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Damon Hack
February 11, 2009
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February 11, 2009

A Game For The Ages


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His quarterback obliged. From the Pittsburgh 12-yard line, Roethlisberger lined up in the shotgun and masterfully directed his charges downfield, pump-faking and shifting in the pocket as his linemen held their ground. On first-and-20 he hit Holmes for 14 yards. On third-and-six from the 26, he found Holmes for 13 more. Three plays later, from the Cardinals' 46, Roethlisberger spotted Holmes open about 10 yards downfield. The third-year wideout took the short pass, spun to his left and raced to the Arizona six.

First-and-goal, 48 seconds to play. Roethlisberger dropped back and whistled a pass to the back of the end zone that slipped through the leaping Holmes's hands.

On the next play, with the Steelers' line keeping the Cardinals' rush at bay, Roethlisberger had time to run through his progression. His first read, running back Willie Parker, was covered in the flat. His second option, receiver Nate Washington, also had too many red jerseys around him. So Roethlisberger looked to his third option, Holmes, and saw him racing to the right corner of the end zone. Three defenders were in front of the receiver, but Roethlisberger fired the ball anyway, high and outside. Holmes snagged it with his fingertips and touched the grass with both sets of outstretched toes. His fourth catch of the drive and ninth reception of the night was the game-winner—and good enough to make Holmes the Super Bowl MVP.

"[Roethlisberger] put it where only Tone could have caught it," said Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians on the field after the game. He then drew some parallels to Steelers past. "Tone is Swann, Hines is Stallworth—and don't forget, we got a Bradshaw, too. Ben showed that tonight."

IF HOLMES, WARD AND ROETHLISBERGER RECALL Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Terry Bradshaw, coach Mike Tomlin is the ideal successor to Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. In the swirling story lines of Super Bowl week—among them his own showdown with Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant Russ Grimm, two former Steelers staffers who'd been in contention for the Pittsburgh job in 2007—Tomlin kept his players both focused and loose. It was the continuation of his imprint on the Steelers brand.

To understand how he became, at 36, the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl, draw a direct line to Pittsburgh's wild-card loss to Jacksonville one year ago. That the Steelers had cracked at Heinz Field in the postseason, in familiar wintry conditions, stung badly. Some veterans felt that Tomlin's coaching style that first year—long practices, banging in pads—had burned out his players before the Jaguars game. "Last year against Jacksonville," said Colon, "we kind of crawled into that game."

Said 12th-year linebacker James Farrior, "We all understand that when you're coming in as a new coach, you have to do it your way. We didn't like it sometimes, and it was tough sometimes, but it was something we had to deal with. This year [he's known] when to push our buttons and when to lay off. When he gives us breaks, we all feel like we have to uphold the responsibility and not be the guy who goes out and gets in trouble. He's a hard-nosed coach, but he gives us that [leeway] to go out and do the things we love to do, and he doesn't really put restrictions on us. We love him for that."

Ward was one of several veterans whom Tomlin excused from Wednesday practices during the season. That was a nod to the trust that developed between the young coach and his players. Still, Tomlin does not apologize for his firm hand. "I'm committed to winning," he said the week before the Super Bowl. "I'm committed to playing a brand of football that I believe in. It's a physical game. You win by attrition. You impose your will on your opponent. That's what I want our [game] tape to look like."

Not that Tomlin won't sprinkle in some humor. On the Friday before the Steelers got to Tampa, Harrison and cornerback Bryant McFadden were goofing off in the locker room, standing nose-to-nose in a stare-down as teammates cheered them on. Soon Tomlin joined the group, hooting and hollering as boisterously as his players.

Once the Steelers arrived in Tampa, they seemed at ease both on the practice field and in the crush of media. On Wednesday, Roethlisberger brought a video camera to Harrison's podium and pointed it at the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

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