Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
05 Feb 2009
by Doug Farrar
Super Bowl XLIII, as my illustrious colleague Bill Barnwell recently wrote, was a game of inches. Actually, it felt more like a game of fractions -- the smallest thing deciding this or that twist or turn as the fourth quarter drew us into an amazing drama. Three drives stood out to me, and they're the ones I'll detail in the final Cover-3 of the season. We start at the beginning of the second half, where the Steelers lead the Cardinals, 17-7, on the strength of the 100-yard interception return by James Harrison that ended the first half.
The Cardinals started the second half with a few effective Edgerrin James runs, but stalled at the Arizona 49 with 10:57 left in the third quarter. Punter Ben Graham booted the ball down to the Pittsburgh 18, where Santonio Holmes fair caught the ball. The Steelers had a shot here to salt the game away, and a marathon drive upcoming.
On first-and-10 from the 18, Pittsburgh went single-back with Willie Parker, and the Cardinals loaded up with five on the line. Hines Ward motioned from right to left presnap, and Parker started left before trying to cut back as defensive end Antonio Smith pushed guard Chris Kemoeatu into Parker's lane. Unfortunately for Parker, Adrian Wilson had cut off his cutback lane with a run blitz, and Parker lost three yards on the play with nowhere to go.
On second down, Ben Roethlisberger went shotgun, empty backfield, and the Steelers had four receivers to the left and only Holmes to the right. The Cardinals played four at the line and four on the loaded side, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie playing off against Holmes. Roethlisberger threw Holmes a quick out, and Holmes gained six yards. This is something I've noticed about the Steelers before -- not just that they'll do a lot of bunch formations, but that they'll use them creatively. You might see two run-blocking receivers and a flanker running a go route to deceive the secondary on a pitch to a running back, or you might see what the Cardinals got here. Pittsburgh will load up a side and go the other way. Add a 15-yard facemask penalty on DRC at the end, and the Steelers were sitting pretty at their own 36. Big Ben followed that with a quick pass over the middle to Matt Spaeth out of a two-tight end set for 6.
On second-and-4, Parker tried again to find something up the middle (this time out of an I-formation), but Chike Okeafor was there to stop him after three yards. Third-and-1, and the Steelers went bunch right with the Cards loading that side again. This time, Big Ben wasn't for trickeration; he just hit Hines Ward on a little 5-yard out and kept the drive going.
The next play was the controversial roughing the passer call on Karlos Dansby, and all I'm going to say about that is that it didn't appear to me that Dansby was making any extra effort to go after the quarterback. I'm not entirely sure that Roethlisberger shouldn't have been penalized for intentional grounding, and when you've got a quarterback who extends plays like Big Ben does, it seems to me that you might want to give the defense a bit of a lead on those judgment calls. So the Steelers had the ball at the Arizona 35 now, and they went back to the bunch right. This time, it was the handoff to Parker, but Okeafor sniffed it out and stoned Parker for a loss of one.
On second-and-11 from the 36, Big Ben shot a quick screen to Holmes to the right out of a three-wide set, and Holmes juked DRC right out of his shoes to get 15 yards upfield. As athletic as Rodgers-Cromartie is, he got schooled a lot in this game. DRC was playing off while the Arizona defense brought seven at the snap, and the kid was due a bit more help.
Pittsburgh went with three tight ends on the next play, but Parker found nothing up the middle; he was taken down after a yard by Dansby and Monty Beisel. But Parker finally broke out of his two-yards-per-carry frustration in the next play. The Steelers lined up in what looked like a three-wide set with Ward and Nate Washington to the right and Heath Miller in an H-back look. Ward motioned inside Washington presnap, and it was Washington who sealed cornerback Rod Hood outside as Miller and the pulling Kemoeatu dealt with the inside. Parker blew through the lane for 15 yards before Adrian Wilson brought him down. Again, great creativity with the bunch stuff on running plays. Other teams would do well to work this in.
However, a 4-yard loss and two Big Ben incompletions later, the Steelers were forced to try a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Arizona 9. Or so they thought. When Wilson was called for roughing the holder, Pittsburgh got a new set of downs. That they couldn't put the ball in the end zone with those new downs, after a two-yard Parker run, another incompletion and a Big Ben try up the middle, gave the Cardinals new confidence and set up one extremely improbable comeback. 16 plays, 79 yards, 8:39 elapsed, and only a field goal? Not all scoring drives are successful.
The two teams traded punts to overlap the third and fourth quarters, and Arizona started their first drive of the final quarter down 20-7 with 11:30 left in the game. Beginning at the Arizona 13 after William Gay poleaxed Steve Breaston for no gain on a punt return, Kurt Warner threw to Breaston over the middle for 13 yards on a quick slant. From shotgun to shotgun, the pace was frenetic as Warner went no-huddle and hit Jerheme Urban over the middle in a zone pocket for 18 more.
