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01-27-2009, 06:52 AM
Fourth & Goal: Cardinals defense, special teams
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

They're not as fast as the Indianapolis Colts, and they're not as physical as the Steelers.

But the Arizona Cardinals are somewhere in between, which means they're fast and physical on defense.

They fly to the football.

They hit hard when they get there.

They create turnovers.

The Cardinals did all of the above periodically throughout their 9-7 regular season but have done those things consistently enough in the postseason to reach Super Bowl XLIII.

And they've brought some playmakers with them to Tampa.

DT Darnell Dockett, in particular, is a physical presence, as is DE Antonio Smith.

So are LB Karlos Dansby, DE/LB Travis LaBoy and SS Adrian Wilson.

Especially Wilson.

Playing fast and physical has been a major point of emphasis in Arizona since coach Ken Whisenhunt took over prior to the 2007 season.

The Cardinals caught on fast enough to beat the Steelers, 21-14, on Sept. 30, 2007, sending multiple Steelers to the X-ray room.

Following is a breakdown of the defense and special teams that will oppose the Steelers on Sunday (starters are in bold; years of service are in parenethesis):

THE DEPTH CHART (years pro in parentheses)

End: Antonio Smith (5), Travis LaBoy (5), Kenny Iwebema (rookie), Bertrand Berry (11)

Tackle: Bryan Robinson (12), Darnell Dockett (5), Gabe Watson (3), Calais Campbell (rookie), Alan Branch (2)

Outside linebacker: Karlos Dansby (5), Chike Okeafor (10), Pago Togafau (2), Victor Hobson (6)

Inside linebacker: Gerald Hayes (6), Monty Beisel (8)

Cornerback: Rod Hood (6), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (rookie), Ralph Brown (9), Michael Adams (2), Eric Green (4)

Safety: Adrian Wilson (8), Antrel Rolle (4), Aaron Francisco (4), Matt Ware (5)


In the NFC Championship Game, the Eagles kept passing (47 attempts for Donovan McNabb) and the Cardinals kept coming after him (24 blitzes).

The Cardinals came with five pass rushers, with six or seven on occasion.

They took some chances and blew a couple of coverages that McNabb wasn't able to exploit.

But the real story of the Cardinals' defense is how the unit has suddenly become much tougher to run against.

Arizona allowed more than 100 yards rushing to an opponent seven times in 16 regular-season games, including 183 yards on Dec. 21 at New England, 185 on Nov. 27 at Philadelphia and 239 on Dec. 14 against Minnesota. Its three playoff opponents have rushed for 60 yards (Atlanta), 75 (Carolina) and 97 (Philadelphia).

The Cardinals slammed the door on the Falcons, limiting RB Michael Turner (the NFL's second-leading rusher) to 42 yards and 2.3 yards per attempt. But the Panthers' inability to maximize their No. 3 rushing attack against Arizona may have had more to do with Carolina QB Jake Delhomme throwing interceptions than anything Arizona was doing. Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry against Arizona, and Philadelphia averaged 5.4.

SS Adrian Wilson is the Cards' most lethal playmaker, either in the defensive backfield, in the box or even in the pocket (he knocked Buffalo QB Trent Edwards from a game against Arizona on Oct. 5).

Rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a gifted athlete whose game began to click in the season's second half. In the postseason, he's been entrusted with shutdown corner responsibilities against Carolina WR Steve Smith (two catches) and Philadelphia WR DeSean Jackson (six catches for 92 yards, including a 62-yard TD on which Rodgers-Cromartie grazed the ball as it arrived and Jackson hauled it in after first bobbling it).

The Cardinals' success taking away the ball has been consistent from the regular season to the postseason. Arizona wound up tied for fifth in takeaways with 30 during the regular season. (The Steelers had 29.) In the playoffs, the Cardinals have picked up where they left off, forcing three turnovers against the Falcons, six versus the Panthers and three against the Eagles.

