If I told you last spring that the Steelers, dealing with the dramatic trade of a Super Bowl MVP and the near-trade of a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB, would come within one drive of winning the 2011 Super Bowl, I think you would've taken it. I know I would have. Alas, once all was said and done, this game ended up as one to be filed in the "Painful Memories" category and not in the "Greatest Games" archive of Pittsburgh sports lore. Some thoughts on the final Steeler game of the 2010-11 season:
1. I wanted to be more upset than I actually was at the conclusion of SB45, I really did. But in my heart, I knew that the Steelers were not the better team on Sunday. The better team has to hold the lead at some point in the game. The better team can't have three giveaways and no takeaways. The better team can't look disorganized in their last-gasp attempt at winning the game, and they certainly can't take a 15-yard personal foul before that drive even begins.
Yes, the Steelers had problems on Sunday, and they were many. For the third time in three playoff games, they played an incomplete game. Against Baltimore, they dug a hole that they were able to somehow crawl out of. Against the Jets, they built a huge lead and nearly frittered it away. But the Green Bay Packers are not the Ravens, nor are they the Jets. The Packers are the best team the Steelers faced in the playoffs, and when Pittsburgh punched, they counter-punched time and time again.
That wasn't Joe Flacco or Mark Sanchez on the other side of the ball. That was Aaron Rodgers, a guy who deserves the hype he will undoubtedly receive as one of the league's best quarterbacks on Monday. He posted a QB rating of 111.5 with 304 yards and 3 TDs when it mattered most against the league's top defense. You can't give Rodgers' team 21 points via turnovers and win the game. The fact that the Steelers merely had a shot to win is a testament to what kind of character resides in their locker room.
2. I'm very proud of the Steelers for not packing it in when they fell behind 21-3 in the second quarter. It would've been easy to dig their grave at that point. But to spot the Pack 18 in the first 27 minutes can only be looked upon as a massive failure by the Steelers in the game's initial half.
The Steeler offense was stuck in neutral for most of the first 30 minutes. On the pace-setting opening drive, they went three-and-out. Among their first five drives, two ended in punts, one ended with an interception that set up a touchdown, and another that ended in a pick-six; the only points they could muster were three on a Shaun Suisham field goal that wrapped up a stalled drive.
On the other side, the Steeler defense failed to show their true identity not only in the first half, but throughout the game. There were no game-changing interceptions or turnovers. There were no signature big hits. For a team that virtually takes such moments for granted from week to week, coming up empty in those categories symbolized all that didn't happen for the Steelers in SB45. Troy Polamalu didn't run back an Aaron Rodgers pass 50 yards to the house. James Harrison didn't plant Rodgers into the ground on his noggin. Ryan Clark didn't take a ridiculous headshot at Greg Jennings that would've cost him $25,000. The Steeler defense's big moment never happened.
3. For all that went wrong in the first half, the Steelers entered the Black Eyed Peas portion of the evening down 21-10. I much rather would've been on the other side of that score at the half, but I knew that if any team was able to overcome 11 points in 30 minutes, it was Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers. And on their first drive in the second half, they proved me right. Seven plays, 77 yards, touchdown. Packers 21, Steelers 17. The tide was turning. Or so I thought.
4. On the Steelers' next drive, they traveled 26 yards in nine plays. They were stopped at the Packer 34 yard line after Roethlisberger was sacked on third down. And then Mike Tomlin made the peculiar decision to send out Suisham for a 52-yard field goal that had to go down as one of the worst attempts in Super Bowl history. I could feel the air coming out of the Steeler Balloon at that point. Could you?
5. The Steelers' next drive unsurprisingly ended in a three-and-out, but they stopped the Packers and were moving the ball to close the third quarter. Things were once again looking up. And then, Rashard Mendenhall, whose signature moment in the 2011 playoffs was humping Ben Roethlisberger's leg at the end of the AFC Championship, added to his blooper reel by coughing the ball up and turning it over, giving Green Bay the ball at their own 45 yard line. Eight plays later, Rodgers was hitting Jennings for a touchdown that turned out to be the game-winner. Momentum? Consider it critically shifted, from a Steeler point of view.
6. The Steelers fought back again, to the surprise of no one that's watched this team during this Super stretch of the past five years or so. They trimmed the lead to three, and the faint smell of hope was one again emanating from the Steeler sideline. But ultimately, the Pittsburgh defense had no right answer for the Packer offense, surrendering a 10-play, 75-yard drive that cost the Steelers three points and 5:27 of game time.
7. As the Steelers got the ball back with two minutes and change, I received a text message from my brother. "Get me my hat," it said. It's a reference to Roethlisberger's famous line from 2009, when he advised a ballboy to retrieve his hat for his postgame interview prior to taking possession in overtime. It illustrates the unwavering confidence #7 has in himself to be the game's ultimate closer.
I had every reason to think he would pull another rabbit out of his hat on Sunday night, driving the team 87 yards, throwing a touchdown pass, engraving his own invitation to Canton and adding himself to the elusive "Brady/Manning Club" conversation in the process. Unfortunately, the Packers had other plans, holding the Steelers to 20 yards on five plays before unceremoniously taking over on downs. It was an extremely disappointing end to what could've been one of the most dramatic contests in league history. But that didn't happen.
Game, set, Super Bowl. Seventh Heaven becomes 6-2. The City of Champions loses to Titletown. And so on, and so on. The next thing you know, Roger Staubach is getting mobbed by Packers as he escorts the Lombardi Trophy to the victors, and Mike Tomlin's getting the loser's interview from Chris Myers. It was all over before I even knew what hit me. And it wasn't the outcome I saw coming. But I'll have to live with it.
