January 29, 2009
By Donald Starver
We are (finally) getting closer to the big game. Time seems to go in slow motion in the two weeks between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl. I could swear that the Steelers-Ravens AFC Championship game happened about a month ago.
With only 3 days remaining until kickoff, it’s time to look at the key matchups that will probably determine the outcome of the Super Bowl. However, before reading this, you may want to check out our Super Bowl Preview. In that article, we break down the Steelers-Cardinal’s meeting from last season (that the Cardinals won 21-14), and we outline why this year’s meeting will be different.
So, without further ado, here are this week’s key matchups:
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Steelers CB Ike Taylor
Ike usually lines up on the opposite side of the field than where Fitzgerald normally does. However, whenever the Steelers play a team with a world-class wide receiver (Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, etc.), they typically have Ike Taylor shadow him, regardless of where he lines up. The Steelers have a tremendous amount of confidence in Ike Taylor and his abilities. Ike has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL for several years, and he still doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.
Everyone has been anointing Larry Fitzgerald as the greatest receiver in the universe lately, and admittedly, he has been phenomenal during the playoffs. However, Ike Taylor is going to pose a different challenge than Larry has faced recently. Most cornerbacks in the NFL tend to be small and fast. Ike Taylor is BIG and fast. While Larry Fitzgerald is 6’3″, Taylor is 6’2″, and will be able to look Fitzgerald directly in the eyes. Moreover, Taylor is faster than Fitzgerald. Much faster. Fitzgerald has been praised for his amazing leaping ability. Throughout the playoffs, he has consistently jumped higher than his defenders and come down with the ball. Leapin’ Larry’s 38 inch vertical is indeed impressive. Unfortunately (for Larry), Ike Taylor’s measured vertical is 40 inches. So Fitzgerald will be going against a corner who is just as big as he is, but who can run faster and jump higher.
I know everyone has already crowned Larry Fitzgerald as the king of this Super Bowl, but I’m going to disagree with the crowd. Ike Taylor is going to show the rest of the world what Steelers’ fans already know. He won’t be able to shut Fitzgerald down completely, nobody can do that. But he won’t get abused by him either. Advantage: Neither.
Steelers center Justin Hartwig vs. Cardinals’ tackle Darnell Dockett
As we wrote in our Super Bowl Preview, the Cardinals’ win over the Steelers last year was partially due to the dominant performance that Darnell Docket had over former Steelers’ center Sean Mahan. Dockett owned Mahan. He spent almost the entire game in the Steelers’ backfield. He also recorded 2.5 sacks on Ben Roethlisberger. That is probably one of the reasons why Justin Hartwig was brought in to replace Mahan.
Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu will help Hartwig with Dockett. Together, they should be able to keep the 2007 Pro Bowler from repeating the performance he had last year against the Steelers. Advantage: Cardinals.
Steelers CB Bryant McFadden vs. Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin
There’s been so much talk about Larry Fitzgerald during these playoffs that everyone seems to be forgetting the Cardinals’ other wide receiver, Anquan Boldin. You know, the other Cardinals wide receiver who will also be starting in the Pro Bowl. Boldin hasn’t been utilized as much during the playoffs as he was during the regular season (and he let Cardinals’ offensive coordinator Todd Haley know that he doesn’t appreciate that fact).
Boldin will be matched up against his former Florida State teammate Bryant McFadden. Having practiced against one another in college, these two should be pretty familiar with one another. In his first year as the Steelers’ starting CB, McFadden quickly proved how effective he can be. He rarely gets beat, and is very physical. I’m going to give the nod in this matchup to Boldin only because he’s a Pro Bowl starter. Advantage: Cardinals.
Steelers WR Santonio Holmes vs. Cardinals CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Everyone is talking about Larry Fitzgerald vs. Ike Taylor, but the more meaningful WR/CB battle may prove to be Santonio Holmes versus Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Last year when these two teams met, Holmes torched the Cardinals for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns. He actually had more receiving yardage and touchdowns than Larry Fitzgerald had in that game.
Rogers-Cromartie is a young, brash, athletic rookie who has really helped the Cardinals’ secondary. He is going to get even better as he matures. But right now, he is not good enough to stop Santonio Holmes. Advantage: Steelers.
Steelers TE Heath Miller vs. Cardinals S Adrian Wilson
This should prove to be another interesting matchup. Heath Miller has probably the best hands on the Steelers team after Hines Ward. He never drops the ball. I mean NEVER. Miller could (and should) be in the same category as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Unfortunately, the Steelers seem to be allergic to throwing him the ball. When it is thrown to him, Heath always catches the ball, and after the catch he seems to drag tacklers at least ten additional yards following their initial contact.
When Miller comes into the seam of the Cardinals defense, he will be met by safety Adrian Wilson. Wilson is best known by casual fans for his YouTube video in which he jumps over a 66 inch high bar. But beyond being a physical freak, Wilson is actually a very good safety. He will be an NFC starter in this year’s Pro Bowl.
Both of these players are so good that it’s hard to pick one over the other. Advantage: Neither.
