The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers: A Personal Favorite and Team to Remember

jonathan staub@JStaubSportTalkCorrespondent IMay 27, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Santonio Holmes #10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a 6-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Steelers won the game by a score of 27-23.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

There have been some great teams in Pittsburgh Steelers history.

Hall-of-Famers, both on the field and off, are the standard of the 1970s Steelers who won four Super Bowls and established a dynasty that is widely regarded as the greatest in NFL history.

Twelve members of the Steelers organization are currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame that played intricate roles in the “Steel Curtain” dynasty that terrorized the NFL in the latter half of the 1970’s.

It starts with the individual whom without, none of it would have been possible.

Arthur J. Rooney was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964. Rooney was the founder, chairman and president of the board for the Steelers from 1933-1988.

Daniel M. Rooney, the current President of the Steelers, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000; he has served as part of Steelers management since 1955.

The man that called the shots from 1969-1991, Chuck Noll, was enshrined in 1993.

As for the players…Terry Bradshaw (1989), Franco Harris (1990), Mike Webster (1997), Lynn Swann (2001), John Stallworth (2002), Jack Lambert (1990), “Mean” Joe Greene (1987), Jack Ham (1988), and Mel Blount (1989) all found their way to Canton.

These are some of the greatest players to ever wear a Steelers uniform.

They are also some of the greatest players to ever play in the NFL.

For the longest time, the Steelers teams of the 1970s were my favorite.

I’ve seen the Super Bowls on tape, I’ve watched highlights, I’ve studied stats, and I’ve familiarized myself with those teams the best that I could through family stories, as well as personal experiences.

Until 2008, I never thought a team could captivate my imagination the way that these teams did.

Last year, a Steelers team with more storylines than an episode of professional wrestling captivated Steelers Nation with one of the most dominant runs to a Super Bowl, at least statistically speaking from the defensive side of the ball, in the history of the NFL.

From the moment they drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the 2008 draft, this team was engulfed with side-stories, both good and bad, that only added to the mystique of the team.

Mendenhall’s selection raised questions as to the trust the organization had in Willie Parker to be the man in the backfield.

A traditionally strong rushing attack had fallen off in recent years, at least in terms of touchdown production, and it seemed as though the Steelers faithful never got fully behind Parker.

Despite leading the league in rushing, until he fractured his leg in the second to last week of the 2007 season, Parker never was able to endear himself to fans the way Jerome Bettis had.

His 2006 season, which consisted of 1,494 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, was among one of the best individual rushing seasons in the last decade for Pittsburgh.

But to Steelers Nation, he’s no “Bus”.

The injury to Daniel Sepulveda in training camp was initially thought to be just another injury until Mitch Berger and Paul Ernster kicked their way to the second-worst season in the NFL.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were still whispers from the Cowher-faithful that the Steelers hired the wrong man in Mike Tomlin.

Irregardless of the praise he received from his players, winning the division in his first season and displaying the same rough-neck style that initially endeared Bill Cowher to Steelers fans everywhere, the whispers were still rampant from anyone looking to throw Tomlin under the bus.

Not all was negative though, as there were many positive storylines that began to build over the course of the season.

One storyline that was prevalent throughout the whole season was the historical run of the Pittsburgh defense.

Tying an NFL record by not allowing any of their first 14 opponents to gain 300 yards of total offense, the Steelers surrendered 322 yard to the Tennessee Titans in their 15th game, and held Cleveland to under 300 in their final regular season game.

Not even the 1970s Steel Curtain defenses made such a run.

Dick LeBeau, the father of the zone blitz, orchestrated one of the greatest defensive seasons in NFL history, as the Steelers came within 54 rushing yards of being ranked No. 1 across the board.

For those that follow the Steelers closely, it is no secret that Tomlin and LeBeau differ on defensive strategies.

But that’s just another thing that endeared the 2008 Steelers to me, as well as Steelers Nation, that much more.

Not only do we have a phenomenal head coach, who has one of the most intelligent football minds of this generation, he is a humble man that is able to put his ego on the back-burner for the betterment of his team.

From a personal standpoint, when Tomlin put on a long-sleeve black shirt in the middle of 100 degree heat during the teams training camp after players complained about practicing in the heat, he had me believing that he was for real.

After seeing how he has handled working side by side with Dick LeBeau, despite their differing philosophy, that had me backing him 100 percent.

