Defense key for Steelers

Published 12:47 am Sunday, February 1, 2009

Even Rod Blagojevich would have a tough time explaining away what’s going to happen to the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl come Sunday.

One reason even smart people believe the old saw about defense winning championships is because it’s always been easier to break something than build it. And that’s never been more true about the NFL than during this decade. It began with ravenous Baltimore defense orchestrated by maestro Ray Lewis in 2000 and segued almost seamlessly to the ferocious New York Giant front four anchored by Michael Strahan.

The only team that successfully bucked that trend was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. And while Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner was at the controls of the last team to turn the trick before that, the 1999 St. Louis Rams, he’s not Peyton Manning nor as young as he used to be. By the time the Steelers get through pummeling Warner, he’ll be happy to feel his age.

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Pittsburgh’s defense was ranked No. 1 overall, allowing the fewest points, total yards and passing yards. So while Larry Fitzgerald may be enjoying one of the finest postseason runs of any wide receiver in NFL history and almost impossible to cover one-on-one, there isn’t a quarterback alive who can consistently complete passes lying flat on his back.

It’s true the Steelers slipped to No. 2 against the run, but don’t expect the Cardinals to exploit that little sliver of daylight, either. They finished dead last in rushing during the regular season. Plus, dominating as those numbers look, what they don’t reveal is how hard Pittsburgh’s defenders hit people.

They knocked out three Baltimore Ravens, widely considered the second-nastiest team in pro football, in the AFC Championship game, beginning with the opening kickoff. The reason the NFL’s “greatest-hits” highlight reels could be mistaken for Steelers game film begins with guys named Jack Lambert and Joe Greene and continues today with James Farrior and Troy Polamalu.

Small wonder, then, that just seconds after the Steelers drafted cornerback William Gay from Louisville last year, he answered his phone only to hear his uncle screaming, “You got to start hitting now!”

Pittsburgh has been called “a drinking town with a football problem,” so it’s no coincidence it boasts a Super Bowl tradition second to none. The Steelers have brought the Lombardi Trophy back home five times, the last time in 2006 — tying them with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. And as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said earlier this week, fans who have taken to yelling “Six-Pack”at him aren’t simply ordering the local brew.

They want — make that demand — another title.

Contrast that with the Cardinals, whose laid-back fans haven’t seen a championship in 61 years and didn’t expect to anytime soon. They aren’t just happy to be here, but downright surprised.

That isn’t an option for the Steelers. As if expectations weren’t sky-high already, President Barack Obama jumped on the bandwagon and Mike Fincke, who grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh and is commander of the NASA expedition en route to the international space station, recently took advantage of the gravity-free atmosphere to unfurl his Terrible Towel.

If Fincke can only break away from his duties for a few minutes, we’d recommend tuning in for the third-quarter. If the game isn’t over by halftime, it will be soon.

The blueprint for the Cardinals’ offense during the regular season was to start slow and gradually pick up steam. They were the league’s deadliest unit in the third quarter. One big reason for their playoff success, however, is starting games hot instead of finishing that way.

But if Arizona doesn’t load up on points early against the Steelers, pickings will be slimmer the longer the game goes on. The Steelers were the league’s stingiest defense over 60 minutes, but never more miserly than during the third quarter. By then, the Cardinals will have abandoned any hopes of running. The more predictable the passing situation, the more likely the Steelers’ blitzes — different combinations coming from different angles on every play — will find their mark. The hits won’t stop coming.

“We try to play football the way it is meant to be played,” defensive end Aaron Smith said. “It’s a tradition when you come in here. Since I got here, a few teams we played have taken it to us, but I don’t know if I’ve come off the field and felt like we got outhit — outplayed, but not outhit.”