Steelers attack by air early, then turn to run

Updated: January 16, 2006, 10:48 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Reflecting on the outcome of a game in which his team dominated in virtually every phase, and still nearly frittered away a big lead in a bizarre fourth quarter, head coach Bill Cowher acknowledged it required a "supreme effort" for the Pittsburgh Steelers to upset the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

And that included the most mind-bending of events, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger helping to make a game-saving tackle as Indianapolis cornerback Nick Harper threatened to author an even more improbable outcome with a long fumble return.

Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Michael ConroyBen Roethlisberger's hit on Nick Harper was the game's biggest play.

The Steelers' quarterback is actually bulkier than some of the Pittsburgh linebackers, but nowhere in his job description is tackling delineated as a must-have skill. Funny thing is, in the aftermath of Pittsburgh's 21-18 victory at the RCA Dome -- the first time since the NFL implemented the 12-team playoff format in 1990 that a sixth-seeded club had defeated a No. 1 seed -- "The Tackle," as it might be forever known in the Steelers' rich and replete lore, was the biggest topic of conversation.

Pittsburgh advanced to the AFC championship game next Sunday at Denver, and the Steelers can become the first team since New England in 1985 to earn a Super Bowl berth with three road victories. The Patriots that season defeated the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins en route to a date in Super Bowl XX.

But it took Roethlisberger's semi-tackle of Harper, with help from tight end Jerame Tuman after Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis had fumbled at the Indianapolis two-yard line, and a missed 46-yard field goal by the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt with 17 seconds remaining, to nudge Pittsburgh into the division championship round.

The most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, Vanderjagt missed badly to the right, never giving the ball a chance to hook back inside the uprights. Vanderjagt, who is in the final season of his contract and not universally beloved by Indianapolis management, has probably played his last game in a Colts uniform.

If that's the case, Vanderjagt certainly made it a memorable exit, as a Colts team viewed as the NFL's best in 2005 again fell short of its Super Bowl goal.

Nearly overlooked in the silliness of the last few minutes of the game, and even in the locker room rehash of the Pittsburgh upset, was that Roethlisberger, who couldn't readily recall ever making such a big tackle, also excelled in the area for which he is being paid.

Throwing the ball.

"I thought we showed all the people who just peg us as a one-dimensional team, as an offense that can only run the ball, that we're pretty diverse," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who had three catches for 68 yards. "We came in here with the mindset of being really aggressive early. I thought the last time we were here (in a regular-season game in which Indianapolis prevailed, 26-7), we might have tried too hard to run, even with them playing eight 'in the box.' So when we came out today and made two plays in the passing game, right on the first series, it knocked them back on their heels."

Indeed, the Pittsburgh offense is widely "typed" by opponents as a unit that wants to try to impose its will from the outset of every contest, to run early and attempt to bludgeon the opposition defense into submission. But even some Colts defenders conceded during the week that labeling the Steelers as a limited offense was a fallacy. Those admissions aside, the Colts still allowed themselves to be caught in the trap, opening the game by trying to compress the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers' reputation as a rock-'em-sock-'em offense preceded them here and, try as they might to avoid the hype, the Colts bought into it.

And in doing so, they played right into the hands of Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and into Roethlisberger's powerful right arm.

Roethlisberger set the tone on the opening drive, completing six of seven passes for 76 yards, and culminating the 10-play, 84-yard series with a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. A big factor in the drive was rookie right end Heath Miller, the Steelers' first-round draft choice, who had catches of 36 and 18 yards.

Miller scored the Steelers' second touchdown, on a seven-yard reception, boosting the visitors into a 14-0 lead less than 12 minutes into the contest. The most notable play on that drive was a 45-yard completion to Ward on a third-and-10 play.

At that point, Roethlisberger was 9-for-12 for 137 yards. And Whisenhunt, who for the second week in a row boosted his stock as a viable candidate for some of the remaining head coach vacancies in the league, was hitting on just about every play he dialed up.

