The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005, but followed that up with two years that were, at best, adequate. Head Bill Cowher had retired after 2006, and while his successor Mike Tomlin won the AFC North the first time out, in 2007 the Steelers lost a home playoff game in the first round to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
An organization that has a long history of excellence in the Super Bowl era—they were tied with the San Francisco 49ers for most Super Bowl victories at five apiece–strives for more and it usually delivers.
The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers were all about defense, with coordinator Dick Lebeau overseeing an aggressive 3-4 scheme led by linebackers James Harrison and James Farrior, and strong safety Troy Polamulu. These three players were just the focal point of a unit that included linebacker Lamarr Woodley and would end the season as the best in the NFL.
Offense was more of a concern. Ben Roethlisberger had Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward as targets, but he only threw 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. Willie Parker was a good runner, but not a 1,000 yard back. The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers offense finished 20th in the NFL and were below the league average both running and passing.
The offensive problems showed in a 2-1 start. The Steelers only scored 10 points in a win over lowly Cleveland and just six in a loss to a good Philadelphia Eagles team. It set up a game on Monday Night Football with the Baltimore Ravens that would usher in a new era in the NFL
Pittsburgh and Baltimore have bad blood for each other that predates 2008, but the Steelers-Ravens rivalry—about to become the best in the NFL—hit its high point thanks to a series of games and division races that began this season with the arrival of new Baltimore coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, to go with the rugged defense led by Ray Lewis.
Though the Ravens had struggled badly in 2007, they were showing some signs of life under Harbaugh and in an AFC race where the New England Patriots had already lost Tom Brady for the season and Peyton Manning seemed to be struggling in Indianapolis, a lot of observers were looking at this Monday Night battle as one that might provide a frontrunner.
Pittsburgh wasn’t healthy—Parker was out for the first of what would be a five-game absence, and Flacco threw a four-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to put the Ravens up 13-3. In the third quarter, Roethlisberger threw a 38-yard strike to Holmes to get the Steelers back in the game and then Woodley scooped up a fumble on the Baltimore seven and scored to give Pittsburgh the lead.
The Steelers led 20-13 when Flacco led a 76-yard drive that tied the game with under four minutes to play. Baltimore won the coin toss in overtime, but couldn’t capitalize. Roethlisberger could, quickly leading a drive for a 46-yard-field goal by Jeff Reed that won it for Pittsburgh.
One week later, Pittsburgh took care of unfinished business from the previous January, and beat Jacksonville on the road. Trailing 21-20 with 6:33 left, Roethlisberger engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive that culminated with an 8-yard scoring pass to Ward. Pittsburgh was 4-1 and in control of their season.
The Steelers were set for the Manning brothers to come to town. It started with Eli and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. On October 26, Pittsburgh led the Giants 14-9 in the fourth quarter. But Roethlisberger was making mistakes—four interceptions in all—while Eli wasn’t. The Giants cut the lead to 14-12 and then Pittsburgh gift-wrapped the tying points when a punt was snapped out of the end zone. The Giants won 21-14.
Then it was Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in another home game for a national audience. Again, the Steelers had a fourth quarter lead. Again Roethlisberger was mistake-prone, throwing three interceptions. Again, a Manning led a final drive to beat them, this time by a 24-20 count. Pittsburgh was 6-3 and in a dogfight for the AFC North
The Steelers responded by winning four games in a row. They included a hard-fought 11-10 win over San Diego, where Roethlisberger overcame the lack of a running game by throwing for 308 yards and setting up a Reed field goal with 0:15 left to win it. Then the Steelers went to Foxboro and destroyed the Patriots—who still produced an 11-5 record with backup quarterback Matt Cassel—breaking open a 10-10 halftime tie and winning 33-10.
Pittsburgh was 10-3 and Baltimore was 9-4. It was time for another head-to-head battle, and with the Steelers controlling the tiebreaker, this one could clinch the division on a Sunday night in Baltimore.
