Pittsburgh Steelers 2011-12: Top 20 Plays of the Season

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIFebruary 3, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers 2011-12: Top 20 Plays of the Season

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    Pittsburgh Steelers fans' true colors are the same as the team they so admire: Black and Gold, through and through.

    Black represents the heart's disappointment anytime the franchise doesn't meet the championship expectations entrenched by their own success.

    Gold, conversely, is symbolic of the Super Bowl standard, which never wavers in any given season.  More often than any other fanbase in the NFL, Steelers Country gold has been brought on by the shiny silver of another Lombardi Trophy.

    While the 2011-12 season didn't provide the type of climax that Steel City natives and fans worldwide have come to expect, the campaign did exhilarate the faithful with a number of memorable moments and fantastic efforts.

    In other words, not everything has to be dark following a Lombardi-less season. Thoughts of the better moments can still infuse a little bit of that "gold" standard that Pittsburgh fanatics so desperately seek.

    These were the top 20 plays of a season that will hopefully be remembered for the team's unwillingness to give up against adversity more so than the excruciating ending.

No. 20: John Clay's First NFL Run

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    Ben Roethlisberger was out with a hobbled ankle, and the Steelers desperately needed to win to maintain any hope for an AFC North title and potential bye week.

    Charlie Batch has been a competent—nay, quite successful—backup during his stead in the Steel City, but fans knew that the running game would need to provide support in order to avoid a disappointing loss in the home finale.

    Thankfully, the opponent was the St. Louis Rams, whose run defense was the equivalent of paper mache. 

    Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman ran roughshod over the overmatched Rams, who played much more like lambs along the defensive front.

    Yet, on a day where the ground attack was dominant, it was John Clay who left a lasting memory on his lone carry of the game.  On his first run in the NFL, Clay went around right tackle and scored an uncontested touchdown.

    It was an exciting moment for the young rookie, and it gave the Steelers an important 10-0 advantage.  It was Christmas Eve, Clay got an early present.

No. 19: Sepulveda Plays Quarterback

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    The Steelers, particularly along both the offensive and defensive lines, struggled to a 2-2 start.  With the Titans and Jaguars traveling to Heinz Field in consecutive weeks, most fans felt the season hinged on sweeping the AFC South opponents.

    Fans will mostly remember the contest for Max Stark's return to the lineup and Big Ben's five touchdown passes.

    Yet, the competitive phase of the affair began to tilt with Pittsburgh ahead 7-3 and facing fourth down at midfield early in the second quarter.

    Punter Daniel Sepulveda received the long snap and pulled the pigskin up, looking to throw.  Ryan Mundy was wide open over the middle of the field, and the punter threw a perfect pass.

    Mundy took the football deep into Titans' territory, and Tennessee players could only put their hands on their waists and shake their heads as the "Heinz Red Zone" ketchup bottles began to tilt above the scoreboard.

No. 18: Woodley Sacks Brady for a Huge Loss

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    Lamarr-velous!

    The Steelers changed their defensive philosophy against the Patriots, playing press coverage and not allowing New England's intermediate passing attack to find easy throwing lanes.

    With his targets fighting to get open, Tom Brady needed time in the pocket.  With Lamarr Woodley on watch, he wasn't being afforded the luxury.

    Woodley's presence was felt in the New England backfield with consistency until his injury in the second half.

    On one play in particular, accounting for one of his two sacks of No. 12, Woodley sprang into the backfield through the middle of the Patriots' line.  Brady, anticipating the pressure, began to retreat before attempting to quickly slide his shoulder and change direction to avoid the linebacker.

    Woodley would have none of it, sacking Brady for a 15-yard loss.  The Patriots fell into 4th-and-29.

     Dominating the edge, Brady went back to Boston on Halloween Eve with the image of a monster named "Woodley" in his mind.

No. 17: Redman Scores in the Home Opener

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    Known as the "power back" of the running corp for Pittsburgh, Isaac Redman showed off his agility against Seattle in the home opener. 

