Another in a series of sample articles from Steelers Digest looking back on the 2008 season.
Steelers Digest has been the official publication of the Pittsburgh Steelers since its inception in 1988. For 21 seasons, Steelers Digest has offered the most comprehensive coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers with its unmatched complement of news, insight and opinion. The following appeared in the February 2009 edition of Steelers Digest and chronicled the team's win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
"Familiar recipe proves Super"
By BOB LABRIOLA
This one is a testament to who they are and what they believe.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to the Super Bowl again, their seventh trip, and they have gotten there in different ways. The first times, four to be precise, they got there with great players, nine of whom, plus their coach, are enshrined in Canton. One time, 1995, they were powered by a burning sense of unfinished business after falling 3 yards short in the previous conference title game. The last time, they rallied around a beloved teammate.
Last Sunday with Heinz Field stretched to its seams by a record crowd, the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 24-13, to qualify for Super Bowl XLIII, and how they did that and why it was able to happen make this group unique.
Two years ago, the Steelers had to hire a new coach, not something they had a lot of practice doing over the previous 38 years, by the way. There had been only two coaches between 1969 and Mike Tomlin, one of whom is considered one of the sport's all-time greats and the other will have some owner paying him $10 million a year to coach again in 2009, 2010 at the latest.
Dan Rooney and his son, Art II, settled on Tomlin, and if his age and a resume as a defensive assistant and coordinator brought comparisons to Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney quietly noted he believed the new guy was more like Chuck Noll.
Tomlin, even-keeled, cerebral, with enough bite to get denied entry into the fraternity of the Players' Coach, is 24-11 after the win over the Ravens, and a spot in the Super Bowl so soon validates the decision to offer him the job.
What Tomlin has is a credibility allowing him to demand his players embrace the we and not the me because that's what he did in sticking with Dick LeBeau's defense instead of installing what he had been familiar with from his time in Tampa Bay and then Minnesota. Injuries are not excuses, or as he says, "The standard of expectation does not change," sort of a contemporary rendering of "Whatever it takes." And he embraces the physical elements of the game, the collisions, what's now referred to as attrition football.
That's what the Steelers had to be against the Ravens: a selfless, tough-minded bunch that brings it physically on every snap and refuses to make excuses. Along the way, everybody prepares and everybody wants to contribute because they're such fierce competitors that what one does another wants to top. And their great players often do truly great things.
That's how the Steelers navigated the league's toughest schedule to get here in the first place. They allowed 38 yards rushing in Jacksonville without two of their three starting defensive linemen. They hung a 43.6 passer rating on Philip Rivers without two of their top three cornerbacks. They sacked Matt Cassel five times and intercepted him twice after his back-to-back 400-yard games. Ben Roethlisberger drove them in Baltimore. Deshea Townsend saved them vs. Dallas. The running game carried them through the Divisional Round of these playoffs.
The Ravens demand the best of their opponents, because those who don't match their intensity and love of the violent aspects of this sport will be bludgeoned into submission. The Steelers, a tough-guy team dating back to the 1950s, know this well because of the annual home-and-home series, and this proves familiarity breeds contempt.
When that came together in this AFC Championship Game, the result was three-and-a-half hours of what a tenured national football writer called "the most brutal game I've ever seen."
Hines Ward left in the first half with a knee injury sustained when he was pretzeled to the ground after a reception. Corey Ivy and Daren Stone both left with concussions – and returned. The Ryan Clark-Willis McGahee collision was a frightening one that knocked both players out of the game. And those are only the incidents in which players were taken from the field injured.
But if the Steelers refused to wilt vs. the Ravens, their execution wasn't so consistent.
On offense, it was dropped passes. On defense, it was pass interference. On special teams, it was a 65-yard punt return and a 21-yard punt. Then there were some other penalties, and a lost fumble, and another failed third-and-short.
What had been a 13-0 Steelers lead shrunk to 13-7 at halftime, and then swelled to 16-7 after three quarters. But with more than nine minutes left a Ravens touchdown cut it to 16-14, and the game seemed to be edging inexorably to a 17-16 final that was going to make the Steelers 0-for-Heinz Field in conference championships.
Their selflessness and resilience and competitiveness had gotten them this far, and just when it felt like it wasn't going to be enough, one of their great players did something truly great.
Troy Polamalu, the Steelers All-Pro safety relegated to being Ed Reed Lite in these playoffs so far, combined preparation, great hands, speed and desire to anticipate a Joe Flacco pass to Derrick Mason, make a leaping interception, and then weave his way through 21 other players to return it 40 yards for the clinching touchdown.
Now it's the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, and the Steelers will have a chance to make NFL history by becoming the first to win six Lombardis.
Maybe they do it and complete this improbably wonderful season because they were selfless and resilient. Or maybe they do it because one of their great players does something truly great.