Friday, January 30, 2009

Super Bowl 43 preview

By Rick Morris

One of the most low-key media weeks of the modern Super Bowl era is behind us now as the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the ultimate football struggle this Sunday night in Tampa. These two teams took a characteristically low-key approach to the game's grandest stage, leaving us thankfully short of tabloid headlines and trash-talking nonsense to digest. One storyline that has been beaten into the ground is Pittsburgh's success in the Super Bowl era and the complete futility of the Cardinals team going back to the 1940s.

There are many great angles to this game on and off the field, but let's start by examining some of the more offbeat ones:

^ Pittsburgh's only loss in a Super Bowl came IN Arizona 13 years ago in Super Bowl 30 at the hands of Dallas. To this day, Neil O'Donnell's face is on the dartboard of every meth lab in the greater Pittsburgh area ...

^ Al Michaels and John Madden are calling the first Super Bowl on NBC since they regained NFL broadcast rights in 2006. When was their last Super Bowl together? Super Bowl 40, the last NFL game on ABC in February 2006 -- a game that also featured Pittsburgh. In that game, the Steelers beat (or perhaps "beat" is a more appropriate term, what with the big part the refs played in that travesty) the Seahawks -- who were coached by Mike Holmgren. "The Walrus" also lost Super Bowl 32, which was the last Super Bowl on NBC, giving him the unique distinction of losing the last game on two different broadcast networks.

^ This game follows in the footsteps of some true classics. 40 years ago in Super Bowl 3, the Jets and Joe Namath shocked the world. 30 years ago in Super Bowl 13, the Steelers and Cowboys played the second of their 1970s epic battles. 20 years ago in Super Bowl 23, Joe Montana led one of the greatest drives of all time to lead the Niners past the Bengals in the final minute. 10 years ago in Super Bowl 33, the Broncos and Falcons ... well, every rule has its exception, I guess.

^ This is only the fourth time in Super Bowl history that two QBs who have won Super Bowls will go head-to-head, albeit this is the first time that one of them won his ring with another franchise (Kurt Warner with the Rams in Super Bowl 34). The AFC won all three previous games (Pittsburgh over Dallas in Super Bowl 10, Pittsburgh over Dallas in Super Bowl 13 and the Los Angeles Raiders over Washington in Super Bowl 18 -- the first Super Bowl in Tampa). Now, there are many battles between QBs who would ultimately go on to win the big one, but very few that took place when both of them already had. And how about this note? Warner won his previous Super Bowl in St. Louis -- the former home of the Cardinals.

Before the hardcore analysis begins, I want to direct you to some other fine coverage on the Internet:

^ Our own FDH New York Bureau designed some fun prop bets for your Super Bowl party.

^ The great Football Outsiders site checks out some of the Xs and Os.

^ Greg Cosell, one of the best in the biz at dissecting film (along with our good pal The Scout Ken Becks of Gridiron Evaluations!), tells in his Sporting News column about how the two QBs in the game differ -- one is much better before the snap and one is much better after.

^ ESPN's analysts make their picks.

^ Here's's Super Bowl home page.

The obvious media hook to this game centers around the fact that the Steelers passed over Ken Whisenhunt for their head coaching job two years ago when Bill Cowher retired. Whisenhunt was the longtime offensive coordinator for Pittsburgh and he was designing the plays (including the sweet flea-flicker) when the Steelers won the Super Bowl three years ago. Many columnists have drawn comparisons this week to the Tampa Bay-Oakland Super Bowl of six years ago when Jon Gruden used his inside knowledge of the Raiders to help his Bucs disembowel them. Given that Gruden's protege Bill Callahan was leading Oakland on that day and Whisenhunt will be facing Mike Tomlin (who was unconnected to the Pittsburgh organization prior to being hired as head coach and who has made some changes, especially on the offensive side of the ball), it's very easy to overstate the advantage that Arizona gets from familiarity. Coach Whiz may be privy to some individual player tendencies and some lingering organizational philosophies that may be of some use, however.

