Steelers' top plays: Harrison INT return

Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT

This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23

Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

There is some delicious irony to one of the most defining plays in Super Bowl history.

Had Troy Polamalu improvised after correctly diagnosing what the Arizona Cardinals were going to do at the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII, there is a good chance he would have collided with outside linebacker James Harrison.

And there is an even better chance that the Steelers would not have won a sixth Super Bowl title.

Polamalu stayed put even after recognizing the Cardinals’ formation and Harrison improvised, dropping into coverage. Harrison intercepted the Kurt Warner pass that would have given the upstart Cardinals a halftime lead, and rumbled from one end zone to the other. When the Cardinals finally tackled the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year with no time left in the second quarter, he had completed one of the most astounding plays in NFL history. Harrison scored the touchdown that allowed the Steelers to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.

The Steelers ultimately beat the Cardinals 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII, and given the 10- or 14-point swing at the end of the first half, simple math is all that is needed to determine the significance of Harrison’s 100-yard interception return.

“We don’t win the Super Bowl if he doesn’t catch that and score,” Polamalu said. “If he catches it [but doesn’t score], we lose the Super Bowl.”

That is anything but hyperbole, and Harrison's play came after the Cardinals had driven to the Steelers’ 1-yard line near the end of the second quarter.

Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald lined up in the slot with Anquan Boldin to the outside on the left side of the field. Polamalu correctly deduced that Fitzgerald would clear out the coverage, with Boldin slipping in behind him.

But there was a problem: Polamalu was on the right side of the field.

"In my mind I’m like, 'If I leave my guy and I go over there and they don’t throw it, Coach [Dick] LeBeau is going to be really mad at me,'" Polamalu said. "So in my mind I’m like, 'Do I go, do I not go? Do I go, do I not go?'"

That indecision forced Polamalu to stay put and Harrison ended up dropping into coverage, even though he was supposed to blitz. He intercepted the pass that was intended for Boldin, who had single coverage and probably would have scored had Harrison rushed the passer.

Harrison’s pick was only the start of what Polamalu called “the greatest play in Super Bowl history.”

He started trucking down the field, ignoring calls from some of his faster teammates to give them the ball. A convoy of blockers helped Harrison weave his way through the Cardinals players who were desperately trying to get him on the ground. He collapsed in the opposite end zone with Fitzgerald and Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston draped all over him, completely drained following the 100-yard return.

“I was behind him telling him to pitch me the ball,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “After about 20 yards I’m like, ‘All right, he ain’t going to give me the ball,’ so I just happened to block Fitzgerald off of default. He tripped over me and fell, but I call that a block.”