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Kevin Gorman: These Steelers could learn lesson from James Harrison’s Super Bowl interception

Kevin Gorman
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Steelers linebacker James Harrison returns an interception for a 100-yard touchdown during the second quarter of the Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009, in Tampa, Fla.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated their sixth Super Bowl XLIII championship by smoking cigars while wearing white robes, James Harrison slumped onto the stool at his locker, so exhausted he needed help taking off his jersey and shoulder pads.

Now known as a Steelers antagonist and a common critic of Mike Tomlin, Harrison was something entirely different 10 years ago today. On Feb. 1, 2009, Harrison played a heroic role in the Steelers’ 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, making one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.

I was privy to both the perfect press-box view of Harrison’s 100-yard interception return at the end of the first half, as the outside linebacker ran directly toward the corner of the end zone where we were seated, and a front-row seat for his post-game interview.

One of the first to Harrison, I was trapped next to him when wave after wave of reporters formed a semi-circle around his locker. What remains remarkable to me is how Harrison, who had a reputation for being short with the media, recounted the amazing play in incredible detail.

Not that he was smiling.

“I’m so tired and emotionally drained right now, I don’t know what to do,” said Harrison, who complained his neck hurt after he landed face-first in the end zone. “For the fans to watch it, I’m sure it was a roller-coaster ride for them. But we played it in, and I’m feeling it a lot more than they are. … I was just hoping the pain would go away in my neck and I could breathe.”

No doubt it was a breathtaking play, one that came at a breakneck moment for the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

The Steelers were clinging to a 10-7 lead late in the second quarter when Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Santonio Holmes to give Arizona the momentum with the ball at the Steelers 34.

Kurt Warner completed passes of 10, 12, 7 and 4 yards, and the Cardinals called a timeout with 18 seconds. With a first-and-goal at the 1, Warner took a hop-step backwards and threw a pass intended for wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the end zone. The Steelers were in a maximum blitz package, but Harrison dropped into coverage.

“I figured he had to get it out fast, either a quick slant-in or out and I just drifted over,” Harrison said. “He threw it straight to me. After that, I had 10 other guys on the field who helped me get down the field.”

To me, that’s what separates Harrison’s touchdown from all other Super Bowl scoring plays, even though I would argue the Roethlisberger-to-Holmes touchdown in the final minute was of greater magnitude. The interception covered the length of the field and, given that time expired, wouldn’t have been as meaningful if Harrison hadn’t scored.

Harrison wasn’t going to get a touchdown on his own, not with the Cardinals in hot pursuit. The teamwork stands out. When Harrison picked off Warner’s pass at the goal line, the Steelers started to sprint in the opposite direction, with cornerback Deshea Townsend leading the escort of white jerseys downfield.

“There wasn’t really a point where I said, ‘All right, I’m going to take it all the way,’ ” Harrison said. “When I first started, I felt like, yeah, I could get it. Halfway through, I was like, ‘Where are all these guys coming from?’ ”

That’s when the Steelers defense turned offensive, keeping the Cardinals from catching Harrison. Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior threw the first blocks, with Timmons hitting left guard Reggie Wells while Farrior got in the path of Boldin.

Townsend sprinted ahead of Harrison down the sideline, blocking Warner out of bounds around the 30-yard line. Cornerback Ike Taylor, who was behind the play, ran interference on a tackle attempt by tight end Leonard Pope at the 38. Defensive ends Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley also were out in front, and Keisel threw a shoulder into right tackle Levi Brown near midfield. Woodley blocked running back Tim Hightower, allowing Harrison to cut back and hurdle over Woodley.

To their credit, the Cardinals continued the chase. Timmons had continued running downfield, and chipped Wells a second time to send him out of bounds. Left tackle Mike Gandy dived for Harrison’s legs but missed at the 10-yard line when Harrison high-stepped.

By this point, Harrison was winded.

“At the beginning, it was kind of short (of breath) and I felt like I could make it,” Harrison said. “In the middle, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I ain’t going to make it.’ At the end, I was like, ‘I might as well keep going. I’m almost right there.’ ”

But Cardinals receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston finally caught up to Harrison. Fitzgerald, a former Pitt star, ran out of bounds along the Arizona sideline and grabbed the front of Harrison’s jersey at the 2. Breaston, a Woodland Hills graduate, raced from the opposite side of the field and threw a shoulder into Harrison to send him tumbling face-first into the end zone.

“We were able to get there,” Harrison said. “My teammates got in front of me and sacrificed their bodies so I could get a touchdown.”

The play provided a potential 14-point swing, as the Cardinals could have tied the game with a field goal or taken a 14-10 lead into halftime with a touchdown. Instead, the Steelers had a 17-7 advantage.

But the play took its toll on the NFL’s No. 1 defense, as the Cardinals scored 16 fourth-quarter points to take 23-20 lead with 2:37 remaining on a 64-yard pass from Warner to Fitzgerald. The offense returned the favor on Roethlisberger’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Holmes, whose tiptoe catch in the right corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left gave the Steelers the go-ahead points.

Woodley sacked Warner to force a fumble that was recovered by Keisel with 5 seconds left. The Steelers became the first NFL team to win a sixth Lombardi Trophy, something the New England Patriots will try to match on Sunday against the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

“When I saw him get the ball, his mindset is always, go in and score,” Woodley said. “It’s up to us guys on defense to go in and block. We went and blocked for him, and he was able to get us six points that were real crucial. That really helped us out at the end.

“If James wasn’t right there, they probably would have scored. James got the interception and we took advantage of our interception by going in and scoring. When you’ve got a defense that can help the offense out, that’s what wins Super Bowls.”

A decade later, the Steelers are so focused on individuals that they seem to forget that lesson: Harrison made one of the greatest plays in Steelers and Super Bowl history, but he didn’t make it alone.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.