From start to finish, the Steelers were consistent throughout the 2008 season, distinguishing them from all other contenders.
Seperating the Contenders from the Pretenders
Some started with a brilliant bang, only to end with dull thud (think Redskins, Broncos.) Others took their fans on a roller coaster ride (think Eagles, Cowboys, Jets, and in a different manner, the Cardinals) that ended as they all do, at a full stop on level ground.
The Colts and Chargers started slow, finished fast, collided with each other, and then the latter kicked to Santonio Holmes.
The Giants and Ravens were pretty stable, but New York ran out of steam when Plaxico shot himself, and as for the Ravens, well there’s a reason they played us so tight.
No one matched the Steelers’ steady hand.
Monday Night, Week Five The Steelers Signature Moment
Pittsburgh was consistent, if maddeningly so. Dominating defense, razor sharp quarterback play when it counts, mixed with leaky pass protection, injuries, and difficulty running the ball.
Given that continuity marked their 2008, one might ask, “What was the signature game of the Steelers 2008 season?”
While there was no turning point, there was one, defining game. And it came in week 5.
The Steelers Monday Night victory over the Jacksonville proved to be the pivotal moment of the Steelers’ 2008 season.
Why a victory over a 4-12 team instead of the many Pittsburgh victories over NFL heavyweights you ask?
Each of those games provided plenty of drama, were packed with hard hits and game saving heroics.
The NFL’s best tested the Steelers in 2008, and Steel Curtain Rising takes nothing from those trials by fire.
But the Jacksonville game was defining for the Steelers because it brought together the elements that make mid-season NFL drama what it is:
- In 2007, Jacksonville became the only team to defeat the Pittsburgh at home twice in a season
- The Jaguars manhandled the Steelers in the process
- The Steelers were only 3-7 at Jacksonville…
- …and entering the Monday Night game they brought a 4 game losing streak to the Jaguars
- As much as anything else, the 2006 loss at Jacksonville showed that any Steelers Super Bowl XL title defense would be long, and hard road
- Jacksonville may have ended up at 4-12, but they entered the game 2-2, and in week five it was far from clear that their season would end in disaster.
All of this is compelling, but its just the tip of the iceberg
“Injuries are no excuse….” - Steelers Head coach Mike Tomlin, on many occasions
Early in his maiden campaign as Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin laid down a basic tenet of his core coaching philosophy.
- Injuries are no excuse
That sounded good enough as the Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks sans five starters, including Hines Ward, Santoino Holmes, and Troy Polamalu.
But injuries mounted throughout the 2007 season, and the Steelers sorely missed Tory Polamalu, Aaron Smith, and Willie Parker during the home stretch. Tomlin stuck to his guns, but it got harder and harder not to roll your eyes.
Tomlin’s coaching credo was put to the extreme test against Jacksonville.
- Two of the Steelers three starting defensive linemen were out
- Nick Eason, the number one back up defensive lineman, was also out
- They’d lost starting right guard Kendall Simmons the week before against the Ravens
- The Ravens also removed first round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall from the line up
- Against Jacksonville, Steelers would lose Marvel Smith, their only Pro Bowl caliber offensive lineman
- Ben Roethlisberger did not practice the entire week prior to the game, and the day before was unable to throw beyond five yards.
And just to keep it interesting, the Steelers were down to their fourth and fifth string running backs, if you count Carey Davis.
Becoming Mike Tomlin’s Team
Mike Tomlin made sure the Steelers did not come to Jacksonville looking for excuses. And the Jaguars showed no mercy, intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returning it 72 yards for a touchdown.
As they did time after time in 2008, the Steelers refused to answering with a 12 play 72 yard touchdown drive of their own.
And so it was throughout the game. Both teams played hard, the lead changed hands several times, until the Steelers found themselves down 21-20 with 6:33 left to play.
The Steelers had been in a similar position against Jacksonville in the playoffs...
- ...this time they closed the game, setting the tone for rest of 2008
An 80 yard touchdown drive that establishes the lead with two minutes remaining always impresses. And that is what Ben Roethlisberger delivered. But the statistics do not tell the tale. During the drive Ben hit four different receivers, two Steeler running backs ran the ball, and the team converted three third downs.
Ben was not sacked on the drive, but he took such a beating that Al Michaels joked that Roethlisberger should replace Robert Downey Jr. should an Iron Man II be filmed.
On third and 8, Ben hit Hines Ward for 18 yards, but the hit he took after the pass left him writhing on the turf in agony
Down one point, the easy money says your QB is hurt, set up to kick for 3. Even the god of Down and Dirty football, John Madden himself, proclaimed as much.
He forgot to tell the Steelers.
Two plays later Roethlisberger hit Ward again, for an 8 yard go ahead touchdown pass that he literally threw as two Jacksonville defenders were driving him to the ground
Exorcising the Demons
It wasn’t over yet. Jacksonville got the ball back at their 26 with 1:53 left.
The Steelers defense had been manhandled in their first meeting against the Jaguars in 2007, and then embarrassed by Garrard’s late game heroics during the playoffs.
- Not this time around
The Jaguars converted a 4th and 9, and on the ensuring first down Garrard scrambled… But this time Aaron Smith was there, limiting Garrard to only two yards, 30 fewer than his 4th quarter playoff scramble
Then it was James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley’s turn.
Harrison sacked Garrard for a six yard loss and forced a fumble in the process, and Woodley pulverized the Jaguar lineman who’d audaciously recovered.
Three plays later, Ben was taking a knee.
In a hostile environment, missing several of its biggest stars, with its quarterback ailing and under tremendous pressure, the Steelers prevailed on that night in Jacksonville, and they did so with poise and determination.
Tone and Tenor for the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Established
Time and time again during the 2008 season, the Steelers would rally in similar fashion. Different heroes might emerge, but calm under pressure, dogged perseverance, and faith in one another were always constants.
It was a night where Pittsburgh embraced and vindicated their coaches “no excuses” rallying cry. It was the night where the Pittsburgh Steelers became Mike Tomlin’s team, and it was the game that set the tone for the season that was destined to end with the Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII.
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