Commentary

The little things mattered in SB XLIII

Originally Published: February 2, 2009
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

Super Bowl XLIII was a game of inches and sleights of hand. It wasn't just the tiptoes of Santonio Holmes or the inches forward Kurt Warner's arm failed to take, though.

It was the three inches Ben Roethlisberger didn't get on a first-quarter dive and the inches James Harrison did get with no time left at the end of the half. It was the step backward by an offensive lineman that nearly tripped Warner on what ended up being his first touchdown pass, and the step that Justin Hartwig didn't take quickly enough that led to a game-changing safety.

It was the glance and the pump fake that sent Troy Polamalu careening toward a decoy route and left Larry Fitzgerald with the ball and a glorious expanse in front of him. The divot -- very possibly a leftover from the halftime show -- that Aaron Francisco slipped on that set up the winning play. The extra step Adrian Wilson took at the end of a field goal attempt that ended up giving the Steelers three more plays and took two minutes off a clock that eventually bled the Cardinals dry. The yard that Anquan Boldin failed to get the play before Harrison picked Warner off on the goal line.

NFL GameDay: Super Bowl XLIII highlights

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The Steelers defeat the Cardinals 27-23 in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever.

In the end, we just remember the most important inches -- we forget the ball Holmes failed to grasp on first-and-goal and remember the brilliant catch on second down -- because time fades all the other plays. Without those inches going exactly the way they had, though, the opportunity for Holmes' huge play would not have existed.

Of course, labels have been shaken off as well. Roethlisberger washed the stench of Super Bowl XL off of his reputation as a clutch quarterback, while Holmes laid the memories of his suspension for possessing marijuana earlier this year to rest.

Warner solidified his case as a Hall of Fame quarterback, and Fitzgerald his as the best receiver in football, if not the best player altogether. LaMarr Woodley confirmed his status as an elite pass-rusher, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie confirmed that he was not (yet) the cornerback he has been hyped to be.

The only disappointing thing about a game so great is that it's the last one we'll see for seven months.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players of Super Bowl XLIII, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) statistics.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
Kurt Warner ARI
31/43
377
3
1
251
259
-8
559
Warner's goal-line interception was due to a poor job of spacing from the Cardinals' receivers and an excellent read by the brilliant Harrison, but 377 yards and three touchdowns against the best defense in football is an incredible day when you consider the amount of pressure Warner was under. Warner was knocked down seven times in addition to being sacked three times.

You'll also note that the battle between Warner and Harrison was contested by two undrafted free agents, available to any team in the league. Had Matt Leinart committed himself a little more professionally to his job and Clark Haggans not suffered a season-ending injury in training camp in 2004, both players might have been out of the league by now. It makes you wonder how many Kurt Warners and James Harrisons there are who didn't catch those breaks.

2.
Ben Roethlisberger PIT
21/30
256
1
1
23
32
-10
206
Roethlisberger's leadership and humbleness were evident when he thanked his offensive line after the game. Considering Roethlisberger spent most of the day zigzagging behind it to avoid rusher after rusher, the line deserved little thanks.

If you watch the film of Roethlisberger's final drive in this game or Tom Brady's two famous drives against the Rams and Panthers, it's amazing how much of "being clutch" is simply being intelligent and taking what the defense allows, which is almost invariably checkdowns and dump-offs. In these situations, Roethlisberger doesn't take his game to a new level; he simplifies what he does and waits for the defense to make a mistake. When Francisco slipped on the grass, Roethlisberger had his mistake and the Steelers were in business.

Running Backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Edgerrin James ARI
33
0
28
0
26
11
15
93
Edge picked up four first downs on 14 combined attempts despite not getting a single carry in a third-and-short situation. At this point, though, what do you do with James? It seemed obvious that he was going to be cut after falling out of favor with coach Ken Whisenhunt, but he has returned to being the Cardinals' primary back. He's also the best pass-blocker the Cardinals have in the backfield by a wide margin, and he would have had a bigger day had he not spent time trying to keep Warner upright.

2.

J.J. Arrington ARI 0 0 35 0 22 -1 23 57
Arrington's big play came when the Steelers went to Cover 2 and didn't bother to put anyone on Arrington, who slipped out of the backfield and almost did a double-take at the space that was available in front of him.
3.
Tim Hightower ARI
0
0
13
0
6
-2
8
28
Hightower combined with James and Arrington (two catches, 35 yards) to make a set of dangerous pass-catchers out of the backfield for Arizona. On the other hand, it was surprising that he didn't get the ball on the goal line at the end of the first half, a sign of how far he has fallen in the eyes of the Cards' coaching staff.
4.
Willie Parker PIT
53
0
-2
0
-8
-1
-8
58
Parker averaged 2.2 yards per carry on first down, with eight of his 12 first-down carries going for 2 yards or less. That lack of success puts the Steelers' offense in second- and third-and-long situations, which allow the pass rush to gun for Roethlisberger. You can talk all you want about how important "establishing the run" is to slowing the pass rush, but if you don't actually pick up any yardage when you're running the ball, you're going to put your team into obvious passing downs in the process.
Wide Receivers
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Larry Fitzgerald ARI
7
8
127
18.1
2
80
171
The Steelers did a great job of stopping Fitzgerald in the first half by cutting off his supply. With Warner battered from all sides, Fitzgerald wasn't able to create separation from Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu. In the fourth quarter, though, the Steelers inexplicably went from their successful blitz scheme into a Cover 2 deep shell that was more reminiscent of coach Mike Tomlin's roots in Tampa Bay. The result was a defense that Warner could read and Fitzgerald could run through.

Although no one will remember it, Fitzgerald's catch in quadruple coverage on the Cardinals' penultimate play might have been the most difficult play he made all postseason.

2.
Santonio Holmes PIT
9
12
131
14.6
1
46
145
He made up for a leaping catch he arguably should have made on one side of the end zone with an even better leaping catch on the next play. On the other hand, his two other incompletions were Roethlisberger's tipped interception and a pass that was nearly 30 yards downfield. He had four first downs and a score on the day -- not bad for a guy who was getting mock cheers from Ravens fans in Week 15.
3.
Steve Breaston ARI
6
6
71
11.8
0
44
100
Four first downs in six attempts, with a fifth catch of 13 yards on second-and-20. His individual stats here don't include his 34-yard punt return in the second quarter, which gave the Cardinals excellent field position.
4.
Anquan Boldin ARI
8
12
84
10.5
0
35
126
Those raw stats seem nice, but 45 of Boldin's yards came on one play. Otherwise, he caught seven passes for 39 yards. Those resulted in three first downs, but it's not the dynamic play you would hope to see from a receiver with such talent.
5.
Hines Ward PIT
2
3
43
21.5
0
17
45
Ward struggled to get separation all day and likely wasn't close to 100 percent, although he still did his customary good work on the outside as a blocker and a decoy.
6.
Nate Washington PIT
1
4
11
11.0
0
-15
2
Washington wasn't at fault on what could've been a play that changed the game altogether, a bomb down the center of the field that Roethlisberger underthrew and Rodgers-Cromartie miraculously tipped away at the last second.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.