Reliving Pittsburgh's final drive, through the eyes of Roethlisberger
Four things stand out about the Super Bowl-winning drive, eight days later
Jeremiah Trotter thinks Donovan McNabb and Eagles should part ways
T.O. won't be a Cowboy, Matt Cassel won't be a Pat and more Things I Think
I need to relive the Steelers' last drive of the Super Bowl. I want to relive it. I watched a DVD of the game sent from NBC the other day, then spoke at length to Ben Roethlisberger Saturday night about one of the great drives in big-game history. Four things that stand out now, eight days after the fact:
1. Roethlisberger still doesn't know why he threw the winning pass into triple coverage to Santonio Holmes. "If I'd thought about it, and now, looking back, seeing what I've seen, I never would have thrown it,'' Roethlisberger told me from southern California, where he was soaking in memories of the best game of his life, getting away from it all, and considering some lucrative endorsement deals.
2. Roethlisberger, playing on adrenaline, toughed out the game with at least two small rib fractures -- which didn't show up in an X-ray the week before the game but did when he got an MRI after returning to Pittsburgh.
3. Mewelde Moore should go down as the unsung hero of the final drive. First he made a crushing, crucial block on a blitzing Aaron Francisco that allowed Roethlisberger to convert a third-and-six into a first down. Later he sold a flat pattern so well that Roethlisberger's arm motion to Moore took cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie off double-coverage on Holmes and onto Moore -- freeing Ben to throw it to Holmes, who, after a slip from Francisco, scampered 40 yards to set up the winning touchdown.
4. Not sure I've ever heard John Madden as excited about a play as he was about Holmes' winning touchdown catch. A guttural "UNBELIEVABLE'' came out of Madden's mouth when he knew Holmes had kept both toes inbounds and fallen to the ground in possession of the ball.
I spent two hours examining the eight plays of the drive, which will go down as an NFL classic. I mean an all-timer. I know Roethlisberger's only 26, but this I can promise: Even if he wins three more Super Bowls and goes to the Hall of Fame someday, Big Ben will never have a championship game drive like this again -- 88 yards, trailing by three, final three minutes, starting with a first-and-20, eschewing anything like a play-it-safe mode, ending with one of the great clutch passes thrown in the NFL.
Lofty words. True words.
Before I take you back to the breezy Tampa night, there's a part of Roethlisberger's football personality that you've got to know. Rewind to Nov. 20, a Thursday night in Pittsburgh. With 2:20 left in the fourth quarter, the Steelers led Cincinnati 20-10, and all Roethlisberger had to do was bleed the clock the rest of the way and the Steelers could go home, safely, winners. But he was quarterbacking for points, not to kill the clock.
With a bum shoulder, he took off out of the pocket from the Bengals' eight, dove for the goal line, stretched his arm with the ball out, and crossed the plane for a touchdown. In the locker room I asked him: "Why not play it safe?'' And he said: "Heck no. I will never ... Casey Hampton said to me on the sidelines, 'What are you doing scoring? Why didn't you just go down at the one?' I said, 'Hamp, don't you know by now? That's my heart.' I'm a competitor. I want to get in the end zone. And I want to win. Period. I don't think about running the clock out. I don't think about saving myself. It'll take someone to bring me down. It's the competitive side. [Coach Mike Tomlin] tells me, 'Don't take a hit. Get down, slide.' But in that situation, it's competition.''
So here we go in the Super Bowl. Arizona 23, Pittsburgh 20, 2:30 left. Ball on the Steeler 22. But guard Chris Kemoeatu holds on first down, so with 2:24 left, the real drive starts on the Pittsburgh 12. "Hard enough to go 78 yards starting on first-and-10,'' Big Ben said. "But the odds of going 88 yards, with 20 yards to go on first down ... '' The Steelers needed about 58 yards to get into Jeff Reed's field-goal range -- but that's not what Roethlisberger was thinking. He wasn't thinking tie and get the game into overtime. He was thinking win.
"Never once,'' he said. "Not on the entire drive do I think 'field goal.' Never do I think, 'Play it safe.' Subconsciously, I guess I knew it. Of course I knew it, because we were down by three. But I wasn't trying to get us into field-goal range.''