A key to the success of the Pittsburgh offense was a bunch formation that Whisenhunt used more liberally on Sunday than he had during the season. The Steelers were able to dictate some crucial matchups from the alignment and were effective in throwing and running out of the set, in which three players, usually two wideouts and fullback Dan Kreider, were clustered to one side.

Unofficially, Roethlisberger completed seven of nine passes for 103 yards, and the Steelers rushed nine times for 37 yards from the bunch formation. The alignment, along with an empty set that Whisenhunt also used, often left the Colts' defense feeling, well, empty.

"It's something we used during the season," said Whisenhunt of the bunch formation, "but we definitely expanded the package for today, because we saw some things the first time we played them, and we felt we could take advantage of them. Ben did a really nice job in it. We were very productive with it."

Said Ward: "Hey, it's the playoffs, right? Win or go home. When you're in that kind of circumstance, you don't hold anything back. And we didn't. We were just determined to get out of the chute fast, to see if we could jump them before they knew what happened, and we were able to do that. And you know how we are. If we get a lead to work with, then we're going to go to the running game."

For the first time during their ongoing six-game winning streak, the Steelers failed to run for 100 yards in the second half, notching 81 yards on 21 carries in the final two quarters. But the formula for success -- be creative early, surprise opponents with the passing game to construct a workable lead, then use the run to protect it -- held true.

I thought we showed all the people who just peg us as a one-dimensional team, as an offense that can only run the ball, that we're pretty diverse.
Steelers WR Hines Ward
Leading 14-3 at the half, Roethlisberger threw just five passes after intermission, and was sacked once. During the six-game winning streak, Roethlisberger has averaged just 6.8 pass plays (attempts plus sacks) in the second half. Conversely, the Steelers have run the ball an average of 25.2 times in the second half. They have averaged 143.2 rushing yards and 4.7 yards per carry in the second halves of those games.

In the Steelers' two playoff victories, Roethlisberger has completed 28 of 43 passes for 405 yards, with five touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 124.4. His lone interception on Sunday came when he was hit by Colts ended Dwight Freeney and the ball squirted into the hands of linebacker Cato June. In the 2004 playoffs, the then-rookie Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in just 54 attempts.

"The experience helps," allowed Roethlisberger who, for the day, completed 14 of 24 for 197 yards and two touchdowns. "And this offense is playing better right now than a lot of people realize."

Of course, the Pittsburgh defense also had something to do with knocking off the top-seeded Colts, who were clearly the Super Bowl favorite. The Steelers harassed Peyton Manning most of the afternoon and it wasn't until the fourth quarter, during the frenetic rally in which Indianapolis reduced a 21-3 deficit to just a field goal with two scores, that he appeared comfortable.

Manning rarely had an opportunity to set his feet and, even when he could, the Colts' star was often wildly high with his passes. He was sacked five times, with Steelers linebackers James Farrior and Joey Porter combing for four takedowns. As good as Whisenhunt was on the offensive side, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was equally brilliant.

Ignored because of the final score in the regular-season game was that, after Manning had opened the contest completing his first five passes for 120 yards, the Pittsburgh defense frustrated him for the next 1½ quarters, when he was only two-for-nine. On Sunday, LeBeau incorporated some of the coverage packages from that Nov. 28 game, and also added some new wrinkles.

Notable among the tweaks that LeBeau made was using Farrior, an inside linebacker, as an outside rusher. And, as usual, LeBeau was creative in his use of strong safety Troy Polamalu, who had seven tackles and two passes defensed.

"That's what you do in the playoffs," said Polamalu, who figured into one of the game's most unusual and controversial calls, when officials overturned an apparent interception after Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged the pickoff. "You bring the best things you do and you maybe add something you feel will work. It helped us a lot to have played them in the regular season. We had some positive reinforcement from the stretch in that game where we had shut them down. Our feeling was that the score in that game really didn't reflect how we had played. But in that game, we gave up big plays, and this time we were able to keep them from making the explosive play.

"This win, believe me, is very gratifying."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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