The Cardinals were No. 19 in the NFL in total defense in the regular season (16th rushing, 22nd passing) and are No. 6 among playoff teams (sixth rushing, 10th passing).


Some pretty talented people have been bottoming out, or coming close to it, against the Cardinals in the playoffs.

Delhomme threw a career-high five interceptions and posted his second-lowest passer rating as a starter (39.1) in a 33-13 loss to Arizona on Jan. 10. Panthers WR Steve Smith didn't catch his first pass until less than a minute remained in the third quarter and finished with two catches for 43 yards and a TD. Smith's touchdown wasn't scored until 50 seconds remained in the fourth quarter (Carolina trailed, 33-7, at the time) and his 43 receiving yards constituted his second-lowest output of the season. Rodgers-Cromartie, who blanketed Smith, had an interception and twice as many passes defensed (four) as Smith had catches. Rodgers-Cromartie has two postseason INTs.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan was sacked three times, just the third time that happened to the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Ryan also committed three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumbled handoff to Turner) for only the third time this season.

And the Cardinals held Eagles RB Brian Westbrook to zero TDs and 71 total net yards in the NFC title game. Westbrook had gashed them for four touchdowns and 131 total net yards in a 48-20 thumping of Arizona on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia.


K Neil Rackers is 5 for 7 on field goals in the playoffs with a long of 49. And the Steelers know WR/PR Steve Breaston is housebroken; he returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in the Cards' 21-14 victory over the Steelers last season.


Kicker: Neil Rackers (9)

Punter: Ben Graham (4)

Kickoff returner: J.J. Arrington, Steve Breaston, Sean Morey

Punt returner: Steve Breaston, Antrel Rolle, Rod Hood

Long-snapper: Nathan Hodel (7), Jerame Tuman

Holder: Ben Graham, Sean Morey

01-27-2009, 09:04 AM
Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry against Arizona, and Philadelphia averaged 5.4.

There it is, in black and white. Let's hope we stay with the running game the way we have so far in the post-season. Don't give this defense anything in the way of turnovers, and it will be a long day for them.

01-27-2009, 09:10 AM
I'm still not sold on AZ's D. They almost handed the Eagles the game in the second half in the NFCC and weren't consistent in their play. I think the Steelers can and will exploit their weaknesses and as long as the Steelers are successful with their rushing attack, which I believe they will be, both the ground and passing game are going to flourish. GAME ON! :tt03:

tony hipchest
01-27-2009, 02:29 PM
heres another good breakdown article

Steelers better hope the"joke" isnt on them


As Super Bowl week moves along here in Tampa, conversations regarding Sunday's game are dominated by the matchup of the Arizona Cardinals' offense against the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense.

In the three playoff victories leading up to Super Bowl XLIII, the Cardinals have averaged 31.6 points a game. The Steelers, meanwhile, boasted the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL. It is the headline matchup, but the other side of the ball is going to get equal time on the field and it just may be what determines the winner.

The Cardinals have transformed a suspect defense into a very competitive outfit in the playoffs. Arizona beat Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia by giving up a total of 58 points (19 per playoff game), slowing down the run and getting after the quarterback with their hybrid defense.

Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has built a very interesting defense with a number of players known as jokers. In the NFL sense of the word, a joker is a player who can rush the passer, or drop in coverage equally as well. One quick look at the players on the Cardinals' roster who fit the bill and you can see why the opposing quarterbacks could struggle identifying what is going to happen after the snap of the ball.

During the regular season, Karlos Dansby (4 sacks), Chike Okeafor (4.5 sacks), Travis LaBoy (4 sacks) and Adrian Wilson (2.5 sacks) had more sacks than the front four of Darnell Dockett, Bertrand Berry, Bryan Robinson and Antonio Smith. It is impossible to diagnose in Pendergast's defense who the rushers are in the pre-snap read. In the three playoff games, the production has also been interesting to diagnose.

