My, my, my, how the season has gone by so quickly. It seems like just yesterday that we were in a frenzy of 18-1, Peyton Manning’s knee injury, and a myriad of Super Bowl predictions.
Fast-forward to Jan. 31, and already we are on the eve of Super Bowl 43, taking place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida. More than 4000 reporters were at Media Day this year, and you can bet the stadium will be rocking all afternoon.
And although this years edition of the Super Bowl hasn’t created quite as much buzz as last year, it could be the most strategically played out game we’re ever going to witness in a game with the magnitude such as this one.
Breaking down the key match ups isn’t easy. Underlying story lines, key coverage match ups and defensive pressure are just three of the many breakdowns we can discuss. However, to keep it short, I’m going to breakdown two. Here they are.
With the Steelers likely to use their zone blitz heavy and often, Arizona will have to utilize a variety of screen and swing passes, dump offs to Edgerrin James, JJ Arrington, and Tim Hightower out of the backfield, and effectively use the underneath routes, where Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin are nearly unstoppable.
Dick LeBeau is still one of the NFL’s greatest defensive coordinators, and you have to think he has recognized Breaston’s and Boldin’s success in the middle, and will likely keep inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote from bringing the heat up the middle.
The wild card in the middle of the Steelers defense, is under-utilized pass rushing extraordinaire Lawrence Timmons, a former number one pick out of Florida State University. Foote has done a superb job holding off Timmons for the past two years, but that doesn’t mean LeBeau will continue to run with Foote, especially if Timmons gets in a groove, getting the better of center Lyle Seindlein and right guard Deuce Lutui.
Arizona’s offensive line is going to be key. Mike Gandy has emerged as a top ten left tackle this year, and Levi Brown has been solid and dependable, yet unspectacular throughout the year.
The two tackles are going to have to keep Pittsburgh’s two main weapons in the defensive repertoire, DPOY James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley from wreaking havoc in the Arizona backfield, and jarring Kurt Warner.
If Arizona can keep these two at bay for most of the game, it gives the Cardinals the best chance to win this football game.
Expect coach Ken Whisenhunt to go against the popular opinion of spreading the Steelers’ defense out, and play a lot of seven and eight man sets, with a lot of split back formations to keep Kurt Warner as healthy as possible, while letting Boldin, Fitzgerald, and Breaston man up with Ike Taylor and the Steelers’ underrated secondary.
If the Cardinals do beat these keys to a pulp, they will give Pittsburgh quite the game.
We all know the saying “defense wins championships” and that applied for the New York Giants last year, and could very well likely apply for this years game as well.
Dick LeBeau’s renowned zone blitz defense has garnered a bucket full of attention throughout this year, with the Steelers holding opponents to an incredible13.9 points per game, and just 237 yards overall per game, both good for first in the National Football League.
However, some of the philosophies that have made Pittsburgh so famous this year could be left aside in order to cope with the heavy offensive attack expected from Todd Haley and the Arizona Cardinals explosive offense.
Some of those options may include toying with the defensive chemistry that have made the defense click this year, such as reducing the field Troy Polamalu is allowed to roam to prevent the big play, dropping James Farrior and Larry Foote back into coverage more often then not, and playing a lot more man to man coverage then the team is used to.
The big one, like previously mentioned, is Troy Polamalu. All year LeBeau has allowed Polamalu to roam free as a rover-like player, in order to make plays. Polamalu answered that call with a career-high seven interceptions, and 73 tackles, 54 coming solo. But don’t expect Polamalu to go off like he has all year.
Expect Polamalu to play a lot of deep cover-two safety, preventing the big play instead of producing it. However, don’t be surprised if, at some point, Polamalu does make a big play, either by laying some out on a crossing route, or taking away several of Kurt Warner’s deep balls. If Polamalu plays it safe, the Steelers have a great chance to win.
