What to know about Arizona's defense
January 25, 2009 10:19 AM
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Super Bowl XLIII story lines are pretty much set.
The Arizona Cardinals' high-flying offense and the Pittsburgh Steelers' top-ranked defense are rightfully commanding significant attention.
We have Cardinals coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm facing their former team, and the various subplots involving Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James.
Did we mention Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and that suffocating Steelers defense?
We did, and so has everyone else. We haven't heard nearly as much about the defense that has forced 12 turnovers in the playoffs.
That defense belongs to the Cardinals, not the Steelers. Expect to hear much more about these largely anonymous defenders if Arizona pulls a Super Bowl upset.
Ten things to know about that 'other' defense in Super Bowl XLIII:
1. The regular season is history.
The Cardinals' defense ranked 19th in yards allowed during the 2008 regular season.
Only four teams -- the Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs -- allowed more points than Arizona this season. All four fired their head coaches.
Why should anyone take such a defense seriously? Because it's playing much better than the usual regular-season measures would ever indicate.
2. These guys are star stoppers.
The Atlanta Falcons' Michael Turner (49), the Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams (69) and the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Westbrook (71) combined for 189 total yards in three playoff games against the Cardinals.
Quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Jake Delhomme and Donovan McNabb combined for eight interceptions against this defense.
The Panthers' Steve Smith went without a reception until less than a minute remained in the third quarter.
3. Antonio Smith's bank account will grow.
The Cardinals' defensive end can become a free agent after the season. Like his defensive teammates, Smith picked a good time to play his best.
Steelers vs. Cardinals preview
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals clash in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla.
Smith's sack for a safety helped the Cardinals beat the Falcons. His whirling sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery deep in Panthers territory set up a quick Arizona touchdown.
The latter play appeared to be a case of good fortune, with Smith swinging his arm blindly into the football. But after watching this defense force so many turnovers in the playoffs, it's clear the Cardinals didn't recover a league-high 17 opponents' fumbles by accident this season.
"He knew from watching film how the guy who was blocking him would block him if he made a certain move," nose tackle Gabe Watson said. "He knew he was going to get grabbed, so he swung his body. He knew the ball should be there if he swung, and he swung and swiped it. He said he knew the ball was going to be there."
4. The best Super Bowl corner plays for Arizona.
Cardinals rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has six interceptions since Nov. 16, one more than the Steelers' incomparable Polamalu.
The Eagles beat him on a deep pass in the NFC Championship Game, one of the few times opponents have exploited Rodgers-Cromartie in coverage.
Rod Hood is generally the cornerback opponents target.
5. Adrian Wilson is on a mission.
The Cardinals' best-known defensive player had two sacks, one tackle for loss, one pass defensed and a forced fumble against the Eagles.
Polamalu is the more dynamic safety, but Wilson is also heading to the Pro Bowl.
"If he had been on a winning team all these years, he would have always been mentioned with the Ed Reeds because of the intangible he brings in being able to blitz," Cardinals safety Matt Ware said. "He is a linebacker playing safety."
6. The old guys are playing well.
Outside linebacker Chike Okeafor, defensive end Bertrand Berry and nose tackle Bryan Robinson are all in their 30s and playing well for Arizona.
Berry has two sacks in the playoffs. Okeafor has one. If healthy, Travis LaBoy can also rush the passer effectively.
The Cardinals' pass rushers have a good feel for when to raise their hands to obstruct passing lanes. If you watch the NFC Championship Game closely, you'll see McNabb decide against throwing to an end-zone receiver on a two-point conversion try after Watson raised a hand.
7. Darnell Dockett disrupts.
The Cardinals' wild-card game against the Falcons turned when safety Antrel Rolle returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
Rolle has five touchdowns on 10 career turnovers. He owed this one to the most consistently disruptive member of the Cardinals' front seven.
Dockett, who switches between defensive end and tackle in the Cardinals' hybrid scheme, beat Falcons guard Harvey Dahl so badly that a stunned Turner missed the handoff from Ryan, sending the ball caroming toward Rolle.
8. Karlos Dansby is due.
The Cardinals' franchise player has much to gain from a strong showing in the Super Bowl. A Pro Bowl alternate at linebacker this season, Dansby had 10 tackles against the Panthers, but others have made the big plays on defense.
"The guy is 6-foot-4, he is 260 pounds (listed at 250), but he could probably play free safety," Ware said. "Seriously, he covers that much ground. His mentality when he drops back into coverage is he's going to get the ball. He's like a defensive back. Then he is able to play the run at the same time. When you have a player that dynamic, it's crazy."
9. Discipline is the difference.
When the Cardinals look bad on defense, they look really bad.
It tends to happen when one or more defenders abandons his responsibilities for a chance at making the big play. Instead of making a sure tackle, a defender will go for the big hit. Instead of staying in his gap, a defender will overpursue.
The Cardinals have generally avoided such lapses in the playoffs. The Panthers' Williams did break loose for an early 31-yard run. And the Eagles found DeSean Jackson did get behind Rodgers-Cromartie for a 62-yard touchdown.
10. Clancy Pendergast can coach.
NFC West opponents have admired the Cardinals' defensive coordinator for years.
When the Cardinals lacked their current talent on defense, Pendergast devised elaborate schemes to give Arizona a fighting chance. In 2004, his tactics produced a four-interception game against the Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck.
Pendergast has enough talent to play a more conventional style, but this game gives him a prime opportunity to prove he deserves consideration as a head coaching candidate.