The Steelers earned their second consecutive number one overall rating on the defensive side of the ball, and they were leaps and bounds ahead of the Baltimore Ravens who finished second; The Steelers gave up 237.2 yards per game (the only team in the NFL to stay below 4,000 total defensive yards surrendered with 3,795) whereas Baltimore, the NFL's No. 2, only held opponents to 261.1 yards per game.

Those same Ravens, who are despised throughout Pittsburgh through-and-through, fell to the Steelers three times in the 2008 season; the first time that had happened in their fierce rivalry’s history.

Their games were highlighted by some of the most physical play the NFL saw all season, and each game had the makings of an instant classic.

After Big Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers down the field late in the third, he connected with Santonio Holmes for a 38-yard touchdown pass that brought the Steelers to within three points, 13-10, and got the Heinz Field faithful back into it.

Fifteen seconds later, Lamar Woodley returned a Joe Flacco fumble, caused by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, seven yards for a touchdown to put the Steelers up 17-13.

The Steelers would ultimately win the game in overtime, 23-20, and that game went down as one of the most exciting games of the season.

At that moment, on Harrison’s sack and Woodley’s return, you could just tell that there was something special about this defense, and this team.

The two teams would meet again in the 15th week, with the division title up for grabs.

After a game that ranks up there in Steelers-Ravens history as one of the most brutal, hard-hitting games of recent memory, Ben did what he did best when it mattered most.

After scrambling around, from hash mark to hash mark, he finally found Santonio Holmes in the front of the endzone for one of the most spectacular body-controlled catches to date.

For anyone that’s good at catching a bit of foreshadowing, you can probably guess why I said “to date”.

Prior to their Week 15 showdown, Pittsburgh gained a bit of revenge on one of their most bitter rivals, the New England Patriots.

New England had haunted Steelers fan’s dreams for the better portion of this decade, after two AFC Championship game wins in Pittsburgh, and the brutal beating they laid on them in 2007.

After embarrassing the Patriots on their home field, and bringing Matt Cassell back to earth, it was one of the longest tenured Steelers that provided the season’s next memory in Week 14 against the Cowboys.

Coming from behind again in the fourth quarter, Deshea Townsend returned a Tony Romo interception 25 yards for the game winning touchdown just 24 seconds after Roethlisberger found Heath Miller for a touchdown that tied the game at 13.

After this dramatic finish, and Santonio’s catch in Baltimore, it almost seemed as if the Steelers were destined for greatness on the season.

During the season’s final weeks, it became public that defensive-end Aaron Smith, who may be the most underrated player in the NFL, was not practicing during the week due to an undisclosed illness that had befallen his son.

While Smith chose to keep the information private, it also became publicly known that it was the Rooney family, as well as coach Tomlin, that saw to it he was able to be with his family during their time of need, and allowed him to take off from practice all week, and games if he saw necessary (he didn’t miss a game), to tend to his family’s personal business.

This only further highlighted the class-act that is Steelers’ upper management.

Smith has been a key figure on the Steelers defense for many years. His importance became evident at the end of the 2007 season when he suffered a bicep injury that kept him out of the final games of the season, including the playoffs.

The Steelers rushing defense noticeably suffered.

The Steelers community rallied behind Smith, and it became obvious how touched he was by the support that he received.

As the Steelers marched forward through the playoffs, it seemed almost preordained that they would reach the Super Bowl.

Things continued to fall in place for them as Indianapolis lost to San Diego in the Wild Card round, and Tennessee fell to Baltimore in the divisional round; with Tennessee’s loss, the Steelers gained home-field advantage for the AFC Championship.

Pittsburgh and San Diego, who played to the first 11-10 final in league history earlier in the season, met in the divisional round with Pittsburgh prevailing again, 35-24.

In the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore for the third time, 23-14, and the most brutal hit of the season came when Limas Sweedthe same Limas Sweed that continually dropped passes all seasonlaid out Corey Ivy with a hit that would have made Hines Ward proud.

Ward, earlier in the season, broke Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith River’s jaw with a cut-back block that drew a lot of criticism from fellow NFLers, and ultimately led to a rule change for this upcoming season.

The best storyline of all, began to gestate in the Championship round of the playoffs.

It became a real possibility that Arizona and Pittsburgh would meet for the Super Bowl, and Ken Whisenhut, the man that the Steelers passed on for their head-coaching position, would square off against the man that came in and stole the job right out from under him in Mike Tomlin.

