Six-pack Steelers: Last-minute drive lifts resilient Pittsburgh to title
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came through in the clutch as Terry Bradshaw did four times in the 1970s.
And linebacker James Harrison made the red-letter defensive plays that Steel Curtain defenders such as L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount made a habit of making three decades ago.
The 7-point favorite Pittsburgh Steelers, pushed to the absolute limit of their ability, brought home their record sixth Super Bowl championship Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium in high-drama fashion.
Stretching out his body and somehow touching his toes down, Holmes’ 6-yard touchdown reception with 35 seconds left was the biggest play in a fourth quarter overflowing of them as the Steelers repulsed the game Arizona Cardinals, 27-23, in Super Bowl XLIII.
“If I could win any way it’d be like that,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl. “Never pretty. Never blink, either.”
The Steelers (15-4) appeared to have the game well in hand at the end of three quarters, leading by 20-7. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the heart of Arizona’s prolific offense, had been rendered null and void by a Steelers defense that bumped him at the line with cornerback Ike Taylor or safety Troy Polamalu and kept another safety behind him.
But early in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals (12-8) junked their conventional offense and went with a no-huddle attack featuring four wide receivers.
“They’re built around a 3-4 defense and their linebackers,” quarterback Kurt Warner said. “When we put four wideouts out there it got some of their linebackers off the field and played into our favor.”
Warner became the first quarterback to surpass 300 passing yards three times in the Super Bowl. He threw for 377, including all 87 in an eight-play drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown on a jump ball to Fitzgerald that made it 20-14 with 7 minutes 33 seconds to go.
Arizona’s aggressive defense, which displayed unexpectedly stout resistance in limiting the Steelers to 58 yards rushing, forced a three-and-out, but the Cardinals had to punt themselves with 3½ minutes left.
However, after Michael Adams downed the punt at the 1, the Cardinals scored a safety when Steelers center Justin Hartwig was detected holding linebacker Chike Okeafor when Roethlisberger had the ball in the end zone.
Now trailing by 20-16, the Cardinals took the lead in two plays on a 64-yard strike to Fitzgerald. The Steelers tried to protect their lead by playing the two safeties about 22 yards deep.
But when the safeties split and moved toward the boundary, the middle of the field was wide open after Fitzgerald beat Ike Taylor inside. He streamed down the middle of the field like Secretariat winning the Triple Crown.
“At least they scored early,” Tomlin said, “instead of milking the clock down on us.”
Roethlisberger, whose 22.6 passer rating in Super Bowl XL was the worst by a winning quarterback, threw first-down completions of 13 yards to Holmes and 11 to Nate Washington.
Then, with 1:02 left, Holmes found an opening in front of the safety and behind a cornerback against a Cover 2 coverage. Aaron Francisco, the dime safety, was there to make the tackle after a 15-yard gain. But when Francisco slipped, Holmes shot past him all the way to the 6 for a gain of 40.
On first down, Roethlisberger sailed a pass into the left corner that the leaping Holmes got both hands on but couldn’t snare.
On second down, Roethlisberger fired into the right corner where cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, nickel back Ralph Brown and Francisco were between him and Holmes.
But the pass was placed almost surgically and went right to the elevating Holmes, who pulled it in despite having Francisco grabbing at his arms.
“Santonio is a guy who just loves to deliver in big moments,” Tomlin said. “This is similar to what he did in the playoffs. In big moments we know what we can get from him.”
Now 1-2 in Super Bowls, Warner easily had his finest performance with a passer rating of 112.3.
“Kurt Warner’s Kurt Warner,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s a phenomenal football player. I told him it was an honor to play against him.”
Roethlisberger had a 93.2 rating, showing how much he has progressed in three seasons. The Steelers desperately needed the passing game because the Cardinals limited Willie Parker to 53 yards in 19 carries.
The Cardinals’ final chance began from their 23 with 29 seconds left. Completions of 20 yards to Fitzgerald and 13 to J.J. Arrington moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 44, and Arizona called its final timeout.
Warner looked deep but as he began his delivery, his right arm was smothered by linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who beat right tackle Levi Brown around the corner. The ball came loose and was recovered by James Harrison, the other outside linebacker.
“We’ve shown character all year,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “The ability to stay in and fight. We showed it tonight.”
The game turned in the final seconds of the first half on a 14-point swing of epic proportion.
Eighteen seconds remained and Arizona was perched at the Pittsburgh 1. Fitzgerald, the inside receiver to the left, attempted to pick for Boldin, who ran a quick slant.
It would have been an easy score except for one thing: Harrison stepped back into the throwing lane, intercepted the ball and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown as time expired.
“I believe it’s the greatest single play in Super Bowl history,” Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “I really believe that.
“It was instincts. He wasn’t drawn up to intercept a slant, but he was in the area. That was all James Harrison doing his thing. We don’t win without Harrison’s play or Woodley’s two sacks.”
The 255-pound Harrison, the league’s defensive player of the year with a 16-sack regular season, picked up a key block from Woodley along the way, somehow managed to stay in bounds all the way down the sideline in front of the Arizona bench and tumbled into the end zone over Fitzgerald and wide receiver Steve Breaston.
“A lot of times they bring an all-out blitz,” Warner said. “That’s what they showed. I thought I had one-on-one on the outside. James Harrison stepped up like was going to blitz and he went back. I wasn’t able to see him around my linemen. He just made a great play.”