February 1, 2011

2009: Steelers Come Back to Defeat Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII

That the Pittsburgh Steelers were representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 was of little surprise. That their NFC opponent was the Arizona Cardinals came as a shock to many pro football fans. The club had not appeared in a league title game since 1948 and hardly seemed likely to do so in 2008.

The Cardinals, coached by Ken Whisenhunt, had won the AFC West in ‘08, but with a lackluster 9-7 record. Moreover, after taking command of the division at 7-3 midway through November, the team went 2-4 the rest of the way and looked especially bad when blown out at Philadelphia and New England. But in the postseason, where it was greatly anticipated that they would be eliminated quickly, they defeated Atlanta at home in the Wild Card round, dominated the 12-4 Carolina Panthers at Charlotte, and then returned to University of Phoenix Stadium and held off the Eagles to win the NFC title.

37-year-old QB Kurt Warner revived his career in Arizona and had the outstanding wide receiver corps of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston to throw to. The defense ranked 28th in the league in points surrendered during the regular season, but stepped up in the playoffs. DT Darnell Dockett, linebackers Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes, FS Antrel Rolle, and Pro Bowl SS Adrian Wilson were the featured players on the unit.

The Steelers, under Head Coach Mike Tomlin, were far more formidable in winning the AFC North at 12-4. They beat the Chargers in the Divisional playoff round and then won a hard-hitting battle with division-rival Baltimore for the AFC Championship. QB Ben Roethlisberger’s statistics dropped in 2008, primarily as a result of suffering a shoulder separation in the season-opening game, but he still was able to lift the offense in clutch situations – he guided the Steelers to six game-winning drives during the regular season, either in the fourth quarter or in overtime. The running game was hindered by injuries to veteran RB Willie Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall. But WR Santonio Holmes had come on strong late in the regular season and playoffs. The defense was outstanding and included NT Casey Hampton, SS Troy Polamalu, and an excellent group of linebackers led by the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison.

There were 70,774 fans in attendance at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for what was expected to be a classic mismatch. Pittsburgh got the ball first and drove 72 yards in nine plays. Roethlisberger completed passes of 38 yards to WR Hines Ward and 21 yards to TE Heath Miller along the way. The big quarterback (6’5”, 240 pounds) attempted to cap the drive himself by running the final yard on a third-and-goal play, and it initially appeared that he had been successful when a TD was signaled. However, the Cardinals successfully challenged the play and the Steelers settled for an 18-yard Jeff Reed field goal instead.

Arizona punted following its first possession of the game and once again the Steelers put together a long drive that started off with a 25-yard pass completion from Roethlisberger to Holmes. Pittsburgh went 69 yards in 11 plays and, on the second play of the second quarter, scored a touchdown on a one-yard carry by RB Gary Russell to take a 10-0 lead.

The Cardinals came back as Warner completed five short passes and then threw long to Boldin for a 45-yard gain down to the Pittsburgh one yard line. Warner tossed a pass to TE Ben Patrick for the final yard and a TD to again make it a three-point game.

The teams traded punts, until a tipped pass by Roethlisberger was intercepted by Dansby to give Arizona the ball at the Pittsburgh 34 with two minutes remaining in the half. Again Warner completed short passes to move the Cardinals along, and they once more faced a first-and-goal situation at the one yard line. But Warner’s pass that was intended for Boldin was instead intercepted by Harrison at the goal line, who proceeded to return it 100 yards for a touchdown (pictured below), just barely falling across the goal line at the end with no time remaining. The longest (and arguably most thrilling) play in Super Bowl history made the score 17-7 as the teams went into halftime.

Following a punt by the Cardinals, Pittsburgh put together yet another long drive in its first possession of the second half. Moving from their 18 yard line (the Steelers had nearly gotten the ball in Arizona territory upon recovering what was initially ruled a fumble by Warner, but the play was overturned upon challenge), they reached the Cardinals’ nine yard line and kicked a field goal. However, an unnecessary roughness penalty on Adrian Wilson gave Pittsburgh a first down at the Arizona four instead. Parker ran for two yards, but then Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass and was dropped for the loss of a yard on third down. They ended up settling for a 21-yard field goal by Reed.

