ARLINGTON, Texas -- Steelers fans should have been nervous before the game even started, when Pittsburgh native Christina Aguilera fumbled some lyrics while singing the national anthem.
Steelers players took her cue and tripped over their lines one too many times in their 31-25 Super Bowl loss Sunday to Green Bay. Although they still own more Lombardi trophies than any other NFL team, the Steelers long will remember the seventh that got away.
Those three turnovers that led to 21 of Green Bay's 31 points, however, were not so much giveaways as they were takeaways.
Take the first one. Ben Roethlisberger, throwing from his 7 on first down, fluttered a pass short and way off target from Mike Wallace speeding deep down the left sideline. It was intercepted and returned 37 yards for a touchdown. The reason? Howard Green, a 340-pound defensive tackle, slammed into the quarterback before he could complete his follow-through.
Roethlisberger's second interception was right on target in tight coverage between two Green Bay defenders. Wallace seemed to get his hands on it but safety Jarrett Bush strong-armed him to come up with the football for an interception.
The final turnover, a fumble by Rashard Mendenhall, came after Ryan Pickett and Clay Matthews slammed hard into him to force it. That was no soft fumble. Those calling him Earnest Byner Mendenhall might want to remember the great Jerome Bettis' fumble in Indianapolis that Roethlisberger's shoestring tackle saved from becoming The Bus' legacy.
If anything, it was failure on the part of the Steelers defense to prevent touchdowns after two of those turnovers and their defense's inability to stymie Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense that prevented another Lombardi delivery to the South Side trophy case.
Green Bay's offense moved 53 yards in just four plays to score after Roethlisberger's second interception. The Packers moved 55 yards in eight plays to score after Mendenhall's fumble. Holding them to field goals on one or both of those drives might have been enough.
The Steelers defense did hold the Packers to a field goal on their final drive, but that came at a deep cost. With six minutes left in the game, with the Steelers trailing by three after a touchdown and 2-point conversion, Green Bay had the ball on its 25. It was third-and-10. A stop there, the Packers would have punted and the Steelers would have had plenty of time to run their usual offense to either move into a tying field-goal try or possibly taking the lead with a touchdown.
Instead, Rodgers' pass sailed over the top of Ike Taylor and into the hands of Greg Jennings for a 31-yard completion and a first down that kept their drive to three more points going, a drive that would kill four more minutes.
That Mendenhall fumble on second-and-2 at the Green Bay 33 with the Steelers trailing by four after scoring two touchdowns was a killer for them. But so was another offensive series that penetrated to the Packers 29 before dissolving.
It occurred before the fumble with the score still 21-17. A drive that started from their 40 moved snappily to a first down at the Packers 29.
Earlier in that series, from the Packers 44, Wallace streaked past his man deep but Roethlisberger did something he has not done for most of the season either in games or practice -- he overthrew the speedy Wallace, who seemed to slow up and reach for the ball rather than run to it. It would have gone for a touchdown and put the Steelers ahead.
A 15-yard pass to Ward did get them a first down at the 29. But from there, Matthews deflected a pass on first down. On second down, Roethlisberger completed a pass to Heath Miller who was thrown for a 3-yard loss. On third down, Roethlisberger was sacked for a 2-yard loss. On fourth down, Shaun Suisham hooked his 52-yard field-goal attempt wide to Forth Worth.
The best play by one group of Steelers was their maligned offensive line. With Doug Legursky replacing injured Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, with right tackle Flozell Adams leaving for a time with a stinger and then returning to play, that offensive line played the game of its season and gave the Steelers a chance to win.
Roethlisberger's first interception, returned for a touchdown, came when he was blasted and that goes to his protection, but he was sacked just once. And the Steelers ran for 126 yards.
The way Legursky played, perhaps the Steelers should consider their original 2010 plan for next season with Pouncey -- put him at right guard and keep Legursky at center.
"They did a great job," said Mendenhall. "They controlled the line of scrimmage all day."
Lost in the Super Bowl shuffle was the fact that Hines Ward moved into second place with the most receptions in postseason history with 88. He caught seven Sunday and passed Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who had 87.
Ward's touchdown also tied him for third place in the postseason with three others who scored 10 receiving. And his 78 receiving yards left him third on the all-time list in that category with 1,245 career yards in the postseason.
First Published February 8, 2011 5:00 AM