PITTSBURGH — Even in the Era of Offense, the Steelers got to Super Bowl XLV the Steel Curtain Way.
As is always the case at a moment like Sunday's AFC championship game, the talk was about how Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger made the plays when his team needed them most, and indeed he did. He made some in the first half on the way to building a 24-0 lead over the Jets, and he made them with less than two minutes remaining to kill off the last hope the Jets had of finishing what had become a remarkable 24-19 comeback.
But for all of that talk, defense won that game, just like it always seems to do when the Steelers go to the Super Bowl. It was defense that shut down the Jets so completely in the first half they were outrushed 135 yards to one, outgained 231-50 and held to only one third-down conversion in six tries and a last-second field goal.
As it turned out, it was defense that scored the winning touchdown, as well, although it didn't seem likely that was the case when CB William Gay scooped up a Mark Sanchez fumble, which had resulted from blitzing CB Ike Taylor's sacking of Sanchez, and returned it 19 yards to make it 24-0. At that moment, the play seemed more a reminder of the Steelers' dominance than a touchdown that would prove vital, but the Jets came back with surprising resilience after the way they'd played, outscoring the Steelers 16-0 in the second half and outgaining them 239-56 to make it a game.
They might have made it more than that. They might have made it the kind of moment the Jets would talk about for years to come. They might have, but the Steelers' defense refused to allow it.
They forced the Jets to use up eight minutes and six seconds that they could ill afford on a 17-play drive to nowhere that ended with a goal-line stand in which the Jets had the ball 1st-and-goal at the two-yard line and ended it on fourth down at the one.
Twice the Jets tried to run it in and were denied. Twice they tried to throw it in and were denied. In the end, that defense rose up and slammed future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson down for no gain on 4th-and-1, ending in frustration a long march that could have cut the Steelers' lead to a touchdown with 7:44 to play. Could have but did not.
Now, it's true the Jets would immediately tackle Roethlisberger for a safety on a fumbled snap and the defense would allow an ensuing 58-yard Jets scoring drive, during which the Jets converted on both third and fourth downs, but in the end the defense had held when it needed to most.
Not every time. Not like the impregnable Steel Curtain of the 1970s. But they held enough to build up an insurmountable 24-point lead, a lead created in part by that defense swarming around Sanchez and knocking the ball out of his hands and held by a defense that refused to buckle after an eight-minute assault on it with the nose of the ball two yards from a touchdown.
That ball didn't get in the endzone, and that's a large part of the reason these Steelers are headed for a showdown with the Packers in two weeks. It's why they have a chance to win their third Super Bowl in six years and make a strong statement that they, as much as the Patriots, are the best team of the new millenium's first decade.
This article first appeared in the Pro Football Weekly print edition dated Feb. 6, 2011, which previews Super Bowl XLV. The print edition breaks down the big game in North Texas, including how the teams match up, five keys to the outcome, which club holds the edge at each position, how the teams compare statistically and much more. The issue also includes Nolan Nawrocki's mock draft, PFW's Super 50 of top players in 2010, a feature on former Giants RB and Super Bowl XXV MVP Ottis Anderson, and our annual Griddy Awards honoring top NFL broadcasters. You can purchase a copy of the Super Bowl preview print edition at retail outlets across the country or online at PFWstore.com, where you can buy either a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.