View Full Version : A fascinating Super Bowl, from start to finish

02-03-2009, 07:49 PM
A fascinating Super Bowl, from start to finish
By Gregg Easterbrook

(Note Easterbrook for reason known only to himself clutters up TMQ articles with large amounts of non football releated subjects which I cut out. What is left is worth reading . - mesa)

"Save the best for last!" This is a traditional goal in the performing arts, and in many aspects of sports. TMQ the coach bellows "save the best for last!" at his youth-league charges when the fourth quarter approaches; it's always my practice-week theme before the final game of the season. Whatever happens last is what gets remembered: save the best for last! And for the second consecutive season, the National Football League has saved the best for last. A year ago, the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl was the very best game of the season, while the fourth quarter of that contest was the very best quarter of the season. This year, the Cardinals-Steelers Super Bowl was the very best game of the season, and the fourth quarter of that contest was the very best quarter. The Super Bowl was fascinating from start to finish, and for the fourth quarter, both teams saved the best for last, reminding us of why we love sports. If you didn't enjoy that fourth quarter, then you don't like sports. Now I can't wait for the 2009 football season to start! Though, I suppose I will have to.

This year's Super Bowl even contained the signature play of 2008 -- James Harrison's 100-yard touchdown return of an interception -- just as last year's Super Bowl contained the signature play of 2007, the David Tyree helmet catch. This season's signature play was a total disaster for Arizona, perhaps denying the desert team a Lombardi Trophy, and also fascinating both tactically and athletically. The play merits analyzing it in detail. But let's pause first to blow TMQ's own horn!

Two years ago, when football pundits were forecasting a pass-wacky Indianapolis-Chicago Super Bowl, yours truly wrote a pregame column saying the Colts would win by running the ball. And verily, it came to pass. This year, with pundits forecasting a game decided by the hot Arizona offense against the No. 1 Pittsburgh defense, TMQ wrote a pregame column predicting, "Super Bowl XLIII will come down to how the Arizona defense performs against the Pittsburgh offense." Arizona had the lead with 2:24 remaining, the Steelers were stuck on their own 12-yard line; it came down to how the Arizona defense performed against the Pittsburgh offense, and the Pittsburgh offense carried the final two minutes. "In past Super Bowls in which a great offense has been paired against a great defense the great offense and great defense roughly neutralized each other, leaving the trophy to be decided by the lesser offense against the lesser defense," TMQ noted a week ago. And verily, it came to pass.

Now to the signature play of the season. With Pittsburgh leading 10-7, Arizona has first-and-goal on the Steelers' 1 with 18 seconds showing in the first half, and the Cardinals are out of timeouts. A field goal would be a good outcome for Arizona -- Pittsburgh seemed to control the first half, yet a field goal would have tied the score at 10 as the Springsteen intermission arrived. Arizona can try a lob-fade to Larry Fitzgerald, who performs this route better than anyone; indeed, Fitzgerald would score on a lob-fade from the Pittsburgh 1 in the second half. But Arizona can't risk a tackle that keeps the clock ticking and ends the half. If the Cardinals are going to try for a touchdown, a lob-fade is what makes sense.

The Cardinals lined up with Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin left, Steve Breaston right. They weren't using this formation earlier in the game, and shifted to it on this drive. But as soon as Arizona shifted to this set, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley began pass-rushing from the offensive right. Until Arizona's final first-half possession, the Steelers had blitzed only twice, "going against type," as elite teams often do in big games. But with two receivers left and no running back on the offensive right, Woodley began to rush -- probably the game plan made him a "green dog" in this situation. (A green dog rushes the passer from the back side if he sees he has no running back or slot back to defend.) Twice in the seven snaps of the possession to this point, Woodley had come from the offensive right unblocked and hit Kurt Warner just as he released the ball, the first hard hits Warner took on the night. But Arizona's coaches didn't notice. My 13-year-old, Spenser, was at the game with me and said just before the 100-yard play, "No. 56 is coming through unblocked, somebody has to go over there and get him." Spenser noticed this, but Arizona's coaches didn't, as we are about to see.

As Warner barked the snap count, Pittsburgh -- the team that invented the zone blitz -- ran the best zone blitz of the season. The zone blitz is misnamed; announcers shout, "It's a blitz!" because six or seven gentlemen look like they're coming, but only four actually rush. The goal is to confuse blockers and to lure the quarterback into throwing a slant, every team's standard anti-blitz call. On a zone blitz, a linebacker or defensive end who looked like he was going to rush instead drops into the slant lane, hoping the quarterback won't realize he's there.

