Friday, January 30, 2009

Why They Play The Games

"Sometimes its like someone took a knife baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley
Through the middle of my soul."

Well, here we are. The Super Bowl is just days away. I know this game has probably been rammed down everyone's throats this week, but honestly, I've been too busy to notice it. So sorry if all of this sounds redundant, but I figured I would give you my take on the things I like and dislike about each team, then give my prediction.

What I Like About...

  • The Pass Rush: Obviously, the Steelers boast one of the better defenses not only in the league currently, but probably one of the best in the last decade. What keys the defense, besides their ability to stop the run, is there insatiable ability to get to the quarterback and cause problems. Pittsburgh basically runs a zone blitz scheme on every down. However, the Steelers rarely drop their linemen into coverage. Rather, they disguise what linebackers and safeties they are sending. Dick Labeau has conditioned his players well enough so that they rarely tip off where they are coming from early on before the snap. They wait until the absolute last second to show their hand. This makes it extremely difficult for the offensive line to read not only where the blitz will be, but who will be coming.
  • Roethlisberger's Patience: A good quarterback? Yes. Maybe a bit overrated? Probably, but Roethlisberger's best trait, and the thing that has made him one of the winningest QBs of all time in his first six or seven years has been his patience and not forcing the issue when he is standing in the pocket. Sure, he has had his moments of inadequacy in the big games (see: 2004 AFC Championship and Super Bowl XL), but it seems like he has gotten away from those ill-advised plays for the most part. Also, he is so tough to bring down. I mean he's just a large individual, and sometimes, it seems like one guy is just not enough to make the tackle on him. He has a pretty good scrambling ability as well, and defenses are forced to respect that when he rolls out of the pocket.
  • The Safeties: Two years ago, when the Steelers allowed Chris Hope to go to the Titans, I thought it was a huge mistake, and while I still contest that this team would have been better off with Hope, you have to like what Ryan Clark has done since Hope's departure. Clark is good in coverage, but is best known for his huge hits on Welker and Willis McGahee two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game. Of course, Polamalu joins him at the strong safety position. The guy just makes plays. I know that sounds cliche, but that's what he does...he makes plays. He will be called upon to help over the top on Fitzgerald, and Warner needs to be aware of his presence at all times.
  • The Ability To Finish Games: This has been especially true this season. I mean think about it: The Dallas game they were losing, then got two scores in less than a minute, and boom, they get a W. Then the crazy ending to the San Diego game with the Polamalu TD that wasn't. Finally, the three wins against Baltimore, two of which were won by defensive TDs. It just seemed like if the Steelers were in it, they would find a way to win. This factor is an extremely difficult one to bet against. Some teams simply have the ability to will themselves to wins, and Pittsburgh, at least in the last two or three months, has looked to be like one of those teams.
  • Larry Fitzgerald And Co.: Obviously, the MVP of the Cards' postseason run has to be Fitzgerald, who quite literally has shredded opposing defenses in their three playoff games. He is an absolute nightmare to prepare for. The Steelers are going to need to have a safety constantly over the top to help Ike Taylor in coverage, or else Fitzgerald is going to have a monster game. That's not even a shot at Taylor because there has not been a corner that has been able to even contain Fitzgerald one-on-one. With all that being said, if Pittsburgh does decide to double Fitzgerald, it will open the door for Boldin and Breaston, who simply must step up their games. I think that the Steelers will come out for at least the first half and make Warner use someone other than Fitzgerald to beat them, so it is vital for the Cards to at least show that they can move the ball with their other two receivers. In the second half, I can really sense that Pittsburgh will all of a sudden back off of their pressure on Fitzgerald, and he will have a monster second half. Still, the Cards will need to get Boldin and Breaston involved early to do so.
  • The Secondary: As I have stated numerous times, I really like this secondary. Of course, there is my devotion to Adrian Wilson, my personal favorite safety in the league. Then, you have Rolle in the other safety position, who has done an amazing job shifting over from corner to safety. Rodgers-Cromartie has been an instant energy boost since being placed in the starting lineup midseason. Then, a huge darkhorse in this game will be Roderick Hood. His assignment will depend on the health of Hines Ward, but even if he goes up against Holmes or Washington, Hood is a gambler, and he is going to try and make the big play to change the momentum of the game. If he is successful, it could be curtains for Pittsburgh, but if he misses and allows a big one to go the other way, he may become a household name for all the wrong reasons.
  • The Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm Pittsburgh Connection: This is something that has probably been talked at nausea this week, but again, I missed it. So, I have to say that Whisenhunt and Grimm being familiar with what the Steelers do is a huge advantage for the Cards. Sure, every team has access to every game another team has ever played, but rarely do you have the kind of inside knowledge that these two possess about the opposing team. It will be very interesting to see what kind of things Arizona comes out with in an attempt to styme the Steeler defense. I immediately think about Jon Gruden after he was exiled from Oakland after the "Tuck Rule" game, then proceeded to beat the crap out of the Raiders in his first year with Tampa in Super Bowl XXXVII (you know, the one the Pats weren't in). You have to wonder what Whisenhunt is thinking going against his former employer, and what kind of feelings and emotions he may have after not getting the head coaching job once Cowher retired, and instead losing out to Mike Tomlin, an "outsider" from Minnesota. This could be one of the most underrated facets of this game.
  • Warner's Experience: You simply cannot discount the fact that Kurt Warner has been in this game not once, but twice, and both times, the game literally went down to the last second. He beat the Titans by a yard, and lost to the Pats on a last-second field goal. He has been up big, and he's been down big. This will be the first time that he will enter the Super Bowl as not only not a heavy favorite, but a fairly heavy underdog. Still, he has been here before, and you have to like the fact that, outside of the Ty Law pick-six in the Rams/Pats game, he has played very well in the spotlight (vs. Titans: 24/45, 414 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, Super Bowl MVP; vs. Pats: 28/44, 365 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs)
Random Thought: In the three Super Bowls the Pats played in, they allowed the opposing QB to go over 300 yards in all three of those games (Warner: 365, Delhomme: 323, McNabb: 357). Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing there?...

