on the play. "When they said it wasn't, I was hoping they wouldn't look at a replay."

The initial call -- that Bell landed out of bounds -- was reversed by the replay official, who decided that Bell's right knee touched inbounds before the rest of his body landed out. "One knee is the same as two feet," replay official Bill Fette stated in a release.

Fette also was called on to review a 2-yard TD pass attempt by Joe Montana to Jerry Rice in the third quarter. Fette stuck by the original ruling on that one -- the ruling being that Rice had stepped out of bounds before making the catch. Mike Cofer salvaged the drive with a 20-yard field goal, his second of two, giving the Niners a 13-7 lead late in the third quarter.

Squeezed between Cofer's two field goals was Montana's only touchdown pass. After tossing six against Atlanta, Montana settled for a 5-yard scoring pass to Mike Sherrard against the Steelers, who entered with the NFL's No. 1 pass defense.

Haley, who appeared to heed Lott's advice the most, attributed the Steelers' first-quarter dominance to Lott's absence. Playing under a different defensive quarterback in Dave Waymer took some adjustment, Haley indicated.

''Although Dave Waymer's played a lot of football, Ronnie's been in our system for 10 years, so he knows everything," said Haley, who finished with a team-high six tackles and the Niners' only two sacks.

Lott also can say he has seen everything after being on hand to witness Barry Foster's miscue on the kickoff after Cofer's second field goal. Foster let the ball bounce in front of him and then watched as 49ers wide receiver Mike Wilson recovered the ball at the Steelers' 5.

Three players later, Rathman broke the Niners' rushing TD drought with a 1-yard dive.

''That was the turning point," outside linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "That took the wind right out of them."

Haley then squeezed the air -- and the ball -- from Brister on the Steelers' next possession to set up another 1-yard TD run by Rathman.

''The secondary gave great coverage," Haley said of his sacks. "I was just there to help."

So was Lott.