Seeing what he thought was a mega-blitz, Warner audibled to a slant to Boldin. (Was the play supposed to be a lob-fade to Fitzgerald? I'd love to know.) Six Steelers rushers started forward, then two dropped back into the slant lanes, one on each side. Woodley came barely impeded from Warner's back side -- though the Cardinals had six rushers to block four. Warner sensed Woodley approaching -- if Warner allowed himself to be sacked, that would have ended the half without a field goal attempt. Warner rushed the pass. He threw the ball directly into the arms of Harrison, who surprised him by dropping into the left slant lane.

Now the really interesting part starts!

Harrison caught the ball at the goal line and started up the right sideline. When he caught the ball, 17 seconds showed on the game clock. Fitzgerald had run a decoy route for Boldin, and was 8 yards behind Harrison when the ball reversed direction; Fitzgerald was the fastest man for either team on the field. For 15 amazing seconds, a hefty linebacker rumbled down the sideline, directly in front of the Arizona bench, three times breaking tackles. Steelers defenders reacted beautifully, not standing around but setting up a six-blocker convoy along the sideline. Arizona's offensive linemen and quarterback Warner reacted beautifully, going all-out to chase Harrison and nearly stopping him.

In the end, a big, hefty linebacker lumbered for 15 seconds -- an eternity in football terms -- without being run down by any of the four Arizona speed players on the field at the time. (Two seconds showed on the game clock as Harrison scored -- in the replay confusion, this was missed and the half was ruled over.) Tim Hightower was well-blocked by Woodley at about midfield, then driven to the ground at the 30 in what might have been an uncalled block in the back. (Hightower was turning when he got hit, so TMQ would not have thrown the flag.) Breaston was farthest from Harrison when the play began, and caught him a yard from the goal line. Boldin utterly disappeared during the action -- he was so far from the play I don't know whether he was well-blocked or just quit.

Now, about Fitzgerald. Initially he chased Harrison at half-speed, seeming to assume the half was about to end anyway. This is the Super Bowl -- go all-out! Then he chased Harrison madly at full speed, and at about the 25, seemed about to make the tackle; if he had, considering a penalty was called on Arizona during the play, Pittsburgh would have been in position for a half-ending field goal and a 13-7 lead. But at the 25, Fitzgerald slammed into his own out-of-bounds teammate. That white stripe along the sidelines in front of the team box? It's an area where players are not supposed to go, unless speaking to a coach. Technically it's a penalty for players to be standing on the white stripe unless talking to a coach. This foul ("sideline violation") is almost never called. At any rate, as Harrison and his convoy passed the out-of-bounds Cardinals players, veteran Antrel Rolle stepped forward to get a better look. Rolle was just inches from the field of play, and Fitzgerald, struggling to maintain his balance, slammed into Rolle. Fitzgerald is so fast and agile that he still recovered enough to reach Harrison at the goal line, but by then it was too late, and Pittsburgh led 17-7 at the half. The most important, most interesting play of the 2008 season included an Arizona player slamming into his own out-of-bounds teammate along the sideline at the key juncture.

Hey, you young players out there, when the coach yells at you to step back from the sideline, there's a reason. If Rolle had stayed where he was supposed to, Arizona might be having a victory parade this week.

02-03-2009, 07:51 PM
Super Bowl Analysis: Why was almost half the game's offensive yardage in the fourth quarter? Maybe defenders tired, or maybe the league's best defense made one of football's oldest tactical errors -- switching to the prevent. Through the first three quarters, the Steelers double-teamed Larry Fitzgerald, and the league's most dangerous receiver was taken out of the game. Often, strong safety Troy Polamalu jumped in front of Fitzgerald just before the snap and jammed him; a safety always shaded Fitzgerald's way. Oddly, Arizona did not react to this tactic by having Kurt Warner look at Fitzgerald, then throw deep to the opposite side of the field. In fact, the Cardinals did not attempt a deep pass all night -- Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown came when he legged out a slant. In the fourth quarter, the Steelers stopped doubling Fitzgerald and switched to a prevent, or at least, to a very soft two-deep zone. (Surely no football team at this point actually uses "prevent defense" as terminology.) Through the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh had either one safety, Ryan Clark, 25 yards deep, or Clark and Polamalu both 20 yards deep dividing the field into a two-deep zone.

In the first three quarters against Pittsburgh's standard defense, the Cardinals gained 127 net yards passing -- 27 net yards, if you subtract the 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter against the soft two-deep look, the Cardinals passed for 247 net yards and nearly won the Super Bowl. So from this, what do you conclude about the prevent defense? Plus, the one thing the soft two-deep zone "sells out" in order to stop -- the long touchdown -- it failed to stop.

