Steelers WR Santonio Holmes(notes) could have dropped every pass thrown his way prior to his remarkable touchdown grab in Super Bowl XLIII and he still would have been known as the savior of the Steel City.
The circumstances couldn't have been more perfect – down three, 48 seconds left and a record sixth Super Bowl victory on the line for a franchise that has been the NFL's model of consistency.
So it only makes sense that the biggest six-yard catch of his life, which gave the Steelers a dramatic 27-23 victory over the Cardinals last February, will be mentioned in the same breath as the Super Bowl heroics of Pittsburgh heroes Lynn Swann and John Stallworth long after Holmes has retired.
However, that catch was just one of several big grabs Holmes made in the biggest game of his life. He caught a career-high nine passes for 131 yards on his way to earning the game's MVP honors.
"I think about it from time to time and even after it happened I really didn't realize how big it was and even now I still don't because there's still a lot I want to accomplish," Holmes said of the catch. "To have my name mentioned every time they talk about Steelers football is something to tell my kids."
In the wake of his award-winning Super Bowl performance, Holmes has turned his focus to validating himself as one of the league's elite receivers.
When the Steelers traded up from the 32nd pick in the '06 draft to get Holmes at No. 25, they sought a game-breaker to line up opposite then-reigning Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward(notes). But, Holmes struggled in the early going of his rookie season and battled injuries in '07 that caused him to fall just short of the 1,000-yard plateau.
In fact, the 25-year-old has failed to gain 1,000 yards receiving in any of his three seasons, leaving him to be considered by some as an underachiever.
Factor in some off-field troubles – he was arrested in May 2006 for disorderly conduct in Miami Beach, Fla., then got arrested one month later in Ohio on charges of domestic violence – and it added to the perception that Holmes was not living up to his draft status.
Most recently, Holmes was pulled over Oct. 23, 2008, and charged with possession of marijuana, but the charges were dropped on June 10 after Holmes' attorney told the court that the police didn't have good enough reason to pull Holmes over and the judge agreed.
Holmes' struggles with his personal life mirrored the inconsistency he displayed on the field. Prior to the Super Bowl, he had caught more than five passes in a game only four times during his career. His 131-yard performance was the only time during the 2008 campaign that he topped 100 yards in a game and was the second-best single-game yardage total of his career (only bested by a 133-yard game against the Rams during the '07 season).
What excites Bruce Arians, who served as wide receivers coach during Holmes' rookie year before becoming the Steelers' offensive coordinator, most is Holmes' uncanny ability to create big plays.
"I can easily see him catching 80-85 balls, even hit the 1,000 plateau," Arians said. "(But) he's got to stay healthy and consistent and play all 16 games."
Known for his speed coming out of Ohio State, the 5-11, 192-pound Holmes has 11 receptions of 40 or more yards and boasts an impressive 16.6 yards per catch average in his three NFL seasons. Yet, despite his abundant natural athletic ability and speed, Holmes has focused this offseason on getting even faster. He has been training at Disney's Wide World of Sports with trainer Tom Shaw, a former Patriots strength and conditioning coach.
According to Shaw's Web site, he has trained the last nine Super Bowl MVPs, 118 first-round draft picks and eight No. 1 overall picks. Shaw is specifically known for improving a player's speed.
"I like to go deep," Arians said when asked about Holmes trying to get even faster. "I'm not a guy that likes big, tall, slow guys, I like faster guys who can take the top end off the coverage. If that comes in a big package that's fantastic, but there are only a few of those freaks around."
It's unlikely that Holmes' postseason performance (13-226-2 receiving in three games) would warrant the Steelers to change an offensive philosophy of running the ball and imposing their will on opponents that has worked for decades, but Holmes did indicate that as he matures, QB Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) confidence in him has increased.
With a balanced offense that features other passing-game threats such as Ward, TE Heath Miller(notes) and free-agent pickup Shaun McDonald(notes), Holmes is aware that the ball won't be forced his way.
"I can only go as far as the team allows me to go," Holmes said. "Having Hines and Heath around, those guys definitely need to get their touches and it obviously opens the field [for me]. If it comes out me being the guy, then I'm definitely going to want to be that, but I'm definitely not going to take touches away from the other guys."
A vocally confident Holmes doesn't shy way from the opportunity to boast his skills – proud of the fact that after struggling as a rookie with fumbles and drops, he has a firm grasp on the offense. Still, in a league where some wide receivers run their mouths better than their routes, Holmes seems to keep a positive attitude about his role.
"I would say the main thing is that the coverage dictates whether I'm going to receive the ball or not," said Holmes, who illustrated that point brilliantly in the drive leading to his title-winning catch in the final minutes of SB XLIII when he caught four passes for 73 yards. "It's the opportunity to move me around and play me in different spots on the field."
Holmes' increased presence on the field – he was targeted 114 times last season, just 11 fewer than Ward, who at age 33 is in the twilight of his illustrious career – only makes the Steelers' offense less predictable and more difficult for defensive coordinators to game-plan against.
And when the coverage dictates he get the ball, he intends to capitalize. Just ask the Cardinals.
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