Steelers' 'perfect catch' turns 10: When Santonio Holmes won a Super Bowl

PITTSBURGH -- After Larry Fitzgerald split a sea of Pittsburgh Steelers defenders to give the Arizona Cardinals the lead with 2:37 left in Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes told himself he wouldn't be denied again.

He thought of missed opportunities in his football career, from underwhelming performances in meaningful high school games to redshirting during Ohio State's 2002 national championship season.

He had to be the difference this time, so he walked up to his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who was positioned close to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and tapped him on the hip.

"I said, '[No.] 7, I want the ball right now,'" Holmes, 34, recalled of his words before the game-winning drive. "'No disrespect to the other guys. I want the ball.' He never said anything. He just threw it to me."

Ten years ago Friday, Holmes made a play that will forever live in black-and-gold folklore. The freeze frame says it all: Holmes tapping his two feet on the Cardinal-painted end zone as three defenders closed in, securing the ball while bracing for the fall out of bounds from the far corner.

Roethlisberger delivered the kind of throw that inspires shoe ads. The brilliant 6-yard touchdown with 42 seconds left gave the Steelers a 27-23 lead, secured their sixth world championship and changed Holmes' life forever.

"Millions are watching you. What are you going to do now?" Holmes said about his mentality before the play. "You didn't ask God to put you in this place for you not to do what you were supposed to do.

"This won’t break me. This will make me. Legends never die."

Let's revisit the legendary play from the eyes of those who lived it.

The buildup

It wasn't lost on Steelers players that the coaches on the other sideline -- Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm -- were considered for the Steelers' head-coaching job that went to Mike Tomlin in 2007.

Max Starks, the starting left tackle on that 2008 team, remembers limited interaction with his old coaches and even "some bitterness there."

When the Steelers got the ball at the 22-yard line with 2:30 left, they were fighting for more than a Super Bowl.

"If they beat us, they could say the Steelers didn't hire the right guys," Starks said.

Holmes was brilliant on that final drive, securing three catches for 67 yards to get Pittsburgh into the red zone. But after Roethlisberger and Holmes failed to connect on a first-down pass in one corner of the end zone, the Steelers ran similar action to the other side on second down.

Starks knew whatever happened on the upcoming play, Pittsburgh was in good shape.

"We thought we had two more runs, and we’re getting in the end zone," Starks said. "Worst case, we’ll double-team [Darnell Dockett] and run a counter play down their throat."

The Cardinals were dealing with their own expectations. The image of Fitzgerald streaking freely into the end zone emboldened them.

"We thought all we have to do is at least stop them, make them kick a field goal at the worst," Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown said.

The developing play

The way Holmes remembers it, Roethlisberger had options based on what coverage he saw, man or zone. Holmes was running a corner route and had to clear the linebacker before beating the corner, but he had to read the safety, too.

Safety Aaron Francisco was keeping tabs on tight end Heath Miller when Roethlisberger used his signature pump fake to draw defenders. As Holmes eyed the corner, the safety was supposed to be on top of him, he said.

"When I saw that leverage on the safety, I felt Ben would throw it to me but it took forever feeling he was going to throw me the football," Holmes said. "When I saw him pointing, I wasn’t even completely set up. I saw him in the corner of my eye, I wasn’t sure if he was pointing at me. I didn’t see the ball until it came right out of his hands -- 'Oh s---, he’s throwing me the football.'"

Brown originally lined up with Hines Ward in the slot but covered the flat when Mewelde Moore got open for the dump-off. Then he realized Roethlisberger was going to Holmes, so he bolted for the end zone.

"I’m staring at Ben Roethlisberger ... I thought for sure I'd get an interception," Brown said. "But I didn't know the depth of players behind me."

The catch

Brown leapt only to watch the ball glide 3-4 inches past his outstretched left hand. Rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had lost leverage in the Cardinals' "quarters" coverage, forcing Francisco to scramble. And Roethlisberger made the throw of his life, placing the ball where Holmes was the only one with a chance.

"Perfect pass, perfect catch," Brown said. "I had the perfect angle. As soon as he caught it, I knew it was good. The replay wouldn't matter."

Roethlisberger expressed gratitude for his part in the historic play but recognizes he wasn't exactly playing percentages on the throw.

"I never, ever should have made that throw. That throw was the dumbest throw ever," Roethlisberger said in 2016 on The Talk of Fame Network. "Why take that chance? Because when it left my hand I thought it was intercepted. I really did. I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, we blew it.'

“I knew I put a good ball out [there], but the guy [Brown] was kinda undercutting it, and he got twisted around or whatever. But when it came out of my hand the initial thought was 'OK, it’s a good ball, but it’s probably going to be intercepted or tipped or something.'"

Making the play wasn't foreign to Holmes because he had repped it with Roethlisberger numerous times in practices, he said. Getting both feet in bounds while keeping balance was a strength of his.

Revisiting the play, Holmes sees the Cardinals' mistake.

"If [Francisco] had extended his arms, that’s an incomplete pass," Holmes said of Francisco's attempt to knock Holmes out of bounds. "He was two seconds late using his forearm instead of an extension of his arm. That gave me an opportunity."

Roethlisberger affecting the defense with a pump fake was an underrated part of the play, Starks said. Roethlisberger wasn't great at looking off defenders at that stage in his career, Starks said, but he was good at using his body to move safeties.

Starks figured Roethlisberger was working his magic as he flushed to his right and delivered the throw. Starks blocked as long as he could, saw the touchdown in his peripheral vision and gleefully hoisted his quarterback.

"Willie [Colon] came over while I was holding him and I kind of passed him off to Willie," Starks said. "Then I was watching the replay. Let’s make sure this is good."

And it would have been good in any era, Starks said. Holmes cleanly got both feet down and never lost control of the ball.

Identifying Holmes in the corner through all the Cardinals traffic required a quarterback at least 6-foot-5 to make that throw, Holmes said.

"I would consider that the biggest throw in his career," Holmes said.

Brown considers it something else: a failure. The defense should have double-teamed Holmes from the beginning of the play, he said.

"It shouldn't have been a touchdown if everyone does their job," Brown said.

The aftermath

Holmes, who's back in Columbus finishing his Ohio State degree in consumer services and family finance management, was traded to the New York Jets after the 2009 season. He finished his career with 389 catches for 6,030 yards and 36 touchdowns, which won't be enough to earn a Pro Football Hall of Fame bid.

But his touchdown play is celebrated in the Hall of Fame museum in Canton, Ohio. Holmes is proud of that.

"My jersey and the remembrance of that catch will never leave the history of the game," Holmes said. "That’s what I wanted to be a part of."

Brown enjoyed a 10-year NFL career and moved on from the play with no problems. But he gets a chuckle out of how life might have changed had he soared for the interception.

"I would have had three books out already, speaking engagements," Brown said. "I’d be a hero for the rest of my life."