Steelers set out on 'road' to Super Bowl XL
By BOB LABRIOLA
The 2004 Steelers had lost the AFC Championship Game, largely because it came on a day when their quarterback finally played like the rookie he was. While the Steelers were back on track philosophically and had returned to a place among the NFL's elite by virtue of their 15-1 record during the regular season, Coach Bill Cowher looked at all of that and saw only unfinished business. He would say as much two days after that loss to the New England Patriots. "Sometimes we wonder why. Ours is not to wonder why, ours is to continue to try."
The 2005 season was trying, indeed. Ben Roethlisberger took a couple of shots on the knee and ended up missing four games, three of them following an arthroscopic procedure that taught all of Pittsburgh how to spell, meniscus. Then, his right thumb became the most famous opposable digit in TV news history. Hines Ward missed one of the same games Roethlisberger missed. In late November, the Steelers had to play a division game on the road without Pro Bowl left tackle Marvel Smith, without All-Pro inside linebacker James Farrior and without their top two quarterbacks – Roethlisberger and Tommy Maddox.
When their team was intact, the Steelers were capable of some impressive things, examples being those early wins on the road in San Diego and Cincinnati. Those were instances of the Steelers being more physical, and ultimately more committed to winning, than their opponent, which indicated the mind-set that Cowher sought to re-establish in 2004 was still ingrained in them.
But they muddled through a lot of the regular season as well. Three straight mid-season wins over Baltimore, Green Bay and Cleveland teams that would finish a combined 16-32 were ugly in their own unique ways, but they offered a glimpse of a Steelers team still filled with the kind of people willing to step up to pick up the slack or step back without pouting, depending upon what was needed from them at the time.
Teams that win championships always improve during the course of their seasons to a point where they're playing their best when the games count the most, and the real toll the Steelers' injuries took was to slow this process for them. Without Roethlisberger, and then without Marvel Smith to stabilize the offense's ability to protect him, the passing attack atrophied. That became a glaring weakness, and in the NFL glaring weaknesses impact everything on a team.
When the Steelers lost three straight games to bring them to the second week of December with a 7-5 record, and against the backdrop of a mathematical possibility to win out and still miss the playoffs, everybody there was looking for some direction. The only person who could chart the course was Bill Cowher.
It started the day after the third of the defeats, a 38-31 loss to a Bengals team, a loss that essentially eliminated the Steelers from the AFC North race. Cowher brought the players in and had them watch the video of the game; having each one grade himself on every snap reinforced the concept of the importance of individual accountability. Every man was going to be asked to pick up his game, and Bill Cowher showed them he included himself, too.
The next day, Cowher's opening statement at his weekly news conference included: "All the focus this week with our football team is on this football game. I'm not going to speculate on the future or dwell on the past … We recognize the importance of the game, and where we are, and the fact that we need to stop this three-game slide we're on. That's the state of where we are and the approach we're taking."
And so it was, with a practice in full pads the next day serving as his own unique exclamation point. Cowher never wavered in his message, he never was deterred from his plan, the Steelers got healthy and were able to put together the long-delayed self-improvement portion of their season. By the time 7-5 had become 11-5, the Steelers were more than just in the playoffs. Thanks to Cowher, they were prepared for the playoffs and the win-or-go-home reality of them.
"We have a team that respects one another," said Cowher the week the Steelers would open the playoffs in Cincinnati against the Bengals. "There are a lot of guys who have accepted roles and embraced those roles even though they may want to play more. I think there's an unselfishness that permeated through this team based on the good veteran leadership we've had. That being said, they also understand what it takes this time of year …"
In the late afternoon of Dec. 4, 2005 the Cincinnati Bengals had turned Heinz Field into their personal playground in the final stages of the 38-31 win remembered by Steelers fans mostly as being the third of the three-game losing streak that was killing their pre-Christmas spirit. T.J. Houshmandzadeh made a show for the cameras of wiping off his cleats with a Terrible Towel in the tunnel leading to the locker room; Chad Johnson talked enough to pull a vocal cord, and did it all while wearing a Terrible Towel as a bib; and the whole thing reeked of a victory parade even though all the win did was put Cincinnati in control of the AFC North Division race. "It's always good to beat the Steelers," said John Thornton, with a big smile and a wink.
Still in the Steelers' locker room getting dressed, Jerome Bettis had been told of some of the things coming from the Bengals locker room just across the way. Bettis suppressed the urge to fire back and then said, "You know what? They can talk all they want. They won. We have to take it."
The 2005 NFL playoffs were going to give the Steelers an opportunity for some payback, and those close to the team knew well that nothing motivates this particular group of players more.
The Bengals knew enough about the Steelers to understand how physical a playoff game against them would be, and they were ready and held their own in that aspect in the early stages, but where their postseason inexperience manifested itself was a lack of poise.
When Carson Palmer was lost to a knee injury on a first-quarter hit from Kimo von Oelhoffen that neither was flagged nor deserved to be, the Bengals lost their composure. "I knew right away that it was bad," said Palmer about the injury. "I felt my whole knee pop. I didn't feel a lot of pain, but it was a sickening feeling, because I knew what it was and that my season was over."
Instead of re-focusing their own players because the injury happened on the Bengals' second offensive play of the game the Cincinnati coaches were screaming at Steelers players from the sideline. Their reaction sent the message that the game had been stolen from them because of Palmer's injury, and at the time the score was 0-0 with more than 10 minutes to play in the first quarter. Then when things got tough, as inevitably happens in the NFL playoffs, the players could take the cue and their excuse was ready-made.
"We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game," said Jerome Bettis. "I think our experience was a factor in the second half."
Cincinnati would build a couple of 10-point leads in the first half, but on each occasion Ben Roethlisberger and the offense answered with a touchdown drive to tighten things back up. As a rookie in the 2004 playoffs, Roethlisberger had been something of a liability to the team, but in 2005 he had become the kind of player capable of carrying a team, even in the playoffs.
"I think my play and our play spoke volumes (to how different things are this year)," said Roethlisberger. "I have to give a lot of credit to the Bengals. They came out and were firing on all cylinders. They gave us a few one-two punches in the mouth, and we weathered that storm and were able to keep it under control. I told the guys to batten down the hatches, weather that out, and hopefully when it did we can step it up and play good football."
That's exactly what the Steelers did when the Bengals built two separate 10-point leads in the first half. Down 10-0, the Steelers drove 80 yards in eight plays, with Roethlisberger finishing things off with a 19-yard screen pass to running back Willie Parker. The second of those responses came late in the first half when Roethlisberger was 3 for 3 for 74 of the drive's 76 yards, plus the touchdown to Hines Ward.
"He made some big plays, had some big scrambles, and he had very good decision-making," said Cowher about his quarterback.
That drive, which brought the Steelers to 17-14 at halftime, was a microcosm of a stunning performance by Roethlisberger, who completed 9-of-13 in the first half, and then when the Steelers outscored Cincinnati, 17-0, in the second half to roll to a 31-17 win, he was 5-of-6 for 74 yards.
"There was a lot of energy and emotion in this game, and we kind of knew that coming in," said Cowher. "It'll be no different next week in Indianapolis."
Graham 23 FG
R.Johnson 20 run (Graham kick)
Parker 19 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Houshmandzadeh 7 pass from Kitna (Graham kick)
Ward 5 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Bettis 5 run (Reed kick)
Wilson 43 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Reed 21 FG
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.