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|01-26-2009, 07:24 PM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Cardinals QB Kurt Warner vs. Steelers SS Troy Polamalu
Matchup of the day
Cardinals QB Kurt Warner vs. Steelers SS Troy Polamalu
By Matt Sohn
Jan. 26, 2009
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a five-part series analyzing the individual matchups in Super Bowl XLIII. Today we tackle Kurt Warner vs. Troy Polamalu.
Kurt Warner doesn’t fit the mold of the typical Super Bowl quarterback. He’s 37 years old. He’s humble almost to a fault. He was schooled at Northern Iowa. He’s strapped it up in the Arena Football League. His NFL brethren have been filled up right with Campbell’s soup in front of millions on television; Warner’s filled up grocery store shelves with Campbell’s.
But this isn’t to suggest that Warner is one of those clichéd try-hard, marginally talented players who made it to the nation’s most celebrated sporting event simply because all the stars aligned perfectly. No, that would be selling Warner far too short; a backhanded compliment when one isn’t in order, if you will. Let’s face it, you need to be strutting some serious game to make it to the Super Bowl three times. Warner’s no Rudy.
With Warner at the helm, the Cardinals have become one of the more lethal passing teams in the NFL. And for a team coached by the down-and-dirty, run-oriented minds of Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, it’s saying a mouthful that the Cardinals’ offense is defined by the passing game. And it’s not just the vertical game, either. Warner’s deft touch when throwing to all levels enables Arizona to pick up yards through the air anywhere and on any route they see fit.
That’s what makes the Cardinals so difficult to defend. A defense can’t simply retreat into a nickel or even dime and expect to keep the passing game in check. With the league’s strongest — not merely best, mind you, but physically strongest, too — receiving tandem in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, a simple swing pass designed to move the sticks on 3rd-and-short can easily turn into a 15-yard gain if the defending cornerbacks try to arm-tackle. Try to disrupt their timing by bumping them on the line, and they’ll kill you deep. Warner’s placement on the deep ball is among the best this league has ever seen. No hyperbole needed.
Because only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can stake claim to being better at recognizing and evading pass-rushing pressure than Warner, Dick LeBeau’s famed zone blitzes might not have as much success at throwing off Warner’s rhythm as they have had throughout the season on other quarterbacks.
However, for as tremendous as Warner is in his awareness of what’s happening on the first two defensive levels, he’s surprisingly very average when it comes to reading coverages. And that’s a potentially devastating pitfall against Troy Polamalu. Let’s be clear about something: Ed Reed is the NFL’s best safety on the back end, and Bob Sanders is the best against the run. Yet, neither has the versatility of Polamalu. The Steelers’ outstanding sixth-year safety is so much more than the “center fielder” label that comes attached to many safeties’ names. He’ll line up in the deep half in the cover-2, can handle inside responsibilities in the nickel against slot receivers and is so fluid in his movements that he can slip either "A" gap on inside penetration.
LeBeau, the Steelers’ ageless defensive coordinator who took home Assistant Coach of the Year honors from Pro Football Weekly and the Professional Football Writers of America in 2008, disguises what he’s doing with Polamalu exceptionally well and is fully aware of Warner’s difficulty deciphering coverage. With legit 4.4 speed, Polamalu can close in on receiving targets in a flash, and if Warner focuses in on a particular receiver too long, we could be seeing Polamalu return an interception to the house. Only Reed had more than Polamalu’s seven interceptions in 2008.
The issue that could turn the tide in the Cardinals’ favor, however, is that LeBeau might be forced into deploying Polamalu in a more traditional role because of just how dominant Fitzgerald and Boldin are. The Steelers’ CB rotation is good — very good, even — but it’s not great. Polamalu is the link that makes the Steelers’ secondary great, and his physicality may be needed to help out his corners or risk the Cardinals’ wideouts beating up Pittsburgh’s corners. Polamalu packed on approximately 10 pounds to his previously listed weight of 207 pounds this season, which has provided him with even more thump.
Warner and Polamalu: Two of the league’s elite at their respective positions. Both cerebral, immensely talented performers who can realistically be considered among the front-runners to take home Super Bowl XLIII MVP honors. Nevertheless, the NFL is a young person’s game, and in this matchup, youth trumps experience.
Tuesday's matchup of the day: Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Cardinals OTs Mike Gandy and Levi Brown
Stay with ProFootballWeekly.com all week long for continuous coverage of Super Bowl week, featuring daily analysis of key individual matchups, features, columns, notebooks, Q&A's, blogs and handicapping perspectives.
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