Another shotgun, no-huddle (three four-wide, single-back formations in a row), and Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald to the left just as James Harrison got past Mike Gandy on the outside and made contact. Fitzgerald gained 6, and the Cardinals had the ball at the 50 after a dizzying array of plays.
Warner didn't let up. Out of another shotgun, no-huddle, he made the Steelers pay for playing their safeties 20 yards deep with a quick pass up the middle to J.J. Arrington. The backup running back zoomed for 22 yards before safety Tyrone Carter tripped him up, and by this time, it was obvious that Warner had managed to turn this amazing Dick LeBeau defense into some flavor of vanilla.
No time to rest, no time to stop. Time ticking inside ten minutes, and the Cards at the Steelers' 28. Another shotgun, no-huddle. Warner threw an absolutely perfect pass to Fitzgerald 10yards downfield between Ike Taylor and Tyrone Carter, and the best postseason receiver I've ever seen rumbled through the Pittsburgh defense for 8 more yards. First-and-10 from the Steelers' 10. More shotgun, no-huddle (Somewhere, Jim Kelly was smiling and nodding). An out to the left to Fitzgerald, and Taylor came up to clamp down at the 4. The Steelers had been leaving stuff open in the flats, and Warner took what was there.
A Pittsburgh timeout stopped the merry-go-round, but only for a moment. Then, a little dump-off to Tim Hightower for 3 yards as James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons vacated the middle to cover outside, and then ... the play everyone was expecting. Fitzgerald wide right, one-on-one with Ike Taylor, jumping up to catch the fade for the touchdown. It was automatic. Astonishing. And all of a sudden, the Cardinals had life on the low end of a 20-14 score.
With 2:30 left in the game and another Larry Fitzgerald touchdown later, the scene was quite a bit different for our intrepid Steelers. Down 23-20 and starting from his own 22 after a 21-yard Carey Davis kickoff return, it was now up to Big Ben to throw off all the doubters, overcome an obstacle just as formidable as Warner had done, and -- in the immortal words of Jake Taylor in Major League -- "Win the whole f**in' thing."
The drive didn't start out auspiciously. First, there was a short pass to Mewelde Moore for a loss of 1, and a holding penalty on Kemoeatu, which put the ball back on the 12 with 2:24 left. Then, Big Ben went shotgun, three-wide, and remembered his sucker bet: the pass to Holmes with DRC covering. Fourteen yards later (and after yet another ridiculous effort to avoid a sack), the Steelers were almost out of the doghouse. A second-and-6 snap from the 26 just at the two-minute warning saw Roethlisberger throw deep and incomplete to Nate Washington, as Aaron Francisco made a great play to break it up.
On third-and-6, Ben went all Houdini again, somehow finding room to step up in the face of a blitz to get a pass off to Holmes over the middle with Dansby covering. A 13-yard gain, and Pittsburgh was alive. No-huddle time for the other side. The Cardinals backed off and brought four, which allowed Roethlisberger to hit Nate Washington for 11 yards and another first down at the 50-yard line. All the adrenaline that had been used on that Warner drive was now re-used and re-focused. Could we actually have two drives like this in the final 15 minutes of a Super Bowl?
Another no-huddle, and Big Ben rambled for 4 yards out of the shotgun. Time out at 1:01. Francisco traded in his halo for goat horns on the next play, as he slipped when Holmes ran by him on a quick out (DRC playing off again), allowing Holmes to gain 40 yards down to the 6. That one slip -- that one missed tackle -- will haunt the Arizona Cardinals for a very long time.
On the next play, from the Arizona 6 with 48 seconds left, the Steelers went shotgun, empty, trips right, twins left. Holmes got by DRC once again, and only an overthrow prevented this play from deciding the game. Good luck for us, because we were all about to see something decidedly more interesting.
Second-and-goal. Shotgun, four receivers, single back. Holmes on the right side this time. Cromartie covering (shudders) off again. From inside Ward on the right side, Holmes hit the edge of the end zone, and Roethlisberger threw an absolute missile of a ball -- over Cromartie, Francisco, and Ralph Brown -- where only Holmes could catch it. No officiating controversy could overcome what Roethlisbeger did on that last drive. He stamped his ticket to the Pantheon, and the first touchdown pass he threw in a Super Bowl turned out to be the most important of his life. It was, in the end, a great game. And that's how I'd prefer to remember it.
And that, as they say, is that. It's been tremendously enjoyable and educational to write "Cover-3" this year. Following the venerable Michael David Smith and his "Every Play Counts" column was never going to be an easy ride. I would like to thank everyone who read the columns for your thoughts, suggestions, corrections, and overall feedback, both negative and positive, and all constructive.
Now that the offseason is here, it's time to start up our "Four Downs" series again, and a couple of us are prepping for Football Outsiders' fourth annual trip to the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. We'll have more reports and a few neat surprises. Once that's done, it'll be time to satisfy the game-film addiction with in-depth studies of a few intriguing draft prospects. It's never "goodbye" at FO; merely a short break until we meet again...
36 comments, Last at 13 Apr 2009, 3:45pm by Brandon