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|Reg. season record||162-93-1||165-90-1||163-92-1||166-89-1||166-89-1|
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Stopping Warner key to containing Fitzgerald: Standing between Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and another Super Bowl championship is the player he describes as the wide receiver who has the best hands he has seen in his 50-year NFL career.
"He's the best I've ever seen at catching the ball," LeBeau said of Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. "He plays like he's 7 feet tall. With timing, extension and the best eye-hand coordination I've ever seen -- and I've seen a few receivers."The thing that makes him so formidable is the quarterback can put it up there with accuracy to where it becomes a contest between Fitzgerald and whoever, and so far it's been him."
So what is LeBeau's game plan for defending Fitzgerald in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII?
It is brilliantly simple: sack Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner before the ball leaves his gloved hand. LeBeau seems to know that not even his top cornerback, Ike Taylor, can possibly control Fitzgerald, who already has accumulated 10 more yards (419) than Jerry Rice's league record for postseason receiving yards, with the Super Bowl still remaining.
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
Slowing Larry Fitzgerald may be one of the toughest challenges Dick LeBeau has ever faced.
But LeBeau might be able to dominate at the point of origin of Fitzgerald's five postseason touchdowns. Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have combined for more sacks this season than any other tandem in Steelers history.
"No question about it," LeBeau said. "If Warner's on the ground, we don't have to cover Fitzgerald.'"
Not only that, but Warner often has put the ball on the ground when he's sacked. He has lost seven fumbles this season, and nobody has caused more fumbles than Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the league's top-ranked defense. Woodley has multiple sacks in three consecutive postseason games.
"The thing that got them here is their great passing offense and a great quarterback," LeBeau said. "You can't let them throw ball over the place, or you're in for long day."
LeBeau knows that even if the Steelers become the Cardinals' first opponent to control Fitzgerald, Warner has two other 1,000-yard receivers in Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Five offenses in NFL history have had a trio of 1,000-yard receivers, and Warner has been the quarterback for three of them.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who has delivered some of the most devastating tackles in the league this season -- ask Wes Welker or Willis McGahee, assuming they are conscious -- has noticed that Fitzgerald has expanded his repertoire of routes he's able to run, making him more impossible to cover.
"In past years, even though he was going to Pro Bowls, he was a fade-ball guy, a deep 9-route guy," Clark said. "Now he's running crosses, he's catching post routes, running after the catch, so he's really turned himself into one of the elite, complete receivers in the league. So I don't think there's anything you can do to prepare for that."
But Clark and other Steelers players believe LeBeau will devise a strategy that prevails. One likely key to the Steelers' ability to generate pressure on Warner is forcing him to hold the ball by having Pittsburgh's cornerbacks take a physical approach. Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley says the Cardinals' receivers cannot allow themselves to be rerouted.
"If we come out there and hit them and are physical with him, and get a good hit early, I think they might go back to the quarterback and say, 'Hey, how about you don't throw the ball in there,'" Clark said. "But if I had to go into any game with any defensive coordinator, I think this is the game with Coach LeBeau. This is a game where he's important. He's going to give us opportunities to get hits on them, for cornerbacks to get hands on them and disrupt them as much as possible."
Or they could just sack Kurt Warner.
-- Ed Werder
Numbers Crunching: Super Bowl XLIII
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, 6:28 p.m.
Three weeks ago, I noted that Carolina ranked first in the league running in short-yardage situations, but also first in the percentage of its rushing yards that came more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. When I wrote that, I said no team since at least 1997 had done this on either offense or defense. After a couple of late-season statistical fixes, that's no longer true -- because the Pittsburgh Steelers accomplished the same two-fer on defense this year. The Steelers allowed only four runs more than 15 yards all season, while the average team allowed 19 such runs.
During the regular season, the Cardinals had the best third-quarter offense in the NFL, while the Steelers had the best third-quarter defense in the NFL. (This is true according to both total points and our advanced DVOA ratings.) The difference between these teams came in the first half. Pittsburgh's defensive DVOA in the first half of games ranked second in the NFL. Arizona's offensive DVOA in the first half ranked 20th. Even if we remove the Week 13-16 period when the Cardinals suffered three huge losses, their offensive DVOA in the first half still would rank just 15th. This actually might be the biggest change for Arizona's offense in the playoffs -- it suddenly has been starting games hot instead of finishing them hot. During the regular season, the Cardinals averaged 6.0 yards per play in both halves. In the playoffs, the Cardinals have averaged 7.7 yards per play in the first half and just 4.0 yards per play in the second half.
Arizona averaged 17.2 yards per pass on deep passes, those that went more than 15 yards through the air (not counting passes intentionally thrown away). That was the highest figure in the league. However, the Pittsburgh defense was the league's best against deep passes, allowing just 8.5 yards per pass. The Steelers were especially good against passes to the deep left, which is where cornerback Ike Taylor usually is stationed. Only six of 25 deep left passes were completed during the regular season by Pittsburgh opponents, for an average of just 6.8 yards. That's generally the side where you will find Larry Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald also runs a lot of routes that have him crossing into the deep middle of the field, and Taylor isn't so great covering those types of routes. We have Taylor listed as the defender on six deep middle passes -- including two by San Diego in the divisional round -- and five of those six were complete for a total of 127 yards. (Note: Obviously, we're talking about a really small sample size here, so judge things accordingly.)
