THIS SUPER BOWL has one significant element in common with last year's: The underdog most assuredly can win if it plays to its strength. In Super Bowl XLII the Giants had a chance against the mighty Patriots as long as New York's quick, flexible and unpredictable defensive front won the battle at the line of scrimmage. This year the Cardinals have a shot against the imposing Steelers if Larry Fitzgerald can make big plays like he did in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2009 issue
Against the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles on successive weekends in January, the 6'3", 220-pound fifth-year wideout torched secondaries for a total of 23 receptions, 419 yards and five touchdowns. When single-covered, Fitzgerald beat them long, as he did on the 62-yard flea-flicker touchdown against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game; when doubled, he leaped between defensive backs for jump balls thrown by Kurt Warner, as he did against Atlanta and Carolina. Also, Fitzgerald is more physical than he looks—"He's got a little tight end in him," says Rams cornerback Ron Bartell—and has been more effective in the middle of the field than in the past, the beneficiary of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's plan to make him a complete receiver. The 25-year-old Fitzgerald now does so many things that are hard to defend against that Pittsburgh's mantra in preparation for Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday in Tampa is: Expect him to make plays, but stop him from making the big plays.
The Steelers' defense must force the Cardinals to use 13 plays to score, not three. And to do that Pittsburgh will have to change some of its tendencies. For one, instead of allowing heat-seeking safety Troy Polamalu to roam the field, blitzing and intimidating at will, the Steelers might have to play him and free safety Ryan Clark in a more disciplined two-deep scheme, to ensure that Fitzgerald gets nothing deep. Second, the Steelers must alter their blitz philosophy. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau mostly reserves the blitz for obvious passing downs, but on occasion in this game he'll have to disrupt Warner by sending outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on first- and second-down plays. And though LeBeau doesn't use bump coverage as much as some coordinators, he'd be wise to hit Fitzgerald plenty within the legal five-yard zone.
As defensive backs and coaches who faced Fitzgerald this year learned, you have to show him different looks over the course of the game. "I've been around some great receivers in 25 years in this league," says Jim Mora, Seattle's secondary coach in 2008 who was promoted to head coach after the season. "Jerry Rice ran every route with a purpose. Terrell Owens runs angry. Larry runs with a viciousness. He attacks the defense. He's become a much more physical player this year, but I don't think you can just play him in a physical way exclusively. He's too smart for that."
Here's more advice for the Steelers from players and coaches accustomed to seeing Fitzgerald in the NFC.
Reroute him as he comes off the line. Fitzgerald had 11 catches in two games combined against San Francisco this year, but only one of those went for more than 10 yards because the 49ers wouldn't let him get comfortable. "We make him start his route again whenever possible," says Niners secondary coach Johnnie Lynn. "That takes time off Kurt's clock. If Kurt gets a second taken away, with Larry starting his route again, it might take Larry out of the play." Lynn says he'll line up a corner inside of Fitzgerald and try to send him up the side on one play, then in the same formation the next time put the corner outside and try to force him to the middle. The key, Lynn says, is to not let Fitzgerald dictate the coverage.
Hit hard when the ball reaches his hands. "The Cardinals threw him five fades against us this year," says Rams safety Corey Chavous, "and they were 0 for 5. That's because Ron Bartell, who's 6'1", played him so well." Which is where 6'2" Steelers corner Ike Taylor comes in; he's likely to be matched against Fitzgerald on deep balls. Says Bartell, "When the ball is close or Fitzgerald's just getting it, I try to play through his hands and into his helmet. He's got the best hands in the league by far, so you want to be physical on his hands."
Pittsburgh has to attack Fitzgerald's body as well as the ball. "He did a LeBron against us last year," says Lynn. "They threw a jump ball in the end zone at the end of the half, and none of our guys got up to his elbow. He's special in crowds, the best of the big guys at going up for the ball." If the Steelers can't leap with Fitzgerald, they'd better make sure he feels the body shots on his way down in hopes of dislodging the ball.
Beware the flea-flicker. Only once in two games this postseason has a receiver—San Diego's Vincent Jackson—caught a ball beyond Pittsburgh's last defender. "You don't get behind our secondary," Taylor says. But twice in three games Fitzgerald has gained more than 40 yards on gadget plays. Polamalu must be smart enough to recognize the trap when the Cardinals try to pull it. Two months ago it would have been easier for Pittsburgh. The Steelers could have kept their two safeties back 100% of the time, because in the regular season there was no Arizona running game to worry about—the Cards ran the ball just 36% of the time. But with their tight ends' return to health and playing mostly with a lead in the playoffs, Arizona has run on 52% of its snaps. "Now we've got play-action back," Haley says. That will keep Pittsburgh's defensive backs guessing.
Watch the pick play. The Cards like to send Fitzgerald across the middle, expecting to free him by losing defenders in traffic. At least 12 snaps a game Arizona uses four-wide sets, which Pittsburgh sees very little of in the AFC North. In one of Haley's preferred formations, he bunches three wideouts on one side and puts Fitzgerald alone on the other. "The chess match is going to be the Pittsburgh linebackers on the Arizona receivers," says Lynn, "because on early downs Pittsburgh usually lets the linebackers drop in coverage. You can't leave Larry alone on the backside of that three-by-one formation. He'll either beat you deep or get lost in coverage over the middle."
The Steelers will have to pick their poison: Do you force Fitzgerald to the outside and risk getting beat deep down the sideline, or lay off and take your chances on a succession of 12-yard crosses and eight-yard curls?
FITZGERALD ISN'T the only player Pittsburgh has to worry about: Arizona has two other 1,000-yard receivers in Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Yet with LeBeau setting the tone the Steelers' defense will be confident. And why not? They're the No. 1 defense in the NFL. They mauled the Patriots and the Cowboys—two good downfield passing clubs—late in the season, harassing Matt Cassel and Tony Romo into five interceptions and eight sacks total while holding them to a 51% completion rate and two touchdown drives on 26 combined possessions.
Warner and Fitzgerald versus the new Steel Curtain is going to be a fair fight. Just remember that Arizona put up 32 points on Philadelphia's third-ranked defense in the NFC title game, with Fitzgerald contributing three first-half touchdown catches. If the Cardinals—and Fitzgerald—come close to duplicating that performance on Sunday night, they'll join the 1969 Jets, 2001 Patriots and 2007 Giants as history's unlikeliest Super Bowl winners.