Big plays the difference in Super Bowl XL

Take a look at photos from Super Bowl XL.

Pittsburgh is a different place during football season. It’s even more different come playoff time when the Steelers are involved. But the Steelers in the Super Bowl is a whole other matter, because that’s when the mania infects every facet of daily life. Church, school, definitely at work, all over the wardrobe, and constantly in social settings.

The players who got the team to Super Bowl XL had surpassed matinee-idol-status to the degree that an appearance even by a couple of them couldn’t be announced too far in advance because of crowd control issues. The local newspapers had hours worth of staff meetings to “coordinate coverage,” the radio stations amped it up with a variety of fight songs, and the television news departments lost their minds totally.

Apparently, the Super Bowl also is a different event when the Steelers are involved. Detroit Police Commissioner Ella Bully-Cummings held meetings the day after the Steelers had won the AFC Championship because she knew it was an easy drive between her city and Pittsburgh, and so she considered it a real possibility there could be as many as 100,000 extra Steelers fans coming in for the game even though they had no tickets nor any real interest in acquiring any. Hotels were sold out as far away as Toledo, Ohio, and merchandisers were salivating, because a Steelers win could mean a 300 percent increase in sales, maybe more.

Meanwhile, the Steelers players and coaches just kept grinding, as they had been for seven straight weeks. About nine hours after the Steelers’ charter touched down after the trip home from Denver, the players and coaches had gathered for a meeting at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Dan Rooney stood at the front of the room and set the tone. One of the points he emphasized: Forget all that “One for the Thumb” garbage. This Super Bowl has nothing to do with the four trophies in that glass case down the hall. That team was that team, he told them, and this team has its own identity. This is your Super Bowl.

This was their Super Bowl, yes, and so it was going to be handled like any other game. Winning was the only focus, and that emphasis came through in the first couple of decisions they made. With the AFC as the designated home team in Super Bowl XL, the Steelers had the right to choose jersey color and interview slot for the media responsibilities during the week of the game. The Steelers chose white jerseys, and sure, there was some superstition involved, some acknowledgement of having won three straight road playoff games to get to the Super Bowl. But another reason was that at night, in a dome such as Ford Field, white would stand out more, maybe be easier for the quarterback to pick out. Then, choosing the early interview slots allowed the players and coaches to have completely uninterrupted days of work in Detroit.

The Steelers were in this Super Bowl, and as usual they did things their way. The NFL suggested the teams arrive in Detroit on the Sunday before the game; the Steelers arrived Monday afternoon and traveled with no more amenities than they had on their flight to Houston back in September. On Media Day, the NFL had provided police escorts for the buses that transported the teams from their hotels to Ford Field for the event. But Media Day to the NFL is nothing but Tuesday morning rush hour for a lot of regular working stiffs, and the big-shot treatment made Dan Rooney a little grumpy. “Why are we in such a big hurry? To come here for this. Those were people just trying to get to work so they can pay their bills.”

Dan Rooney had his fingerprints all over the things that were done to turn the Steelers into a dynasty during the 1970s, but those Super Bowls were his father’s. Art Rooney Sr. had founded the franchise in 1933 and was one of the men who built the league, he was an active Hall of Fame member, and so when it came time to take a bow, nobody deserved it more. Dan Rooney’s son, Art II, had been named the team’s president in 2004, and his fingerprints were all over the things that were done to get the Steelers into Super Bowl XL, but it just wasn’t his time. Dan Rooney had been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 because he helped build the free agency/salary cap formula that turned his father’s NFL into the professional sports league that was the model for all the others. This bow would be his, and nobody deserved it more.

But there was that other story line, too. The one about the guy who was going home for a shot at a championship in what most people believed was going to be his last game. The Jerome Bettis story, the one being told all over the world, literally, in languages left with the task of trying to translate “bus.” In the Jan. 25 issue of the Detroit Free Press, columnist Mitch Albom wrote, “The Steelers are clearly Detroit's choice, and if you pushed me to give you one good reason, I'd hem and I'd haw, then I'd give you 100. The first 50 are Jerome Bettis. He is from Detroit. He went to school in Detroit. His parents live in Detroit. He eats. He smiles. He knocks people over.

“He's as close as we get to a Lion in the Super Bowl. Besides, Bettis cemented his favorite son status on the sidelines Sunday, when he screamed, “We're going home!” We are not used to people being that excited about a trip to Detroit. Usually, it's, ‘Aw, do we have to?’ … Ben Roethlisberger is our kind of quarterback … Then there's Bill Cowher. Are you kidding me? He's the football coach this town has been coveting for the last 30 years. We want them tough. We want them angry … Did we mention ownership? The Steelers have the kind of ownership Detroit fans dream about …

“The Steelers are our choice. We have adopted them as if they were our own. Come next week, Detroit will feel like a home game for Pittsburgh.”

It did. The announced paid attendance for Super Bowl XL was 68,206, and 40,000 of them were Steelers fans. Easy. The twirling Terrible Towels obliterated any patches of Seahawks fans, and the noise level matched what the eye could see. And you could tell a lot of them were long-time Steelers fans, because they booed Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and Larry Brown of the Dallas Cowboys during the introductions of past MVP winners, and they booed when New England quarterback Tom Brady was recognized as the man to toss the coin.

