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Steelers, Cardinals making the most of yards after the catch

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger early in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game was flushed to his left in the pocket. He juked and rolled to his right. And then Roethlisberger launched a 16-yard pass to receiver Santonio Holmes. First down Pittsburgh at the Baltimore 49.

The Ravens look back on it and think that is what it should have been -- only 16 yards. Another set of downs to follow, another chance for the Ravens defense to flex. But Holmes and his teammates had more in mind.

Reese: Players to watch after the catch

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals
"He stands out. He's a little different at it. He is sort of a bail-out option for your quarterback. You can throw it up and he can take it and stay strong after the catch. Nine times out of 10 he is taking the ball away from the defensive back. He is not a blazer but he his fast enough. He finishes. He does not go down early."

Santonio Holmes, WR, Steelers
"He is dangerous after the catch because he has the most speed. He has good vision. Some guys just don't see the field that well after they get the ball. He does and has the speed to go the distance."

Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals
"A very strong receiver who goes boldly into traffic. You have to knock him down, because he can run over you or run by you. You've got issues when he has the ball in his hands."

Hines Ward, WR, Steelers
"A smaller version of Boldin. Great in a crowd and he is always trying to finish. He is not going down easily. He lets everyone know he has to be tackled. A tenacious spirit about him in the way he approaches yards after the catch."

J.J. Arrington, RB, Cardinals(pictured left)/Mewelde Moore, RB, Steelers
"These two running backs are elusive after the catch. They win. Being a running back and return specialist by trade, they have the mindset to excel at running after the catch and you expect it. When you look at all of these receivers and backs in total, they offset each other. Each team has an answer that counters the other, with Fitzgerald/Holmes, Boldin/Ward and Arrington/Moore. That is a nice element to have in any matchup, in any game, but especially in a Super Bowl. That will make this part of the game intriguing to watch."

Holmes turned a 16-yard grab into a 65-yard score, weaving his way from right to left. He pierced the Baltimore defense with the help of a convoy of blockers. It was a dagger for the Ravens' proud defense that put Pittsburgh ahead 13-0 in what proved a Ravens championship chance gone awry.

Holmes produced in an aspect that will be a defining element of Pittsburgh vs. Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII. He turned a short completion into a long one. He burned the Baltimore defense in yards after the catch.

Super Bowl XLIII will be full of offensive players on both sides who excel at making the minimum the maximum. Defenses bank on keeping the ball in front of them, in keeping offenses contained in that manner while hammering home that allowing big plays gets you beat. But each offense in Super Bowl XLIII features at least six players who can turn short catches into long ones, meager into plenty, an appetizer into a hearty meal.

For the Steelers, Holmes along with receivers Hines Ward and Nate Washington are the principals, but tight end Heath Miller and running backs Mewelde Moore and Willie Parker are threats. For the Cardinals, receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston pave the way with running backs J.J. Arrington, Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James contributors.

Arizona (2,294 yards) finished second league wide in the regular season -- 104 yards fewer than New Orleans -- in yards gained after the catch. Pittsburgh finished 20th (1,498). Boldin led the Cardinals with 595 such yards. Ward led Pittsburgh with 427.

NFL players and coaches say that this trait is not something taught. It is as innate an aptitude that football presents. It is instincts and quickness and ingenuity. It is hustle and desire.

Roethlisberger said of his pivotal connection with Holmes against the Ravens: "That's not planned, I promise you. The credit goes to the linemen being able to block so long. That's not easy. And the receivers getting open. It's hard for guys to cover for a long time. We play backyard football sometimes. I was almost getting ready to throw it away and Santonio flashed open, I threw him the ball and he does the rest."

Having a receiver who can "do the rest" is an exquisite tool for a quarterback. Having a crafty one like Holmes helps.

"It was a busted play," Holmes said. "Ben was working, running around back there. I became lazy on purpose. The defensive player (Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington) sort of relaxed. When the ball came, he had his back turned and I was in the best position to get there. I used my football smarts there and it helped us get what we needed. We are all the type of receivers who get yards after the catch. We don't settle. My motto is always stay humble and hungry. When you are talking (about) getting yards after a catch, you have to have that.

"You're talking about something that makes a receiver special. You got to have that to be a special receiver. Great ones don't settle. They know there is more to prove once they have the ball. I was brought up that way. I used to play with my uncles in the backyard like that. I played youth football like that. I knew what I could become in the NFL if (I) could take it deep after the catch. I've just learned to be greedy that way."

He learned to always give it that backyard effort.

Ward said that he pushes himself to make yards after the catch on each reception he makes, regardless of the defense.

"It's a natural thing," Ward said. "You either have a knack for it or you don't and I look at it as winning after the catch. We're good at it. Arizona is good at it. It goes beyond that old concept of taking what the defense gives you. It's a quality type of thing, either you take or you don't. You simply become a ball carrier, not just a receiver, like a running back with the ball in his hands."

Giants general manager Jerry Reese said that coaches emphasize yards after catch.

"But the players who are best at it, particularly those at receiver, sort of have it as a built-in thing," Reese said. "Most of them ran the ball a lot at earlier levels of football, all the way back to high school. I'd say maybe 85 to 90 percent of the receivers who excel at it either played running back or option quarterback at some point early-on."

Washington fits that bill. He handled the ball in various roles in high school as part of a wishbone offense. Washington knows that winning in yards after catch will greatly impact this Super Bowl clash.

"You can break a defense for good with that kind of play," Washington said. "It's another way of getting the big play. It's what receivers and most offensive players are looking for from the moment they leave the locker room. You make a defense think more about their responsibilities when you can run after the catch.

"It's something that playmakers just take. It's one of those types of things that begin mentally and you let the physical take over. You have to want it bad. You have to realize that once you make the catch, you are not done. You are just getting started."

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