Steel The One

Published 2:05 am Monday, February 2, 2009

The winning play of the Super Bowl was right out of a schoolyard.

Scamble right, scramble left, find someone open.

The perfect unscripted ending to a game of improbable swings.

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Their Steel Curtain shredded, Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes improvised the 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a record-setting sixth Super Bowl victory, 27-23 over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night.

‘‘Great players step up in big-time games to make plays,’’ said Holmes, the game’s MVP. He said he told Roethlisberger that he ‘‘wanted to be the guy to make the plays for this team.’’

And he was.

This thriller certainly matched last year’s upset of the New England Patriots by the New York Giants that ended with Plaxico Burress’ TD catch — with 35 seconds left, too.

But this one was even wilder. With the last tension-packed seconds ticking away, a kneeling Roethlisberger held coach Mike Tomlin’s hand as Kurt Warner led one last, but futile, drive.

‘‘These guys just don’t blink,’’ Tomlin said. ‘‘They deliver. It’s never going to be pretty or perfect, if you will, but they have a great deal of resolve.’’

The Steelers (15-4), winning their second Super Bowl in four seasons, led 20-7 in the fourth quarter, only to see Warner and the Cardinals stage a remarkable rally to go in front 23-20 with 2:37 remaining.

Warner hit All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald in stride for a 64-yard touchdown with 2:37 left. Already owning a slew of postseason receiving marks this year, Fitzgerald sped down the middle of the field, watching himself outrun the Steelers on the huge video screen.

Fitzgerald could only watch from the sideline as Roethlisberger engineered a 78-yard drive to win it in what resembled Heinz Field South. With waves of twirling Terrible Towels turning Raymond James Stadium into a black-and-gold tableau — Steelers fans supporting their beloved team, the economy be damned — Pittsburgh’s offense rescued the title.

‘‘I knew it was a touchdown 100 percent,’’ Holmes said, even though it had to withstand a video review. ‘‘My feet never left the ground. All I did was stand up on my toes and extended my hands.’’

And hauled in the pass that punctuated another Pittsburgh championship, adding to those won in the 1974, ’75, ’78, ’79 and ’05 seasons.

The stunning swings overshadowed Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison’s record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown to end the first half. That looked like the signature play until the final quarter, when both teams shook off apparent knockout punches to throw haymakers of their own.

Big Ben and Holmes struck the last blow, and when Warner fumbled in the final seconds, the Cardinals’ dream of winning their first NFL crown since 1947 were gone.

‘‘I said it’s now or never, I told the guys all the film study you put in doesn’t matter unless you do it now,’’ Roethlisberger said. ‘‘I’m really proud of the way they responded.’’

The Cardinals (12-8), playing in their first Super Bowl and first championship game of any kind since 1948, lost their composure after Harrison’s heroics. They had three penalties to keep Pittsburgh’s 79-yard drive going, a 16-play march that ended with Jeff Reed’s 21-yard field goal for a 20-7 lead.

And they couldn’t get Fitzgerald free until very late. But boy did he get free.

The All-Pro who already had set a postseason record for yards receiving and had five touchdowns in the playoffs was a nonentity until an 87-yard fourth-quarter drive he capped with a leaping 1-yard catch over Ike Taylor. He made four receptions on that series on which Warner hit all eight passes for all the yards.

And then he struck swiftly for the 64-yarder that put Arizona within minutes of a remarkable victory — a victory that never came because of the resilience of this Steelers team.

‘‘I’m disappointed for our team,’’ said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh when the Steelers won the 2005 title. ‘‘This is a group of men that I’m very proud of. They played very hard in circumstances where nobody believed in them.

‘‘We learned a lot about our team, it’s just unfortunate it had to come out that way.’’

Pittsburgh looked like the offensive juggernaut to open the game, smoothly driving 71 yards in eight plays. But the 72nd yard that would have given the Steelers a touchdown never came.

It looked like it had when Roethlisberger’s short run was ruled a TD. Whisenhunt challenged, and the score was overturned, leaving Tomlin his first difficult decision.

He took the points, Reed’s 18-yard field goal, the shortest in a Super Bowl since 1976.

After forcing a punt, the Steelers kept the ball the remainder of the first quarter — 11:28 in all, outgaining Arizona 140-13, getting seven first downs to one for the Cardinals. As Warner and the usually potent Cardinals’ offense watched, frustrated, from the sideline, Pittsburgh plowed it in on Gary Russell’s 1-yard run to make it 10-0.

When Arizona finally got the ball back, it knocked the Steelers off balance with short passes — and one huge play.

Warner, handed the NFL Man of the Year trophy just before kickoff, then hit Anquan Boldin streaking from left to right. He was upended at the Pittsburgh 1, and Warner’s lob to Ben Patrick got Arizona on the board. It was the tight end’s first touchdown this season.

Arizona’s defense then emulated the Steel Curtain with a big play. Bryan Robinson tipped Roethlisberger’s pass high into the air and Karlos Dansby corralled it at the Pittsburgh 34. The Cardinals got to the 1, then, perhaps jealous, the Steelers’ D asserted itself — magnificently.

Harrison, the defensive player of the year, stepped in front of Boldin at the goal line, picked off Warner’s throw and began a journey down the right sideline that ended as the longest play in Super Bowl history.

Harrison ran past or through most of the Cardinals, nearly stepped out of bounds at one point, and was dragged down by Fitzgerald as he fell to the goal line. The play was reviewed as several Cardinals knelt on one knee, exhausted from the chase and disheartened by the result.

‘‘Those last couple of yards were probably tougher than anything I’ve done in my life, but probably more gratifying than anything I’ve done in football,’’ Harrison said.

‘‘I didn’t see him around my offensive line,’’ Warner said. ‘‘He made a great play and a great run to get them a touchdown.’’

The previous longest play was Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for Green Bay in 1997.