There's a lot of talk about each team's strengths, but one of the most intriguing matchups in the Super Bowl comes where each team is weakest: special teams. When Santonio Holmes returned a punt for a touchdown against San Diego in the divisional round, it was Pittsburgh's first special-teams return touchdown of the season. Combining kickoff and punt returns, our numbers estimate that poor returns cost the Steelers 19.7 points' worth of field position compared to a team with average returns. However, the Arizona coverage teams also were the worst in the league, allowing a combined 22 points' worth of field position compared to the NFL average.
On This Week
- Kurt Warner is back at the Super Bowl seven seasons after his last appearance. Trent Dilfer sits down with the Cardinals quarterback to talk about the peaks and valleys in his career.
- Ben Roethlisberger's style of play is high-risk, high-reward. Tom Jackson sits down with Big Ben to discuss how staying in the pocket leads to big hits and sacks, but also to big plays.
It's the yellow flag that generations of Steelers fans have lived by. The Terrible Towel has a rich history, but it may have a better legacy, thanks to legendary broadcaster Myron Cope. Greg Garber reports.
- Larry Fitzgerald hasn't cut his hair since 2003 -- when his mother died after a long fight against breast cancer. The Cards wide receiver sits down with Cris Carter to talk about how he pays tribute to his late mother on and off the field.
- Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer will be live on set at Raymond James Stadium.
What is the biggest surprise of the postseason?
Jeremy Green: Although it is the Cardinals in general, I am going to narrow in on their run game. They have outrushed their three opponents in the postseason 333 yards to 232 yards, which is a tribute to their run defense as well. The Cardinals came into the postseason with the worst run offense but since then have run the ball better than any other team ever. Offensive balance from RBs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower has been a huge reason teams have had no answer for the Cardinals' passing attack.
Gary Horton: Obviously, it's the improved play of the Cardinals. They looked like a mediocre team in a mediocre division throughout most of the regular season, and when they clinched their division early, they seemed to play with no sense of urgency and very little pride. But they have made an amazing turnaround and don't look like the same team. All their weaknesses seem to have been corrected.
Chris (Dayton, Ohio): Why do I always hear about Arizona's offense when I hear nothing about what Pittsburgh offense can do to Arizona's defense?
Mort: I happen to think this is a very critical factor in the game. The Cardinals' defense hasn't totally come together, but they have about a half-dozen Pro Bowl-caliber players -- on defense! They are playing more as a true team defense, but they do have some breakdowns, so I believe Big Ben, Willie Parker and Santonio Holmes can get 20-plus points, maybe even in the high 20s. So that's why I'm in the range of a 27-23 game, probably the Steelers. Still haven't made up my mind yet.
Tom (Pittsburgh): What do you make of the story about Kurt Warner's agent talking to the Bears?
Mort: Well, he's (the agent) based out of Chicago, and the Bears are not allowed to talk to him. But I would bet your house there's no way Warner would consider Chicago. He knows the benefit of playing in dome/good-climate stadiums with great receivers. The Cards value him. I see Kurt as a Cardinal or in retirement.
Jermaine (Tucson, Ariz.): So sources are saying that Larry Fitzgerald is willing to restructure his contract to make room to re-sign Anquan Boldin. What do you think his chances are for returning to AZ, even though he said he wouldn't re-sign in the season?
Mort: It's a bit of a nonstory. First, the Cardinals have projected salary-cap space of $42-$46 million in 2009, so no restructuring is needed. Boldin is under contract for two more years, but he is deserving of a new deal. It may be interesting.
First and Goal
Super Bowl XLIII seems to be all about the Steelers.
A new generation of Steelers fans has mobilized to find tickets in road venues throughout the country. For Super Bowl XL in 2006, Steelers fans turned Detroit's Ford Field into their home field by gobbling up a majority of the tickets and making the Seahawks feel like outsiders.
Steelers fans have flocked en masse to Tampa. A local newspaper reports there are approximately 30 bars in the Tampa area that will fill up with Steelers fans Sunday. Cardinals fans don't even have one bar to claim as their own.
Is that more incentive for Arizona? Maybe, but the Cardinals don't need motivation at this point. In what is a classic matchup of a great Cardinals offense facing a great Steelers defense, the Cardinals need one more superlative performance from their veteran quarterback.
Kurt Warner is the Cinderella story of the 2008 season. He entered training camp as the backup to Matt Leinart, unsure whether this was going to be his last season. At training camp, he talked about wanting to play two more seasons, but only if he could be a starter. He came to camp looking for a chance to play.
Former Steelers offensive coordinator and current Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt came to the desert in 2007 with a creative game plan and a disciplined style that demanded player accountability. It has taken him only two seasons to bring Arizona to the Super Bowl.