One Perfect Half Puts the Steelers in the Super Bowl

published January 24, 2011

Same old Steelers.

A pounding defense, a power running game, and a strong-armed quarterback who can’t be brought down – the same elements that brought four Super Bowl titles to Pittsburgh in the 1970s combined to push Mike Tomlin’s team past Rex Ryan’s Jets on Sunday, 24-19.

The Steelers charged out to a 24-0 lead in slightly less than two quarters, dominating on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Pittsburgh limited New York to one yard rushing in the first half, in stark contrast to how the Jets had moved the ball on the ground in the teams’ regular-season meeting five weeks ago.  This was not a complete surprise, since the Steelers’ defense was the NFL’s best against the run this season.

A bigger surprise was how Pittsburgh was able to move the ball on offense against the vaunted Jets’ defense.  With the Jets concentrating on taking away Ben Roethlisberger’s receivers, the Steelers ran the ball down the New Yorkers’ throats.  They opened with a 15-play, 66-yard drive – 11 runs, four passes – that took more than nine minutes off the clock.  Time after time, running back Rashard Mendenhall was hit near the line of scrimmage, then broke through for useful gains.  Mendenhall ran 17 times in the first half for 95 yards, including a 35-yarder that was the longest running play allowed by the Jets all season.

When Roethlisberger wasn’t giving the ball to Mendenhall, he was going back to pass, seeing the Jets drop back in coverage, generally not finding anybody open, and eluding the rush long enough to make a play.  He and Mendenhall even ran an option pitch on the opening drive, tossing the ball back to the runner when the linebacker on the right flank came up to close on the quarterback.

Roethlisberger was 7 for 14 in the first half, with three passes accounting for most of the yardage on the Steelers’ second touchdown drive, which ended on his two-yard run that put Pittsburgh up 17-0.  He wound up 10-for-19 on the game for 133 yards, all three figures his lowest of the season.

While the Steelers were running over the Jets’ defense, Pittsburgh’s defense was collapsing the New Yorkers’ offensive line around Mark Sanchez, getting their hands up to bat down passes at the line, suffocating the running game and forcing Sanchez into third-and-long.  The Jets had 50 yards of total offense in the half, 45 of them on a last-minute drive for the field goal that cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 24-3.

The crowning blow for the Steelers in the first half – and the score that provided the final margin of victory – came on third-and-17 with the Jets at their own 26, after Sanchez was sacked by Lamarr Woodley, who came untouched around the corner.  With Sanchez forced to throw again, Pittsburgh came with a blitz, and cornerback Ike Taylor was able to hook his arm over Sanchez’s shoulder as he began to throw, knocking the ball loose in the backfield, where William Gay picked it up and ran in for the third Pittsburgh touchdown.

It was an overwhelming performance, and it set the Jets an almost impossible task in the second half.

But if the Jets have specialized in anything this season, it’s been improbable comebacks in almost impossible situations.  They received the second-half kickoff and zipped 90 yards in two and a half minutes, Sanchez hitting Santonio Holmes on a 45-yard touchdown after Ike Taylor fell down in coverage.

The Jets defense stiffened in the second half, as the Steelers mostly ran up the middle and threw safe passes to eat up the clock.  The Jets’ best chance to get back in the game came when they took the ball 89 yards in a 17-play drive to the Pittsburgh 1, but Woodley batted down a third-down pass and Tomlinson got nowhere on fourth down.  The Steelers took over with 7:44 to play; though the Jets recorded a safety on the next play, it was still a two-touchdown game at 24-12.

The Jets pulled to within five points with three minutes left, kicked off deep, then used their three timeouts and the two-minute warning to try to get the ball back, but Roethlisberger made one more great play, eluding the Jets’ rush on third-and-6 to roll right, and then hit Antonio Brown for the 14-yard gain that clinched the victory.

So Mike Tomlin heads to the Super Bowl for the second time before reaching age 40, Ben Roethlisberger looks for his third championship, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will go for their seventh title, against the Green Bay Packers in Jerry Jones’s pleasure dome on February 6.  The Pack and the Steelers – two teams that bedeviled the Dallas Cowboys in the ‘60s and ‘70s – will meet in an old-school matchup of stout defenses and often-explosive offenses.     And Rex Ryan will lick his wounds and try to figure out for next year how to get his team to play two halves of football instead of just one.

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