Super Bowl 43  

 

Ground game may not produce big plays, but could help Cards win

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TAMPA, Fla. -- If one of the keys to winning a Super Bowl championship is running the ball, the Arizona Cardinals would be significantly bigger underdogs than they already are against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium.

The Cardinals had the worst rushing average in the NFL in the regular season at 73.6 yards per game, or about 6 fewer yards than the Steelers allowed on the ground per game during the season. Arizona not only is making its first Super Bowl appearance, but it could also make NFL history by becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl averaging fewer than 80 rushing yards in the regular season.

It's a sensitive issue for Arizona, which feels worthy of being in the Super Bowl, rushing stats be damned. When it comes to the Cardinals offense, one of the last things that come to mind is 3 yards and a cloud of dust.

The perception, players say, isn't reality. The passing game worked so well in the regular season that running the ball became like a trick play, used only to catch teams off-guard. They could run, they just chose not to.

Doug Benc / Getty Images
Only four teams have won a Super Bowl after averaging fewer than 100 rushing yards in the regular season. Edgerrin James' Cardinals, whose 73.6-yard average ranked last, can become the fifth.
SB winners, fewer than 100 rushing yards per game
Year Team Avg. Rank
2002 Buccaneers 97.3 27th
1988 Redskins 96.4 25th
1987 Giants 97.1 24th
1982 49ers 82.2 Last

What's gone on in the playoffs is proof positive.

The reinsertion of veteran Edgerrin James as the starting tailback after rookie Tim Hightower replaced him for seven games has been viewed as the reason for the turnaround. However, James' return had just as much to do with blitz pickups in pass protections as it did with running for positive yards.

The difference has been the commitment to the run by the coaching staff. The Cardinals are averaging 111 rushing yards a game in the postseason and have called 100 running plays (33.3 per game) throughout their three-game playoff push. That's a significant uptick compared to the regular season, when the Cardinals averaged 21.2 carries per game.

The 12 carries-a-game difference isn't nearly as staggering as this:

Arizona has thrown the ball eight fewer times in the playoffs (92) than it has run it. The 30.7 throws per game in the postseason is nearly nine fewer passes a game than in the regular season, when the Cardinals threw 630 passes, second most in the NFL to New Orleans.

"The coaches said, 'We're going to the playoffs so we need to run,' " guard Deuce Lutui said. "They're putting the responsibility on the offensive line to get some movement and we have. We have an effective passing game but the run game puts more pressure on (opponents). They have to think about it, especially with Edgerrin and Hightower. They also have think about the pass, and we have great receivers.

"The run game was there all season and we had the guys to do it. It's not a surprise that we're doing it in the postseason. I just think that having 300, 400 yards passing a game is not bad at all, either. You can't complain when it's working that effectively. At the same time, as an offensive lineman, you want to get down and dirty. We want to get some bruises and really deliver some hits."

The need to have a dominant running game to get to -- and win -- the Super Bowl might not be as much of a factor as one might think. Although the Steelers rode running back Jerome Bettis to a title in Super Bowl XL, the Giants, Colts, Buccaneers, Patriots and Broncos, winners of eight of the past 11 Super Bowls, had very good ground attacks, but their offensive identities were more balanced.

The last running back to win Super Bowl MVP: Denver's Terrell Davis in Super Bowl XXXII.

Neither the Cardinals nor these Steelers are strong running teams, but for Arizona, having some semblance of a ground game will be needed to stave off the pack of always hungry Pittsburgh defenders. If the Cardinals opt to throw the ball at their regular-season pace, Pittsburgh simply will turn loose linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on quarterback Kurt Warner.

The goal of every defense is to make the offense one-dimensional, so why play into it?

"In the regular season, you can play gadget ball," said James, who leads all playoff rushers with 203 yards. "You have another week. You can fix mistakes. In the postseason you can't make a mistake and when you can't make a mistake, you have to be decisive. In the regular season, you can throw the ball 50 times. It doesn't matter. Teams have injuries. They don't have time to prepare. In the postseason everybody is going to lay it on the line and you have to do what's best."

For the Cardinals, that's been running the ball.

What Arizona has done since its season finale against Seattle is use a variety of runs early to show different personnel packages and formations to see how opponents counter-align. James, who has been the starter since Week 17, has been fed the ball early, usually in stretch plays off-tackle behind pulling and trapping linemen.

Though Pittsburgh's defense in unyielding, Arizona's running plays, which usually require a half-second of processing to allow the blocking schemes to take hold, have been somewhat effective against overly aggressive fronts. James and Hightower (132 playoff rushing yards) have slipped behind defensive linemen that get too much penetration during the postseason, allowing the Cardinals to lay foundations for screens and play-action passes.

Running the ball early also has allowed Arizona's offensive linemen to figure out whether they can handle themselves.

"We've shown our physical strength in the playoffs," Lutui said.

Arizona's coaching staff has effectively rotated James and the hard-charging Hightower as well, going to each depending on personnel packages ranging from two tight-end sets to three to four wide receivers. In the winning, 14-play, 72-yard drive against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, James and Hightower combined for nine carries.

Hightower capped the drive, which he extended by scampering to a first down on fourth-and-1, with an 8-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.

The mixing of the running backs, deft play-calling and poise on that drive has been called a mental turning point by some players.

"I don't know if we could have driven the ball on a good team like that early in the season," said left tackle Mike Gandy, who has had a very strong playoff run. "They had the momentum. We had to do things to take the momentum back. A lot of it has to do with the confidence that's been built. We've played a lot of games where we were out of it by halftime. Our confidence was low. We got momentum going into the playoffs with our win against Seattle.

"Now, no matter what happens, how bad the game gets, no matter what goes wrong, we can play and we can win. That showed in that drive. Nobody panicked. We feel good going into this game because we know what's at stake."

Arizona is not a big-play team with its running game. The longest run all season was 35 yards by James. That wasn't routine. The failure to consistently bust big runs is a major factor why they finished last in rushing. The Cardinals don't mind not having a bunch of long runs.

That's what the passing game is for.

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