There are 31 teams in the National Football League.
And then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With a wild 27-23 comeback victory against the determined Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers have cemented their place as the most successful franchise in football and possibly in all of sports. The win brings a record sixth Lombardi Trophy home to the Steel City. It’s also the second championship in a four year span.
The game began on a curious decision by Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt who won the coin toss but deferred, allowing QB Ben Roethlisberger and company to take the field instead of his own high-powered offense. Mixing run and pass effectively, the Steelers marched right down the field behind the legs of RB Fast Willie Parker and a 38 yard catch by injured star WR Hines Ward. Ward would catch only one other ball (to convert a third down, naturally) as he manned up to play with a sprained MCL but was clearly too hurt to have his usual level of effectiveness. The drive stalled at the 1 and they settled for a Skippy Reed field goal.
The Cardinals and QB Kurt Warner took the field and promptly punted after only six plays. The Steelers continued to run effectively, controlling the clock, until the end of the quarter. The game plan looked to be working tremendously in shortening the game, keeping the scary Arizona O off the field, and maintaining time of possession.
A second straight drive stalled at the AZ 1 until RB Gary Russell managed to plunge the ball in for the game’s first TD. Then things began to unravel. Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau’s plan was to take away everything deep. To that end, he dropped safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark back on almost every play in an effort to keep everything in front of them. The Cards figured this out very quickly and began taking what they were given short over the middle of the field. The other problem was Lebeau underestimated the speed of the Cards’ receivers which resulted in some long catch-and-runs including a 46 yarder by WR Anquan Boldin to set up their first TD.
The Cardinals moved the ball effectively in the 2nd quarter and were down at the Pittsburgh 5 with seconds left in the half. A tie score at halftime seemed to be the best possible scenario with a four point deficit more likely when Defensive Player of the Year LB James Harrison pulled off one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history which will forever be known as The Pick. He jumped a poor pass from Warner and returned it 100 yards for a TD as time expired in a thrilling turn of events.
Still, no Steeler fan could feel good about what had been unfolding prior to the Silverback’s heroics. I’m sure I’m not the only person who saw ominous signs as the game played out. Familiar shortcomings we all feared would cost them some day did indeed start to cost them on the grandest stage of all. Every major weakness we saw during the regular season managed to rear its ugly head. For example:
Lack of running game – After running very effectively in the first quarter, FWP pretty much disappeared for the rest of the game. He had 26 yards of his 53 total in the 1st. Worse yet was his putrid 2.8 average per carry. The Cardinals didn’t appear to stack the line nor did Parker appear anything less than 100% so the lack of a rushing attack can’t be blamed on anything but poor run blocking and failure to mix up the playcalling.
Inability to convert short yardage situations – Related to the previous point. The Steelers were the worst team at converting 3rd and 4th and less than 3 yards to first downs in the ENTIRE league this year. The Steelers had the ball on the 1, 3, 5, and 2 yard lines of Arizona. The result was two FGs and one TD. The worst display was in the 3rd quarter when they couldn’t pound it on three tries from the 5, then after gifted a first down on a running into the holder personal foul against Arizona, failed three more times from the 2 before settling for yet another Skippy FG to put them up 20-7. If the team could convert even half their chances, the game is a blow out early.
The offensive line – Big Ben gave his boys a shoutout at the end of the game but truthfully they didn’t play well. Nobody could block Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett who had 2 sacks and 5 solo tackles, several for zero or negative gain. Ben was under duress most of the game, he just happened to have a good day scrambling around to make things happen. Make no mistake, the protection was poor. Not to mention the Steelers were hit with 7 penalties for 56 yards, many of them holding by the O-Line.
The worst of these penalties being C Justin Hartwig getting nabbed holding in the end zone, an automatic safety and free kick back to the Cards. The Cards scored to narrow the gap to 20-14 when the Steelers played what looked like a prevent, allowing the team to march down the field in a little over three minutes. WR Larry Fitzgerald, a non factor much of the first three quarters, made a spectacular catch over CB Ike Taylor, who was right there and actually knocked the ball out of his hands but he managed to come down with it anyway. Face Me Ike did a fantastic job on Fitz as there are some plays where you have to simply tip your cap to your opponent.