The game entered the fourth quarter with the Steelers ahead by 20-7, and the clubs traded punts as time appeared to be running out for the Cardinals. Arizona had not been able to move the ball effectively thus far, and Larry Fitzgerald had been particularly quiet, but that all changed as the Cardinals went into a no-huddle offense and put together a scoring drive. Warner passed on every down and was successful on all eight of his throws, including four to Fitzgerald. A one-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Fitzgerald brought the Cardinals to within six points of the Steelers.

Pittsburgh went three-and-out on the following possession, with the key play being Darnell Dockett’s sack of Roethlisberger for an eight-yard loss. The Cardinals had to punt as well, but pinned the Steelers back at their one yard line. On a third-and-ten play, it appeared that Roethlisberger had completed a 19-yard pass to Holmes to get out of trouble, but a holding penalty in the end zone not only nullified the first down but gave Arizona two more points on a safety.

The Cardinals received the ensuing free kick and, after an incompletion on the first play, Warner fired a short pass to Fitzgerald that resulted in a 64-yard touchdown (pictured at right). With the extra point, Arizona was in the lead at 23-20 and there were just under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They had scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, and seemed on the verge of a stunning upset.

Following the kickoff, Pittsburgh took over at its 22 yard line. A holding penalty backed the Steelers up to the 12, but Roethlisberger hit Holmes twice with passes covering 14 and 13 yards, and an 11-yard completion to WR Nate Washington got them to midfield. After a four-yard run by Roethlisberger, he again threw to Holmes on a play that covered 40 yards to the Arizona six. On second-and-goal, Roethlisberger went to Holmes once more, throwing high into the end zone at the right corner. Holmes stretched just high enough to catch the ball, kept his toes barely in bounds, and scored the six-yard touchdown that put the Steelers back in front (pictured at top).

The Cardinals had one last chance, taking over with 35 seconds on the clock. Warner threw to Fitzgerald for 20 yards and RB J.J. Arrington for 13, but with the ball now at the Pittsburgh 44, Warner fumbled while being sacked by LB LaMarr Woodley and DE Brett Keisel recovered for the Steelers to end the threat. The Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl by a score of 27-23.

The Cardinals significantly outgained Pittsburgh (407 yards to 292) and had the edge in first downs (23 to 20). The also suffered 11 penalties, at the expense of 106 yards, to 7 flags thrown on the Steelers and gave up two turnovers to Pittsburgh’s one. Neither team mounted much of a running attack, with the Steelers gaining just 58 yard on 26 carries while Arizona ran the ball 12 times for 33 yards.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards, including a touchdown and an interception, and was at his best in the game-winning drive. Santonio Holmes, the game’s MVP, caught 9 passes for 131 yards and the TD. Willie Parker was the leading rusher with 53 yards on 19 carries.

For the Cardinals, Kurt Warner (pictured below) went to the air 43 times and completed 31 of those passes for 377 yards, three for touchdowns while one was picked off. Anquan Boldin caught 8 passes for 84 yards and Larry Fitzgerald gained 127 yards on 7 receptions that included two TDs, while Steve Breaston contributed 6 catches for 71 yards. RB Edgerrin James accounted for all 33 rushing yards on 9 attempts.

“Was that a 60-minute game, or what?” exclaimed Steelers LB James Farrior. “It came down to the last play, and we made it.”

The sixth Super Bowl victory for the Pittsburgh franchise pulled it ahead of Dallas and San Francisco, although the Steelers were still short of Green Bay’s total of 12 league titles.

The Steelers slumped to 9-7 in 2009 and missed the playoffs. Kurt Warner came back for one last season in ’09 and led the Cardinals to another NFC West title, but after winning a high-scoring thriller in the Wild Card round of the postseason, they were thrashed by New Orleans in the Divisional round.