Steelers' Act of Creativity Paves the Way

Antwaan Randle El sets up for his touchdown pass to fellow wide receiver Hines Ward to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead.
Antwaan Randle El sets up for his touchdown pass to fellow wide receiver Hines Ward to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead. (By Harry How -- Getty Images)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

DETROIT, Feb. 5 -- The play had no grand design, and was born of no scheme. By the time Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward came down with the football at the 3-yard line, a remarkable sequence of improvisational football had unfolded, and the Steelers were on their way to a Super Bowl XL victory.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back on third and 28 from the 40 late in the second quarter, and had no one open. His offense had yet to distinguish itself through an erratic first half, and it seemed another punt was forthcoming. Instead, Roethlisberger bought time for Ward to freelance by darting to his left and surging forward, tiptoeing up to, but not over, the line of scrimmage, then hoisted a pass to the 3, where Ward fought off defensive back Michael Boulware for the ball.

Three plays later Roethlisberger, 23, provided a 7-3 lead with two minutes to play in the half by diving at the end of a one-yard run. Although replays were inconclusive on whether the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line, he was credited with a touchdown. Running back Willie Parker sprinted a Super Bowl-record 75 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the second half, and the Steelers emerged with 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Ford Field.

"That's Ben," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said. "He makes that throw and you're thinking, 'No, no, no no.' And then you're saying, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.' We've learned to just trust him and go with, and more times than not he makes the play."

"We practice those scrambling drills every week," said Ward, the game's most valuable player. "And I popped up behind the secondary and he gave me a chance. He threw it short and Boulware had a hand on it. I ended up catching his hand as well as the ball. There's no question that was a big play."

Before Roethlisberger's telepathic connection with Ward, the Steelers had no momentum. Pittsburgh gained 74 yards on 21 plays before Ward's reception. After it, they rediscovered some offensive confidence, protected the lead and emerged with a championship they dedicated to the Rooney family, the franchise's longtime owners, and future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native playing his final NFL game.

Roethlisberger's youth prevailed in an ugly first half. He completed just five of his first 11 attempts for 41 yards and an ill-advised interception. He did not complete consecutive passes until Pittsburgh's final drive of the half, then went 3 of 4 for 69 on that possession, altering the course of the game and becoming the youngest quarterback to win the Super Bowl, albeit with mundane numbers (9 for 21 for 123 yards and two interceptions).

"I just feel truly blessed," said Roethlisberger, who waited patiently to get the attention of Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren during the postgame interviews, and tipped his hat to him. "We're such a close team, spiritually, mentally and physically. This means a lot to us."

The passer's rise has been historic, and without his rapid development the Steelers would likely still be seeking their fifth NFL title, and first since 1980. He was drafted 11th overall in 2004 out of Miami of Ohio, and, when veteran starter Tommy Maddux got hurt in the second game of that season, the rookie took over and became the first quarterback in league history to go 13-0 as a starter in the regular season. He took the Steelers within a win of the Super Bowl a year ago, and has continued to blossom since.

At 6 feet 5, 241 pounds, he has the athleticism to avert defenders and shrug off hits, and is an accurate passer. More than anything, however, he is a winner, shepherding Pittsburgh's run-based offense and wounding opponents when they focus too much attention on the ground game. Roethlisberger is 22-3 in the regular season, 27-4 including the playoffs, and his poise led the Steelers to become the first No. 6 seed to reach the Super Bowl, doing it by toppling the AFC's top three seeds on the road.

"To think about what this kid's done in just two years, it's mind-boggling," Cowher said.

Without his game-saving tackle on a fumble return in Indianapolis in the second round, Pittsburgh's season was doomed, and his headiness prevailed again Sunday, despite some uncharacteristic blunders. Replays seemed to indicate Roethlisberger had not in fact crossed the goal line on his first-half touchdown plunge, but officials upheld the score. The Steelers were on the verge of a 21-3 lead in the third quarter when Roethlisberger's lob for Cedric Wilson was easily intercepted by cornerback Kelly Herndon, whose Super Bowl-record 76-yard return set up a touchdown, and pulled Seattle within 14-10. Pittsburgh finally pulled away on a gadget play with nine minutes remaining.

Roethlisberger handed off to Parker, who handed off to receiver Antwaan Randle El, a former college quarterback, on a reverse. Randle El threw a 43-yard strike to Ward for a 21-10 lead, and lost amid the celebration was the quarterback, lying on his stomach after derailing Boulware with a block to give Randle El time to throw, making his final lasting contribution to his first Super Bowl season.

"I appreciate Ben doing that," right tackle Max Starks said. "That just goes to show you the total fruition of this team, that everybody is willing sacrifice themselves for the greater benefit."

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