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News » super bowl XLIII 2009-02-03

super bowl XLIII 2009-02-03

super bowl XLIII 2009-02-03

On Jan. 22, 1989, Jerry Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown to earn Most Valuable Player in the San Francisco 49ers' 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. It took another 20 years before the NFL would showcase a receiver as dominant in the postseason as Rice was that January. Who knew a 5-year-old kid from Minneapolis would grow up to become that player?

But here we are. Game day for Super Bowl XLIII. Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. And all eyes are on Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., a former Vikings ballboy and Holy Angels star. "I have to approach the Super Bowl like it's an opportunity of a lifetime," Fitzgerald said. "What I've done up to this point really doesn't matter. I have to do it one more time." Fitzgerald's 419 receiving yards in upsets over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia already have broken the postseason record set by Rice 20 years ago. The 23 catches and five game-changing touchdowns make him Priority No. 1 for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the 71-year-old grandfather of the complex Fire Zone blitz and a veteran of 50 NFL seasons as a coach or player.

"It's a classic matchup between great pitching and great hitting," former Vikings receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter, a mentor to Fitzgerald for more than a decade. "Will the Steelers' great pitching beat the Cardinals' great hitting?"

In a twist of fate, the offense is the brainchild of Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, a creative schemer whose trick plays as Steelers offensive coordinator helped Pittsburgh beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL just three years ago. Whisenhunt left the Steelers following the 2006 season and brought assistant Russ Grimm with him after Steelers owner Dan Rooney passed over both of them to hire then-34-year-old Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to succeed Bill Cowher.

A Steelers' victory would give Pittsburgh a record sixth Vince Lombardi trophy -- one more than the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys -- and make Tomlin (36) the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. He would be only the second African-American to do so behind his mentor, Tony Dungy. By the way, he also would be the third former Vikings coordinator to win a Super Bowl as a head coach elsewhere this decade. Dungy won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts, and Brian Billick won Super Bowl XXXV with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Cardinals are playing in their first Super Bowl and have not won a league title since 1947. As one of two original NFL franchises still in existence along with the Chicago Bears, they have been around since 1898. They were born as the Morgan Athletic Club on Chicago's South Side, 22 years before the NFL was formed, moved to St. Louis in 1960 and went on to Arizona in 1987.

Matchups don't give Cardinals much hope

In keeping with a not-so-rich Cardinals history, there are plenty of nonbelievers. In fact, it's safe to say most folks don't expect Fitzgerald, quarterback Kurt Warner and the rest of the 6 1/2-point underdogs to pull off a fourth consecutive postseason upset.

"I really believe this matchup is completely in the favor of the Pittsburgh Steelers," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who won the Super Bowl as quarterback of the Ravens the last time the game was played in Tampa (2001). "As I've watched the tape, nowhere do I find an area where the Cardinals have an advantage. Not in talent but in scheme. Everything the Pittsburgh Steelers do matches up great against the Arizona Cardinals."

That, Dilfer said, begins with the No. 1 matchup: a Steelers defense that ranks No. 1 overall and in points allowed vs. a Cardinals passing attack that ranks No. 2 and has three receivers (Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston) with more than 75 catches and 1,000 yards receiving. The only other trio to do that in NFL history was Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders of the 1989 Redskins.

The matchup starts with the red-hot Fitzgerald, but we can't ignore Boldin, whose hamstring should be closer to 100 percent; and Breaston, who went from eight catches as a rookie in 2007 to 77 this season.

The Cardinals' 32nd-ranked running game has been more productive in the postseason but isn't expected to make a dent in Pittsburgh's No. 2-ranked run defense. That would put even more pressure on Warner, a former two-time regular-season MVP and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP with the St. Louis Rams.

