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|01-28-2009, 07:22 PM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Cardinals OTs Mike Gandy and Levi
Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Cardinals OTs Mike Gandy and Levi Brown
By Matt Sohn
Jan. 27, 2009
This is the second installment of a five-part series analyzing the individual matchups in Super Bowl XLIII.
Today we tackle Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Cardinals OTs Mike Gandy and Levi Brown.
It’s a legitimate question. Does the Steelers’ tremendous success in the pass-rushing department come courtesy of having premier talents James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley planted at outside linebacker? Or is it the genius of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau that enables the duo to have the effect on opposing quarterbacks that a wrecking ball has on condemned buildings?
After all, Harrison hardly hails from elite pedigree. The fifth-year veteran went undrafted out of Kent State in 2002 and had a grand total of four career sacks before his breakout campaign of 2007. In '08, he paced the Steelers with 16 QB takedowns and an astounding seven forced fumbles en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year honors from Pro Football Weekly and the Professional Football Writers of America. Woodley had considerably more fanfare coming out of Michigan in 2007, but there were still concerns as to whether the collegiate defensive end had the speed to transition to the second level. After registering 11½ sacks among his 60 tackles in 2008, the questions have been quashed.
So is it LeBeau, the league’s pre-eminent authority on and architect of the zone blitz, or is it the talent? More importantly, does it matter?
Not really. The reality is that the mind of LeBeau melds with physical prowess of Harrison and Woodley to produce the most effective pass-rushing tandem the NFL has to offer.
What’s scarier for the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII is the prospect that the duo will be given the green light to collapse the pocket off the edge with even greater frequency than they’re accustomed to having. That’s what happens when an opposition’s running game ranked 32nd out of 32 teams during the regular season, as the Cardinals’ did. Sure, the Cards have mustered more of an attack on the ground in the postseason than they did in Weeks 1-17, but an aging Edgerrin James and neophyte Tim Hightower hardly scare the league’s standard-bearing run defense.
Harrison primarily attacks off the right side while Woodley mans the left side.
Consider Cardinals ORT Levi Brown warned, as he’s a major work in progress. He hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t approached the lofty expectations heaped upon him when he was taken with the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft. Coach Ken Whisenhunt planted his touted draftee on the right side so he could protect presumed QB-of-the-future Matt Leinart’s blind side. But with the southpaw being relegated to the bench in favor of right-handed Kurt Warner, the Cards ironically caught a break with the weaker of their O-line bookends manning the less vulnerable side of their quarterback.
At 6-5, 322 pounds, Brown’s mountainous presence towers over the 6-2, 265-pound Woodley. When engaged, Brown should be fine, but Woodley uses his hands so well that tackle-’backer engagement may be difficult to come by. Woodley’s a bullish attacker with decent wiggle, using good leverage to force his way through pass protectors. Brown could often need chip help from his running back set deep.
This is where the loss of TE Stephen Spach to a knee injury in the regular-season finale looms large. Spach, a lightly regarded journeyman, had found a home in the desert, especially operating an O-line extension as a pass protector. They lose something with Leonard Pope at tight end despite Pope’s daunting 6-foot-8 frame. James and Hightower must be ready to chip because Brown could often find himself with little help on the front line.
Arizona is better-equipped to deal with Harrison off the opposite edge. By most accounts, OLT Mike Gandy represents Brown’s mirror image. Gandy’s 30 years old and is playing with his third franchise. He came into the league in 2001 as a third-round pick by the Bears, slated to play guard. And yet, in 2008, he has been a pillar of stability for the Cards at the most critical spot on the offensive line. He’s smart and tough, which helps mitigate his middling athleticism. He’s been particularly good in the postseason, stymieing two of the league’s best pass rushers in Falcons DE John Abraham and Panthers DE Julius Peppers, in addition to performing admirably against the mad scientist of blitzing — Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
He’ll need to be at his best against Harrison. Harrison is tremendous at setting up tackles and then reversing course with counter moves or pure speed to the outside.
Aiding the Cardinals’ cause is Warner’s outstanding peripheral vision and blitz recognition. Should Harrison or Woodley overpursue, Warner can step up in the pocket and hit his receiver in the middle of the field, which will be less congested with the outside linebacker(s) vacating the second level on backfield penetration.
Nevertheless, Harrison and Woodley present the single biggest obstacle to the Cards’ Sunday dreams.
Advantage: Harrison and Woodley
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