    Ahead 7-0 on 2nd-and-7, Ben Roethlisberger took a shotgun snap and handed off to Redman, lined up adjacent.

    Picturesque blocking and a nice juke move to finish the effort by Redman inspired many analysts to break down the play in great detail in the days following the contest.

    By the time Redman got through the line, his momentum unimpeded, only Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor stood in his way of the end zone. 

    Redman's shiftiness left Chancellor seeking a counselor!

No. 16: Harrison Nails Flacco

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    A few plays after seeing James Harrison vaulting into the air in pursuit, Joe Flacco would meet with the acclaimed linebacker again. 

    This time, No. 92 would be in pursuit again, but he would not be leaping over blockers.  Harrison would be right behind the Baltimore passer, and his wrath would be felt.

    After a Pittsburgh touchdown closed the team's deficit to 16-13, momentum seemed to be shifting in the fourth quarter.  In the playoffs, the tipping point came when the Ravens began to turnover the football.

    James Harrison, aggressively pursuing Flacco as the Ravens drove into Pittsburgh territory, stripped the football from behind.

    William Gay, who would later be victimized in the contest, recovered the football. 

    It would be the first of two times in a span of seven plays that Steelers fans would erupt.  The second play comes later on the list...

No .15: Faulk Slammed at the Goal Line

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    It was a play that many fans have likely forgotten and one that will be overlooked as the annals of history continue to build.  Yet, it so succinctly illustrated the determination of a defense playing the team that had played them like a fiddle and quizzed them like a riddle for far too long.

    Trailing 23-10, the New England Patriots had mere inches to gain for a critical touchdown.  On the prior play, it appeared Rob Gronkowski had scored a touchdown, but there was no clear evidence to overrule officials on the field. 

    With the football spotted close to the target line, the Black and Gold defense didn't make it easy on the Pats, who lost valuable time against a tough goal line stand.

    On the next play, Brady called an audible.  Dropping back, he quickly threw out to Kevin Faulk.  With a surefire touchdown on the way, Ryan Clark did what he does best: lowering the "boom!"

    Clark crashed into Faulk inches before he crossed the goal line, and the running back flew backwards.

No. 14: Wallace Goes Deep in the Dome

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    After the touchdown bomb to Mike Wallace, NBC cameras caught a close-up of Ben Roethlisberger looking over to his speedy wide receiver.  The expression on Big Ben's face made the message clear enough for anyone to surmise: let's go for it!

    Roethlisberger dropped back and threw deep.  Wallace caught the ball in stride and ran in for an easy six points.

    It was the first of a slew of long bombs caught by No. 17 in the season's early going.

    It looked like taking candy from a baby.  Thoughts of a blowout surely began to creep into the minds of all in Steelers Country.

    Unfortunately, things mostly went downhill from there.  Yet, in a narrow win, the long touchdown pass was a huge cushion that the Black and Gold would ultimately need.

No. 13: Cotchery Ties the Wild Card Game

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    After the second quarter from hell, the Steelers went to halftime looking a mile low at Mile High.

    However, the team collected themselves, and Pittsburgh gave a better effort in the second half.  Late in the fourth quarter, the Men of Steel showed a steely resolve in erasing a deficit to the Broncos.

    After having trailed 20-6, the Steelers—now down by a single score—earned back the tie.

    With nobody open and time elapsing in the pocket, injured Ben Roethlisberger began to scramble to his right.  Then, with a split second and a narrow window to make the throw, Ben unloaded to Jerricho Cotchery.

    Cotchery's magnificent catch between two Broncos defensive backs stunned Invesco Field.  Still, it wasn't nearly as stunning as the play Pittsburgh would endure to start overtime.

No. 12: Wallace Hangs on Deep Against Seattle

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    On an amazing grab, it almost seemed as though "stickum" was making a comeback, and Mike Wallace was the spokesperson.

    One of his more underrated catches of the season came in the home opener against the Seattle Seahawks.  In the first two months, Wallace was a maestro of the home run catch, and no grab was more difficult than his reception over the middle, late in the third quarter, ahead 24-0.