What I Don't Like About...

  • The Health Of Hines Ward: This has probably been the biggest story of the week, and part of the reason that the point spread dipped under seven after holding steady at a touchdown for over a week. Tomlin came out today and said Ward is "great," but that they would have to "see where he is after Friday's practice." Talk about mixed messages. That sure doesn't sound like a guy who is "great." I mean he might be a great guy or whatever, but from what I gather, it doesn't sound like he's in great health. My feeling is this: Ward will start the game. He will get a couple of catches, and everything will look okay. Then, somewhere towards the end of the first/early in the second, he will inexplicably be out of the game, and he won't return the rest of the way. Again, this is just my attempt to peer into the future, but if that happens, it will be a huge blow to Pittsburgh's offense. Everyone will be moved up a spot on the depth chart, and it will be tough to beat that secondary with a Holmes/Washington/Sweed combination.
  • The Red Zone Offense: Pittsburgh was able to score on almost 90% of its possessions inside the red zone, but had a 55.1% TD conversion rate, which was 15th in the league. I've even heard Steeler fans go on about how bad they are when they get inside the five. In a game where it will likely turn into a shootout in the latter stages, the Steelers are going to need to convert those red zone trips into TDs and not just FGs. Touchdowns could brake the Cardinals' spirit, but if they hold the Steelers to three, Arizona could build on that in terms of their defensive confidence later on in the game.
  • Special Teams: While the Steelers have done some real nice things in their speciality department (Holmes' TD vs. San Diego, Jeff Reed being steady for the most part), they were still dreadful for basically the entire season. This also goes back to Hines Ward's availability. Will Pittsburgh have Santonio Holmes returning punts if Ward is out of the game? Pittsburgh was 31st in punt return average, 29th in kickoff return average, and 30th in gross punting average. As we've seen time and time again, in a close game (which I figure it will be, but I could be way off), the effectiveness of the special teams unit is critical. They were able to come through against San Diego, but this has been a nagging issue all season...I mean they have Gary Russell returning kicks, how good could they be?
  • Offensive Line: The line looked good through the first two and a half games in this postseason. Then, in the third quarter of the Philly game, all hell broke loose. The Eagles were able to bring pressure around the edges and really got in the face of Warner, who in turn looked flustered and could not escape the pressure the Eagles were bringing. Warner and his line should expect the same type of challenge from Pittsburgh, only in this instance, they are likely going to start their outside rushes to force the issue early on. The hope is that in the two weeks since their third quarter debaucle, the Cards will make the necessary adjustments up front to give Warner just a little more time to read the field.
  • The Run Game: I do like what Arizona has been doing with Edge and Hightower in the postseason. Even still, it's so tough to run on the Steelers' D. It seems to me like it will be a matter of time before 'Zona becomes completely one-dimensional, and while that one dimension (the passing game) is quite a good one, when you are taking on a defense like Pittsburgh's, you are basically playing into their hands by abandoning one part of the offense. This would allow the Steelers to gear up on Fitzgerald and continue to pass blitz Warner.
  • Red Zone Defense: This is one of the biggest disparities of the statistical breakdown of this game. Pittsburgh gave up TDs on 33.3% of opponents' trips into the red zone, the best mark in the league. Arizona gave up TDs on 63.6% of opponents' trips, which was 28th in the league. It's so strange because Pittsburgh is bad on offense inside the 20, and Arizona is bad on defense...something has to give here.
Okay, and now...the prediction. Well, this is a complicated one. Everyone seems to believe that Raymond James Stadium will be Heinz Field with better grass. However, as I've written before, no one really knows about Arizona's fan base because the Cards have been completely irrelevant for basically their entire time while being in Arizona. Truth be told, there are a lot of them, and you will see some red and white in those stands. Furthermore, the Super Bowl is almost like a corporate outing instead of a football game. You are going to see a lot of neutral colors there from people who really don't care about the game, but rather, just want to say that they were there (if this is sounding like a Sox game at Fenway, it should). So, I really don't think the crowd is going to factor into this game that much. If anything, people are going to be more willing to root for the underdog, much like what happens in March Madness.