One area of relative continuity is the defensive side of the ball for Pittsburgh, where longtime genius Dick LeBeau continues to design the "Blitzburgh" schemes. When Tomlin (a Tony Dungy protege) took over, he initially made noises about moving the Steelers more towards the Cover 2 scheme, and while Pittsburgh doesn't operate exactly as they did when Bill Cowher was supervising LeBeau, Tomlin was smart enough to back off and allow the necessary continuity. LeBeau's tenure has been so great that Mike Ditka grumbled this week about "idiots" voting for the Hall of Fame who don't give assistant coaches the credence in their voting that they should (incidentally, a stand that I have long held). Again, some of the wrinkles are different, as are some key personnel, but Whisenhunt's familiarity with his former defensive counterpart's philosophies will prove useful.

Now, these Steelers aren't the same as they were in the Super Bowl three years ago in some key regards. They're even better defensively, the top unit in the league this year with NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison having come into his own. But offensively? That's a different story. The experience that Ben Roethlisberger continues to gather has not offset a weakening offensive line (which has lost talent over the past few years -- not least of which the dominating Alan Faneca -- and the great O line coach Russ Grimm, who joined Whisenhunt in Arizona) and a running game that lost super rookie Rashard Mendenhall for the season and stud Willie Parker for parts of it with an injury. With a hobbled Parker and a better-than-expected-but-still-not-great Mewelde Moore manning the position for Pittsburgh, they finished a disappointing 23rd in the league in terms of rushing the ball. The receiving corps has been solid, but Hines Ward's good comeback season has a cloud over it at the moment after suffering a knee injury in the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers come into this game undeniably battle-tested, having competed against the league's toughest schedule (with out-of-division games against the brutal AFC South and NFC East). Conversely, the Cardinals played many cupcakes en route to winning the pathetic NFC West, another reason that their 9-7 record impressed so few coming into the playoffs. The team was particularly outmatched when they played on the road in the cold, so balmy Tampa will be quite to their liking.

It would be easy for Arizona to take heart in the fact that their worst-in-the-NFL rushing attack wasn't much lower statistically than Pittsburgh's. It would also be grossly misleading, since injuries accounted for most of Pittsburgh's falloff and Parker seems fairly healthy now. Alas, Arizona came by their putrid numbers honestly as Edgerrin James finally showed the effects of the countless "city miles" he racked up during his decade in the league and Tim Hightower proved adequate as a TD vulture back at best. The Cards mysteriously improved their ground attack during the playoffs, and against some really good defenses to boot, but none on a par with Pittsburgh's.

The alpha and omega of Arizona's offense is the passing attack with The Recycled Miracle Kurt Warner at the helm. In displacing Matt Leinart and returning to Pro Bowl status, Warner became the best QB in the league this season statistically against the blitz (bringing back memories of his Greatest Show on Turf days when TV announcers every week would make the point about how his days in the Arena Football League honed his quick passing skills) -- which makes the matchup against LeBeau's attacking unit that much more intriguing. And while Steve Breaston became arguably the league's best #3 WR and Anquan Boldin was another elite option (when he was healthy and not crying about his contract), Larry Fitzgerald was on his way to becoming a bona fide legend at age 25. Rarely have we seen in the recent history of any sport a postseason that yanks a player up from the ranks of All-Star to arguably one of the very best regardless of position (with Henrik Zetterberg's almost unparalleled two-way play in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs perhaps coming closest to mind), but the humble Fitzgerald has provided just such a historic burst of greatness. The beauty of LeBeau's defense is that it camoflagues a lack of shutdown corners, but the Pittsburgh secondary will find it very hard indeed to double-team Fitzgerald as needed with the threat of Boldin (if sufficiently healthy) and Breaston also evident. And as much as the Steelers have suffered for Grimm's loss, that's how much the Cards' offensive linemen have benefitted.

