Super Bowl 43  

 

Steelers' 3-4 defense presents challenge for Cardinals' offensive line

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Suppose Beethoven or Ray Charles or Liberace sat in front of his piano one day and instead of using the broader, longer and more prominent white keys as his memory base, the foundation for making sweet music was predicated on the smaller, less abundant black keys.

As masterful as each was, there would have to be a few adjustments.

That's what the Arizona Cardinals offense, especially its offensive line, could be dealing with when it faces the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

For most of the season and all of the postseason, Arizona has been blocking against a 4-3 defensive scheme, which features two tackles and two ends on the line. These are the white keys on the piano. The next level of defense consisted of three linebackers. These are the black keys.

Against the Steelers, the Cardinals will be facing a 3-4 front, where there are three down linemen and four linebackers. The keyboard, in essence, will be flipped. And the personnel on that front seven isn't any ordinary personnel, either.

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The Cardinals' offensive line has allowed just three sacks in three playoff games after allowing 28 during the regular season. Here's a breakdown:
Opponent Comp/Att Sacks Result
Falcons 19/32 0 W, 30-24
Panthers 21/32 1 W, 33-13
Eagles 21/28 2 W, 32-25

The three defensive linemen -- Casey Hampton (325), Brett Keisel (285) and Aaron Smith (298) -- typically are heavier than those in the 4-3 front. The four linebackers -- James Harrison, Larry Foote, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior --are disciplined, tenacious and arguably the best unit in the NFL.

The secondary, led by All-Pro Troy Polamalu, rounds out a group that ranked No. 1 in the regular season in defense.

Arizona simply hopes not to hit too many flat notes in trying to continue its postseason success in the running and passing games.

"It can be confusing, especially when they're doing a lot of pressures to come after Kurt Warner," Arizona guard Deuce Lutui said. "What makes it a good 3-4 team is that they're a much older and experienced team than us. They've played and meshed well together and they've been to the big show before with mostly the same players. Their experience makes them a great defense. Their scheme has shown to stop real good offenses. We're a young front. We're a really good offense collectively, but this line is young. It will be a good challenge."

That's an understatement.

The biggest difference for Arizona in blocking adjustments is that Lutui and fellow guard Reggie Wells will do more doubling on the nose tackle -- Hampton -- and/or getting off the line to block inside linebackers. That's a lot harder, especially against the Steelers' linebackers, than having to block a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme that is usually positioned inches away and aligned head-up or slightly shaded to either shoulder.

That means the line has to get off the ball quickly against the run and take more angles instead of using brute strength or leverage to clear a seam. The scheme also puts more pressure on fullback Terrelle Smith to make blocks on lead runs, should a lineman not get to a linebacker in time.

Compounding things, the Steelers use a variety of blitzes, where players move all over the place pre-snap, making reads that much more complicated.

"The main difference with Pittsburgh, more than any other team, is their personnel," Cardinals tackle Levi Brown said. "They've got guys who know the scheme and don't get out of position. Some of the time, in a 3-4, players don't play gaps the way they are supposed to and that opens up lanes to run and pass. They've got guys that hold blocks and fall in gaps, a great linebacking corps and a secondary that gets the job done in coverage and makes the quarterback hold the ball."

Don't think Arizona is intimidated.

It has spent the better part of the past two weeks working against the 3-4 front and planning for its tendencies. It also has faced New England, Miami, the New York Jets, Dallas and San Francisco (twice). All play some form of a 3-4. Plus, the Cardinals, although it doesn't look much that way, play a hybrid 3-4 scheme, according to defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who was charged with converting the front from a 4-3 base when coach Ken Whisenhunt was hired from Pittsburgh in 2007.

In training camp and at least once a week in the season, the No. 1 offensive unit works against the No. 1 defensive unit, so deciphering the 3-4 defense won't be like having to learn a foreign language on the fly.

"We can handle a 3-4," Lutui said.

Players said their confidence is also brimming after a postseason in which they've improved in the running game and kept Warner upright. Warner has been sacked just three times on 92 passing attempts. The offensive line, especially left tackle Mike Gandy, has kept pass-rushing specialists John Abraham and Julius Peppers -- both Pro Bowlers -- as well as Philadelphia's Trent Cole, away from Warner.

Still, as a whole, the offense hasn't faced an array of determined defenders like Harrison, Woodley, Farrior, Polamalu and Hampton. Even so, there is a plan to put points on the board.

Said Wells: "We know who we want to block. We know who we want blocking who. The coaches know how they want to block it. We know what our scheme will be for blocking it. When it comes down to it, the players have to play the game. [Offensive line coach] Russ Grimm and Coach Whisenhunt are going to make sure we can do that."

Grimm and Whisenhunt coached with the Steelers for years and practiced against Pittsburgh defensive coordinator and 3-4 zone blitz guru Dick LeBeau. Although the familiarity works both ways, in regards to tendencies and personnel package recognition, Grimm and Whisenhunt know how to position players and what plays would be effective in most circumstances.

Grimm, Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley will not call a play if they don't think a certain player or tandem can handle a run block or pass protection based on a given look of individual matchup, players said. So, some of the playbook will be left on the shelf. Then again, some things on the shelf could be brought back into action.

One of the bigger reasons for Arizona's postseason ascent, according to Whisenhunt, is the pre-snap communication at all levels of the offense. Since the unit has been healthy and intact for nearly all of the season, there is an innate understanding of audibles that have led to fewer breakdowns.

That will be tested against the Steelers because of all the gaming and shifting they do.

"Kurt does a great job when he has to of getting the ball out of his hands, and we also know the times when we have to hold our blocks a little longer," Brown said. "We've been in tough games where things weren't going our way and we stuck together. We have to keep doing the same things we've been doing -- we just need to do it better because this is the Super Bowl."

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