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Celebrating Santonio Holmes’ MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIII

With Cooper Kupp winning the MVP for Super Bowl LVI, BTSC looks back at the Steelers MVP receivers.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper Kupp was chosen as the Super Bowl LVI MVP, the 56th Super Bowl MVP, the 8th wide receiver to be awarded that honor, and the 2nd in the last four years with Julian Edelman being chosen as MVP in Super Bowl LIII.

Before Edelman’s selection, only 6 receivers had been chosen as Super Bowl MVPs. Jerry Rice (SB XXIII), Fred Biletnikoff (SB XI), Deion Branch (SB XXXIX) and three Pittsburgh Steelers, Lynn Swann (SB X), Hines Ward (SB XL), and Santonio Holmes (SB XLIII).

As we roll into the NFL offseason, I wanted to go back and look at those three Steelers and their performances in the Super Bowl. We’ll start with Santonio Holmes.

Santonio Holmes was in his third season as a Steeler receiver, and had several really good seasons under his belt. But the 2008 Steeler season, headlined by a completely new offensive line and the struggles that created, wasn’t kind to the offense.

Holmes was second on the team in catches and yards to Hines Ward, but that was largely due to Holmes’ career low 48.2% catch rate. Across the board Holmes’ numbers were worse than they were in 2007. That didn’t really change in the first few games of the playoffs. Homes caught 4 of 13 targets for 95 yards and a TD in the first two playoff wins for the Steelers, and in typical Holmes fashion for 2008, his production wasn’t reliable, but it was flashy. Holmes converted a long third down, scored an enormous 65 yard TD against the Ravens, and had a 67 yard punt return for a TD in those two games.

Hines Ward at 32 years old was still the Steelers #1 receiver, and while Holmes was flashy yet unreliable, Ward was as steady and inevitable as always. Ward had 7 catches on 8 targets for 125 yards in the first two playoff games, but a knee sprain against Baltimore limited his impact in that game, and while Ward played in the Super Bowl, he was not his usual self. Ward caught a 38 yard pass on the opening drive of the Super Bowl, but after that would record one catch for 5 yards on two targets. The Steelers would have to win the Super Bowl largely without the most reliable weapon in their offense.

While the Steelers opening drive featured Ward’s big catch, it was the second drive of the game for the Steelers that showcased a key strategic battle the Steelers and Cardinals would wage all game.

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 1st quarter, 6:13

Santonio Holmes is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

With Ward slowed by his knee, the Cardinals locked their top cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie onto Santonio Holmes, and Rogers-Cromartie was clearly determined not to give up one of Holmes’ signature big plays.

You can see Rodgers-Cromartie giving an 8-yard cushion and dropping deeper at the snap. The Cardinals were determined to take away the deep shots to Holmes and make the Steelers beat them with a dink and dunk offense. If you remember 2008 Ben Roethlisberger, you know that wasn’t something he was well suited to at the time.

Bruce Arians countered with the most Bruce Arians thing in the world, wide receiver screens. With Ward and Heath Miller as blockers, and Santonio Holmes explosiveness with the ball in his hands, it worked out pretty well. Holmes was a great punt returner, and you can see here how quick and decisive he was in space with the ball in his hands.

While Holmes was target-less on the Steelers opening drive that ended in a field goal, he contributed 37 yards on three short passes to the Steelers second drive that led to a Gary Russell touchdown and a 10-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Santonio Holmes had a bad statistical showing through no fault of his own. Officially credited with 2 targets that resulted in no yards and Ben Roethlisberger’s only interception of the game, the official stats don’t paint the most accurate picture.

Santonio Holmes caught a pass for a 22 yard gain on 3rd and 12 that was called back for holding. That led to a punt. The next drive Ben Roethlisberger’s pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted. He was clearly trying to throw the ball to Santonio Holmes, so I get why they record a target there, but Santonio Holmes had nothing to do with the result of that throw.

That interception was enormous though, as it led to the 1st and goal at the 1 yard line for Arizona that turned into James Harrison’s game changing pick 6.

Heading into the second half, Santonio Holmes had officially caught 3 of his 5 targets for 37 yards, with an interception on one of the incompletions. To that point it was about what you would expect from Santonio Holmes.

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 3rd quarter, 6:47

Santonio Holmes is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is still playing off of Holmes, the Cardinals are still focused on taking away his deep threat, and they were doing a better job reacting to the Steelers screens, so this time Holmes got the ball with no blockers on 2nd and 11 and had to beat Rodgers-Cromartie to convert the first down.

Throughout the game, when the Steelers were faced with a down with longer than 10 yards to get a first down they threw to Santonio Holmes, and every time he caught the ball. The holding penalty in the second quarter negated one, but his role as the go to guy when the defense was backed off a bit and defending longer passes was entrenched. The Steelers offense was relying a lot on Holmes’ open field creativity to get out of tough spots, and Holmes was delivering.