On the defensive side of the ball, analysts everywhere have been lining up to shake the hand of coordinator Clancy Pendergast for his team's great playoff performances -- when in fact they should be shaking him by the lapels and screaming in his face about how his team could have underachieved so horribly in the regular season (19th in the league in defense). Arizona's run has been especially mysterious because the running game and the defense have both improved so unexpectedly in the postseason. The Cardinals don't have a lot of big names on defense, but they have more than a few players like Adrian Wilson who should be more famous than they are. This is a good unit if they play up to their potential, as they have recently.

But one troubling note for Arizona fans is the fact that the team has been so reliant on causing turnovers in this postseason run. Two weeks ago, I correctly noted that Baltimore could be vulnerable against Pittsburgh because of a similar overreliance defensively on causing turnovers.

Speaking of Baltimore, the Steelers are very fortunate to have had the Super Bowl bye week after that game. The Steelers, Titans and Ravens were arguably the most physical teams in the league this year and Baltimore felt the effects of having to play the other two aforementioned teams in consecutive weeks in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Steelers have had a chance to heal up a bit this postseason with two playoff bye weeks and an initial playoff game that might as well have been flag football against an exceedingly soft Charger team that melted in the snow.

So what will decide this game? If you love the Xs and Os of football as I do, the battle of Arizona's offense against Pittsburgh's defense will be truly epic. I always note that the winner of a game is determined by who forces their style of play on the other team and this will certainly be the case here. If Arizona can turn this game into a track meet, they will win and it may not even be close. Warner is a legitimate big-game QB (leaving aside the donut hole of his career between the great runs in St. Louis and Arizona) and Roethlisberger turned in one of the absolute worst performances of a winning QB in Super Bowl history three years ago. That scenario is fairly doubtful, however, unless the unlikely resurgence of the Arizona running game can endure against the toughest challenge they have faced yet. But if that can happen, if James and Hightower and the dangerous-in-space J.J. Arrington can keep the Steelers on their heels, then Pittsburgh is in big trouble. Conversely, if Harrison and fellow OLB LaMarr Woodley can apply a lot of pressure without LeBeau having to commit to full-out blitzes, then Arizona's offense will be unable to function effectively.

When Pittsburgh has the ball, Roethlisberger has to be careful to not continue to pad Arizona's impressive recent interception tally. But the Cardinals have to be wary of his ability to make throws when flushed out of the pocket and the difficulty in bringing him to the ground. He is reputed to be at less than 100% physically and if either he or Ward is at subpar capacity, the Steelers will really struggle. The guess here is that both will be functional for what they need to do -- and remember that Ward is more of a possession receiver anyway. Pittsburgh would probably be feeling much more desperate if speedy Santonio Holmes was the one with a gimpy knee. Parker needs to outperform the other RBs Arizona has played against in the playoffs in order to give the passing game an honest chance. I would not be surprised if the Steelers threw in a few gadget plays in order to give the Mad Genius Whisenhunt something to think about -- since he'll surely put in a few for the Arizona offense.

In the end, the unlikelihood of Arizona being able to establish a truly balanced offensive attack looks to be their undoing. Pittsburgh does not have the offensive explosiveness that would indicate that they could win in a blowout (minus big turnovers to be generated by safety Troy Polamalu and company), so this one figures to be close. Can Arizona win? Most definitely, as we have established -- under the right circumstances. Those don't seem exceedingly likely to materialize in my book. The pick here is for a moderately exciting 24-16 win for Pittsburgh with Willie Parker taking home the MVP for chewing up yards and clock time -- helping the defense to mess with the rhythm of Warner's offense. Having said that, my playoff predictions are an uncharacteristically weak 3-5, so take the prediction with more than a few grains of salt. For that matter, three of my five losing predictions have come at the hands of Arizona, as I have been part of the army of skeptics who picked them to lose every week. Now that I have made my unbiased prediction, I will note on an extremely biased personal level that, as a lifelong resident of Cleveland, I sincerely hope that I am as accurate in picking the outcome of this Arizona game as I have been the entire postseason. Go Cardinals! And America, do yourself a favor and stick around for the special episode of "The Office" after the game as it should be outstanding as well.

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