After trading punts, the Steelers were backed up on their 1. FWP barely made it out of the end zone on a scary attempt to get breathing room. On third down, Big Ben made a clutch throw to WR Santonio Holmes out at the 21. But wait, yellow on the carpet. Hartwig flagged for a ticky tacky holding penalty which changed the course of the game.
Which also brings me to the refereeing. Reading the blogosphere this morning, I’m already beginning to see rumblings similar to Super Bowl XL that the refs “gave the game” to the Steelers. They point out the fact the Cardinals were flagged 10 times for a whopping 106 yards, mostly on personal fouls. Which ignores the fact one of the Steelers’ flags cost them 9 points (safety + ensuing TD) while the refs also hosed us on the first drive where it was very questionable Ben’s knee was down yet they took a TD off the board. Then there is the final play of the game where Warner fumbled and there didn’t appear to be any review. The Director of NFL Officiating has said they did confirm the call in the booth so let’s put that one to rest. I am hoping Arizona fans have more class than Seattle crybabies and don’t spend the next three years pouting and whining about bad calls when games are won and lost by players, not officials.
Anyway, the Cardinals took the ball off the free kick with about three minutes to go in the game. The Steelers came out in the most ridiculous defensive alignment I’ve ever seen with only TWO safeties deep in an obvious passing situation. Fitzgerald caught a short slant and blew down the middle of the field splitting the coverage for a 64 yard TD. 23-20 Cardinals and Steeler Nation’s collective hearts were in their throats.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Ben Roethlisberger still had a chance to win the game. Putting together a drive that reminded me of The Drive associated with another #7, Big Ben proved to be the clutch player we know him to be. He coolly and efficiently lead the team down the field, taking what was given and moving the chains in an attempt to at least get in FG position. But WR Santonio Holmes had other ideas.
Holmes ignited the team in their wrecking of San Diego. He made the big play in the Baltimore game which set up the winning score. In the Super Bowl, he came up even bigger to the tune of 9 catches for 131 yards. Around mid-field, Holmes made a short catch and when the Cardinal CB fell down, took off down the field for a 40 yard gain. On the next play, he narrowly missed making a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone. So one play later, he makes an even more spectacular catch somehow keeping both toes and his enormous penis in bounds while covered by THREE Cardinal defenders.
Holmes was named game MVP but honestly I don’t know how you can dismiss the performance of Ben Roethlisberger. On a day when the most dominant defense in the NFL was pretty much shredded, when a team which allowed no 300 yard passers all year allowed 377 to Warner, when a team which allowed 300 yards of total offense once all year gave up 407 yards, Ben came up big when we needed him the most. 21 of 30 for 256 yards may not be the gaudiest of statistics but leadership, poise, and play-making ability should count for something. Big Ben was at his absolute best in this game, making the throws when they needed to be made and doing the things he needed to win.
As we sit here basking in the glory of an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl championship, I have to reflect on what a wild ride this season has been. When the Steelers’ schedule was announced at the end of last year, most of us thought a division title would be a great accomplishment. As the season unfolded, we realized something special was happening as this battle tested group rose to one challenge after the other. However, at some point you had to expect them to hit the proverbial wall but they never did. Mike Tomlin pushed all the right buttons, kept the team focused on the prize, and never wavered in his belief in his team nor his expectations of them.
Thank you, Pittsburgh Steelers, for one of the most memorable games and most memorable seasons in team history. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to toast the Steel City Sixpack with one of my own. VICTORY!!
Tags: 2008 Nfl Champions 2009 Nfl Champions Anquan Boldin Arizona Arizona Cardinals Ben Roethlisberger Big Ben Dan Rooney Darnell Dockett Face Me Ike Fast Willie Parker Hines Ward Ike Taylor James Harrison Kurt Warner Larry Fitzgerald Lombardi Trophy Mike Tomlin Nfl Playoffs Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Steelers Rooney Santonio Holmes Seattle Seattle Seahawks Sixburgh Steel City Six Pack Steel City Sixpack Steeler Nation Super Bowl Champions Super Bowl Mvp Super Bowl Xl Super Bowl XLIII Troy Polamalu