HOUSTON — Vincent Valentine saw a sliver of space, and that’s all the big rookie needed to make one of the biggest plays of the AFC Championship game.
With the Steelers knocking on the door late in the first half, Valentine made the signature thump of an impressive goal-line stand as the Patriots forced Pittsburgh to settle for a hollow field goal after a 15-play, 70-yard drive.
After Jesse James’s 19-yard touchdown was overturned, the Steelers set up shop at the 1, and 6 points seemed inevitable.
Well, to everyone outside the New England huddle, anyway.
“We knew we had to keep them out,’’ said Valentine, the behemoth 6-foot-3-inch, 320-pound tackle. “They were on the 1-yard line, so we knew it was going to be tough sledding.
“We wanted to get the job done. Guys were just like, ‘Buckle down now, we’re in the red zone.’ Intensity always goes up when you get to the red zone, and even more so on the goal line. We just wanted to go out there and be more physical.’’
And that’s exactly what they did.
After Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung combined to knock DeAngelo Williams back a yard on first down, the Steelers decided to go back to Williams on second down, and Valentine had an inkling it was coming.
He rocketed through a gap left by right guard David DeCastro (who pulled left) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (who was a step slow and badly whiffed) and had a direct line to Williams.
Valentine knocked the wind out of Williams and took the wind out of the Steelers’ sails with the 3-yard loss. A poor third-down pass fell incomplete.
“I can’t say what I saw specifically before the play,’’ said Valentine, still smiling at the memory nearly a week later. “I took what I saw. There was a little opening, and I was able to slip through, get into the backfield, and make the play.’’
It was the only tackle of the day for Valentine, who has become a valuable member of the front-line rotation during what the third-round draft pick labeled an uneven first season in New England.
“The whole journey’s been up and down,” said Valentine, who collected 19 tackles and a sack in the regular season and has two tackles in the postseason. “I started off the year playing pretty good. But I hurt my back toward the middle of the season, so I had a couple of low points during the season, so I had to just be resilient and persevere through it and know that better days are on the horizon.
“After I recovered from my injury, I was able to catch a rhythm, and I’ve learned a lot from the older guys, so that’s a big help.’’
He couldn’t be happier with how the season is trending.
“What better position would you want to be in for your rookie year?’’ he said. “We’re going to the Super Bowl.’’
By helping his team reach the big game, Valentine kept intact an impressive streak by Nebraska players. A former Cornhusker has been to the Super Bowl 24 straight seasons.
“I actually knew about the streak before the game,” he said. “I didn’t feel any extra pressure, but I definitely knew. It’s a big thing. They love football in Nebraska, so, I’m happy to keep that streak going, and I’d like to keep it going for however long I can.’’
Valentine appreciates the groundwork he laid in Lincoln. He believes it helped him form a foundation for success in New England.
“All football is really the same,” he said. “It’s the details and work you put into it. Focusing on your technique and focusing on your craft. So it all depends on the mind-set you bring to work.
“You have to put in the work, concentrate on what the coaches are telling you and teaching you. Football has always been the same for me, so it’s just more concentrating and focusing more. To me, the mental part of the game is what changes at this level.’’
Bill Belichick said before the start of the playoffs that Valentine has been making steady progress, and that his versatility has been a plus.
“There are a lot of things he is working on, he’s gotten better at, but it’s a different game in there,’’ the coach said. “Especially for us, where we play guys like him in different spots. Sometimes he’s on the center, sometimes he’s in the gap, sometimes he’s on the guard, sometimes he’s in three-technique. He’s making progress. He’s coming along.’’
While Valentine is trying to make a name for himself on the football field, his name does come with some recognition. You see, Vincent Valentine is a main character in Final Fantasy, a popular role-playing video game. In fact, the fictitious Vincent Valentine comes up on a Google search before his gridiron alter ego.
“I don’t play Final Fantasy, but I know everyone talks about that character with the same name as me,’’ Valentine said, shaking his head. “It’s kind of weird to me that a Final Fantasy character would end up with a name like Vincent Valentine. How does that happen?
“I guess I’ve got to get my name up so I can be the first one that pops up on a search.’’