Steelers make XL plans to win the Super Bowl

Kyle Scudilla

With the world’s eyes turned toward Detroit, one of the city’s hometown heroes helped put a storybook ending on what has certainly been an illustrious career.

Jerome Bettis and the Steelers may not have outplayed the Seattle Seahawks by as wide a margin as the final score indicated, but big plays at the right times helped lead Pittsburgh to a 21-10 victory in Super Bowl XL. The game marked the first time in NFL history that a No. 6 seed in the conference playoffs has not only advanced to the Super Bowl, but has been victorious in the contest.

It was another Super Bowl first that blew the game open for the Steelers and got the franchise its first championship since 1980. In the fourth quarter, with the Steelers clinging to a 14-10 advantage, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt reached into his bag of tricks calling a reverse option that resulted in WR Antwaan Randle El connecting on a rollout pass to fellow WR Hines Ward. The play put the Steelers up by 11 and helped Ward win the game’s MVP award, with five catches, 123 yards and the touchdown. It was also the first touchdown pass by a wide receiver in Super Bowl history and only the third by a non-quarterback.

“When he called it, my eyes lit up, and I had to try not to give it away,” Randle El, former college quarterback with the Indiana, said of the trick play. “What went through my mind was hope.”

The Steelers’ offense certainly wasn’t clicking that well in the early going against the Seahawks’ defense. Each of Pittsburgh’s three offensive drives in the first quarter were all three-and-outs ending in punts as the Steelers could only manufacture seven yards of offense in the quarter. Instead, it was the underdog Seahawks that jumped on the board first. After starting with excellent field position at their own 49-yard line, it appeared that Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck hit WR Darrell Jackson with a wide open strike in the end zone, but the score was nullified when a controversial flag hit Jackson with a 10-yard offensive pass interference penalty. Seattle had to settle for a 47-yard field goal by kicker Josh Brown and ended the first quarter with a 3-0 lead.

With the Steelers’ offense still sputtering at the beginning of the second quarter, QB Ben Roethlisberger took a chance from the Pittsburgh 48-yard line, attempting to connect with Randle El on a deep pass inside Seattle’s red zone. Instead, Seahawks CB Michael Boulware intercepted the pass, keeping the Steelers scoreless at the 10-minute mark in the second quarter. After the Seahawks punted, Pittsburgh was finally able to put together a substantial drive. They drove 58 yards to the Seahawks’ one-yard line after possessing the ball for six minutes. After Jerome Bettis was stuffed at the goal line, Roethlisberger dove for the end zone, and in another of the game’s controversies, was ruled in for the score. Replays failed to show overwhelming evidence that he did not score, so the play stood, giving the Steelers a 7-3 lead. After a failed 54-yard field goal attempt by Josh Brown, the score stood pat at halftime.

The Steelers opened the second half with a record-setting bang, thanks to first-year starter, RB Willie Parker. On the second play of the third quarter, Parker sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown to put Pittsburgh ahead by a commanding 14-3 lead. The play was the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, and it was an enormous boost to the Steelers’ highly-touted rushing attack, which failed to produce much in the first half. With Seattle using a nickel package, expecting a pass play, Parker had just one safety downfield to beat, and he did so for the record-setter.

When asked about the historic run, Parker replied, “Records? I don’t really care about that record. The biggest record is that we were the sixth seed and we came in and shocked the world.”

A 21-yard run by Parker’s counterpart, NFL MVP Shaun Alexander seemed to invigorate the Seahawks’ offense which had stalled each time it crossed midfield. Unfortunately for Seattle, the same fate struck them once again, and the drive was capped with another long field goal miss by Brown, this time a 50-yard attempt. Starting with good field position, Roethlisberger completed a 16-yard pass to Ward, which was followed by a 12-yard run by Bettis. The Steelers seemed well on their way to taking full control of the game, marching all the way to Seattle’s seven yard line, but on third down, Roethlisberger’s pass was intercepted by Seattle’s Kelly Herndon and returned all the way to Pittsburgh’s 20 yard line.