Steelers NT Casey Hampton vs. Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein
This matchup features two University of Texas alums going at it. However, it is a Longhorn reunion that Lyle Sendlein would probably rather have avoided. Sendlein is a competent, but not spectacular center who is in his first year as a full-time starter. “Big Snack” is going to eat the poor kid alive. If I were Sendlein, I’d load up my pockets with Krispy Kreme donuts and offer one to Hampton before each snap. That won’t stop Hampton from running him over, but it will at least give him a brief reprieve while Hampton chews. Advantage: Steelers.
Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley versus RT Levi Brown
Levi Brown and LaMarr Woodley came out of college the same year, Brown from Penn State, and Woodley from Michigan. As Big Ten Alum, they’re used to going up against one another. Only this time, it is in the Super Bowl. Brown was the more highly touted player coming out of college. He was the 5th overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, and some scouts thought he was as good or better than Browns’ tackle Joe Thomas. Woodley slipped to the second round in that same draft.
Fast forward one year, and while Brown is a starting right tackle on a Super Bowl team, he has not been spectacular. Woodley, on the other hand, has turned into a sack machine. He is strong enough to bull rush his opponent, and fast enough to go around them. In this battle of Penn State vs. Michigan, go with Michigan. Advantage: Steelers.
Steelers LB James Harrison vs. Cardinals LT Michael Gandy
James Harrison is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Gandy is a journeyman left tackle who is playing for his third NFL team. That just about sums it up. Advantage: Steelers.
Steelers CB DeShea Townsend vs. Cardinal WR Steve Breaston
The Cardinals usually have an advantage when they go to Steve Breaston. Breaston is a #3 receiver who is good enough to start for most NFL teams. However, the Cardinals have two Pro Bowl starting receivers, so Breaston is stuck at #3. Most opponents don’t have a #3 cornerback who is good enough to stick with Breaston. The Steelers do. DeShea Townsend has been the Steelers’ starter since…….well, I’m not sure how long it’s been, but I’m pretty sure that he played alongside Mel Blount. Townsend lost his starting position this year to Bryant McFadden only after Townsend got injured. McFadden played so well that he never gave up the starting spot when Townsend returned. But Townsend is still starter quality. Just like Breaston. Advantage: Neither.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu vs. Everybody
Troy Polamalu isn’t your usual safety. If he were an ordinary safety, we’d probably be doing a matchup of him versus a tight end or wide receiver, or even a running back coming out of the backfield. But this is Troy Polamalu we’re talking about. Troy’s position defies definition. He’s called a “safety”, but he’s really a cornerbackertacklesafety. He plays all over the place. That’s why Troy will be matched up with just about everyone on the Cardinals’ team at some point during the game. Regardless of who he goes up against, my money’s on Troy. Advantage: Steelers.
Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons vs. Kurt Warner
It’s going to take a group effort to slow down Kurt Warner. However, I know that Lawrence Timmons is going to play a key role in whatever formula Dick LeBeau concocts. Timmons is insanely fast, and will probably replace Larry Foote quite often to help drop back and cover the seams in the defense that Warner is so good at finding. Timmons has the speed to cover a tight end (or even a WR) one-on-one. He can also close so quickly that any opening that Warner sees will quickly be shut. Timmons may well be one of the most valuable non-starters in the NFL. Advantage: Cardinals.
Cardinals’QB Kurt Warner vs. Steelers defense
This is going to be a good battle. The NFL’s top pass defense against the NFL’s #2 passer (in yardage). It is going to take the whole Steelers defense to stop Warner. That’s because Warner reads defenses so well, and gets rid of the ball so fast. Warner is a former league MVP, so he has to be respected. But he’s not Superman. Warner can be sacked. He’s already been sacked 26 times this season.
To get to Warner, the Steelers are going to need a group effort. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are going to have to provide heavy pressure from the edges. Simultaneosly, the cornerbacks are going to have to play the Cardinals’ receivers close to the line and make early contact to redirect them from their intended path. Warner is a disciplined QB who throws timing patterns where the receiver is supposed to be. If they get delayed, Warner’s pass will fall incomplete. The Steelers’ linebackers may not get many sacks on Warner, but their pressure will account for incomplete passes that won’t show up in the box score. Advantage: Steelers.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
I’m sure my readers get tired of hearing me say this, but the Steelers’ fate rest on the shoulders of one man, Ben Roethlisberger. As Roethlisberger goes, so go the Steelers. When Big Ben is good, he’s very good. But unfortunately the inverse is also true; when he’s bad, he’s very bad.
The Steelers don’t need Roethlisberger to play the role of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Roethlisberger isn’t that type of quarterback. He doesn’t carve up defenses with his arm the way those two do. Instead, we need him to play smart, disciplined football. If Ben manages the offense and avoids turnovers, the Steelers should win this game pretty easily.
Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing Ben reflecting far too much on his poor play in his first Super Bowl. Ben really seems to be bothered by that. I hope he doesn’t try to do too much in order to prove that he can do better than he did last time. If he does that, he’ll probably press and throw silly interceptions.
Trust me on this one, Ben. Nobody will care about your stats if your team wins. Stay within yourself and trust your teammates to make plays. If you do that, you will go down in history as a great quarterback who won multiple Super Bowls, regardless of what the statistics say. Advantage: We shall see.
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