It was a physical defensive war. The Ravens led 9-6 in the fourth quarter and Roethlisberger was pinned on his own eight-yard line. He led a 92-yard touchdown drive that ended with a third-and-goal touchdown pass to Ward. It was about as clutch a drive as Big Ben could have authored. At least for now.
The Steelers had clinched the AFC North, and though a subsequent 31-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans cost them the #1 seed, Pittsburgh would still get a first-round bye.
San Diego was the opponent in the second round. The Chargers had finished 8-8, but had won four in a row to end the year and steal a terrible AFC West. Then they beat the Colts in an overtime thriller in the first round. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers kept the momentum going with a 41-yard-touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson. Holmes answered with a punt return for a score, and when Parker later rushed in from three yards out, it was 14-10 Steelers at the half.
Pittsburgh’s superior running game took over in the second half. San Diego rushed for 15 yards as a team. Parker rushed for 146 by himself, and the lead grew to 28-10 early in the fourth quarter and ended 35-24.
The AFC Championship Game opponent would be a familiar one. After getting into the playoffs as the #6 seed, Baltimore had first beaten Miami, then upset #1-seed Tennessee. Yep, it would be Round 3 of Steelers-Ravens, this time with a Super Bowl trip as the prize.
Pittsburgh controlled the game early, but settled for field goals on two early drives. Roethlisberger then found Holmes on a 65-yard touchdown pass, but Baltimore drove for a Willis McGahee touchdown run that left it 13-7 at half.
The Steelers couldn’t shake the Ravens in the second half, even after taking a 16-7 lead. Baltimore again got a drive and again finished with a McGahee touchdown rather than settling for a field goal. The Ravens defense held and when Flacco got the ball back with about five minutes to go and only trailing 16-14 there was obvious tension in Heinz Field.
Polamulu made what was, to that point, the play of the season. The roving strong safety intercepted a Flacco pass on the Baltimore 40 and took it to the house. It all but sealed a 23-14 run. The Steelers were going back to the Super Bowl, and it was the first time under Tomlin.
Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals had captured the attention of America. After a mediocre 9-7 season was enough to win the NFC West, the Cardinals won a home playoff game with Atlanta. The Cards then stunned a favored Carolina Panthers team with a blowout road win. Then they denied the Philadelphia Eagles a Super Bowl shot with a 32-25 win.
Pittsburgh drove to the one-yard line in the first quarter, but again had the problem of not cashing in. Reed kicked an 18-yard field goal. The teams traded touchdowns, but at 10-7, Warner had Arizona on the move in the closing moments of the first half. He threw towards the end zone. Harrison, the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, picked off the pass and broke into the clear. As the big linebacker lumbered to the end zone, the clock ran out, so it was touchdown or bust. Harrison made it. A 100-yard INT return to close the half gave the Steelers a 10-point lead.
A quiet third quarter saw only a Reed field goal—another short one, from 21 yards, so it was still a game at 20-7 entering the final period. Then the fireworks ensued.
Warner led a drive and flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. Then Pittsburgh, backed up on the ensuing possession, committed a holding penalty in the end zone and the lead was down to 20-16, with Warner getting the ball back. He responded by rifling a 64-yard touchdown pass to Fitzgerald and with just 2:30 left, Arizona suddenly had the lead.
Roethlisberger got the ball on his own 22-yard line, needing a field goal to force overtime or a touchdown to win a Super Bowl. He hit two passes to Holmes to get some room. Then he threw right to Holmes again, and the receiver shook loose all the way to the six-yard line. On second-and-goal, Roethlisberger looked for Holmes for one more time and the receiver made a terrific catch in the corner of the end zone.
The Steelers had the lead, though trailing 27-23, Warner got the ball to the Pittsburgh 44 with 15 seconds still left, enough time for at least two, and perhaps three plays. But Woodley came up with a sack and fumble that Pittsburgh recovered.
Any doubts about whether Mike Tomlin was the right man for the job were dispelled. The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers were back. The franchise that had been the first to win three Super Bowls (1978) and the first to win four (1979), was now the first to get to six, a honor they still hold to themselves six years later.