TAMPA, Fla. - James Harrison didn’t win the Defensive Player of the Year award by making plays like this. He’s a sacker and a run-stuffer, not a long-distance runner.
Didn’t matter. Harrison went the distance on a 100-yard interception return — one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl and Steelers history — to swing the NFL title game on Sunday night when it appeared the Arizona Cardinals were ready to take the halftime lead. The Steelers went on to win their record sixth Super Bowl, 27-23.
On a first-and-goal play from the Steelers 2 with 18 seconds left in the half, Warner threw a short pass over the middle intended for Anquan Boldin, who had made two catches for 11 yards on the previous two plays.
Harrison, the Steelers’ right outside linebacker, read the play perfectly and cut in front of Boldin to make the interception at the goal line and take off up the Arizona sideline. The All-Pro linebacker was slowed twice on either side of the 50, with Warner himself trying and missing to make the tackle, before being hauled down by Larry Fitzgerald’s face-mask tackle — but not before thrusting the ball across the goal line.
“We were basically on a max blitz,” Harrison said. “Kurt had to get it out and so he had to throw a quick slant in or out and I guessed on it, basically just shifted out, flowed out, and he threw it straight to me. After that, it was about my teammates helping me get to the other end.”
The play was reviewed to see if Harrison got the ball across the line and the call was upheld, allowing the Steelers to seize a 17-7 lead when it appeared the Cardinals, once down 10-0, might take a 14-10 halftime lead. The replay was important because no time was left and Pittsburgh couldn’t have run a play from scrimmage.
“All we were thinking was that he had to score because if he gets tackled, it’s nothing,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Those are the type of plays he has been making all year. That’s the reason why he was the Defensive Player of the Year.”
Did Harrison ever think that, besides the clock running out if he didn’t get in, he might give out?
“I was going to make it,” Harrison said. “I’m not going to lie — It was a quarter tank (left). But I ended up making it.”
On his way to the end zone, Harrison said, “I was seeing jerseys that were friendly and jerseys that weren’t.”
What a matchup: the Defensive Player of the Year met the NFL Man of the Year — Warner was announced as the winner minutes before kickoff — and, this time, Harrison came out the winner.
It was fitting that Harrison had such a lengthy return. Cut four times by NFL teams, three by the Steelers, he mulled a career as a long-distance trucker or bus driver before the Steelers brought him back in 2004 and he stayed. He became a starter only last season and made the Pro Bowl team and, this season, his 16 sacks won him the AP Defensive Player of the Year award.
Harrison had only three previous interception returns in his career. A 33-yarder this season was his longest.
“It was definitely the most emotional game I have ever been a part of,” Harrison said. “I have never been so emotionally drained in my life. I am just so tired right now, man. I could go to sleep right here.”
Previously, the longest interception in a Super Bowl game was Kelly Herndon’s 76-yarder for Seattle against Pittsburgh in Detroit three years ago. The longest play from scrimmage was Jake Delhomme’s 85-yard TD throw to Muhsin Muhammad for Carolina against New England five years ago Sunday.
The Steelers’ Willie Parker had a 75-yard touchdown against Seattle, the longest run in Super Bowl history.
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