It probably isn't difficult to determine the biggest play of the regular season, the defining moment that allowed the Steelers to win their NFL-best 20th division title since 1970 and obtain a first-round playoff bye.
Actually, it might be more difficult determining which of Troy Polamalu's stunning plays was more significant, especially in a season in which he had a career-high seven interceptions and probably should win the NFL's defensive player of the year award.
But, in a year that began without Ben Roethlisberger, plenty of big plays shaped their 12-4 season, starting with a pulsating overtime touchdown by Rashard Mendenhall in the season opener and going right on through to another long touchdown catch by Mike Wallace in the season finale.
There were fortuitous moments as well, none more so than a strange ruling in Miami on Roethlisberger's fumble -- or was it a touchdown? -- at the goal line. And don't forget a dropped pass in the end zone in overtime in Buffalo and a holding call in Tennessee that wiped out an 85-yard touchdown run.
To determine the biggest moments of a regular season that probably exceeded the expectation of even the most fervent Steelers fan, the Post-Gazette asked a dozen Steelers players and coaches to vote for the top three plays that defined their run to the postseason.
Those votes were totaled and included with a list compiled by the Post-Gazette to produce, in order, the following top 10 moments of the 2010 season.
1. Troy Polamalu's forced fumble in Baltimore. Trailing 10-6 and with the Ravens facing second-and-5 at their 43 late in the fourth quarter, Polamalu came untouched from Joe Flacco's blind side and chopped the ball from his hand as he was about to throw, forcing a fumble. LaMarr Woodley scooped the ball and raced 19 yards to the Ravens 9, leading to the winning touchdown with 2:51 remaining that gave the Steelers control of first place in the AFC North. "That's why we are where we are," inside linebacker James Farrior said.
2. Rashard Mendenhall's 50-yard touchdown run in overtime in the season opener. On a play called "22 Double," Mendenhall cut off the right side behind blocks from tight end David Johnson and wide receiver Hines Ward and outraced safety Erik Coleman down the right sideline to give the Steelers a 15-9 victory against the Atlanta Falcons. "That was big because we talked all during training camp about running the ball better, and we won the very first game with a big run," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.
3. Brett Keisel's 79-yard touchdown interception return in Tampa. This didn't make the list for its significance as much as it did for its excitement. On the first play of the fourth quarter, leading 31-6, Keisel caught a deflected pass off the hands of Buccaneers receiver Sammie Stroughter and followed a convoy of blocks into the same corner of the end zone as James Harrison on his 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII.
4. Mike Wallace's 56-yard touchdown in Cleveland on first play. Needing a victory to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Wallace streaking down the middle of the field on the first play from scrimmage to ignite what would be a 41-9 victory against the Browns. It was the eighth time Roethlisberger and Wallace had combined for a touchdown of 40 yards or more, a new Steelers record. "It got everything jump-started," said Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison. "Everything started rolling and kept going."
5. Isaac Redman's 9-yard touchdown catch-and-run in Baltimore. Three plays after Troy Polamalu stripped the ball from Joe Flacco, on third-and-goal at the Ravens 9, Redman caught a short pass in the left flat at the Ravens 7, broke tackles by safety Dawan Landry and linebacker Jarrett Johnson and twisted into the end zone for the touchdown with 2:51 remaining that gave the Steelers a 13-10 victory. "Troy's play set it up, but, without that, we don't win," Mike Wallace said.
6. Mike Wallace's 46- and 41-yard TDs from Charlie Batch in Tampa. Making his first start in 2 1/2 years because of injuries to Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon, No. 4 quarterback Charlie Batch threw a pair of long touchdowns to Wallace in the first half that propelled the Steelers to a 38-13 road victory, improving them to 3-0 while Ben Roethlisberger was serving a four-game suspension. "The first touchdown was big because it set up the second one," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.
7. Troy Polamalu's late interception vs. Atlanta. After watching Falcons receiver Roddy White catch 13 passes in the season opener, Polamalu asked defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to call a different defense that allowed him to break on another sideline route to White and intercept quarterback Matt Ryan's pass with a tip-toe catch at the Falcons 21 with 1:45 remaining. kicker Jeff Reed missed a 40-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining that would have won the game in regulation.
8. Antonio Brown's 89-yard touchdown kick return in Tennessee. Wanting to create a splash play early so young quarterback Dennis Dixon wouldn't have to play from behind on the road, the Steelers got their first kick return for touchdown in three years when Brown took a reverse handoff from Mewelde Moore on the opening kickoff and followed a double-team block by Stevenson Sylvester and Ryan Mundy on safety Michael Griffin. It was the first time Brown touched the ball in an NFL game. "That was a big play in the game," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
9. Ben Roethlisberger's controversial touchdown sneak in Miami. In one of the most bizarre rulings in NFL history, a 1-yard touchdown sneak by Roethlisberger with 2:30 remaining was overturned by replay and ruled a fumble at the goal line. But because replay could not determine who recovered the fumble, the Steelers were awarded the ball at the Dolphins 1, allowing Jeff Reed to kick an 18-yard field goal for a 23-22 victory.
10. Troy Polamalu's late interception in Buffalo. Battling back from a 13-0 deficit, the Bills had a chance to take the lead on second-and-7 at the Steelers ' 12 with three minutes remaining when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's pass for wide receiver Stevie Johnson was deflected by nickel back William Gay and intercepted by Polamalu on a diving catch at the Steelers' 1. The Bills forced overtime when Rian Lindell kicked a 49-yard field goal with :02 remaining. "I think that was the biggest play of the season," LaMarr Woodley said.
Stevie Johnson's dropped touchdown in Buffalo. On the second series in overtime, the Bills' wide receiver got behind cornerback Ike Taylor and dropped a perfectly thrown ball from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone, spoiling what would have been a winning 40-yard touchdown.
Troy Polamalu's diving leap on the quarterback sneak in Tennessee. The play didn't prevent the Titans from eventually scoring a touchdown but, on a first-down sneak from the Steelers' 1, Titans quarterback Kerry Collins was stopped for no gain when Polamalu leaped over the line of scrimmage and tackled him.
Holding call that wiped out 80-yard touchdown in Tennessee. Leading 10-3, the Steelers got a break when Chris Johnson's 85-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was nullified by a holding penalty against Eugene Amano on NT Chris Hoke.
William Gay's blocked punt in Cincinnati. After the Steelers converted a Bengals fumble on the opening kickoff into a 7-0 lead, Gay blocked Kevin Huber's punt on the next possession to give the Steelers a 10-0 lead, en route to a 27-21 victory.
Troy Polamalu's 45-yard interception touchdown against the Bengals. Trailing 7-0 in a game in which the Steelers would not score an offensive touchdown, Polamalu came to the rescue again when he intercepted a Carson Palmer pass for Terrell Owens at the Bengals' 45, punctuating his scoring return by extending his right arm and diving to the pylon.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com . First Published January 9, 2011 5:00 AM