Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII Musings: Reasons for Optimism

Last week, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls flagged some of the many reasons the Cardinals represent a formidable foe for the Steelers on Sunday, Feb. 1. Yes, the Steelers will have their hands full vs. the Cardinals, but there certainly is reason for Steelers' fans to be optimistic ... not least of which is that "Kurt Warner's No. 22!" (ranked No. 22 in career fumbles among NFL quarterbacks).

In no special order ...
  • The Steelers will have the edge in time of possession. The Cardinals will have limited success running the ball. They'll barely try, frankly. Or, to be more precise, they'll try to run the ball in the first quarter, just for appearance's sake, but they will lose patience, quickly, and abandon the run, early. In lieu of establishing the run, they will resort to quick-out patterns, bubble screens, and short-to-intermediate crossing patterns -- which the Steelers will disrupt. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau anticipates all this and will have his defense ready.
  • For what it's worth, Arizona posted the worst running numbers in the NFL this season -- just 73.6 yards per game. The Steelers defense was second in the league against the run.
  • The Steelers will have the edge in turnovers. Not that the Cardinals have a bad defense. They have a good defense. The Steelers have a great defense.
  • Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner will make mistakes. Granted Warner is a great player (in the discussion for the Hall of Fame), seems like a terrific guy and has a wonderful rags-to-riches story. On the plus side, he is poised, recognizes coverages, has a lightning-quick release and an arm that is plenty strong enough. Plus, he has tremedous receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston (whom nobody seems to be talking about this week but is the guy who worries me as much as anybody [well, except for Fitzgerald, the best in the NFL]). Warner is a steadying influence, having started two Super Bowls (beating the Titans and losing to the Cheatriots) and being named Super Bowl MVP in the January 2000 SuperBowl. He's like a coach on the field and, in fact, is older than Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
  • One the negative side for Warner ... For all his positives, Warner relies on timing -- everything has to be just perfect, including and maybe especially, his offensive line. Here's where the Cardinals have serious matchup problems with the Steelers defense. Left tackle Mike Gandy and the running back du jour (Tim Hightower, Edgerrin James or J.J. Arrington, depending who is held in the backfield to help with pass-blocking) are having nightmares this week, as they contemplate trying to block NFL Defensive Player of the Year James "Silverback" Harrison. On the other side, right tackle Levi Brown surrendered 11 sacks (11!!!) this season. Surely, he'll get help from the tight end, but the Cardinals look to be over-matched on that side by defensive end Aaron Smith and linebacker Lamarr Woodley. Somebody's going to put pressure on Warner, whether it be Harrison, right defensive end Brett Keisel, Smith, Woodley, or inside linebackers James Farrior, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons.
  • Sacks, pressures, hurries are one thing. Fumbling the ball is another. Kurt Warner has a history of fumbling the football: With 85 career fumbles, he ranks Number 22 all-time among quarterbacks -- and this is a guy who started his NFL career late (at age 28) and spent much of the past four seasons in a backup-relief role. Again, he's fine when everything goes well. There's a reason, however, that he started this season as the backup to Hollywood Golden Boy Matt Leinart (Warner was run out of St. Louis and seemed to be washed up following his ill-fated stint with the New York Giants). As poised as he usually looks, he can be rattled and can lose his cool. And he has that history of fumbling -- a tendency that may be aggravated by the NFL League Office. Huh?, you ask? The NFL League Office generates revenue (makes money) by selling Super Bowl game-used footballs. During the game, especially in the first half, the officials will introduce a shiny new football into the game nearly every play. Brand-new footballs have a sheen to them. They're slippery. And, hmmm, if it rains ... Anyway, we expect Warner, who will be operating mainly in the shotgun formation, to cough up two fumbles. Big Ben will do just fine, thank you. He's that kind of guy.
  • Speaking of the aforementioned Levi Brown, he's only just finished in his second year in the league, and he does have a strong pedigree: As the very first player drafted by head coach Ken Whisenhunt, Brown was drafted fifth overall in the 2007 NFL draft, from Penn State, where he played left tackle. The Cardinals new braintrust (Whisenhunt and offensive line guru Russ Grimm, also from the Steelers' staff), drafted Brown as the centerpiece of their plan to establish a strong offensive wall. They moved Brown to right tackle to protect the left-handed wunderkind Matt Leinart's blind side. Well, since then of course, Leinart lost his job to Warner. The 328-pound Brown is a fine young prospect. Still ... 11 sacks allowed this season ... yikes ...and going up against Aaron Smith and Lamarr Woodley. Double yikes. It could be a long day for Messrs. Brown and Warner.
  • The Cardinals will be overly amped and prone to miscues. The Cardinals have five players who have appeared in a Super Bowl. The Steelers have 20. And the Steelers will have Dick LeBeau. Mike Tomlin. Big Ben. Fast Willie. Santonio. Hines Ward. Troy. Big Snack. Ryan Clark. A stadium full of fans. And the Terrible Towel.