The big thing Pittsburgh cannot do is fall behind. If Arizona goes out quickly and catches the Steelers on their heels, going up by two or more scores, it would leave Pittsburgh in a very vulnerable position. And by Pittsburgh, I mean Ben Roethlisberger, as he has shown difficulty leading the Steelers to victory from behind.
Big Ben’s nasty habit of holding onto the ball too long has been duly noted by fans and analysts, and it has cost him before. It will likely happen again against a Cardinals pass rush that has suddenly found the “rush” in “pass rush” when the Playoffs had rolled around.
The hybrid defense Arizona deploys has given all three foes fits in the extra season, and it will likely give a weak Pittsburgh line the same kind of attention it’s given Atlanta, Carolina, and Philadelphia.
These keys have an impact on both sides of the ball, for both teams, and we could be in for quite the game if both teams successfully run wild with their game plans.
Three key matchups to look for here on Super Sunday are:
- Heath Miller vs. the Arizona linebackers. Ben’s best friend today is going to be dependable tight end Heath Miller, who’ll likely be a safety valve on many plays when Roethlisberger needs one. Expect Arizona to play a lot of 4-3, and lining up the versatile Karlos Dansby against Miller throughout the game.
However, the Cards’ line backing core is more or less equipped to rush the passer, and Dansby could be a liability in coverage. After Brent Celek torched the Cardinals for 10 catches two weeks ago in Phoenix, expect Pittsburgh to employ a similar offensive game plan, allowing them to make use of Miller.
Look for Miller to rack up eight or so catches throughout the game, and be a key clog on 3rd-and-long situations.
- The Cardinals receiving corps vs. the Pittsburgh secondary. Larry Fitzgerald has made a mockery of every team in the Playoffs so far, destroying anything coordinators threw at him. In the Atlanta game he made a fool out of Lawyer Milloy and company, racking up 101 receiving yards and a touchdown, which seemingly kick started the Cardinals improbable run.
Carolina then tried to compensate their corners by playing a lot of two deep zone, but Fitzgerald also gave it fits, going off for 8 catches and 166 receiving yards and another touchdown.
Even Jim Johnson tried to center one of his illustrious defensive game plans around Fitzgerald. However Larry caught an incredible nine passes for 152 yards and three touchdown balls, leading the Cardinals en route to their first Super Bowl since the mid-1940’s.
Expect Anquan Boldin to have an MVP-like performance if Pittsburgh does indeed shut down number 11. Back to full strength, Boldin will likely be matched up in man with DeShea Townsend, who’ll try to coincide with Ryan Clark to shut down the All-Pro receiver.
- Todd Haley vs. Dick LeBeau. A lot of people comment on how Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm and Clancy Pendergast have a mental edge over the Steelers. I think that isn’t true, and that it is blown out proportion.
Yes, it’s true Ken Whisenhunt and Grimm have probably gone over some of the tendencies of the Steelers defense. And yes, it’s probably true that Clancy Pendergast has a book on Ben Roethlisberger’s tendencies and will likely attack the weaknesses in Roethlisberger‘s game.
However, since Tomlin has took over, Roethlisberger has also evolved into a more mature quarterback, which I think we’ll see showcased this afternoon.
I do not believe that Arizona has that big of a mental edge, and I do not believe Pittsburgh will lose based off of this.
The buzz around the Super Bowl wasn’t as great as it was last year, but then again, a lot of that so called buzz was around the New England Patriot’s perfect season.
Being the Cards fanatic I am, I obviously hold a lot of bias with Arizona, and I think this is a game that Kurt Warner and company can pull out in the end. That being said, I have two predictions.
If the game turns into a high-scoring affair, I lay a lot of trust in the Cardinals to eke out a win.
However, if the Steelers are able to effectively use the blitz, and can properly protect Ben Roethlisberger, I can unfortunately say that the Steelers are the likely favorites to win Super Bowl 43.
Final Prediction: 19-14 Pittsburgh Steelers