The Cardinals are used to being the underdog. They lost seven games by an average of 18.4 points while joining the 1979 Los Angeles Rams as the only 9-7 teams to reach a Super Bowl. The Rams lost in that game, 31-19 to ... the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fitzgerald has carried Cardinals

The Cardinals' postseason has been a reversal of their late-season slide. The defense stiffened, the running game toughened and the turnover differential grew to a league-best plus-9. Oh yeah, one other thing:

"Larry Fitzgerald started jumping out of the gym," said Tyrone Carter, Steelers reserve safety and former Gopher. "He's really carrying that team right now."

The Steelers counter with an active 3-4 front that includes NFL Defensive Most Valuable Player James Harrison at outside linebacker and an even more athletic secondary that includes All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu. Some have argued the Steelers are a borderline dirty team, pointing to a vicious hit by free safety Ryan Clark that sent Ravens running back Willie McGahee to the hospital during the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago. Clark was not penalized or fined.

"I don't consider us bullies," Harrison said. "We play the game the way it's supposed to be played. It's not anything special. There isn't some magical fairy dust we sprinkle on each other. We just play the game."

The Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard rushing effort in 18 games this season. They also have not allowed a 100-yard receiver in their past nine games. The most receiving yards they've given up to one player this year was 137 by Baltimore's Derrick Mason during the fourth game of the season.

In other words, it would have to be quite a feat if the kid from Minneapolis were to break Rice's Super Bowl record of 215 yards receiving.

"I don't believe Pittsburgh fears the huge vertical threat by Larry Fitzgerald because they understand how to play this type of defense," Dilfer said. "If they can only have to commit seven players to stopping the run game and play with two safeties (deep), they know how to take away the perimeter receivers. And if Kurt Warner tries to force the ball to Fitzgerald early, this game could get away from the Cardinals real quick."

Because Pittsburgh does such a great job of taking away the perimeter passing game, Dilfer said he believes Fitzgerald will have to play in the slot and catch passes in the middle of the field to be a factor in the game. Carter said Fitzgerald can expect Cover 2 man coverage with a cornerback playing him underneath and a safety over the top. Although Fitzgerald is a physical player at 6-3, 226, Carter said the key to stopping him is to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage.

"You have to get up on Fitzgerald and not let him off the line of scrimmage," Carter said. "If there's one thing at this stage of his career that he doesn't do as well as some of the other receivers, it's run some of the shallow stuff. Put a corner on him and a safety over the top. That's how they negated Randy Moss (four catches for 45 yards) when they beat New England (33-10 in Week 12)."

Steelers will play their normal defense

Despite the familiarity between LeBeau and Whisenhunt, the Steelers aren't likely to change a whole lot defensively. They've played the same defense for 13 years and, as the humble Fitzgerald said all week, "I'm not the first good receiver to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I won't be the last."

The Steelers love to blitz, but Warner doesn't mind being blitzed. Of his 30 regular-season touchdown passes this season, 14 came against a blitz. For what it's worth, the last time these teams played, Warner relieved an ineffective Matt Leinart and helped feed Fitzgerald 10 catches for 120 yards in a 21-14 victory last season.

"I, too, love the playmakers, but in the history of this game, it's usually more about the sum of the parts than it is about playmakers," Dilfer said. "With two weeks to prepare, it's coming down to the sum of the parts, not just about who has the best player on the Football field. You give Dick LeBeau this time to construct his coverage schemes and blitz schemes, and he will know how to take away the best player on the field.

`'Nobody does a better job breaking down an offense's weakness than Dick LeBeau. The Cardinals definitely have some big holes in that offense, and Dick LeBeau will exposed them early and often."

In just a few hours, we'll find out -- finally -- if that's true, or if the kid from Minneapolis will take a lofty spot next to the legendary Jerry Rice in Super Bowl history.

Arizona (12-7) vs. Pittsburgh (14-4) - Today at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

Kickoff: 5:25 p.m. - TV: Ch. 11 (pregame begins at 1 p.m.) - Radio: 1130-AM - Line: Steelers by 6 1/2

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: February 3, 2009

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