When legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau announced he would not be returning to the Steelers for the 2015 season, it ended a legendary run. The 77-year-old Hall of Fame coach led some of the more dominant defensive units in NFL history, and those defenses helped the Steelers earn three trips to the Super Bowl in six years, along with two Lombardi trophies.
During LeBeau’s tenure with the Steelers, the defense played in some memorable games where their performances became part of Steeler lore. Though it’s nearly impossible to come up with the best of the best, we’ll take a shot over the next few days and list the three most memorable games during LeBeau’s time in Pittsburgh.
Let’s start with the third greatest game of the LeBeau era:
#3) Steelers 21 Colts 18 (AFC Divisional Playoff 1/15/06)
Despite coming to the RCA Dome as much as a 10-point underdog to the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts, the sixth seeded Pittsburgh Steelers certainly did not get the memo that it was “Manning’s time.” Of course, the Colts had reason to be confident. They started the season 13-0, were regarded as the prohibitive favorite to win the Super Bowl, and had blown out the Steelers earlier in the season 26-7 at home.
Fresh off an impressive Wild Card win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers came in brimming with confidence and were riding a five-game winning streak where every game was a must win. That urgency would show on this day in a big way, and the game would become one of the greatest in Steeler history.
Led by LeBeau’s defensive unit, this was a contest that was thoroughly dominated by the Steelers for nearly 55 of 60 minutes. However, it was the drama that unfolded during that final five minutes that would help to make this game an instant classic.
The Steelers controlled the early phases of the game, and charged out to a 14-0 first quarter lead thanks to methodical touchdown drives where second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, not Manning, looked like the All-Pro. Both drives were capped with Roethlisberger TD passes, the first to Antwan Randle-El, the second to Heath Miller.
Conversely, the Colts offense looked flat after locking up a first-round bye with three weeks left to go in the season. They were unable to get much accomplished despite of having an absolutely loaded group that not only included Manning at his peak, but two WR’s with 80 catches or more in Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, Pro-Bowl tight end Dallas Clark, along with a 1,500-yard rusher in Edgerrin James.
The Steelers defense controlled the first half with a combination of schemes that left Manning confused and frustrated for the first time all season. The Colts were held to 123 total yards, and Manning only threw for 74 yards in a half where the Colts offense punted on their first four drives, and were only able to salvage a field goal late in the first half on a nearly 10-minute, 96-yard drive that seemed to give the Colts hope heading into halftime down 14-3.
That momentum did not last. Once again, the Steelers defense made life miserable for Manning in the third quarter, as the LeBeau “Zone-Blitz” scheme controlled the game and was keyed by relentless pressure. One of the biggest plays came from nose tackle Casey Hampton, who was able to sack Manning at the Colts one-yard line, narrowly missing a safety. The ensuing punt gave the Steelers a short field, and when Jerome Bettis plunged in for a short touchdown to make the score 21-3, the Steelers looked to be in position to pull off the upset.
Desperate to get back in the game, Manning and the Colts would respond by scoring their first touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter. The 50-yard touchdown pass to Clark was the type of play the Colts had made routinely all season, and it seemed to not only give the Colts a sense of hope, it energized the notoriously loud RCA Dome crowd.
However, the Steelers would display the resilience that would eventually make them a Super Bowl champion for the first time in the Bill Cowher-era, and they would need every bit of it as the game reached the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
With the Colts down 21-10 with just 5:26 left on the clock, one of the most controversial calls in NFL history would be made by referee Pete Morelli. As the Colts desperately tried to drive for a score, Manning dropped back and threw a pass over the middle but clearly did not see All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who stepped in front of the pass for what looked to be essentially the game-clinching interception.
That’s when Morelli stepped in.
In the process of attempting to run after the interception, Polamalu lost the grip on the football, fumbled and then recovered it. Seemed clear to anyone who was watching the game that Polamalu had made the interception, but when Colts coach Tony Dungy would challenge the play in an act of mere desperation, everyone waited for Morelli to make a call that would make or break the Colts fledgling chances of a comeback.
Enter Morelli, and one of the more dubious reversals in replay history; Colts ball, Manning and company were granted an inexplicable second chance.
On cue, Manning and the Colts would take advantage of the terrible reversal and scored on a three-yard TD run by James, and followed with a two-point conversion play to make the score 21-18.
Now clinging to a precarious three-point lead, the Steelers were forced to punt and gave the ball back to the Colts. This is when Joey Porter, who had been the vocal leader of the Steeler defense all season, would come up huge. After James Farrior sacked Manning on third down, Porter would follow Farrior’s big play with a sack of his own. When Porter slammed Manning to the turf on fourth down at the Colts two-yard line with only 1:27 remaining, the Steelers were poised to move on to Denver for the right to go the Super Bowl.
At least that is what everyone thought. Of course, we know that was far from the case.
Cowher was in a predicament. The Colts had all three timeouts, meaning the Steelers could not simply kneel on the ball without giving Manning and the Colts one last shot to tie the game. Cowher decided instead to hand the ball off to the ever reliable, future Hall-of-Fame running back, Jerome Bettis to seal the victory.
After all, Bettis was having a dream journey on the road to his hometown of Detroit, who just happened to be hosting the Super Bowl that season. Storybook ending in sight, Bettis took the handoff and looked to be plowing in for the game-clinching score. However, Colts linebacker Gary Bracket was able to place his helmet on the ball, forcing a Bettis fumble that bounced perfectly into the hands of cornerback Nick Harper.
In an instant, Harper looked to have clear sailing to the end zone for what would be a 98-yard touchdown run that would give the Colts a miraculous comeback win. It’s a moment every Steeler fan remembers. I can vividly remember screaming NO!! at the top of my lungs, certain that the “fumble” would not only doom the Steelers, it would be a play that would be played over and over for years to come.
The fairy tale was ending was becoming a nightmare.
Enter Roethlisberger, who would later indicate that he just could not let Bettis go out like that. His shoestring tackle near midfield save the Steelers season, and at least for the moment, kept Bettis from being one of the biggest goats in NFL history.
With Manning now given one last shot, and he would complete two passes down to the Steeler 27. Lost in the array of amazing plays, inexplicable calls and drama was Bryant McFadden’s crucial pass break up of a perfectly placed toss to Wayne with seconds remaining. His play should not be overlooked, and forced the Colts to send one of the best kickers in the game, Mike Vanderjagt to attempt a 46-yard FG attempt that would send the game to overtime.
Vanderjagt’s kick never had a chance. The kick sailed badly to the right, and despite of all of the drama, tough calls and breaks, the Steelers were moving on, and would eventually end their fairytale season with a victory in Super Bowl XL over the Seattle Seahawks.
Much like the Colts game, it would be Lebeau’s defense that would play the key role in the Steelers Super Bowl run. Against the Broncos, the Steelers defense would force crucial errors by Jake Plummer and never looked back in a blowout win. Against the Seahawks, the Steelers defense completely shut down All-Pro running back Shaun Alexander, and limited the Seahawks offense to 10 points.
The performance of LeBeau’s defense during that 2005 Super Bowl season would cement LeBeau as one of the great minds in all of the NFL. The zone-blitz scheme was on the map in a big way, and now teams would try to emulate the success LeBeau’s defenses would have throughout his illustrious career.
Though many tried, no one was ever able to replicate it.