Roethlisberger is an interesting case. I've asked other quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady -- about big plays and big drives, and they remember tiny details. They're like Tiger Woods going shot-by-shot on a Thursday round (particularly Peyton), able to tell you why he went with the three-iron instead of the four-, 278 yards out from the tall grass on the seventh hole. Not Ben. "I don't remember a lot of the plays from that drive,'' he said. "I just don't remember things in great detail like that.'' So some of this was pulling teeth, but the insight was good.
"I want the ball! I want the ball!'' Holmes shouted before the series. As if Roethlisberger didn't know that.
From the 12: On first down, Roethlisberger evaded Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett at the 2, rolled right and threw between two defenders to Holmes for 14. I was surprised at his next play, trying to get it off before the two-minute warning -- the long throw up the right side to Nate Washington, blanketed by Francisco.
"Nate's a great jumper, and hopefully he can make a play,'' Roethlisberger said. "It's either going to be complete, incomplete, defensive pass interference or offensive pass interference. Nate knows he can't let that ball be caught.'' Washington and Francisco both bat the jump ball away.
Third-and-six, 1:56 left. "The message from [offensive coordinator Bruce Arians] was, 'Hey, we got two plays to get the first down. Don't force it.' '' When the Steelers were in the shotgun on this drive, the sidecar to Roethlisberger was journeyman back Moore, in for his receiving and blitz-pickup skill. Arizona sent three defensive linemen and stunted and faked four others. But at the snap, five men rushed -- the three front men, plus linebacker Chike Okeafor and Francisco, both of whom came up the middle.
Kemoeatu whammed into Okeafor, neutralizing him, and Roethlisberger, smack-dab in the middle of the pocket, looked like easy pickins for Francisco. But up stepped Moore, and a step before Francisco would have lit into Big Ben, Francisco was stoned and lifted off the ground on a great block by Moore. With a sliver of room, Roethlisberger threaded the ball between Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Gain of 13. First down at the Steeler 39. "That's the kind of play that makes Mo special,'' said Roethlisberger. "Great blocker. He's been great for us all year.''
Clock running. Roethlisberger hit Washington on a post-and-out route for 11. Clock running. Roethlisberger saw three receivers covered and scrambled for four up the middle. Timeout. Second-and-six, Arizona 46.
There are big plays in a game, and there are big decisions that lead to big plays. And Rodgers-Cromartie was about to make a decision that he'll regret for a long time, and the Pittsburgh quarterback was about to pull back a pass that'll be the best decision of his NFL career.
On second-and-six, wide receiver Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller and Washington were flanked left, Moore as a sidecar to the right of Roethlisberger, and Holmes six yards outside the right tackle -- the only receiver to the right. At the snap, Moore slithered out to the right flat, and Holmes did a quick 11-yard curl, sitting at the Cards' 35. Because the Cards sent five rushers and blitzed outside 'backer Okeafor from the left instead of leaving him in coverage on the hot receiver (Moore), Roethlisberger had Moore wide open at the 46, with a few yards of free space in front of him.
"I was getting ready to throw it to Mo,'' Roethlisberger said. "In fact, I was throwing it to him -- but at the last possible second I saw Cromartie sprinting up to cover Mo. He must have been reading my eyes. So I pulled it back. Who knows what would have happened had I thrown that one?''
I'll tell you what: Rodgers-Cromartie would have blasted Moore in his tracks. It would have been a gain of one, maybe, and set up about a third-and-five. But that's what huge hands do for you. Roethlisberger has oversized hands, and when he pumped the ball to Moore, he did more than pump -- he almost let the ball go. But at the last moment he saw the corner coming up and pulled the ball back in.
"Then I looked back at Tone [Santonio], and he had some space,'' Roethlisberger said. Big Ben threw to the outside shoulder of Holmes, and Francisco, coming up for the double-coverage, slipped three yards from Holmes. The receiver was off to the races, and Francisco collared him down at the Arizona six.