Though Pittsburgh's complex zone blitz at the goal line was the team's best play of the season, through most of the game the Steelers played fairly conventionally. James Harrison almost always lined up as the outside linebacker on the offensive left, LaMarr Woodley almost always as the outside backer on the offensive right. In most games this season, these two have lined up all over the field. Pittsburgh sometimes used a two-defensive-linemen front, even on first down -- that's how confident the Steelers were in stopping the Arizona run -- but never showed the wandering-around Times Square Defense in which several front-seven players are walking back and forth before the snap. Harrison got TMQ's MVP vote despite no sacks and just three tackles. The Steelers' defense is a collaborative effort that is about results, not personal stats -- and note that after his 100-yard touchdown, Harrison did not dance around the field pointing at himself. Meanwhile, if you want to see fundamentals, watch how well Steelers cornerbacks tackled. Three times the Cardinals threw wide receiver hitches, and all three times the tackle was immediate, stopping the hitch man for a short gain. Twice Pittsburgh threw wide receiver hitches, and each time the receiver broke the initial Arizona cornerback tackle, gaining nice yards.

On offense, Pittsburgh had a man in motion on almost every snap. Early on, Arizona defenders seemed confused about who had the motion man, especially when Hines Ward went in motion. Twice near the goal line, Pittsburgh sent Ward in motion inward, back toward the formation, then ran Willie Parker behind him the other way effectively. As so often this season, the Steelers went shotgun spread and threw in situations in which common sense seemed to dictate a run; except on the safety, they avoided paying a price for this bewildering tactic. Four times in the Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger looked hemmed in for a sack and escaped -- especially on the Hidden Play (see below). Roethlisberger had only one really bad down: his interception. He threw to the wrong guy -- Heath Miller was open in the right flat.

In the second half, the Cardinals' front seven outplayed the Pittsburgh offensive line most of the time, stopping the run and pressuring Roethlisberger; Pittsburgh had only three second-half points at the two-minute warning. In the third quarter, Arizona staged impressive back-to-back red zone stands when a Steelers' possession was refreshed by a roughing the holder penalty. But on the final Steelers' drive, the offensive line was stout. Also on the final drive, Roethlisberger began pump-faking, which he hadn't earlier -- the 46-yard completion to Holmes was on a pump-fake off a zed-in route. Pittsburgh's offense, which didn't have much to brag about this season, sure saved its best for last. Pittsburgh gained 150 yards passing in the first 57 minutes, then 84 yards passing in the final 2 minutes.

As for Arizona, its offense seemed in a funk until the Cardinals went five-wide in the second quarter. The Cards tried to establish the run, but couldn't, and returning to their pass-wacky roots seemed to pick the team up. In the fourth quarter, when Arizona's passing game was on fire, the Cards usually had four wide receivers on the field, and often went no-huddle; again, doing what they were comfortable with worked. The Cards' offensive stats ended up being tremendous. Had it not been for the 100-yard interception return, Arizona might have won and its offense would be the toast of the town. The 100-yard return goes against the coaches as much as the players; how Cardinals faithful must wish the team had simply protected the ball and kicked a field goal.

On defense, the supposedly suspect Cards played well until the final two minutes. Some of this must be laid at the Arizona coaching office doorstep. Rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was matched up against Santonio Holmes most of the day, and as the fourth quarter wore on, clearly was outmatched. Rodgers-Cromartie was a small-school player, never in college knowing anything remotely like Super Bowl pressure. The Cards have veteran megabucks defensive backs in Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson, why wasn't one of them switched onto Holmes? Not only did Holmes catch four passes for 73 yards on Pittsburgh's Super Bowl-winning drive, on the previous possession, the Steelers had been going to Holmes, too -- Santonio made a terrific 19-yard reception on the play that became a safety, owing to holding in the end zone.

Then on the game-winning play, Holmes lined up in the right slot and ran an out. No one covered him! Roethlisberger was initially watching Ward; Holmes was able to cut toward the flag without being covered, initially, by anyone. Three defenders had converged by the time of the tip-toe catch -- "on further review, both toes were inbounds" referee Terry McAulay announced to the crowd -- but the fact that Holmes broke clean was shocking. Holmes had 67 yards gained on the possession to that point; Arizona dropped seven into coverage; the Cardinals had only 6 yards and the end zone to defend; yet not only did no one jam the other team's hot receiver, initially no one covered him. Arizona played a fantastic postseason, and came within 2:37 of a set of gaudy diamond-encrusted rings. Even if the Cards' defense, and coaches, choked at the last, this was still a year to remember.

02-03-2009, 07:52 PM
But could we clear something up here? No opponent of the Pittsburgh Steelers is afraid of towels. The Terrible Towel is a nice spectator tradition; it has no effect on the game. Mega-pumped football players in body armor are not afraid of towels.

