Taking the black and gold Delorean out for a spin once again to get my mind off of the Steelers excluding themselves again from the Super Bowl equation this season, I find myself landing on a day when Taken and Paul Blart, Mall Cop was No. 1 at the box office, the Kelly Clarkson-crooned “My Life Would Suck Without You” was the most popular song on the radio, and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttirn became the first openly gay head of government after being elected the prime minister of Iceland. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to Tampa to take on the Arizona Cardinals and looking for a record sixth championship in Mike Tomlin’s first Super Bowl at the helm. Back in the stadium where he was a part of a Lombardi winning team as a defensive backs coach for the Buccaneers, the 37-year-old former defensive backs coach for Tampa took a philosophy from that championship victory 6 years earlier that would prove to be very important in the preparation for this particular game, The opponent in the franchise’s 7th trip to the big one was the surprising Arizona Cardinals coached by some familiar faces headed by Ken Whisenhunt and assisted by Russ Grimm, coaching castoffs from the staff for Super Bowl XL that were believed to both be the frontrunners to follow Bill Cowher in the Burgh. Throw in Todd Haley, the Card’s OC and son of legendary player-personnel man Dick Haley and there was a lot of familiarity when it came to the team known as “Pittsburgh West”. Like their opponents, the Arizona Cardinals had a very good defense of their own led by the likes of Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson. On the offensive side of the ledger, the red birds were led by the legend Kurt Warner playing in his third Super Bowl. The future Hall of Famer had reliable hands on the receiving end in the likes Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin, all having 1,000 yard receiving years. On the running side, 30th-ranked Arizona wasn’t as potent, but that did not take away from their overall offensive ranking, where they ranked 4th in the NFL. It was 12-4 Pittsburgh going for a record 6th Super Bowl title, while 9-7 Arizona was seeking their first.
Welcome to February 1, 2009.
Arizona won the coin toss, but they chose the defer until the second half. Pittsburgh, wearing their visitor’s whites, set up shop on their-own 30 after Gary Russell’s return and the offense moved down the field immediately. Ben Roethlisberger was spreading the ball around efficiently and helped answer a question that was infecting Steelers Nation. A bootlegging Ben collaborated on a 38-yard pass to Hines Ward was met with a sigh of relief as the availability of the Super Bowl XL MVP was in question due to a MCL injury suffered in the AFC Championship Game vs. Baltimore. Willie Parker reeled off a run of 10, and then Ben also got Heath Miller into the mix by connecting on a 21-yard strike to Heath Miller, putting the ball at the enemy 1-yard line. A Russell rush on first down lost 4 yards, then Just like three years earlier, No. 7 appeared to score on a questionable quarterback sneak, but unlike that fateful night in Detroit against the Seahawks, it was overruled by an instant replay challenge by Whisenhunt. Rather than tempt fate and risk a turnover on downs attempting a touchdown, Tomlin settled for a Jeff Reed 18-yard chip shot to take the 3–0 lead with 9:45 remaining in the first quarter. The Steelers defense held the Cards to a punt and then the offense turned that kick into more points. Just like that the Steelers found a way to put more points on the Raymond James Stadium scoreboard. Big Ben completed three passes to Heath Miller sandwiched by 25 and 7-yard passes to Santonio Holmes to put the Men of Steel on the doorstep of scoring. Gary Russell then plowed into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 10–0 on the second play of the second quarter to put Pittsburgh up 10-0.
This was not going to be a whitewash though as the Cardinals finally put some offense together midway through the second quarter as Kurt Warner threw to Anquan Boldin for a 45-yard completion advancing the ball to the Steelers 1-yard line. On the next play, a stumbling Warner regained his balance to throw a scoring strike to tight end Ben Patrick allowing the scoreboard to display Steelers 10 and Cardinals 7. Later in the quarter after both teams punted, the Steelers erred with the first turnover of the game as Ben threw a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Karlos Dansby at the Steelers 34-yard line with 2:46 left in the half. Marching down the field and poised to overcome the deficit to seize the lead, Warner engineered a 7-yard drive to the Pittsburgh 1. But that’s when everything changed as a Tomlin rant and adjustment a few days before paid off in a big way. Fearing that his team was practicing too lackadaisically, the second-year Head Coach suggested that his dominant defense needed to score against the potent Arizona offense. During an interview with the NFL Network, Coach T recalled his practice revelation. “I’m watching practice tape, I can’t sleep, and I decide to make a cutup of every interception that we had in that practice. I noticed that we weren’t rallying and getting offensive. So, when we met on Thursday, I ran that cutup and didn’t say much, other than the fact that this performance is probably not gonna be enough. We’re gonna have to get out in front of people, and we’re gonna have to run one back, or maybe two back.” With 18 seconds left, James Harrison made one of the biggest plays in NFL history. Noticing that he was a step slow in getting to Warner on the pass rush, Deebo decided to alienate the blitz and drop back into coverage where he intercepted Warner’s pass intended for Boldin at the goal line and proceeded to take off down the sideline for the then-longest play in Super Bowl history in a 14-point swing that increased the Steelers lead to 17–7 at intermission. Of course, the play needed to be reviewed and deemed a score as an exhausted Harrison broke the plane, as he was tackled at the goal line on top of Larry Fitzgerald.
