February 1, 2009 in Sports

Rush toward the title

Cards hope to run well, stop Steelers’ pressure
By Dave Goldberg Associated Press
Associated Press photo

The Arizona Cardinals are counting on Edgerrin James to pick up enough rushing yards to avoid long third-down situations.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

TAMPA, Fla. – For the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers, today’s Super Bowl is about the rush.

For Arizona, it will be rushing the ball to give quarterback Kurt Warner time to find targets like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the top members of the most dangerous receiving corps in football. For Pittsburgh, it is rushing Warner so he doesn’t have time to throw accurately – the Steelers were second in the NFL this season with 51 sacks.

A look at the strategy that each team is likely to use in today’s Super Bowl:

When Arizona has the ball

The Cardinals were last in the NFL in rushing during the regular season at 73.6 yards per game. One of the main reasons they upset Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia is that they have bumped their rushing yards up to 111 a game in the playoffs, making defenses treat Arizona as something more than a one-dimensional passing team.

Expect more of the same today. If the Cardinals can get 100 yards by handing off to Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower, it will hold down the all-out blitz that has been so effective for the Steelers. If Arizona can get into third-and-5 or less, Warner will be able to make quicker and shorter third-down throws to keep the ball moving.

Then, on an occasional first down, coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley are likely to call a gadget play. Arizona converted fleaflickers for 42- and 62-yard TDs to Fitzgerald against Atlanta and Philadelphia. The 6-foot-3 receiver has a postseason record 419 yards receiving in three games, and is almost impossible to stop in 1-on-1 situations.

“What has made us so good over this last stretch is that we’re a lot better at keeping teams off balance than maybe we were earlier in the year,” Warner said. “Although we had success and scored points and were able to throw the ball around, I think what you realize is that the more balance you have, the better you can be against good defenses.”

The Cardinals certainly are facing a good defense.

Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, 71-year-old Dick LeBeau, is considered one of the best in NFL history.

His unit was first overall in the league and second against the run. It allowed just more than 80 rushing yards per game, 3.3 yards per carry and allowed just seven touchdowns on the ground, tied for second best in the league. If the Steelers play that kind of defense, it makes it difficult to protect Warner from a pass rush led by James Harrison, who had 16 sacks and was voted the league’s defensive player of the year.

“Part of great pass defense is rush,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You can’t have one without the other. We’ve been consistently applying pressure to the quarterback, and that’s our emphasis, not sacks. Sacks don’t tell the story. It’s to be disruptive, it’s to apply pressure.”

Pittsburgh’s secondary features one true standout, free safety Troy Polamalu. In fact, the Pittsburgh DBs are known as much for their hitting as their coverage skills, but they rarely get burned because of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Can they control the Cardinals’ receivers?

With a pass rush, they probably can.

When Pittsburgh has the ball

The Steelers have traditionally been a running team back to the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. But for a long stretch this season, they didn’t run well, primarily because Willie Parker, who averaged 1,337 yards rushing in the 2005-2007 seasons, was hampered by knee and elbow injuries.

With Parker healthy, things should be easier for QB Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked 46 times this year, the third straight season he has gone down more than 40 times. One reason has been his tendency to hold the ball longer than he should.

But he might get away with that against the Cardinals, whose most dangerous pass rusher might be a strong safety, Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson. In his eighth season, Wilson is finally getting the recognition he should. Veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry is the most experienced lineman on a front seven that includes few true stars but a lot of experience.

Roethlisberger has pledged to atone for a less-than-stellar performance in the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory over Seattle three years ago. He was just 9 for 21 for 123 yards in that game and threw two interceptions.

That was at the end of Roethlisberger’s second NFL season. This is his fifth and he’s become an acknowledged team leader, a player his teammates consider the leader of the offense, more so than Hines Ward, the feisty wide receiver who was the MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl.

“I’m more relaxed. I’m having more fun,” Roethlisberger said. “The first time was my second year in the league, and I was so overwhelmed because it was such a dream to be in the game. This time, I’m just enjoying it and having more fun.”

Still, the Cardinals’ ability to score quickly suggests that the Steelers will play keepaway. They will try to run first, with Parker and Mewelde Moore, and control the ball with short passes to Ward and tight end Heath Miller. After they’ve moved the ball that way, they will use play-action passes to go deep to Ward, Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington.

The danger will be an Arizona defense that has been much more opportunistic during the playoffs than during the regular season – it has 12 takeaways during the postseason to three giveaways, including five interceptions of Jake Delhomme in their upset of Carolina, their first victory in the Eastern time zone.

“They like to move around and show different blitzes,” Roethlisberger said of the Cardinals. “Identification is going to be a big key.”

If that works, the Steelers won’t turn over the ball.

That also means they are likely to win.

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