View Full Version : Rookie class of '04 holds key to Super Bowl 43

01-25-2009, 08:08 AM
Rookie class of '04 holds key to Super Bowl 43
January 24, 2009
Vinnie Iyer

On the surface, the matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 43 looks like the classic championship battle of offense vs. defense. It's true that the Cardinals come in with their high-flying passing game and the Steelers have the league's premier 3-4 scheme.

But underdog Arizona has the ultimate defensive nightmare and game-plan buster in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He has plenty of help, too, in the Cardinals' offensive line, quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Edgerrin James, and fellow wideouts Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. There's no reason to think that the Cards will slow down much against Pittsburgh's D, what with the great play-calling from offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

So, although everyone knows Fitzgerald will be a big part of deciding what happens next Sunday, the more interesting offense vs. defense matchup is the Steelers against the Cardinals' front seven. Fitzgerald has paid off as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft, but six other rookies from that year will determine how well Pittsburgh moves the ball against Arizona.

Of course, eight picks after Fitzgerald in '04, the Steelers drafted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The only other current starter they drafted that year was left tackle Max Starks, in the third round. Fortunately, they also signed a notable undrafted free agent that year -- starting running back Willie Parker.

In addition to Fitzgerald, the Cardinals landed three important pieces of their current starting defense in the '04 draft -- outside linebacker Karlos Dansby (second round), tackle Darnell Dockett (third round) and end Antonio Smith (fifth round). All three have excelled through Arizona's surprise playoff run.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's base is a 4-3, but he can also throw 3-4 looks at the Steelers. In both cases, the hope is that upfield players such as Dansby, Dockett and Smith get chances to disrupt the backfield.

The Steelers' offensive line, hampered by injuries, has been maligned all season. There will be plenty of pressure on Starks. His natural assignment will be right end Bertrand Berry, but Dockett and Dansby will provide the bigger challenges.

Look for Dockett, a quick penetrator, to come at Starks on stunts and twists, and for Dansby to attack on the weakside blitz. If Starks needs help on the left side when the Cardinals overload, Smith, from left end, will get his chances to beat right tackle Willie Colon one-on-one.

Once the Cardinals can get their best front-seven defenders past the line, the key is trying to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket or get to him before he buys enough time scrambling to find an open receiver. Pendergast has kept his players aggressive in the playoffs -- but not too aggressive.

Roethlisberger will need to watch Dansby, Dockett and Smith coming at him at different angles. Like Donovan McNabb last week, Big Ben must use his amazing footwork and arm strength to burn the Cardinals' constant pressure.

Stopping the run is the facet of Arizona's defense that has been most impressive during the playoffs. Dockett gets a good push up the middle, which is where the Steelers have had little success running Parker in the playoffs.

Expect the Steelers to run more outside, taking advantage of Parker's speed. That's where Dansby comes in. Few teams have their leading tackler at outside linebacker, and Dansby can cover plenty of ground laterally.

We know Fitzgerald will help the Cardinals move the ball and put up some points, meaning Roethlisberger and Parker need to help the Steelers answer. Whichever team shows the better rookie class of '04 will be the team that gets the better of the final score.

Vinnie Iyer is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

01-25-2009, 09:27 AM
Interesting article..