    While the 53-yard gain didn't result in any points, it showed the gifted hands of Pittsburgh's fastest player.  Ben Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket and threw as far down the middle as he could...

    Catching up to the pigskin, Wallace stretched himself and extended his arms, catching the ball by his fingertips and preventing it from coming loose and falling to the ground.

No. 11: Pittsburgh Takes the Lead on Baltimore

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    After James Harrison stripped Joe Flacco of the football, the fourth quarter seemed eerily similar to Baltimore's epic playoff collapse at Heinz Field that prior January.

    Six plays later, Ben Roethlisberger rolled to his right.  In the ultimate showcase of how deadly Big Ben is outside of the pocket, the quarterback showed off his accurate arm while on the run. 

    Mike Wallace demonstrated how effectively the receiving corp is able to adjust with the play of No. 7, finding openings in the secondary and allowing Roethlisberger's playmaking knack and physical talents to shine.

    Ben's perfect throw to Wallace hit the receiver between the numbers as he ran across the field along the goal line. 

    The touchdown gave the Steelers a 23-20 lead that was far too temporary.

No. 10: Roethlisberger Responds Against the Pats

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    Opportunism.  If it doesn't define the Patriots in recent seasons, it's not an apt description for anybody.

    After being dominated in the first quarter at Heinz Field, the New England secondary was in the midst of an aerial assault by Big Ben.  Then, Roethlisberger threw an ill-advised interception.  Tom Brady took advantage of the short field, hitting Deion Branch on the goal-to-go situation for a touchdown.

    Suddenly, the Pats only trailed 10-7.

    The Steelers, who had lost six of seven to Brady's bunch, needed a response. 

    Roethlisberger and the offense provided it, serving notice that this was not going to be added to the gallery of Brady successes over the Men of Steel.

    A sustained drive was reminiscent of the early Pittsburgh domination.  However, for it to truly send a message, the Black and Gold needed to reestablish their double-digit lead.

    Nearing the end zone, Ben Roethlisberger took his time, spotting Antonio Brown open in the flat along the left sideline.  He hit the rising star, who dove in for the all-important six points.

    Ahead 17-7, the touchdown sent a clear message that New England was not going to get off the hook on Halloween Eve.

No. 9: Dwyer's Huge Run Sets Up a 100-Yard Afternoon

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    Jonathan Dwyer's first carry of the season brought fans at Heinz Field to their feet. 

    With the offensive line pass blocking, Max Starks settling in nicely and the offense moving the football, Dwyer's unexpected 100-yard afternoon accentuated an afternoon of progress.

    Ahead 14-3 with possession at their own 10-yard line, the Steelers called Dwyer's number.  Ben handed off, and the former Georgia Bulldog did the rest.

    Running between the center and guard, Dwyer sprung through a wide-open hole in the middle of the Titans defense.  Seventy-six yards later, the Steelers were in possession to extend their lead.

    With Rashard Mendenhall not playing, Dwyer got 11 carries in relief of Isaac Redman, finishing with 107 yards.

No. 8: Troy's Touchdown in Indy

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    In an unexpected struggle, the Steelers were tied with the Colts in the fourth quarter.  Curtis Painter had the football, and the Black and Gold needed a huge play to avoid a thoroughly unacceptable defeat.

    Through late in the Week 3 game at Indianapolis, the Pittsburgh defense had forced ZERO turnovers. They chose the perfect time to force the first opponent miscue.

    With just over five minutes to play, James Harrison stripped Painter of the football.  With the pigskin on the ground, Troy Polamalu scooped up the gift and ran it in for a 20-13 lead.

    Adding to the critical magnitude of the play was Painter's response, leading Indianapolis downfield for the tying touchdown.

    The Steelers ultimately won, 23-20. 

    Minus Troy's timely fumble recovery and return, the franchise may have suffered one of its most historically embarrassing losses.

