— The Green Bay Packers' defense — with two ballhawk cornerbacks — ranked second in the NFL in takeaways.
— They ranked sixth in the NFL in turning third downs into punts.
— The defense's poor performance notwithstanding, this was statistically the second-ranked unit in the NFL, and it had come up big in key moments against Dallas, Baltimore and Chicago during a five-game winning streak.
— And it had field position and time on its side. A botched kickoff return left the Steelers 86 yards away from the end zone, with 2:01 on the clock and just one timeout at their disposal.
And yet Green Bay's second-ranked defense couldn't end the game.
Oh, it got close. Again and again and again.
And again and again and again, Ben Roethlisberger made the play.
After a first-down holding penalty on Charles Woodson, Brady Poppinga's sack made it second-and-14. On third-and-7, Roethlisberger's pass to Santonio Holmes went right through the hands of cornerback Tramon Williams. Facing a do-or-die fourth down, the Steelers — who, because of the similarities in defensive schemes, knew all of coordinator Dom Capers' tricks — got Holmes matched up one-on-one against linebacker Nick Barnett. Barnett's coverage was good but Roethlisberger's pass was better, and the 32-yard catch-and-run moved the ball to the Packers' 46-yard line.
When Max Starks had to tackle Matthews, the Steelers were faced with first-and-20 from their 44. The Steelers actually were fortunate, because Woodson almost ended the game with an interception. On the next play, the Packers appeared to have won the game again when Jarrett Bush intercepted a ball deflected by linebacker Brandon Chillar, but Chillar was flagged for illegal contact when he ran through Steelers receiver Hines Ward 8 yards down field.
"I didn't even see Ward," Chillar said. "I was just trying to drop to a different coverage and just ran into him."
On first down from the Steelers' 49, Roethlisberger ducked underneath a potential sack by Matthews and threw it away. Starks, completely unable to handle Matthews' speed, was flagged for a false start, making it second-and-15. On third-and-15, Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass to tight end Heath Miller, who was covered well by Bush, for a 20-yard gain to the Packers' 36.
"That's Ben Roethlisberger," Bush said. "He's going to make plays. That's what he does. They're defending Super Bowl champs. You have to beat the champ to be the champ. Unfortunately, we didn't."
Charles Woodson and Ben Roethlisberger talk after the game.
Gene Puskar/AP Images
Roethlisberger threw incomplete on first down, leaving the Steelers with 13 seconds. Again, the Packers had the game won — but Roethlisberger somehow shook free from a rampaging Jenkins and threw the ball away. Jenkins tried to tackle the 250-pound Roethlisberger up high, a foolhardy proposition and a sign of fatigue. The clock undoubtedly would have run out had Jenkins gotten the sack.
That left 3 seconds. The Packers' best two rushers weren't in position to rush Roethlisberger. Jenkins was exhausted and on the bench, while Matthews was at inside linebacker — rather than Chillar or A.J. Hawk — and dropped into coverage. That left the three rushers being rookie Jarius Wynn at Jenkins' spot at right end, Brady Poppinga at left end and Johnny Jolly at nose tackle. Just before Roethlisberger threw the ball to Mike Wallace for the winning touchdown, it appeared Jolly was held.
"It seemed that everything that could go wrong went wrong except for when we got a couple of penalties," Roethlisberger said. "We had to go over 80 yards with one play before the two-minute warning and one timeout. The thing was, was that guys were coming back to the huddle worn out, lineman, wide receivers, everybody. We didn't quit, everybody believed that we could do it. We got down to three seconds to go it looked kind of bleak, but this team never quits fighting. I can't say enough about the line giving me enough time to get it out, and Mike making the play."
The Packers' superb third-down defense allowed conversions on third-and-15 and third-and-10, not to mention fourth-and-7. Their ballhawk secondary had two chances to make interceptions but came up empty — with Green Bay's streak of 16 games with a takeaway coming to an end. Penalties let the Steelers off the hook twice. Jenkins and Matthews were tremendous but let Roethlisberger escape twice.
"There will be plays throughout the game, on that last drive, through all four quarters, through all three phases, that I will correct with our players that I'm sure we'll wish we could have back," coach Mike McCarthy said of that last drive. "That's not the way it goes. That's why you play one play at a time. That's why you move on to the next play, and we came up one play short."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.