Saturday, January 31, 2009

SB43 Preview

Who knew two weeks could take so long? Doesn't it feel like the AFC Championship was about 2 months ago? Maybe I just place a bit too much importance on the Steelers, but I've been a nervous wreck for two weeks now and its kinda weird to think that, no matter what happens in roughly 24 hours, that anxiety will be completely gone, replaced either with euphoria or fury. Anyway, here's my personal breakdown of this puppy, complete with some minor game predictions at the end.

Steelers Offense vs. Cardinals DefenseExpect the Steelers to start the game doing what they always do: Work hard to establish their running game. It's pretty tough to really guess as to how effectively this philosophy will work against the enigmatic Cardinals D. Many thought they'd have success running against the Chargers' mediocre bunch (and they did), and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion they would struggle mightily against the Ravens stingy D (and they did). But the Cards are a different animal altogether. They were susceptible to giving up big rushing totals at numerous different points in the season. The gave up 183 yards to the Patriots, 239 to the Vikings, and 185 to the Eagles, as well as allowing 4 other games with over 100 yards rushing. For that reason I'm sure the Steelers will work at the rushing game early to try and take advantage of a Cards D that I'm sure they still think is susceptible despite the last few games that indicate otherwise.

For their part, the Cards D-Line, as well as their very good linebacking corps, have really turned things around after spending much of the season resembling those old Indy Colts teams that had the dynamic O no D identity. Guys like Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith, and Bertrand Berry have really turned around the team's season on the front lines and figure to be a very tough matchup for the much-maligned Steelers O-Line if their productive play continues.

In the passing game, there are a few potential X Factors. Hines Ward is the big question mark right now. I think we've all seen just how impotent the Steelers offense can get when Ward is out of the lineup, and that was certainly the case two weeks ago. Due to the injury, I definitely don't expect much in the way of stats posted by Ward, as I think we'll see him mainly as a decoy and on short routes. I'd venture something like 3 or 4 catches for 20-30 yards. Nothing too spectacular certainly, and he won't be adding a second MVP to his trophy case. With Ward likely being somewhat ineffective I think Santonio and Heath figure to be the ones to benefit the most. Santonio is my personal darkhorse pick for MVP. I think he gets 100 yards receiving and a TD and Heath may fill the role that Ward typically fills on third downs, at least somewhat. I've heard talk about Nate Washington, but I'm still no tremendous fan of his work, and while I think he is effective enough, I can't imagine him getting more than 1 or 2 catches and don't think he'll be able to bring in any long passes against the Cards' secondary, though he has become strangely good at drawing PI penalties.

Cardinals Offense vs. Steelers DefenseNow THIS is the matchup that everyone is fired up about. The Steelers' vaunted D is one more dominant performance away from gaining serious consideration as one of the best defenses in recent memory. The Cardinals offense has as much talent at the skill positions as any team in football and are just hitting their stride. They are of course led by the most dominant offensive player in football in the great Larry Fitzgerald. In case you've spent most of the past two weeks in some sort of a drunken stupor, the Steelers ability to handle Fitz and keep him in check has been one of the major subplots of the Super Bowl. The Cards also boast not one but two other 1,000 yard receivers from this season in the controversial Anquan Boldin and the underrated Steve Breaston. Its a safe bet that Ike Taylor will spend most of his night matched up with Fitz, and it remains to be seen how often the Steelers deploy their excellent safeties to double Fitz. But they can't sleep on Boldin, though, as there have been times in the past couple seasons when it was debatable who was the best receiver on Zona, and the talent in Boldin is still very much there despite Fitz's overshadowing of him.

The passing game for the Cards also will have another dynamic: The Steelers pass rush. NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and his counterpart LaMarr Woodley figure to get a ton of chances to rush Warner and how well the Cards hold block Harrison and Woodley will be a big factor in determining this game's outcome. As always, Dick LeBeau figures to bring the blitz from every conceivable angle and Kurt Warner's wisdom and skill will be an interesting match for LeBeau and company.

The Cardinals rush attack has at least partially developed over the past few games. However, the Steelers incredibly stout rush defense gives them the biggest advantage in this game. James Farrior and the other aforementioned linebackers team up with Troy Polamalu and the tough D-Line to stuff pretty much every rushing attack they've faced all season, many of which are much better than this Cards roster.

Final Predictions:
And now I will put my best sooth-saying effort forward and attempt to divine some things about tomorrow's game. Note that almost all of these things will probably be horribly, terribly wrong.

-Santonio Holmes goes over 100 yards and scores on a long TD pass from Big Ben.
-Ben also throws a TD toss to Heath Miller.
-The Cards keep it very close for much of the game on the backs of Warner, Fitzgerald, and Boldin. Boldin especially has a surprisingly big game for the Cards.
-The Steelers get to Warner several times but have very few sacks to show for it by game's end. However, the constant pressure does force him to get rid of the ball and prevents any killer deep balls to Fitzgerald.
-The Steelers win 24-17.
-Ben Roethlisberger wins Super Bowl MVP honors and throws for something like 240 yards.

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