Pittsburgh has a tremendous defense, and I feel like Fitzgerald will be contained early on, but then he will explode because of one of two things:
  1. Warner will start making plays to Boldin, Breaston, and Urban, which will force Pittsburgh to abandon its initial plan of doubling Fitzgerald all game, or...
  2. Pittsburgh may become complacent and talk themselves into believing that Ike Taylor can stop Fitzgerald one-on-one, while they send Polamalu or Clark on safety blitzes in an attempt to further rattle Warner.
In any event, I just think Fitzgerald will go off down the stretch. Also, if the Steelers are going to have over-the-top help on Fitzgerald, wouldn't that open up the middle of the field? The only problem is that 'Zona does not have a reliable tight end, so they are going to have to make some adjustments on the fly in order to expose this.

Roethlisberger is a winner. There's no disputing that. He has spearheaded the "don't f___ up" style of QB since coming into the league. That's not a knock on him, but Roethlisberger has been asked not to make big plays, but not to make big mistakes, and it's definitely worked. Chad Pennington, Joe Flacco, and Trent Edwards are just a few examples of guys whose game leans heavily on their consistency and not turning the ball over. Pittsburgh will have an "easier" time this week in protecting him, but still, Arizona has a nice pass rush, especially in Bertrand Berry and Darnell Dockett. A key to the game will be how much time Roethlisberger gets before he's forced to throw. If he gets outside the pocket, it almost seems like he's better off. Because of his running abilities, defenses have to respect that, and once he starts rolling out, that has to be on a defender's mind. So instead of focusing solely on their man, they now have to worry about the QB scrambling. Look at what happened in the Baltimore game on the long touchdown hookup with Santonio Holmes. As Roethlisberger rolled out, Fabian Washington was forced to move up to defend against him running. Ben threw a pass over Washington as he was falling down trying to get back to defend the pass, and just like that, the Steelers make a huge play that propels them to victory.

'Zona also has a nice compliment of linebackers that no one seems to give any credit to, and they could definitely factor into this game. Willie Parker seems to be returning to form, and if he is allowed to get five yards a carry and get close to 80-90 yards for the game, the Cards will be in trouble. I really think that this unit will step up though. Gerald Hayes, Chike Okeafor, and Karlos Dansby (you really need to know his name) will be called upon to stop the run and to stop the intermediate passing game that Roethlisberger will inevitably have to rely on. I say that because I don't believe Ward will be effective for the entirety of the game, and the Cards' secondary should be able to contain the other Steeler receivers, leaving Ben no choice but to go to Heath Miller and Parker/Mewelde Moore out of the backfield. This unit is capable of making the stops, but they need to be able to execute on a consistent basis, because as I mentioned before, Ben can make plays happen on the fly, and the linebackers need to be savvy enough to force a bad pass, or at the very least, force Ben to make plays happen with his feet, which he can definitely do, but it's not something he really wants to be doing with regularity.

Okay, so where am I going with all this? Look, Pittsburgh is probably the better team, and their defense is fantastic. Me, personally, I just like the edge that Arizona has. They have a lot of different things they can do on both offense and defense. I think that Pittsburgh's offense will kind of look stagnant as the game progresses, especially without Ward in there. The Cards will have trouble running the ball, but at least they have Edge back there. He is going to try and put together a game that will see his value increase for his potential suitors after this season. On defense, I just love that secondary. I'm sorry, but I mean...Adrian Wilson is just so, so underrated, and it seems like even though he's a shoe-in for the Pro Bowl every year, he never gets discussed in the "best safety in the league" discussion. Instead, it's all about Polamalu, Ed Reed, or Brian Dawkins. I'm telling you, Adrian Wilson is just as good as those aforementioned players. To me, Adrian Wilson encompasses this Arizona team on a whole. This team is extremely talented, and yet they continue to get no respect because of the division they play in and their semi-collapse after they clinched a playoff spot. The season finale against Seattle was indicative of what they are capable of doing. What concerns me is how they react to what Pittsburgh does in the early going. They have to at least be somewhat aware of the fact that the Steelers will be hell-bent on both pressuring Warner and doubling Fitzgerald from the onset, which could open up some things underneath and down the field. Also, the Super Bowl is "the game," and without even looking this up, I have to say that the Steelers have way more guys that have played in this game than Arizona. However, that sometimes can be a two-way street. I mean look at last year. Because New England had been there, and had all the experience in the world, they were expected to wipe out the Giants, and we all know how that went. Granted, this is a different scenario as the Steelers are not undefeated coming into this game, but still, there has to be some pressure on them to win this game. If you look at it from that standpoint, all the pressure goes on Pittsburgh's collective shoulders, while Arizona has the luxury of being able to play this game knowing that all of America (including myself) had written them off after their win over Atlanta in Wild Card Weekend. Hell, they played the NFC Championship at home against the #6 seed and were underdogged by five points! The NFL has been so screwy this would be fitting to see a team that went 9-7 in the regular season win the whole thing...

Arizona (+7)

Thanks to everyone who continued to read this even after my prolonged leave of absence from writing. You probably will never know how much I appreciate it. As always, please let me know if there is something you like, dislike, or something that you want my take on. Everything is welcomed. Thanks again. Peace.


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