"Steeler football is 60 minutes. It's never going to be pretty. Throw style points out the window, but these guys will fight to the end. We didn't blink." - Mike Tomlin
It seemed like every week Mike Tomlin made the same statement. The Steelers play for 60 minutes. The Steelers don't care about style points. Steeler players fight to the end. So it should come as no surprise that the youngest coach in Super Bowl history shared the same sentiment after Pittsburgh became Sixburgh. But of all Tomlin's cliches, this one was completely accurate. Week after week Pittsburgh played tight games and almost always came out on top.
I've been trying to figure out who should get the most credit in Pittsburgh's Super Bowl season. All year, I've focused on the flaws of the team that I thought would result in a playoff loss. And despite winning the Super Bowl, this team had some major flaws that few teams in history could overcome. Nearly all of them showed up in the Super Bowl and turned a rout into a historic game. (1) The offensive line was bad all year. It was bad in the Super Bowl. Darnell Dockett dominated. The running game was non-existent. Big Ben was running for his life nearly all game. The line had at least three holding penalties (one on a safety, one on the most important drive of the year) and a false start. NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said that it was the worst offensive line to ever make the Super Bowl. (2) Due in large part to the O-line, the Steelers could not run the ball consistently and were a terrible short yardage running team. In the Super Bowl, the team couldn't score a touchdown when it had first and goal from the 1 (first quarter) and first and goal from the 3 (third quarter). It couldn't run out the clock in the 4th quarter to prevent Arizona from making a late game comeback. (3) Inability to score touchdowns. The Steelers ran 13 plays inside of Arizona's 10 yard line and came away with 13 points. (4) The poor play of special teams. When your game plan is based on time of possession and playing solid defense, special teams play is especially important. The Steelers were terrible kick and punt returners. Mitch Berger was consistently bad and nearly lost the AFC Championship with his poor performance. (5) Bruce Arians - For most of the year, the play calling and game planning on offense was terrible. Big Ben had more success calling his own plays and running two minute drills, than operating the regular offense. (Note: Arians called a good game against the Cardinals).
But while I was busy identifying weaknesses, the Steelers were busy solidifying their strengths. The team played one of the hardest schedules in the league and finished 15-4. To put that in perspective, of the teams that played one of the seven hardest schedules, only Pittsburgh had a winning record. Not only did it have a winning record, the team was 11 games above .500. The defense was incredible throughout the season. The offense struggled at times, but always came through when it was needed. By playing a difficult schedule and lots of close game, the 2008 Steelers developed the one trait that allowed them to become champions - mental toughness. After losing a couple close games against the Giants and the Colts, Pittsburgh learned how to win. Big Ben led late drives against San Diego and Baltimore. The offense came back from a 10 point deficit against Dallas and the defense closed it out with a pick six. Troy Polamalu killed the Ravens with a pick six in the AFC Championship game. And after the defense faltered against Arizona, Big Ben led a historic, game winning drive. Partially by design, and partially because they were in so many tough games, the Steelers always played the full 60 minutes.
If I were to pick three reasons the Steelers are Super Bowl Champions, they would be (in no particular order):
1) Mental Toughness / Team Unity - In several articles this year, NFL writers marveled at the chemistry of this team. Peter King opened his MMQB column writing about how much these players cared about each other. Caring about each other resulted in personal accountability. Personal accountability resulted in success. Success led to mental toughness. Mental toughness led to the Super Bowl. I give Mike Tomlin the credit for creating an atmosphere of team unity and personal accountability. The standard never changed after wins. It never changed after losses. It never changed after injuries. Tomlin set the tone and this team bought it hook, line, and sinker.
2.) Dominant Defense - This was a special defense. One of the best of all time. It had two dominating players in James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. A breakout star in LaMarr Woodley. A huge hitter in Ryan Clark. A defensive quarterback in James Farrior. An unsung hero in Aaron Smith. And a number of other stars. But, most importantly, the unit played as one. James Harrison's 100 yard interception return was a perfect example of how this defense merged individual and team accomplishments. Harrison had the instincts to jump Boldin's crossing route, but as soon as he made the interception, there were at least six Steelers defenders sprinting down field to make blocks. Harrison's int. and return were incredible individual efforts, but it never would have gone for a TD without the help of his teammates.
3.) Ben Roethlisberger - He is the only quarterback in the league that could have won the Super Bowl with this offensive line. He got hit hard every game. He separated his shoulder multiple times. He suffered rib injuries. He suffered a spinal cord concussion. He had a terrible offensive play caller. In spite of this, he led six 4th quarter comebacks this season. He has more wins in his first five seasons than any quarterback ever. He is 8-2 in the playoffs. He has two Super Bowls in five years. He just led one of the best drives of all time to win the Super Bowl. He is elite.
"Our defense gets a lot of recognition for what they're capable of, and rightfully so," coach Mike Tomlin said. "But what you saw from our quarterback and our offense at the end of the game is what they've provided for us all year. When we've needed it most, they've done it and done it big."