Steelers preaching patience, pass rush to ground Cardinals' aerial assault

TAMPA, Fla. -- You want to see the best matchups in the biggest games -- strength against strength, the pitting of immense talent and accomplishment on both sides of the ball.

And for a Super Bowl, it doesn't get much better than this: the explosive passing game of the Arizona Cardinals, featuring those gravity-defying catches by Larry Fitzgerald, against the Pittsburgh Steelers' pass defense, which like their entire defense, ranks No. 1 in the NFL.

"What more can you ask for?" Steelers cornerback William Gay said. "We will be on the biggest stage in the world, the Super Bowl, playing against the best offense I've seen thus far. As a defense, that's what you want."

Boy, do the Steelers ever have it.

Start with Fitzgerald. After leading the NFC with 96 receptions for 1,431 yards and sharing the NFL lead with 12 touchdown catches during the regular season, he piled up 23 more grabs for 419 yards (a playoff record) and five touchdowns in three postseason games. He seemingly became impossible to cover in victories over Atlanta, Carolina, and especially Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.

Fitzgerald's signature play is getting his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame several feet above the ground, snatching the ball out of the air and pulling it down. Defenders can be draped all over him, but it doesn't matter.

Fitzgerald still makes the play.

"That's the thing," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "Guys have had great coverage in a lot of those situations, but he's just going up and attacking the ball and making great catches. For us, as DBs, we know what he's going to do, but it's our job to go up and attack, too. So we've got to have that mentality when that ball is in the air, we've got to go get it because that's how he's thinking.

The Cardinals, whose passing game ranked second in the league, have other exceptionally gifted receivers who are generally quick to find holes in the secondary. Anquan Boldin, arguably the best slot receiver in the NFL, finished the regular season with 89 receptions for 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns. Steve Breaston caught 77 passes for 1,006 yards and three touchdowns. That makes three 1,000-yard receivers for a quarterback, Kurt Warner, who threw for 4,583 yards and 30 scores.

You have a passing attack that averaged a whopping 292.1 yards per game going against a pass defense that allowed just 156.9 on average. Something has to give.

"For the most part, if we don't give up big plays, we give our team a chance to win," Townsend said. "And if we're able to do that, we'll have a chance on Sunday. We're a pretty good defense, too."

With the way he takes flight and makes catches, Fitzgerald poses problems that few, if any, defensive backs are able to solve. That's primarily why he has been the most dominant receiver -- or player at any position, for that matter -- in the playoffs.

Fitzgerald also had a great deal of success the last time the Steelers and Cardinals played, in 2007, when Arizona scored a 21-14 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium. That day, Fitzgerald caught 10 passes for 120 yards.

From what they experienced in that game and what they have seen on videotape, Pittsburgh's defensive backs have concluded, among other things, they must be as flexible as possible when covering Fitzgerald.

"It depends on what situation you're in," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "If you feel you're in a position to jump with him and maybe get an interception, go get it. If you feel you're in a position where you're with him but you can't (make an interception), bat it down. But if you feel like you're in a position where he's got you, you might just want to wait so that you can try to rake the ball out."

Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu, who ranked second in the NFL with seven interceptions, wasn't being coy when he said he had no idea of the best way to defend Fitzgerald. Polamalu hasn't been able to do it. He hasn't seen anyone else do it, either.

"I'm sure (opponents) all have these great game plans for him, but nothing has worked," Polamalu said. "You can cover him, but he's going to out-jump you, he's going to catch the ball, he's going to do everything he can to get the ball. He does a great job of finishing even when the guys are in position to cover him.

"When you have a guy like Larry Fitzgerald who can out-jump two guys to get the football, there is nothing you can do about that."

Consequently, the buzzwords in the meeting room of the Steelers' defensive backs the past two weeks have been patience and poise. It's easy to become anxious about doing something to stop Fitzgerald from making plays repeatedly.

It's even easier to become frustrated.

"You have to be patient," Townsend said. "One thing about this league, guys are going to make plays. And one thing about us, we know things happen in the game, but it's important for us to play for 60 minutes. We know our play's going to come, but when your play comes, make sure you make it."

That applies to members of Pittsburgh's front seven as well.

The Steelers will need their pass rush to perform at the dominant level it has for most of the season. Pittsburgh's two sack-happy outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, must consistently get in Warner's face and bring him down, as they have so many other quarterbacks to date. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will need to devise a highly effective package of blitzes to generate pressure as well.

Fitzgerald and the rest of the Cardinals' receivers suddenly aren't quite as difficult to cover when no one is able to deliver the ball to them.

"It all starts with Kurt," Taylor said. "Regardless of what anybody wants to say about the receivers, he runs that show, and he's been doing a good job. You can go back to what he did with the Rams, with (Torry) Holt and Isaac Bruce. This is nothing new to him. I'm sure he knows we're going to blitz him. He's going to know our blitz coverages. We've just got to be in position to make a play."

Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark says Warner's accuracy makes him so dangerous. Clark compared Warner to baseball's Greg Maddux, saying, "He may not throw a fireball each time, but it's going to be in the right place."

Warner remains one of the game's best at getting rid of the ball quickly. That comes, first, from an offensive scheme that usually calls for him to make three-step drops and promptly deliver passes. It also comes from Warner's constant awareness of where his "hot reads" are located and ability, when a blitz is coming, to get the ball out as soon as he sees an open target underneath.

In addition, Warner has long excelled at using his eyes to bait defensive backs and linebackers into thinking he is going in a certain direction with the ball before suddenly throwing to a different area.

The Steelers certainly will do their best to try to confuse Warner with a variety of different blitz combinations and coverages. They'll try to show him one look while actually playing another. But it is extremely difficult to fool a 37-year-old, 11-year veteran passer.

"He has seen all the defenses you can show him throughout the course of his years," Pittsburgh cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "He is a savvy, savvy man."

As far as the Steelers' defensive linemen and linebackers are concerned, the burden for stopping, or at least slowing down, the Cardinals' passing game doesn't rest with the performance of the secondary. It rests with the performance up front.

"We are happy with our corners, we like the way they play," Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel said. "But to get Kurt Warner on his back would be a good thing. ... He doesn't let anything rattle him. We are hoping to change that."

Although the Cardinals ranked last in the NFL in rushing, their ground game has come alive during the playoffs. They have been persistent in pounding the ball and establishing offensive balance, which only makes their passing attack that much more effective.

The Steelers play the run almost as well as they play the pass, ranking second in that category. Pittsburgh hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 16 regular-season or two playoff games. Sunday probably would be a bad time for the Steelers to have that trend end.

"All teams want to run," Townsend said. "The thing about our defense is we must stop the run first. The one thing about it is, when you stop their run, they're just as happy to pass. And that makes it tough. We have a lot of good schemes; Coach LeBeau is a great coach. But in every game that you play, you must stop the run because if you don't stop the run, you give yourself no chance."

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