No. 7: Ben Finds Antonio Brown on a Bum Ankle

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    Nobody expected Ben to return to play when he suffered an apparent gruesome ankle injury against the Browns on Thursday Night Football.

    Yet, the undaunted Roethlisberger was under center, playing the role of Iron Man, before the national audience.  While his toughness could not be called to scrutiny, his quality of play seemed to be suffering.  A critical interception earlier in the fourth quarter nearly allowed Cleveland to take the lead. 

    However, the defense stood tall.  James Harrison would later be punished for knocking Colt McCoy into the next week.  Browns personnel allowed the concussed quarterback to return to the game, somehow...unaware of the risks?!

    His throw into the end zone was intercepted by William Gay, thwarting the Browns' best shot for an upset.

    Any miniscule hope for a win by the underdogs (or, in Cleveland's case, is it "under-dawgs?") was put to rest when Ben Roethlisberger hit team MVP Antonio Brown with a seemingly routine back shoulder throw.

    Brown made the reception, then cut and weaved his way down the field for 72 yards and the clinching score.

    Heinz Field erupted, rejoicing for another win over the rival Browns, the heroics of a man named Brown, and a quarterback who proved he absolutely wasn't "yellow." 

    Ben's return was a courageous showing of support for a team that very nearly lost him for the season.

No. 6: Saunders' Amazing Touchdown at Arrowhead

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    The Steelers offense woeful 2011 performance in the red zone certainly manifested itself during a surprisingly close 13-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

    When Mewelde Moore fumbled as he approached the end zone, giving K.C. a much needed touchback, the play served as a microcosm of the unit's horrid inefficiency inside the 20-yard line.

    Nevertheless, on one trip inside the "gold zone," the Black and Gold lived up to the latter color opposed to the former.

    The touchdown may not have had the electrifying length or game-clinching implications of some other scores on the list; however, it showcased a quarterback and receiver both making plays about as marvelous as they come!

    Roethlisberger made a brilliant, subtle maneuver to avoid pressure, scrambled slightly to his left and lobbed a pass toward the back of the end zone.

    Wesley Saunders, not often utilized in the Pittsburgh offense, made a magnificent over-the-shoulder catch along the back line, giving the Steelers a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.

    The Steelers had managed to score a touchdown against a defense that forced little room for error.

No. 5: William Gay Intercepts Dalton

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    After dominating early play and springing to a 14-0 lead, the Steelers watched their lead at Paul Brown Stadium evaporate.

    Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for an immaculate touchdown to cut the deficit to 14-7.  Then, with patient running by Cedric Benson, who was heating up as the game progressed, and timely throws to receivers such as Andrew Hawkins (five receptions), Cincinnati found a way to put points on the board despite an injured Green leaving the game.

    In the fourth quarter, the Bengals tied the game.  The Steelers responded with a hard nine-yard touchdown run from Rashard Mendenhall.

    With minutes remaining, Cedric Benson picked up a big gain on the ground, picking up 20 yards to the Pittsburgh 25-yard line.  Cincinnati was driving relentlessly.  Overtime seemed imminent.

    Then, within striking range of the tie, Dalton went to the air.  A much-maligned defensive back sealed the deal.

    One week earlier, following a 23-20 loss to the Ravens, William Gay was criticized for allowing Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith to behind him for a wide open winning touchdown.

    In a moment of redemption, Gay picked off Andy Dalton's pass on 2nd-and-9.  Instead of another week of scrutiny, the corner opposite Ike Taylor could finally enjoy a week of revelry and celebration!

No. 4: Big Ben Throws 5 Touchdowns

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    If anyone needs proof that a great running game allows a great quarterback to be deadly efficient aerially, they do not have to look any further than Pittsburgh's 38-17 win over the Titans in Week 5.

    The Black and Gold rushed for over 170 yards.  With Tennessee forced to honor the ground attack, the defense could not focus on one exclusive element of the Pittsburgh attack.  This opened up options in the passing game, especially off of play action.

