Monday, January 26, 2009

Steelers will ride No. 1 ranked defense to Super Bowl victory over Cardinals

I was watching a cable news channel this morning when a story came on about a Kodiak bear from the Pittsburgh Zoo predicting the winner of Super Bowl XLIII. There were two boxes, one with a Pittsburgh Steelers logo, and the other with an Arizona Cardinals logo.

Shockingly, a bear from the Pittsburgh Zoo picked the Steelers’ box. Imagine that. Of course that box wasn’t soaked in salmon oil or covered with honey. That would be dishonest. What are you, cynical?

I have to say, I agree with the bear. The Steelers will win the Super Bowl. I'll even give you a final score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 17.

Most of my reasons for picking Pittsburgh revolve around defense. I hate to drop the cliché card so early in the discussion, but there’s a simple reason they say defense wins championships. It’s usually true.

The Steelers nearly won the NFL’s triple crown on defense this season. They ranked No. 1 in total defense (based on yards allowed), No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in run defense. But here’s the most important defensive statistic: Pittsburgh held its opponents to an average of 13.9 points per game, the fewest in the NFL.

And Arizona? The Cardinals allowed 26.6 points per game, 28th in the league. They ranked 19th in total defense, 22nd in pass defense and 16th in rush defense.

Granted, Arizona has the edge on offense, averaging 26.7 points per game (No. 3) to Pittsburgh’s 21.7 (No. 20). And the Cardinals finished fourth in total offense and second in passing, while the Steelers ranked 22nd and 17th, respectively, in those categories. Pittsburgh’s only offensive edge came in rushing, where it ranked 23rd to Arizona’s 32nd.

When it comes to the Super Bowl, I’ll always take a team centered on a physical, dominant defense over one centered on a very good but far from great offense.

The Cardinals have been impressive in their playoff wins over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, averaging 31.7 points per game. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner has been magnificent, throwing for 770 yards and completing 66.3 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. His postseason passer rating is 112.1.

Warner, though, rarely was forced out of his comfort zone in those three wins against teams that employ 4-3 defenses. More often than not, he was able to drop back, set his feet and throw on rhythm, usually to a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald.

Those days are over. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will make life very uncomfortable for Warner and Fitzgerald with his pressure-packed, confusing 3-4 scheme.

Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison, the NFL’s Defensive MVP, and LaMarr Woodley, combined for 28 sacks this season. Inside linebacker James Farrior added four sacks. Even if the Steelers don’t rack up a huge number of sacks against Warner, they’ll hit him and force him to throw on the run. When Warner is forced to move, he goes from being an MVP candidate to a very average quarterback.

There’s no way the Steelers let Fitzgerald run as freely as he’s been able to run so far in the playoffs. I have a feeling strong safety Troy Polamalu will be there to greet Fitzgerald a few times when he runs those shallow crossing routes. LeBeau will find a way to contain Fitzgerald and force Warner to throw more often to his less dangerous targets. Yes, Anquan Boldin is good, but he’s been battling assorted injuries and has been whining about his contract. At this point, he’s no Fitzgerald.

The Steelers aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will find a way to make just enough big plays for the Steelers to win. At 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, he’s tough to bring down. At some point during the Super Bowl, he’ll use his size and strength to escape a sack and complete a game-changing strike, likely to Hines Ward.

The Steelers will have one other big edge other than defense at the Super Bowl. Raymond James Stadium will seem like a home away from home for Pittsburgh.

Remember what it was like at Ford Field in Detroit for Super Bowl XL when the Steelers beat Seattle 21-10? Steelers fans far outnumbered Seahawks fans in the stadium that day. It will be the same thing this year in Tampa. The Steelers have a long and storied history that includes five Super Bowl victories. Steelers fans travel well and are willing to pay big bucks to see their team play.

The Cardinals are relatively recent transplants in Arizona. They’ve never won a Super Bowl. Let’s just say the Arizona Cardinals are not exactly America’s Team.

Let your Terrible Towels fly.

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