Pittsburgh took its last timeout. Now the Steelers had a gimme field goal, but no one on the sideline told Roethlisberger to be safe here. Not with 48 seconds left and a fresh set of downs, six yards from the win. It was time to go for the jugular, and Roethlisberger knew it. On first down, he pumped to Miller near the back of the end zone on the right, pulled it back, and let fly for Holmes at the left corner of the end zone. Holmes had beaten Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle. The pass was a little high, but Holmes went up, twisted around slightly ... and just couldn't close his hands around the tight spiral.
"I thought I lost the Super Bowl,'' Holmes would say later.
Roethlisberger didn't care. "Tone knew and I knew I'd go back to him,'' he said.
But the next play had Holmes as the third option. "Mo in the flat, Hines on the pick-pivot, Tone in the corner of the end zone,'' Roethlisberger said, running through his options. Cornerback Ralph Brown "kind of jumped the route'' on Moore at the seven; Brown was wavering between Holmes, running for the corner and covered by Rodgers-Cromartie and Francisco.
Ward "was kind of open, and I almost banged it to him'' at the five, with a Card defender on his back," said Roethlisberger. He knew he could have sledgehammered the ball into Ward, but would his receiver have hung onto it or would it have been knocked away? Finally, Roethlisberger took a micro-second and looked at Miller, but he was covered. Now it was back to Holmes. Brown straddled the goal line, waiting for Big Ben's decision, and when he saw Roethlisberger switch his eyes to Holmes quickly and wind up, Brown skittered back.
"It's one of those throws where you just don't think,'' Roethlisberger said. "You're just trying to put it where the receiver can catch it, but if you don't, he's the only one who can catch it. When I let it go, I thought it was his ball or no one's. But a second later, I see the corner [Brown] and I think, He's gonna pick it off.''
The ball went five inches, maybe six, over the gloved fingertips of the leaping Brown. Francisco was coming in for the kill shot on Holmes. Rodgers-Cromartie reminded me so much of Asante Samuel on last year's miracle catch by David Tyree -- a spectator, strangely and regrettably, on the biggest play of the season, instead of a mugger as soon as the ball hit Holmes' hands.
Holmes had missed the previous throw. Not this one. Leaning over the white boundary stripe, five feet shy of the end line, Holmes snatched the high ball out of the air and got what -- one, two feet down? The Ultra Slow-Motion camera at NBC director Fred Gaudelli's disposal (the network had three of these artsy cameras in use, two low at either end zone, and one on the 50) dispelled all doubt that Holmes got his right foot down. No way referee Terry McAulay would have been able to overturn the call anyway, but Ultra Slow-Mo assured that the Steelers had their touchdown -- and Roethlisberger his drive for the ages.
When he hugged Holmes, Roethlisberger said to him: "The other catch would have been a lot easier. You should have caught that one,'' meaning the pass on the previous play. And they both laughed.
Now that he's relived it a few hundred times, Roethlisberger wouldn't change a thing. Obviously. "I was just trying to make a play,'' he said. "Nothing complicated. Looking back on it, if I was a little timid, or if I thought about it, it's a different story. But you can't play football like that. It's a game of reaction. I play the game one way. You saw it on that drive.''
Regarding the celebrated ribs: Roethlisberger was speared in the kidney area in the AFC Championship Game. His midsection hurt so much that he had X-rays before the Super Bowl. They were negative. But a subsequent MRI told a different story. He found out last Thursday.
"Fractured ribs,'' Roethlisberger said. "Luckily, in the game, I didn't take any big hits to make 'em hurt. But I knew all along there was something wrong. There wouldn't have been anything they could have done about fractured ribs anyway. It was just suck it up and play.''
The kid from Miami of Ohio sucked it up pretty good. The Super Bowl win standings of the Quarterback Class of 2004: Roethlisberger 2, Eli Manning 1, Philip Rivers, J.P. Losman, Matt Schaub 0. Look at the three draft picks in the first round before Roethlisberger in 2004 -- cornerback DeAngelo Hall, wideout Reggie Williams, cornerback Dunta Robinson. Think Atlanta, Jacksonville and Houston regret those picks?