The third quarter Holmes wouldn’t add much more officially, finishing the quarter with two catches for 21 yards on the Steelers scoring drive, a field goal to extend the Steelers lead to 20-7.

The Cardinals would score a touchdown halfway through the 4th quarter to make it 20-14, and at the end of the next drive, punt a ball to the Steeler 2 yard line. An unnecessary roughness penalty on James Harrison would back that up to the 1.

After two plays where the Steelers narrowly avoided disaster, 3rd and 10 from the Steelers 1 yard line came up, and this happened:

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 4th quarter, 3:04

Santonio Holmes is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Cardinals had burned one timeout already, and with 3 minutes left on the clock, a big first down here meant a lot to the Steelers. From a horrible punting situation to a fresh set of downs, this play could have been the play we looked back at as the point where the Steelers sealed the Super Bowl win.

The catch is a great one, a typical Santonio Holmes big play. The ball is thrown a bit too far behind Holmes, but Holmes adjusts, keeping inside position on his defender and catches the ball with a defender on his back and no margin for error.

Sadly this play is well known for a very different reason. Center Justin Hartwig is run over, and as he falls backwards he pulls the defender down with him. Holding in the end zone for a safety. Making it a 4-point game and the Cardinals ball. Santonio Holmes made a great play to give his team a chance to seal the win, but it didn’t matter, and the next time he would take the field, his team was trailing by 3. A 9-point swing thanks to a holding call and a 64 yard touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald in spite of Holmes fantastic catch.

So, with 2 minutes and forty-seven seconds left in the game, Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger took the field looking to right a wrong and put the Steelers back on top.

The first play of the drive wouldn’t help though, as the Steelers were called for another holding penalty, bringing up 1st and 20, and as you know from earlier, every time the Steelers faced that situation, the first person they went to was Santonio Holmes.

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 4th quarter, 2:24

Santonio Holmes is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Look at Rodgers-Cromartie this time, he’s expecting a screen, he’s not going to give up a big cushion. The Cardinals rush 4 and drop their front line of defenders to the original line of scrimmage try and force the Steelers to take something underneath. Ben Roethlisberger responded by extending the play and Santonio Holmes slipped his coverage just enough to let his quarterback find him to bring up 2nd and 6.

An incomplete pass to someone else later, it was 3rd and 6 with under 2 minutes to go.

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 4th quarter, 1:56

Santonio Holmes is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

This time the Cardinals send 5 players after Roethlisberger, who calmly evades the rush, pump-fakes to Hines Ward to create a bit of space and hits Holmes for the first down. Really nice catch on a high throw for Holmes, who was answering the bell as his quarterback was elevating his play and needing someone to finish those plays for him.

A few plays later the Steelers were down to 1 timeout remaining and 1:02 left on the clock just past mid-field. The announcers were discussing what the strategy would be to get into field goal range so the Steelers could send out Jeff Reed to try and tie the game.

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 4th quarter, 1:02

Santonio Holmes is the receiver to the top of the screen.

A well designed play and a great pump fake from Roethlisberger pulls Rodgers-Cromartie up to defend Mewelde Moore so the Steelers can’t get a quick gain and get out of bounds, and that creates space for Santonio Holmes who makes the easy catch and turns up-field for a big gain. Holmes didn’t have to do much on this play, the design and Roethlisberger’s always great pump fake set it up, but Holmes delivered and the Steelers were given a chance to try and win the game with the fallback option of kicking a field goal to tie it if they had to.

While this wasn’t at all Santonio Holmes best play of the game, it was huge. Expected Points is a stat that looks at down, distance, time left and more to judge the average points a team can be expected to score in that situation. Before this play the Steelers expected points was 2.25, meaning a field goal to tie the game was far from guaranteed, but still the most likely option. After this play the expected points jumped to 5.83, meaning a touchdown was more likely than any other result. But while the result was likely, the way they got their was not.

Steelers vs. Cardinals, 4th quarter, 0:42

Santonio Holmes is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

One of the greatest plays in the history of the NFL. There have been a lot of big plays and game-winning catches in Super Bowl history, but this one frequently is ranked ahead of the rest and the best ever.

People often forget about Santonio Holmes’ catch that would have extended the drive that instead was called a safety. He made a great play to give his team a great chance to win the game. Had that play counted the win probability for the Steelers would have been 96.15%. When Holmes next saw a pass, when it was 1st and 20 at the Steelers 12 yard line down 3 points their win probability was 23.12%.

To me, that best represents what Santonio Holmes and ben Roethlisberger accomplished that day. Two holds by the Steelers offensive line and one busted play by the defense turned the tables on the Steelers. Roethlisberger and Holmes all but sealed the game, and the next time they got a chance to make a play, they were fighting long odds...

And they still won.