TAMPA, Fla. – For all the rough, tough and brutal images that the Pittsburgh Steelers have evoked with their history of strong defenses, they would be nowhere without a healthy dose of ballet-school grace. Santonio Holmes provided the latest such example.
Channeling the spirit of Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward, Holmes made the biggest play of many in the final quarter during Pittsburgh's 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Holmes joined Swann and Ward as the third Steelers wide receiver to earn Super Bowl MVP honors, doing so in Pittsburgh's league-best sixth Super Bowl win. His toe-tapping, 6-yard touchdown reception with 35 seconds was the final blow delivered in a game of stunning drama.
After Arizona scored on a 64-yard touchdown by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to rally from what once was a 13-point deficit, the Steelers had 2:37 to avoid the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history.
On the ensuing drive, Holmes accounted for 73 yards on four catches as Pittsburgh went 88 yards in one minute, 55 seconds, overcoming a holding penalty on the drive's initial play and a third-and-6 along the way.
Holmes caught a 14-yarder on first-and-20. He caught a 13-yarder on third-and-6. He then turned a short pass into a 40-yard gain when Arizona safety Aaron Francisco slipped.
"Before that drive, I told [Roethlisberger], 'Ben, I want the ball in my hands no matter what … no matter where it is.' I wanted to be the one to make the play and I did it for our team," Holmes said. "I definitely asked the Lord to help me today. I asked Him, 'Can I be the guy to win this game?' I told my coach earlier this evening that I wanted to be a great playmaker on this team."
Holmes put the defining touch to his nine-catch, 131-yard performance on the game-winning grab. Holmes cradled a bullet throw from Roethlisberger in the right corner of the end zone while somehow keeping the tips of his shoes inbounds. Like linebacker James Harrison's record 100-yard interception return and touchdown to end the first half, Holmes' catch survived review by the officials.
Roethlisberger wasn't originally going to throw to Holmes on the play after throwing to him on the previous first-down play. But when the Cardinals took away the first two options, Holmes was the choice.
"All of a sudden, I saw [Holmes] go to the corner, I threw it and thought it was going to be picked. He made a heck of a catch," said Roethlisberger, who threaded the pass around Francisco, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ralph Brown.
After Holmes fell to the ground, he sat there and bowed his head, overwhelmed by the moment. His teammates raced over to congratulate him, celebrating his biggest game and the latest of a series of great moments over the final two months of the season.
"I've been proud of him since I came here and coached him as a second-year player," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He came into the offseason workout program in great shape, he showed maturity and seriousness about what he's trying to do."
The moment was a far cry from last week when Holmes created a buzz by acknowledging that he once sold drugs during his youth. Or in October when he was deactivated for the Giants game following an arrest on marijuana possession charges.
Holmes fell to Pittsburgh (which traded up) at No. 25 overall in the 2006 NFL draft after reports that he wasn't mature.
While Holmes' tenure with the Steelers hasn't always been smooth (he faced charges of disorderly conduct and a domestic disturbance prior to his first training camp), he has performed well on the field.
In the AFC championship game against Baltimore, he came up with a critical 65-yard touchdown reception, turning what looked like a broken play into a game-changer. In the regular season against Baltimore, he came up with a winning touchdown catch that clinched the division, even if the catch was highly disputed. Overall, Holmes had four touchdowns in the final six games, including the playoffs.
For the offensively-challenged Steelers, he was their most consistent weapon.
The reason has been Holmes' evolving maturity, as Tomlin noted. Although there have been stumbles along the way, Holmes has put an obvious priority on his craft.
"Santonio is just a guy who loves to deliver in big moments, in big games … If you're going to be a dominant receiver in this game, you have to be a machine, you have to run all day," Tomlin said. "He has done that. He has taken every challenge we've given him and responded. He has fallen short at times, but none of us are perfect."
Tomlin joked after the game that Pittsburgh's win was typically ugly for them, featuring plenty of ups and downs.
"It's never going to be pretty," he said. "Throw the style points out the window."
Except when it comes to Holmes. It was his combination of speed, grace and timing that was difference. His toe-tapping work caused plenty of dancing in the streets of Pittsburgh. So while there will be plenty of debate as to where this will rank among the best Super Bowls ever, the better argument might be which ultimate game performance ranks best among Swann, Stallworth, Ward and now Holmes.
Swann, who was the MVP of Super Bowl X, was the original Rudolf Nureyev of the NFL, a man who actually studied ballet as a child and then turned the championship showcase into his private recitals. Stallworth, who was Swann's partner on the great Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s, also had his share of great moments, particularly in Super Bowl XIV against Los Angeles. Then there was Ward, MVP of the Super Bowl XL win against Seattle when he had five catches for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Understandably though, the spotlight is all on Holmes.
"He has potential to go where no receiver has gone," Roethlisberger said. "He has unbelievable talent."