Herndon’s return of 76 yards was the longest interception return in Super Bowl history, and it led to Seattle’s first and only touchdown of the contest. Set up inside the red zone, Hasselbeck hit his tight end Jerramy Stevens, who had previously dropped multiple passes, in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was added and Seattle clawed back to within four points, after seemingly being on the edge of destruction.

The two teams traded punts until the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Seahawks, led by their biggest stars, Hasselbeck and Alexander, put together their best offensive drive of the game. With Seattle knocking on the door and threatening to take the lead, Hasselbeck’s pass intended for Darrell Jackson was intercepted by Ike Taylor on the five yard line. On the ensuing drive, Pittsburgh took all the wind out of Seattle’s sails with Randle El’s bomb to Ward to widen the gap to 21-10.

Another of the divisive calls to go against the Seahawks occurred before the Pittsburgh touchdown and was instrumental in giving the Steelers good enough field position to try the play that became Super Bowl XL’s defining moment. After Hasselbeck’s pass was picked off, Seattle’s quarterback retreated downfield to make a play and stop Taylor from taking it the distance. Hasselbeck lowered himself and took out Taylor’s legs to make the tackle, but in the process was flagged for a 15-yard penalty that is usually only assessed in blocking opposing players, not for tackling a ball carrier. The penalty, tacked onto the end of the run, put Pittsburgh near the 50-yard line and certainly helped the Steelers reach the end zone.

After a couple more punts, Seattle’s last gasp came with 1:51 to go in the fourth quarter. Driving down to inside Pittsburgh’s 30-yard line, Hasselbeck’s pass to Stevens on fourth down was once again mishandled and led to a turnover on downs. With just three seconds remaining, Roethlisberger downed out the clock to officially win the Steelers “one for the thumb,” giving the franchise its fifth Super Bowl title and tying them with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers for the most in NFL history.

The win also marked the first in the career of Steelers’ coach Bill Cowher. Cowher, the longest-tenured NFL head coach with his current team, took over the Steelers’ job in 1992 and, despite guiding the Steelers to numerous division titles, playoff appearances, and a trip to Super Bowl XXX, had failed to win the big game, until now.

A relieved Cowher said after the game, “It really does complete a void that’s been there.”

The Steelers’ up-and-down season truly shocked many experts in numerous ways. Predicted by many to be one of the New England Patriots’ greatest rivals for the AFC title this season, the Steelers’ chances to even reach the playoffs were considered slim after losing three straight games in the middle of the season, capped by a home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. With their backs against the wall, Pittsburgh reeled off four straight wins to grab the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC in the season’s last week and then streaked through the AFC playoffs, defeating the Bengals, Colts and Broncos, the conference’s top three seeds.

Despite the controversy surrounding some of the games pivotal moments, Steelers’ fans certainly have reason to celebrate. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Seahawks, whose coach even felt the need to publicly mention the game’s questionable officiating. Many pundits weighed in after the game, stating that a poor officiating job was a major reason why the Seahawks lost by a double-digit margin in a game where they forced more turnovers than their opponent, won the time of possession battle and tallied more total yards on offense.

At a rally held by the Seahawks for their fans following the Super Bowl, Coach Mike Holmgren stated, “We knew it was going to be tough going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.” Seattle’s fans certainly commiserated with Holmgren’s grief, including one fan that held a sign proclaiming “Refs 21, Hawks 10.”

Arguments aside, the game did provide a picture perfect ending to the career of surefire Hall-of-Famer Jerome Bettis. Fifth on the all-time rushing list, Bettis was certainly the heart and soul of this championship squad, which included pre-game introductions for the team’s final game, where “The Bus” came charging out of the tunnel in front of his teammates, leading them onto the gridiron.

Asked if he’d consider coming back to help the Steelers repeat next season now that he’d won his first Super Bowl, Bettis stated, “I’m a champion. I think the Bus’ last stop is here in Detroit.”