The Cardinals' premiere safety, Adrian Wilson, has 16 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, two tackles for a loss, and one pass defended. Roethlisberger better know where Wilson is at all times. Okeafor has eight tackles, one sack, three quarterback hits, and one pass defended. Dansby has 23 tackles, four tackles for a loss, and two passes defended. Always moving around to disguise what they are going to do, Dansby, Okeafor and Wilson have recorded 15 plays behind the line of scrimmage in three playoff games.

Lately, the Cardinals will show pressure looks from these players and drop them into coverage after convincing their opponents to use maximum protection schemes. The end result has been quarterbacks throwing into coverage, which has resulted in eight interceptions in the playoffs as well as 21 passes defended.

The Cardinals defense also likes to snatch-blitz any offensive players who are asked to check-release out on the snap of the ball. When a running back, tight end or even a wide receiver lined up in the box is responsible to pick up a blitzer before releasing on a route, the Cardinals' jokers often blitz the offensive player and prevent a release. They don't try and beat the blocker to the quarterback, but rather "snatch" him and before you know it the opposing offense only has two receivers out in a pattern. With two minutes remaining in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals showed a pressure look with only two players with their hands on the ground and six more men standing up in the box. It forced the Eagles into an eight-man protection with just two receivers out on patterns. Three defenders quickly snatched the back, tight end and receiver, preventing their release. Meanwhile, the middle linebacker blitzed the quarterback. The end result was that Eagles QB Donovan McNabb threw an incompletion.

There are a number of occasions on film when Wilson will creep up to the line of scrimmage on the split end side and blitz, while Dansby jumps outside to take his pass-drop responsibility. I have also seen Pendergast switch it up and bring Antrel Rolle off the tight end side.

In the wild-card playoff victory against the Falcons, Darnell Dockett penetrated into the backfield and caused a fumble. Rolle was there to scoop it up and go 27 yards for a touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger will have his hands full with this defense.

When these two teams met in 2007, the Steelers had Alan Fanaca, Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith on the offensive line, and Roethlisberger was still sacked four times. The Pittsburgh offensive line has been playing better lately, but they still have surrendered five sacks in two playoff games. Russ Grimm, who coached with the Steelers two years ago, is Arizona's offensive line coach. I'm sure he sat down with Pendergast to go over how to break down the Steelers' protections.

Here's a breakdown of when teams got to Roethlisberger this past regular season, when he was sacked 49 times to go along with the five postseason sacks:

On first down, Roethlisberger was sacked once every 12 attempts (once in the playoffs)
One second down, Roethlisberger was sacked once every 24 attempts (none in the playoffs)
On third down, Roethlisberger was sacked once every seven attempts (four times in the playoffs)

It will be interesting to watch the Cardinals' Joker package, especially when you consider the teams they beat in the playoffs and what they were as pass protection teams. In allowed sacks during the regular season, the Falcons ranked No. 5 in the NFL, the Panthers were at No. 6 and the Eagles sat at No. 7. The Steelers, on the other hand, ranked No. 29 in the NFL in allowing sacks. A key to the whole Joker package is the emergence of cover corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has demonstrated he can take a team's best receiver and minimize his production. I expect Rodgers-Cromartie to be matched up on Santonio Holmes all game long. Holmes caught two touchdowns in the loss to the Cardinals last year, but Arizona didn't have the rookie corner back then.

The challenge for the Steelers offense is if they pay too much attention to the Jokers, then the front four rush could be a problem. Five of the seven postseason sacks have come from the front four, and I don't believe right guard Darnell Stapleton can block Dockett or right tackle Willie Colon can keep Antonio Smith out of the backfield.

Finally, the Steelers really should want to run the ball against the Cardinals. The 70 rush attempts to just 59 pass attempts for the Steelers in the playoffs indicates that will be the plan. If the Steelers defense can stop the Cardinals' scoring machine, then the joke is on Arizona. However, if they can't, and for some reason have to play catch up, than the Joker is wild.