Second-and-19 is usually a passing play – maybe a quick hitch, a slant, and even a screen are all relatively safe calls here – but the Steelers line up in an offset I, two-wide receiver set, offering no hint of their intentions. Tight end Heath Miller lines up next to right tackle Max Starks, halfback Willie Parker is six yards behind Roethlisberger and Dan Kreider is to Parker's right, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Hines Ward is wide right, and Santonio Holmes is on the other side of the formation.
The Saints are in their base 4-3 formation with defensive tackle Rodney Leslie lined up over center Chukky Okobi's left shoulder, and defensive tackle Willie Whitehead outside left tackle Marvel Smith's outside shoulder. To Leslie's left, Lake is over Simmons' right shoulder and defensive end Charles Grant is on Miller's outsider shoulder. New Orleans' linebackers are four yards off the line of scrimmage with middle linebacker Scott Shanle set up in the gap between Okobi and Simmons. Cornerback Mike McKenzie is six yards off of Ward and Jason Craft gives Holmes an eight-yard cushion. Strong safety Omar Stoutmire is eight yards behind the linebackers lined up behind Grant; free safety Josh Bullocks is few yards deeper behind Whitehead.
Whitehead is out of the play before the snap by virtue of where he sets up, and the gap between him and Leslie will prove to make the left side of the offensive line's job even easier. At the snap, Smith drives Whitehead wide left while Okobi and left guard Alan Faneca double-team Leslie to the right. Simmons engages Lake and Starks angles his body to force Grant to have to beat him to the outside. Miller sneaks through the line and runs straight for the left outside linebacker. New Orleans' front four don't do anything special, just a straight rush, trying to maintain their gap responsibilities.
While all of this is going on, the three Saints linebackers hold their positions four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Big Ben's first step is straight back with his head still looking downfield so it's not yet clear whether Pittsburgh will run or pass. On his second step, he looks back at Parker as Kreider reads the blocks along the offensive line looking for a hole to develop. Parker moves a few feet to his right as the ball is snapped, and as Big Ben makes his second step into the backfield, he finally moves toward the line of scrimmage. When Parker finally takes the hand-off he's still five yards in the backfield and the linebackers are exactly where they started pre-snap. This will prove to be crucial.
As this is unfolding, both wideouts come off the line very slow, with Jason Craft taking a step towards Holmes while McKenzie doesn't move opposite Ward – he's reading the quarterback. By the time Parker gets the ball, the wideouts are only three yards past the line of scrimmage, Craft is still creeping forward and McKenzie's still frozen.
As Parker follows Kreider through a two-yard hole on the left side between Smith and Faneca, Miller is engaging left outside linebacker Mark Simoneau who is now a yard farther behind the line of scrimmage. The other two linebackers, sure that it's not a play-action pass, finally attack the line of scrimmage but it's too late. Faneca leaves his double-team and has Shanle in his sights. Pre-snap, right outside linebacker Scott Fujita has gap responsibility between Faneca and Smith. As he moves to fill that gap, Kreider takes him out of the play … three yards past the line of scrimmage. Instead of bouncing it outside, Parker cuts inside, between Kreider and Faneca, along the left hash mark.
By this time, Holmes has sealed Craft to the outside and Ward has engaged McKenzie, but is only blocking him with one arm. Parker straddles the left hash as he crosses the line of scrimmage, and already every Saints defender – save the two safeties – is blocked out of the play. Five yards into Parker's run, Stoutmire looks to already be out of the play thanks to taking a bad angle, but Bullocks is seven yards in front of Parker with a chance to make the tackle after a 10- or 12-yard gain.
As Faneca drives Shanle to the ground, Parker deftly cuts left and after one false step, Bullocks is out of position. As Bullocks is going down he feebly tries to arm tackle Parker and fails.
Stoutmire still has a chance – he's two yards ahead of Parker and five yards to his right – but it's a footrace to the sidelines. McKenzie lurks a yard behind Stoutmire and he realizes his best chance to make a play will be 50 yards downfield.
The play is only 10-yards old and it's clear it's a sprint from here on out. Stoutmire is a donkey in this horse race with Parker and McKenzie as the thoroughbreds. Parker turns the corner on Stoutmire like he was wearing concrete moon boots and in 20 yards McKenzie has gained five yards on his strong safety. (For an idea of how slow Stoutmire is, consider that after Grant and Simoneau beat their blocks, they were running right with him as they all pursued Fast Willie. That's Charles Grant, defensive end and Mark Simoneau, outside linebacker.)
With Stoutmire fading fast, it's now Parker vs. McKenzie. Fast Willie glances at the cornerback as they both cross the Saints 35-yard line. McKenzie is still four yards away from Parker and losing the vertical footrace (in fact, in ten yards – between the 35- and 25-yard line – Parker gained at least two steps on McKenzie) and makes a last-ditch effort around the New Orleans' 22. The cornerback is parallel to the ground and swipes his right arm, getting just enough of Fast Willie's shoe to trip him up and Parker is eventually "tackled" at the 15-yard line.
The Steelers would score four plays later on – big surprise – a Willie Parker run.
Sure, Parker's sheer athleticism accounted for most of the 72 yards, but if not for two huge blocks – one by Faneca on Shanle and the other by Kreider on Fujita – it's probably a five- or six-yard gain. The threat of a Steelers play-action also froze the linebackers and safeties, not only allowing blockers to get to the second level, but giving Fast Willie time to set up Bullocks before beating him in the open field.
Ironically, Ward wasn't a factor as a blocker, but give McKenzie credit for never giving up, even though the play was on the opposite side of the field.
Parker would rip off a 76-yard run six Pittsburgh plays later, but it was the first one, the 72-yarder, that gave the Steelers a lead they would never relinquish. There's still a very, very, very long way to go, but if Pittsburgh can make a late-season run this could be the play that saved the season. We'll see.