Those possibilities soon became a reality as both Arizona and Pittsburgh triumphed in their respective Conference Championship games.

It almost seemed too perfect.

Two coaches that had competed for the same job, one that could be argued as the most prestigious in football, would now compete for the game's richest prize.

Ben Roethlisberger was looking to join the elite status of quarterbacks in the league, and Kurt Warner was looking for redemption from a loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Warner, returned to glory after taking over for Matt Leinart when he proved ineffective and began to suffer an unfortunate string of injuries.

After proving he still had it, Warner re-established himself as one of the elite QBs in the NFC, and began to make a case as to why he should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

Ben was looking to atone for a poor performance in Super Bowl XL, and finally breach the argument that he belonged in the same sentence as Peyton and Brady.

Ben, who earlier in the season became the winningest quarterback in NFL history after the first five years of his career, had a game for the ages.

Warner solidified himself as, maybe, the game’s best big-time QB with another outstanding passing performance that gave him the three highest individual performances in regards to passing yards in Super Bowl history; the performance also gave him the most career passing yards in Super Bowl history.

At the end of the game, it was Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes that provided us with one more memory that will surely go down in Super Bowl lore as maybe the greatest catch the game has ever known.

With time ticking away, and Pittsburgh at the doorstep, Big Ben threw into three Cardinal defenders looking for Holmes.

Santonio managed to get both feet down as he corralled a pass that was well above his head and heading out of bounds.

The amount of control that it took to make this happen is near impossible to put into words.

Rest assured, this is a highlight that will be shown at every Super Bowl for years to come.

The Steelers win was vindication for a team that had its critics all season.

The offensive line, in particular, received the brunt of the criticism as it’s sub-par play nearly sabotaged the Steelers efforts to do what they were capable of.

As Ben held up the Lombardi Trophy, he demonstrated a class-act that was very Tomlin-esque.

He looked right down at his teammates and said, “Hey, offensive line, who’s laughing now?”

How sweet it is.

Hines Ward, who earlier in the season recorded his 800thcareer reception and furthered his team record, now has two Championships, and the pain he was experiencing from playing the game on a sprained MCL vanished, if only for a short while.

Mewelde Moore, who filled in so admirably for Mendenhall and Parker when they both went down, was just as important as the defense in getting the Steelers to this point.

An unsung hero, Moore was Tomlin’s “minute man” (Tomlin told Moore that he could go in on a minute's notice earlier in the season) and maybe the most important figure on the Steelers offense all season.

If not for Moore’s miraculous run, the Steelers would have been playing as a pass-first and pass-second team.

The images of Ben being carted off in the final week, after playing a bit longer than most fans would have liked, was now lost in our subconscious as our 6’5” quarterback had once again led us to the promise land.

That 9-21, two-interception performance in Super Bowl XL is now ancient history.

We will forever remember his version of "The Drive," as John Elway is not the only man with a famed late-game, length-of-the-field drive anymore.

Ben became just the 10th QB to win multiple Super Bowls, and he has a great shot at becoming the fifth to win three or more.

For Mike Tomlin, he has not only justified his hiring, he solidified himself as our leader and unquestioned coach.

James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return put the stamp on his Defensive Player of the Year selection, and was the culmination of one of the Steelers greatest defensive individual seasons.

Yes, the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers provided us with a lot of memories.

There were more storylines on this team than met the eye, but none may have been better than Santonio Holmes winning the Super Bowl MVP.

After sitting out a game following a drug-possession charge, Holmes was a long way removed from the individual that used to sell drugs on a street corner in Florida.

The Ohio State product gave Steeler fans a catch that will rank up there with the Immaculate Reception, and had one of the greatest individual Super Bowl performances in club history.

Nine catches, 131 yards, one touchdown, and the game’s MVP; along with Hines Ward, they are the first pair of Super Bowl MVP wide receivers in NFL history.

It is Holmes’ time to emerge as the next great Steelers receiver.

It is Ben’s time to take his rightful place in NFL history.

It is Tomlin’s time to join select coaching company.

The 2008 Steelers are a team I will never forget.

They have supplanted the 1970s squads as my personal favorite, and have gained the right to be regarded as one of history’s best.

There is no better time to be a Steelers fan, as I find it hard to ignore that another dynasty is not on the horizon.


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