Key Match-ups: Steelers-Cardinals

Neal Coolong examines the key Super Bowl XLIII match-ups between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals.

ILBs James Farrior, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons vs. WR Larry Fitzgerald

Going off of Arizona's opening drive in their 32-25 win over Philadelphia, Fitzgerald was the benefactor of a well-called game by Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley. He attacked with a lot of misdirection, and QB Kurt Warner's outstanding vision caught the Eagles linebackers out of place multiple times. But these situations were predicated on Fitzgerald's ability to basically beat any defensive back in the NFL. On his first of three touchdowns, the Cardinals flooded the Eagles strong side, and Fitzgerald got inside positioning on CB Sheltonn Brown. LB Stewart Bradley picked up RB Edgerrin James out of the backfield, and Fitzgerald was basically left alone until he caught the pass.

The key for the Steelers in stopping Fitzgerald is to defend the short middle zone. That rests on the outstanding trio of Steelers inside linebackers. There isn't much that stops Fitzgerald in the open field, and it won't be any one defender. Whatever combination of Farrior, Foote and Timmons the Steelers have in the game, they must communicate with each other and the secondary on crossing routes, which is also something Haley called frequently.

OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. LT Mike Gandy and RT Levi Brown Not that the Cardinals' offensive tackles should expect the dynamic duo of the Steelers to rush Warner on every passing down, but they are going to have to key off what Harrison and Woodley are showing in order to establish their priority. Due to the Cardinals tendency to cross their receivers underneath, the Steelers may drop Harrison and Woodley into the flats. If that's the case, Gandy and Brown must make sure they can locate the extra Steelers rusher, who could be coming on a delay from the middle or from the secondary.

Gandy and Brown are both outstanding pass blockers, but it isn't out of the question for the Steelers' two best pass rushers to occupy the tackles just open the weaker interior line of the Cardinals. Given Fitzgerald and Boldin's ability to work in space against a zone, the Steelers may try to attack straight ahead, and bring pressure over C Lyle Sendlein. Woodley and Harrison have to rush hard to the outside to keep the inside free.

TE Heath Miller vs. LB Gerald Hayes

Eagles TE Brent Celek had a career day in the NFC Championship, including a 31-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter off a nifty double-move that allowed him to get inside on Hayes. It wasn't Hayes alone who surrendered 10 catches to Celek, but the Steelers will pay attention to where he is and what his coverage assignment is, especially considering the success the Steelers passing game has out of their 2-TE set.

Miller had three big catches for 62 yards in Pittsburgh's 23-14 AFC Championship win over Baltimore. He's huge down the seam with soft hands and runs like a deer after the catch. With the speed of Santonio Holmes taking most of the attention outside the numbers, and Hines Ward's ability to work to space in a zone, Miller looks to have the most advantageous match-up against Arizona's linebackers.

QB Kurt Warner vs. SS Troy Polamalu

Warner carved up Philadelphia's blitz, completing 21-of-28 passes for four touchdowns. But this isn't Philadelphia's blitz. Warner still has the smarts and the experience to be successful against any defense. The main challenge he has is like any other quarterback who goes against the Steelers; identifying Polamalu's intentions before the snap. Warner did a great job recognizing where the Eagles defenders were, but Polamalu often decides what he'll do after the snap. Just ask Ravens QB Joe Flacco.

Warner will likely want to make short, decisive throws, and not allow the Steelers defense to get inside his receivers. With the Cardinals running game looking stronger now than it did during the season, the Steelers must pay attention to the backfield, which will give Warner an advantage in play action. While he does have strength outside the numbers with Fitzgerald and Boldin, he'll have to rely on his line to give him three seconds before launching deep down the sideline. And he'll have to look twice to make sure Polamalu hasn't gotten to the deep zone after showing blitz.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Cardinals
x Quarterback  
x Running backs  
  Offensive line x
  Wide receivers x
x Tight ends  
x Defensive line  
x Linebackers  
x Defensive backs  
x Special teams  

Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.

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