Saturday, January 31, 2009
Thoughts on the Big Game
We've been waiting. And waiting. And waiting. But, tomorrow is the big game. The Steelers could bring home their 6th Lombardi Trophy or the Cardinals will complete their Cinderella run and bring home their 1st. I'm sick of prognosticators saying things like "Nobody's giving the Cards a chance," despite the fact that more than half of the fans are picking the Cards. Here are some of my thoughts on the match up for Super Bowl 43.
The Cardinals present the Steelers with some challenges that few other NFL teams do. If you were going to design an offense to beat the Steelers, it would have several key characteristics. The offense would not care about running the football, because the Steez stop the run so well. It would be able to spread out the field with four and five wide receivers. The quarterback would be a veteran that isn't fazed by pressure, who gets the ball out of his hands quickly. The quarterback would need to be accurate and find the hot reads. Unfortunately, the Cardinals do all of these things well. They were ranked last in the league running the ball, and play caller Todd Haley has showed that he deoesn't mind throwing the ball fifty times and ignoring a balanced offense. Kurt Warner is as accurate of a passer as you are going to find and we witnessed last year that he can dissect the Steelers defense with the short passing game. The Cards have the best group of receivers in the league, and Larry Fitzgerald is playing out of his mind right now. According to former Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson, the bet way to beat the 3-4 defense is to spread the field and attack the seams in the middle of the field. Arizona excels at this.
In years past, we've seen New England spread the field and kill the defense with short passes to Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk. But this year's defense is more versatile than those of the past. Lawrence Timmons has added open field speed and coverage that has negated some of the spread formation's effectiveness. The defense has also shown an ability to get pressure on the quarterback with only 4 rushers, leaving 7 people in coverage. Great offenses get more media coverage than great defenses, so it is unsurprising to see so many people jump on the Cards bandwagon, but I don't see Arizona scoring more than 21 points on this defense, unless the Steelers offense turns it over or the special teams shit the bed.
If Arizona fails to score more than 21, the real question is whether the Steelers offense will be able to score three touchdowns. The Cardinals defense was below average in the regular season, but has played better in the postseason. However, they are still vulnerable to the big play. Atlanta scored 24 points against the defense and Philly had more than 400 yards. The real reason this Cardinals team is in the Super Bowl is that it has a +11 turnover margin. The defense has been boom and bust, but it makes up for its deficiencies by forcing turnovers. The Steelers have had trouble against undersized, fast defenses (think about the inability to run the ball against the Colts). I hope the Steelers are aggressive in their game plan, but still feature a heavy dose of Willie Parker. The offensive line will need to play a game like they did against the Chargers in the divisional playoff game. If Pittsburgh runs the ball effectively, it can control the clock and keep the defense fresh. This will spell disaster for the Cardinals.
Big Ben is out to prove that his performance in Super Bowl XL was a fluke. If Big Ben continues to play like he has this postseason, the Steelers will win the game. His numbers haven't been eye-popping, but he didn't turn the ball over against San Diego or Baltimore. The Baltimore numbers were undervalued, because of key drops by Holmes and Sweed, and the absence of Hines Ward. I saw a very encouraging interview between Ben and Deion Sanders where Deion asked Ben to complete the following sentence: The Steelers will win if _____. Ben said "don't turn the ball over." So Ben understands he doesn't has to be a hero, he just needs to limit mistakes. One very concerning issue is the effectiveness of Hines Ward. Arians loves to use three and four wide receivers, but the Steelers have no receiving depth and no one wants this game to depend on Limas Sweed.
Ultimately, I think the Steelers have many ways to win this game and the Cardinals only have two. The Cardinals will rely heavily on the Kurt Warner and the passing game. If Warner has a bad game, the Cardinals lose unless they force multiple turnovers. The Steelers can win with defense. They can win with the running game. They can win with the passing game. They are the more complete team and have proven to be consistently superior throughout the regular season. If the Steelers can get through the first quarter without getting burnt, I think the Steelers come home with Lombardi #6.