It didn’t look like a road game on the field for the Steelers, either, especially not like the road playoff games they had won to get there. The pressure of the situation, the magnitude of the game and its potential to label the guys in it as winners or losers for the rest of their careers had set in. Players were tight. One of those was Ben Roethlisberger, and with the quarterback it’s always the most obvious.

Two of their first three offensive snaps began with false starts, and the Steelers went three-and-out on three straight possessions. The play immediately after they recorded their initial first down was an interception. After the trophy presentation, Roethlisberger would take a moment in the locker room when he sat alone, apparently reflecting on his first Super Bowl, and his body language said he was disappointed. Based on his development through the regular season and way he blossomed through the AFC playoffs, he had every right to be disappointed. But even on a day when his overall performance fell below his expectations, Ben Roethlisberger still made a handful of big plays that were very, very important to the Steelers’ 21-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

The first example of that was the Steelers’ possession following that interception. While the offense had been struggling, the Steelers defense may have given up some yards but the Seahawks had managed just a field goal through five possessions themselves, and in fact Seattle punted the ball back to Pittsburgh three plays after Roethlisberger’s interception.

On a third-and-6, Roethlisberger scrambled and then shoveled the ball to Hines Ward to convert and keep the drive alive; then on a third-and-28, he had the awareness to keep his scramble behind the line of scrimmage and then made an amazing athletic play to get the ball all the way across the field to Ward for 37 yards to the Seattle 3-yard line; and he capped the drive when he threw his body into the end zone on a quarterback sweep for the touchdown and a 7-3 lead at halftime.

It became 14-3 on the second play of the second half, and that 12-second snippet served as testimony to the value of having instilled the mind-set to run the football on offense. Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings opened the seam; Max Starks came down and sealed it with a block on the middle linebacker; Willie Parker hit it at top speed; and when the safety was a little too aggressive and took the wrong angle, it was over. A Super Bowl record 75 yards, and if the Steelers weren’t the smoothest operation that day, they were practicing what Cowher always preached _ finding ways of doing the things necessary to win.

The Steelers’ control of the game, however, would evaporate on their next offensive possession. After Seattle kicker Josh Brown missed his second field goal of the game, this from 50 yards, the Steelers seemingly found their offensive rhythm. Roethlisberger completed 2 of 3 for 31 yards and Bettis carried four times for 22 more to set up a third-and-6 from the Seahawks 7-yard line. Roethlisberger underthrew Cedrick Wilson in the flat in a situation where air under the ball meant a certain touchdown and a game-clinching 21-3 lead, and cornerback Jimmy Herndon returned the interception a record 76 yards to the Steelers 20-yard line. When Jerramy Stevens hung on to a 16-yard pass three plays later, it was 14-10, and the Seahawks were breathing the sweet air of new life.

Again, the Steelers offense settled into a funk. Two more three-and-outs brought the game to the end of the third quarter, and then early in the fourth, the defense did its thing. The Seahawks had been having regular success moving the football, but the Steelers clearly were more interested in points allowed than yards allowed. The game would end with Seattle scoring on only two of its nine possessions that crossed into Steelers territory, and this one would be stopped by a takeaway.

Coordinators Ken Whisenhunt and Dick LeBeau both had a lot to do with the Steelers reaching the Super Bowl, and so it was only fitting that both of them would come up big in the season’s biggest game. In the three playoff games, Joey Porter had three sacks, and on a third-and-18 from the Steelers 27-yard line it had seemed certain he would be rushing the passer. But LeBeau called a defense that dropped Porter into coverage, and when Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck tried to get the ball over Porter it was overthrown and intercepted by Ike Taylor.

Four plays later, on a first-and-10 from the Seattle 43-yard line, Whisenhunt went with “Fake toss 39, X reverse pass.” A perfectly-timed call of a play that included a beautiful throw on the dead run by Antwaan Randle El to Ward for the 43-yard touchdown, but it also was a play that opened up only after Roethlisberger made another of his big plays a block on snooping safety Michael Boulware. It was 21-10, and then the Steelers spent the last 8:56 of the game being the Steelers their defense had a sack to force a punt on Seattle’s ensuing possession, then their offense chewed up 4:24 on the clock, and the defense closed it out by turning the ball over on downs with three seconds left.

Hines Ward was named Super Bowl MVP, and that was fitting because he had become the face of the traits so many of them brought to every game, the way they were tough and physical and competed with every fiber of their being. But it also could have been Faneca or Randle El or Casey Hampton, and those choices would’ve been OK too, because what they all truly wanted most was to be part of a championship team.

Then it was time to celebrate. And celebrate they did, into the night, on the flight back to Pittsburgh the day after the game, during a parade the day after that through Downtown Pittsburgh attended by 250,000 people. The Pittsburgh Steelers were Super Bowl champions for the fifth time in franchise history, and they won this one as a No. 6 seed in the AFC, by becoming the first team in NFL history to do it all on the road. The 2005 Steelers had done what Dan Rooney had told them to do in that meeting almost two weeks before - they had made Super Bowl XL their own.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Advertising