8. At some point, you have to acknowledge your opponent, not continue to blame yourself. And the Steelers ran into one heck of a team in the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The Packers lost 15 players to IR this season. They lost even more key contributors, such as Charles Woodson and Donald Driver, after the game kicked off on Sunday. But they took control of the game early, they kept the lead the entire evening, and they were closers. They have a good coach, a great quarterback, a tough defense, and a young core. This could be the beginning of something good in Wisconsin, as much as it pains me to say it.
9. Now that I'm done patting the Packers on the back, I'll acknowledge the greatness of my beloved Steelers. Sure, they came up short on Sunday, but they continued to battle through adversity and showed a lot of heart in the process, and for that I will always respect them.
Ben Roethlisberger finished just short of 300 yards, with two touchdowns, in a game that will probably haunt him as he plays it back in his mind the entire offseason. It wasn't the prettiest performance of his career, but it wasn't Neil O'Donnell in SB30, either.
Hines Ward, despite a minimal presence for the bulk of the first half, ended up with seven catches, 78 yards, and the Steelers' first touchdown. He can hang his head high after a solid game, although for some reason he looked like he saw a ghost during pregame ceremonies. I'll have to re-watch that again at some point this week.
Mike Wallace was targeted 16 times in SB45 and put an exclamation point on his 2010-11 season as he reeled in nine balls for 89 yards and the game's final touchdown. My only hope was that Big Ben would hit him on, say, a 50-yard bomb at some point in the game, but that moment never happened.
Antwaan Randle-El was the target of several one-liners in my wrapup columns this season, as I remember little from his campaign other than a steady diet of fair catches when he'd drop back to "return" a punt. But I've gotta give it up for two crucial plays he made in SB45, a 37-yard catch and a two-point conversion that kept the game interesting. It was a nice end to a regular season that saw him catch just 22 passes and fail to reach the end zone.
The celebrated rookie pass-catching duo of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders never really got off the ground in SB45. Sanders left with two catches for 17 yards and was not heard from again after an injury; Brown finished with one catch for one yard, although he tried to make some noise on kick returns when his fellow special teamers weren't sabotaging them with penalties.
Heath Miller was a total non-factor in this one. Two catches, 12 yards, only four targets in the game. Credit Green Bay for negating one of the league's best tight ends on the biggest stage possible.
The Steeler offensive line, for all of their troubles, did quite well. They allowed only one sack of Roethlisberger, they cleared the way for a 5.5 yards per carry average on the ground, and their major mistakes/bad snaps/penalties were few and far between. Let's not forget that they had a center making his first career start there in the Super Bowl. That's a major hurdle to deal with.
Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff deserves ample praise for putting this team in a position to win a championship despite all the trials and tribulations of everything leading up to opening day and beyond. I can't find tremendous fault with many of his decisions on Sunday, other than letting Suisham attempt that field goal. No really bad decisions jump out at me, and he didn't throw any bad challenge flags. My only other criticism would be the fact that his team blew two timeouts relatively fast in the second half. But Tomlin wasn't the reason the Steelers lost.
10. This spot is usually reserved for a few regular features, and one is a look ahead at what's next on the Steeler slate. With the labor situation still unsettled, I have no idea what to expect on that front. I can only hope the players, owners, and lawyers come to their senses and realize what kind of golden goose they're ready to kill should they tarnish what they have going right now.
Other than that, we have the draft, where the Steelers will be picking next-to-last and possibly taking Maurkice Pouncey's brother, Florida offensive lineman Mike Pouncey, in the first round. But that's still a few months away, and we've got ample time to discuss it between now and April.
On the free agency front, there's some business to be done for Kevin Colbert and Co. Ike Taylor and Lamarr Woodley are both priorities for new contracts, and I think at least one of them, if not both, gets done at some point.
Other free agents include Mewelde Moore, Willie Colon, Dennis Dixon, Matt Spaeth, Tony Hills, Trai Essex, Chris Hoke, Andre Frazier, Keyaron Fox, William Gay, and Daniel Sepulveda. I'd have to imagine at least a few of those guys won't be back.
And on the coaching staff front, the Steelers could potentially lose a few assistants this year, including linebacker coach Keith Butler and secondary coach Ray Horton, both of whom are coveted by the Pittsburgh West/Arizona Cardinals. But I can't be bitter about that. Losing assistant coaches is the sign of a top team.
11. For those of you looking for the Sad Trombone, I see no worthy candidates for SB45. The Steelers lost, we're all bummed out, and the schadenfreude will have to be put on ice until next year.
All in all, it was a pretty rough weekend for Pittsburgh sports. The Pens lost Geno Malkin to a torn ACL/MCL, and then they got shut out on NBC by the Capitals. I should've known that was a bad way to start Sunday. Pitt at least managed a win against Cincinnati on Saturday, but they lost Ashton Gibbs 10-14 days with an MCL injury. If the Pirates were in action, I'm pretty sure Pedro Alvarez would've been hit in the face with a fastball and lost for the season. It turned out to be that kind of weekend. But Pittsburgh's a resilient town. We will be back, and soon.
12. To wrap things up, I'd like to say thanks to all the MH readers for their continued support during the 2010-11 season, my fifth covering the team's games on a weekly basis. It was a bit challenging at times, as my schedule always throws curveballs at me during the November and December months; but knowing so many people are out there reading is the motivation that fuels my fire and keeps me going. It was a tremendously exciting Steeler season, and discussing it with all of you on a regular basis was a true pleasure, culminating in your fantastic job with Readers Rule Day last week. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your interest, your comments, your emails, and your feedback. Whether you realize it or not, you're what keeps this site going.