Following a thorough rocking of the house by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band and Dick Lebeau’s defense forcing a punt, the Steelers started off the third quarter with a clock-draining drive that featured three Cardinals personal foul penalties and took nearly nine minutes off of the game clock. But a trip to the end zone was not to be. When the drive stalled, Tomlin took a Jeff Reed field goal off the scoreboard when Arizona suffered another penalty. But despite another first down, the Steelers couldn’t capitalize on the second chance and had to bring out Reed again to give them a 20–7 with 2:16 left in the penultimate quarter.
The lead wasn’t insurmountable, though, as Warner went to the no-huddle and led his unit on an 87-yard scoring drive that culminated in a one-yard scoring toss to the suddenly electric Fitzgerald, who made a leaping grab of a fade over perfect coverage by Ike Taylor and merely a 6-point deficit with 7:33 left in the game. It got even more sphincter-tightening for Steeler Nation when Dockett’s third sack of the game of Ben halted a drive leading to a punt and then an Arizona punt by Ben Graham pinned Pittsburgh at their own 1-yard line. It appeared that the Steelers were out of danger when Ben hooked-up with Santonio for a 20-yard connection on 3rd and 10. However, a hold on Justin Hartwig in the end zone turned a first down into a safety and the score tightened at 20–16. Taking over on their own 36 after the free kick with 2:47 left on the championship clock, the Cards took a mere two plays to score, as Warner threw a pass to Fitzgerald, who caught the ball without breaking stride and took off down the middle of the field past Harrison, Taylor and Troy Polamalu for a 64-yard touchdown reception, giving Arizona their first lead of the game, 23–20.
Great teams aren’t always great, but great when they have to be, and the Steelers set out to do just that by getting the ball back on their own 22 with 2:37 left in the game and two timeouts at their disposal. But if the first play was any clue, greatness wasn’t going to be great at that particular time of need for the men from the Iron City. A holding penalty on Chris Kemoeatu pushed Pittsburgh back at the 12. With 2:24 remaining, the fifth-year man channeled a special kind of magic, starting with completed passes to Holmes for 14 and then 13 yards to Tone again. Roethlisberger followed with a strike to Nate Washington for 11 yards, but a 4-yard run by No. 7 forced the Steelers to use their second timeout with 1:02 to go. On the very next play, Holmes number was called again, and Steeler Nation got the towels swirling with joy and hope as Santonio took the pass 40 yards to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line after safety Aaron Francisco fell down. Two plays later, with Mewelde Moore in the flat and Hines well-covered. Ben located No. 10 in the back right corner of the end zone and threw a perfect ball that Holmes pulled down with Ralph Brown, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Francisco on coverage. Of course, the play was reviewed as the Steelers’ third-year receiver from Ohio State landed with his toes inbounds before falling out. After what seemed to be an eternity the touchdown pass stood and there was much rejoicing as Reed’s ensuing extra point put the Steelers in front 27–23 with 35 seconds remaining. However those 35 seconds loomed large as Warner’s previous two Super Bowl appearances both went down to the last play of the game and the threat of Fitzgerald’s ability to score in mere moments was even more bewildering. Those threats seemed way too real as Warner completed a 20-yard pass to Fitzgerald and a 13-yarder to J.J. Arrington, moving the ball inside Steelers territory at the 44 with 15 seconds left. But the Men of Steel had seen enough as LaMarr Woodley forced a fumble while sacking Warner for the second time.
When Brett Keisel recovered the fumble, celebration ensued. Ben kneeled down and confetti rained down as the Steelers became the only franchise to hoist the Lombardi for a sixth time. Santonio was named the game’s MVP and went to Disney, the Steelers were champions of the football world and Mike Tomlin became the youngest Head Coach to win it all. In interviews, Tomlin’s main message was getting back to work on Tuesday in order to stay on top.
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