TAMPA, Fla. -- Passing is the backbone of the Arizona Cardinals' offense. Sure, it helped that they restarted their running game in time for the playoffs, but quarterback Kurt Warner and his receivers did the most damage during their Super Bowl run. In the three playoff victories over the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles, Warner completed 61 of 92 passes for 770 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions, and he was sacked just three times.
Although Warner likes throwing to Fitzgerald, the QB actually spreads the ball around, going to nine different receivers per game in the playoffs. Warner has gone to Fitzgerald 35 times (11.6 average in three games), Anquan Boldin 11 times (5.5 average in two games) and Steve Breaston 10 times (3.3 average in three games). Running backs were targets 16 times (5.3 average in three games) and tight ends nine times (3.0 average in three games).
LeBeau must watch how many wide receivers the Cardinals have on the field because it will tell him a lot about the protection schemes and what players he should use. Arizona goes with two-, three- and four-receiver sets, and there are hints in each. Here's how the Cardinals did in each set during the regular season:
In the two-receiver package, Warner was 57-of-74 passing for 751 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and he was sacked three times. Fitzgerald caught 21 passes, Breaston 10 and Boldin nine. This package doesn't put all three of Arizona's best receivers on the field, but I expect to see it for protection reasons. The Steelers will use their base 3-4 defense to defend this formation.
A three-receiver set allows Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston to be on the field together, and Warner completed 104 of 155 passes for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions and nine sacks in this look. Boldin led the way with 28 receptions out of this format, and Fitzgerald had 25 and Breaston 20. In this set, the Cardinals can have a seven-man blocking scheme, plus the free release of these receivers. The Steelers probably will go to a nickel defense against this, and I expect to see linebacker Lawrence Timmons come in the game.
Arizona probably uses more four-receiver sets than any other NFL team. Warner completed 237 of 361 passes for 2,708 yards and 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions when given four receivers. Warner also was sacked just once every 28 pass attempts (13 total) in this package, which provides just six blockers. LeBeau will blitz in this situation, but he faces a challenge because of Warner's quick passes and his distribution to a variety of receivers. Boldin has 52 catches, Fitzgerald 49, Breaston 47 and Jerheme Urban 31 in the four-receiver package.
Down and distance
The Cardinals really worked their first-down passing attack during the regular season, averaging 11 completions per game at an 11.4-yard average. Fitzgerald led the way on first-down passes with 62 receptions for 530 yards. In the playoffs, he has been a first-down target 13 times and made nine catches.
Boldin was Arizona's lead receiver on second-down passes during the regular season, but Fitzgerald has dominated in that situation in the playoffs, being targeted 12 times while the rest of the team has been thrown to 16 total times. LeBeau should think about double-coverage looks on second downs because Fitzgerald has receptions of 42, 41, 29, 18 and 15 yards in that situation.
Third down isn't the time to play exclusively to Fitzgerald. During the regular season, he was third to Boldin and Breaston and only one reception ahead of Urban. During the playoffs, nine different receivers have been targets of third-down passes.
The Cardinals also like to throw the ball when they're close to the goal line, and they had 10 touchdown passes of three yards or less during the regular season. The feature play is the stop fade to Fitzgerald. Boldin runs a few "rub" routes inside the 5-yard line, but until someone can outrebound Fitzgerald, defenses know what play is coming.
Yards after the catch
The Cardinals' passing game is built on short passes and big runs after the catch. During the regular season, Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston combined for 1,310 yards after the catch -- 81.9 yards per game. They also broke 29 tackles and gained 609 of those 1,310 yards after contact.
LeBeau must devise a plan that will stop Arizona's short crossing routes, so look for Steelers SS Troy Polamalu or FS Ryan Clark to collide with the crossing-route receiver from the opposite side. Fitzgerald likes to run free across the field at 7-9 yards, catch the ball, stick his foot in the ground and turn upfield. Chasing him or playing a soft zone hasn't worked for other teams in the playoffs.
Fitzgerald has four routes that cause opposing defenses the most problems. He runs a deep takeoff -- usually down the right side -- that needs to be double-covered, and defenders should be ready to jump because Warner throws the ball over Fitzgerald's head to set up a rebound situation, which he wins 90 percent of the time. I've seen Fitzgerald beat Steelers CB Ike Taylor on this route.
Fitzgerald also runs a slant route against any soft outside alignment, and Bryant McFadden didn't cover it very well during last season's 21-14 Cardinals victory. Fitzgerald will take a 9-yard out route all game long if defenders keep playing soft and inside on him. Of course, as soon as he sees zone, Fitzgerald likes running that crossing route.
Boldin, on the other hand, is like a running back with the ball in his hands. He's an excellent short-route runner and works off picks well. He also can catch a screen pass and go the distance.
The bottom line
To have a good chance of stopping the Cardinals' passing attack, the Steelers must get to Warner. If Warner throws 30 passes without being sacked, Pittsburgh's defensive backs will not hold up. At times, the best way to play Arizona is with a four-man rush and man-to-man underneath coverage with two deep safeties over the top -- the system that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick used in Super Bowl XXXVI to beat the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf," led by Warner. The Steelers didn't stop Fitzgerald last season, and they don't have a cornerback who can match up with him, so this coverage might help.
Pittsburgh can stop Arizona's running game with seven defenders in the box, so this game is all about stopping the pass. Of course, if the Cardinals' defense continues to create turnovers like it has so far in the playoffs (12, leading to four touchdowns and three field goals), Arizona's passing game on a short field will win out.