Adventures in Officiating: There is a lot of talk about the 11 penalties against Arizona, plus puzzling non-calls -- on the play before the safety against Pittsburgh, runner Willie Parker's knees were down in the end zone and a safety should have been called, but zebras spotted the ball at the point he lunged forward to after his knees hit the playing surface. Had Pittsburgh won on the strength of questionable calls, the NFL would be an unhappy organization this week, given that three years ago, the Steelers beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl on the strength of questionable calls. On Pittsburgh's third-quarter field goal drive, the penalty for roughing the passer against Arizona was complete nonsense, while the facemask call on that drive should, if anything, have been an offsetting call against both teams. Officials looked so confused in making the call, TMQ wondered if they simply pointed their arms the wrong way. The roughing the holder call that followed was clearly correct. In the end, Pittsburgh won outright, while Arizona benefited from several major calls or no-calls: three were two uncalled obvious holds by the Cardinals' offensive line on the Arizona fourth-quarter touchdown drives. (Two obvious offensive holds by Pittsburgh also were not called, one on a scoring drive.) And did Harrison get the ball across the goal line at the end of the first half? Maybe, but if the league would simply chip the football as TMQ keeps asking, we'd be sure. Two of the past four Super Bowls have been won by the Steelers, partly owing to Pittsburgh being awarded touchdowns when it was far from clear the Steelers' runner crossed the goal line. If the football were chipped, these disputes would end.

I don't know what NBC showed, but can report that at the stadium in Tampa, no controversial call or no-call was replayed on the JumboTron -- only plays about which there was no issue were replayed. It seemed pretty obvious the league was trying to prevent crowd booing, which would be heard by the international television audience. Tuesday Morning Quarterback found that really phony: crowd reactions to calls (be the crowd right or wrong) are an integral factor in football.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP: Only performers from the 12 playoff squads are considered: TMQ's feeling is that if you are going to wear the mantle of most valuable, you better have created some value. To win this award, the player cannot be -- oh, never mind. Previous winners: Alan Faneca, Steelers, 2001; Lincoln Kennedy, Raiders, 2002; Damien Woody, Patriots, 2003; Troy Brown, Patriots, 2004; Walter Jones, Seahawks, 2005; Jeff Saturday, Colts, 2006; Matt Light, Patriots, 2007. Note: Because the award was given to Harrison a week ago, this item was written last week, before the events of the Super Bowl.

Second runner-up: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals. Being glory boys, wide receivers are borderline non-quarterback non-running backs, so they don't get much attention from this award. (Brown won for the season in which he played both ways as wide receiver and nickelback.) But no offensive performer has had more impact on games this season than Fitzgerald. Andre Johnson and Steve Smith also had spectacular receiving stats. But Johnson's team went home when the regular season ended; Fitzgerald's team went to the Super Bowl. And when Fitzgerald and Smith met in the playoffs, it wasn't even close.

First runner-up: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens. Players who have received a lot of press attention that season normally don't get much attention from this award. But Reed played one of the best years ever for a defensive back; he was a material factor for the Ravens, who were expected to be terrible and instead reached the AFC Championship Game. Though his flashy touchdowns are what make highlight reels, Reed's fundamentals are what make the Nevermores' defense. Players in the Baltimore front seven know they can take risks because Reed will cover for any mistakes. He has the best center fielder instincts of any current NFL defensive back.

2008 Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP: James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers. Players who have already won Defensive Player of the Year normally wouldn't even be considered for this award. Pittsburgh had the NFL's best defense in 2008, and Harrison is Pittsburgh's best defensive performer. He fits the TMQ ideal to a T -- undrafted, waived twice early in his career, never gave up. In fact he's the first undrafted person to be Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison has continued to play special teams, even after making the Pro Bowl. He never tries to draw attention to himself, exemplifying the team spirit of the Steelers' front seven. This season, when the Steelers' long snapper got hurt, Harrison went in with little warning to long-snap against the Giants, then sailed the ball far above the punter's head. Afterward Harrison was furious with himself on the sideline. He was furious with himself for failing to do something he'd never even tried! Now there's an MVP! Here is a St. Petersburg Times account of the presentation by Molly Qerim of ESPN; scan to the bottom for Harrison saying he "had never heard" of TMQ's award. I've got to start promoting that nickname, the Q-y.

Hidden Play of the Super Bowl: Hidden plays are ones that stop or sustain drives, but never make highlight reels. With Arizona leading 23-20, Pittsburgh faced third-and-6 on its 26 at the two minute warning. The Cardinals rushed five, and two Arizona rushers beat their men. Ben Roethlisberger stepped up between them, shook off a tackler and threw 13 yards to Santonio Holmes for the first down. Roethlisberger has been breaking tackles in the pocket all season. Had he gone down there, Pittsburgh would have faced fourth-and-long in its own end, and punting was out; Arizona's chances for a comeback win would have been high.

Finally, Arizona had the uniform color choice in the Super Bowl, and some touts zinged the Cardinals for choosing their reds, which allowed Pittsburgh to wear its whites, the unis in which the Steelers won their previous Lombardi. But Nick van der Merwe of Cape Town, South Africa, notes the choice was wise: Studies show that sports teams