    Late in the contest, with the Steelers ahead 31-17, the Titans were justified in assuming Pittsburgh's intentions to run.  Unfortunately, against tendency in such circumstances, Roethlisberger used the potency of play action to burn Tennessee again...

    Again...Again...Again...Again...

    That's five "agains" for those counting at home.

    Tying his own personal record, the Titans bit on Roethlisberger's fake handoff, and No. 7 went right down the middle to a wide-open Mike Wallace. 

    The great run game was what allowed it to happen.  The beaten Titans defense, who entered the game highly esteemed and ranked statistically, looked helpless against Pittsburgh's dual attack.

    So, when Art Rooney II says he desired the offense to "get back to the run game," fans should really stop complaining about that goal.

No. 3: Antonio Brown Serves the Bengals a Half-Ending Bang

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    With Pittsburgh ahead 21-7 late in the first half, the Bengals punted to the dangerous Antonio Brown. 

    While Brown was peaking during his MVP breakout campaign, much of his damage had come on offense in recent weeks.  Additionally, he had yet to return a punt for a touchdown.

    I can just picture Myron Cope looking down from above, as Brown rounded the corner on the return and succinctly saying, "Bumbling Bungles!  You!"

    The special teams touchdown gave the Steelers a 28-7 lead, effectively ending the competitive phase of the key AFC North contest—as well as Cincy's long-shot division title hopes—early.

No. 2: Mike Wallace Delivers the Longest Pass Play in Pittsburgh History

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    With the personal rivalry between former coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played up to the hilt leading up to the game, both men denied any lingering animosity.

    Still, if there were any hard feelings left over for "the Whiz" about the team who denied him a head coaching position and the quarterback who didn't have great affection for him, those issues weren't aided by the second touchdown of their Week 7 meeting.

    From his own five-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger dropped a perfect pass into the waiting arms of Mike Wallace, who raced 95 yards behind the Arizona secondary for a touchdown.

    The huge play continued Pittsburgh's early momentum and served as a microcosm of the huge game Big Ben put up "against his former coach."  At least, that was the perception.

    Pittsburgh's offense played arguably their best game of the season...and certainly, their finest road outing. 

    The big play that gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead was the longest pass play in team history, eclipsing 90-yard throws by Mark Malone, Kordell Stewart and Terry Bradshaw.

    The longest play, a run by Bobby Gage against Chicago, covered 97 yards in 1949.

No. 1: Keisel Strips Brady to Defeat the Patriots

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    When you've lost six of seven meetings in the fashion that Pittsburgh had lost to Tom Brady, any play that seals a win over that type of bane ranks high on any list.

    Anybody questioning this ranking may not be a Steelers fan. After all, anybody who has endured the pain of losing to New England and their smarmy Killer B's (Belichick and Brady) over and over again rejoiced on October 30, 2011!

    Ahead 23-17, the Steelers offense failed to capitalize on great field position in the final seconds, foregoing a field goal when Ben Roethlisberger (correctly) took a safe sack.

    The subsequent punt gave Tom Brady the football with mere seconds remaining.  Heinz Field was raucous, and Terrible Towels torqued violently in the background.  Despite the rowdiness, unease dominated the stands, despite the odds.

    Indeed, Brady had haunted the Steelers and their fans that much.  Nothing could be taken for granted.

    For one fine evening, the aura of domination by Brady over the Steelers was put to rest.  With a desperate Brady looking to unload a deep heave, Brett Keisel caught up with the Boston quarterback as he rolled to the left, slapping the ball from his grasp.

    The pigskin rolled away from Brady, who laid on the grass as teammates tried to recover the fumble.  Not leaving anything to the oddness of chance, Troy Polamalu punched the ball backwards into the end zone.  Chaos ensued, and the football eventually went out of the field of play, registering as a Pittsburgh safety.

    As fans exalted, ecstatic over the key win against a frustrating opponent, one could almost hear the theme of the game whistling in the breeze:

    "Ding dong! The witch is dead!"

    For the Steelers, the huge victory exorcised many burdensome demons.